By Ethelbert Okere
A running radio jingle by the Imo State Orientation Agency, of which I am the current chief executive officer, appeals to Imo pensioners to form the good habit of disclosing to their families, at least, each time they receive an “alert”; so that by so doing, they would help dispel the falsehood that government is not doing anything, at all, about the backlog of unpaid pensions. The copy even goes further to enjoin the pensioners to pay their “tithe” on receipt of payment. I was initially reluctant to approve that aspect of the jingle but my colleagues insisted that it should be there, at least because it adds some humour.
So, when last Sunday the Catholic Archbishop of the Owerri Ecclesiastical Province, His Grace, The Most Rev. Anthony J.V. Obinna, during a sermon at the Assumpta Cathedral, Owerri, told the congregation that some pensioners have been calling him to say that they have been receiving their pensions – to the extent that some got six months arrears at a go – my mind went straight to the jingle. Could it be that it was doing the magic already? But then, I quickly recalled that Archbishop Obinna is a Catholic priest and that Catholics are not generally enamored about tithes. So, this Sunday, I may find my way to a pentecostal church to see if there will be more testimonies.
But jokes apart, the revelations that came through the Archbishop last Sunday are very significant and should gladden the heart of every well-meaning Imolite. Before that jingle began to run, I had, in an interview with an Owerri-based newspaper, noted that the Imo populace has been used to hearing only one side of the story: that is, when pensions or salaries are not paid or when there are delays in payment. But that not even the spouses of the pensioners or officials get to know when payments are made, a situation that is responsible for the falsehood being bandied by some unscrupulous elements in the society.
I, however, acknowledged that not every guilty pensioner commits this sin of lack of disclosure deliberately or with a premeditated intention to hurt those at the helm of affairs. Some are inadvertent, in the sense that in most cases, debts have been incurred and the first reaction, upon getting paid, is to settle the creditors rather than please the spouses who may demand an increase in feeding money especially under COVID-19
As expected, I was challenged by the so-called “opposition” which accused me of cooking up excuses for the governor over the issue of delays in the payment of pensions. I also got some angry reactions from some pensioners, themselves, including one who piqued via whatsApp: “What Does This Ethelbert Okere Think He Is?”
The debate is still ongoing. Indeed, the state government is still battling with the problem, a gargantuan one that arose from years of heist perpetrated by civil and public servants in active collaboration with political appointees. Naturally, the “opposition” cashes in on that, pretending not to know that even the immediate past administration met the same problem, tried its best but could not get to the root of the matter before its time came up. Which has been the bone of contention between well meaning indigenes of the state and some “opposition” elements who falsely misrepresent the immediate past governor, Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha, by claiming that in just seven months, he “perfected” a system that had been rotten for sixteen years; and that all what Governor Uzodimma should do is to just go ahead and pay. That is the quantum of falsehood that the entire state is living on and the level to which the standard of public discourse has degenerate in our dear state but about which, in my current assignment as chief orientation officer under the current dispensation, I have tried to persuade the highly discerning people of Imo state to repudiate in our collective interest.
Fortunately, we got a helping voice last Sunday from a rather unexpected quarters; The Most Rev. Anthony J.V. Obinna. The occasion was the church service to mark this year’s Independence celebration – Nigeria at 60 – at the Assumpta Cathedral Owerri, where he is the parish priest. It is not hidden matter that serving political office holders in the state who, by the call of duty or whatever, have anything to do with the Assumpta Cathedral, usually go there with their hearts in their palms. I need not explain but perhaps it is simply sufficient to mention that I have been a victim of this particular clergy man’s perennial brush with successive state governors and their administrations. I can state, without any fear of contradictions, that even though it is not always that the Archbishop is believed to be right, his views are taken quite seriously, whether those at the receiving end like it or not.
On this particular instance, however, I was not scared of the Archbishop’s scolding even though it was expected that he would seize that opportunity to say one thing or the other about the twin issues of pensions and salaries. I was certain that he would most unlikely join in the refrain of some elements who are basically social media racketeers while pretending to be party functionaries. But I was certain that Archbishop Obinna, despite his penchant to be hard on politicians, especially those holding public offices, would take judicious notice of the challenges and go ahead to encourage the current administration, led by His Excellency, Senator Hope Uzodimma, to improve upon what has already been done in a bid to get to the root of the matter. I had this hunch because the “Peoples Bishop” has come a long way and that the hesitance of age is gradually taking over the radicalism of academic and ecclesiastical freedom.
And that was what His Grace did precisely last Sunday. His disclosure that some pensioners have been calling him to acknowledge receipt of their payments and coming from such a Spiritual High Command, must have gladdened the hearts of every well meaning Imolite, who is desirous of the progress of the state generally and not just that of a partisan section or group. It is not for nothing that the Arch Bishop decided to speak along that line. I would take it that he most probably is aware that some elements are hiding under the practice of non disclosure to attempt to reap some political capital. He didn’t stop there. He also acknowledged that he was aware that some civil servants are behind the perennial problem of padded wage bills, with the advise that those concerned should desist from such.
Archbishop Obinna’s revelations and intervention leaves us with a win-win situation: It at once underscores the need for pensioners and civil servants to be more forthright in their attitude to the problem and serves as a boast to the governor’s enthusiasm to find a lasting solution. To be sure, he does not suffer fools gladly but to expect him to join in the much uninformed cynicism which some party chieftains currently wallow in is to be disdainful of the wise saying that what an old man sees sitting, the young may not see even on top of a ladder.
Just a few days before the independence church service, Governor Uzodimma had at a meeting with heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies – on the same issue – re-iterated his position that paying salaries is no achievement for any administration. To him, it is a routine thing, the least of the things that should task any governors “ingenuity”. Which means that he would rather pre-occupy himself with things that would add value and create wealth for the state and its people.
Unfortunately, we have a situation where some of our kit and kin find it difficult to go beyond the politics of wage bills as a vehicle for the journey of returning to a lost paradise. But, of course, Imolites are over and above such a circumscription of their collective destiny.
..Ethelbert Okere is the Director General, Imo State Orientation Agency.