There was tension, amidst severe traffic gridlock in Calabar, the Cross River state capital as local government pensioners from the 18 council areas, some as old as 75 years, blocked the Murtala Muhammed highway, alleging that the office of the Auditor General for Local Government Affairs declared them ‘ghost pensioners’ thereby refusing to pay them their entitlement for five months.
The highway is the major route linking the state capital to states like Akwa Ibom, Benue, Ebonyi amongst others as well as to other parts of the state. The total blockade caused motorists to scramble for alternative routes.
According to the aggrieved pensioners, the Auditor General for Local government affairs, Franca Inok, had declared over 1600 pensioners as ghost pensioners even after they had presented themselves for verification exercise.
One of the pensioners, Christy Bassey, said “I am owed five months pension and this month will make it sixth. I am from Akamkpa. Last year, the Auditor General, Franca Inok, called for verification of pensioners to confirm those who are still alive. Even with our names and the forms we filled still intact, she declared more than 1600 of us dead.
“After she declared us dead, the local government pension board decided to carry out another verification exercise and we again presented ourselves at great pains to some of our members some of whom are unable to walk, some are blind and some with other health challenges. When she heard of it, she came and told the board that ‘look, these are the ghost pensioners she discovered.
“She again invited us for another round of torture called screening. Personally, I have been here for ninth time. Some of the people you see here came from very far across the 18 local governments and you can testify of how our terrain is. Some people were brought on stretcher, some on wheelchair. Why are they punishing us this way?” she asked rhetorically.
In a telephone chat, Commissioner for Local Government Affairs, Mrs Stella Odey Ekpo, said there was no cause for alarm as the protesting pensioners would be paid, saying machinery was being put in place for their final screening and payment.
“We will do a though job and everyone would be captured. We are asking them to be patient and to cooperate with government and do their screening as at when due so that they would be captured and then get paid. There is no point taking to the streets at all,” she stated.
Efforts to contact Mrs Inok for clarification did not sail through as at press time, but sources at the local government pension office, which preferred anonymity, said the matter was being handled by the higher authority but blamed inexperience from the part of those who handled the exercise for the mix up.
“The truth is that this embarrassment is caused by inexperience. Students of the Institute of Chartered Accountant of Nigeria, (ICAN) were used for the verification exercise whereas we have experienced hands who are certified accountants with not less than twenty to thirty years standing who would have handled the exercise creditably.
“The exercise was conducted in July last year only for the report to be published in June this year, almost one year after. Technically, the said report is belated. It is time-barred,” one of our sources said.