The Sorrows of NULGE Retirees: The Saga Over Unpaid Benefits

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An in-depth story of the enduring pains of NULGE retirees over unpaid and haphazard disbursement of gratuity and Pension.

FOR over five years now, there has been a quiet but persistent acrimony between the leadership of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) and its retirees over accumulated unpaid retirement benefits, National Record can authoritatively report. The bone of contention revolve around the piecemeal or haphazard disbursement of gratuity and pension benefits to retirees of the union.

Although the dispute has been skillfully managed by the leadership of NULGE in a manner that had for a long time subdued open altercation and ultimately halting a spill into public space, it has however come to a head with the retirees and some serving staff now openly venting their frustration as there seems to be no end in sight for a fluid monthly payment of pension to retirees and total clearance of the accumulated gratuities.

Comrade Ambali Akeem Olatunji, NULGE National President

While the figure or amount of the pension liability is not certain for the over 70 retirees that are supposed to be in NULGE’s payroll, the National President of the union, Comrade Olatunji Akeem Ambali, confirmed to National Record that the gratuity liability alone is well over N200 million.

Our findings indicate that the current problem surfaced under the leadership of the late Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel when the union began to experience the lack of capacity to pay its retirees their retirement benefits in the form of gratuity and subsequently pension. The problem has become endemic in a way that many of the retirees, many of whom are said to be starving are openly agitating against what they right see as injustice.

A highly placed source in the union very familiar with the challenges of the retirement benefits, but pleaded anonymity for fear of retribution, said the problem became acute sometime in 2017 after the retirement of about three or four senior staff. Since then, it has transformed into a chronic headache as retirees increase leading to progressive incapacity of the union to fulfil its obligation to them.

The source revealed that before the death of Comrade Khaleel, there was a backlog of arrears such that a retired General Secretary, Comrade Joshua Irapakob, had to drag the leadership to the EFCC and the National Pension Commission (PenCom) to be able to force part payment of his benefits to him. Comrade Irapakob was said to have been joined in the agitation for payment by other retired employees, among who are Comrades Othman Mahmoud and Maria Lebeke.

The agitation, National Record gathered, yielded temporary relief as Joshua, Mahmoud and Lebeke got some payments made to them before the sudden death of Comrade Khaleel in 2020. There are a number of others who have not been paid a kobo out of their gratuity and pension, many of who, this reporter was told, are now begging and struggling for survival.

Our source further narrated the sordid story of the retirees thus: “Many retirees once in a while come to Abuja and the office will tell them, ‘we are paying’. I remember Comrade Ayo [now Deputy General Secretary] was always putting that up, but I don’t know how the thing ended. Some of the retirees have been getting paid in instalments. I think during the brief period of Comrade Labo, they made some payments. If you get two hundred or one hundred and something thousand naira, you will not call that their entitlement; you will definitely not call that their entitlement. The way the money is being paid, it doesn’t really make any meaning to the retirees; it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

“The truth is that the situation of retirees of NULGE is not just a good story to tell; that is the gospel truth, it is a disgrace to NULGE in particular and unionism in general. If you call Comrade Ambali, he will tell you that they are trying their best because he inherited way over N200 million liabilities, I was told, as pension and gratuity alone. And like we had told them, the pension process adopted in NULGE is not working. This is because some of the deductions that were done were not remitted to PenCom. When Joshua [Irapakob] went there [PenCom] and discovered that; and of course, he knew as a GS then that they were deducting money but were not remitting. It is just a handful that were remitted, which was not regular,” the source said decrying as unfair the situation where NULGE retirees are asked to go home empty handed and without hope of even one, two or more years of benefit in their pockets.

Comrade Khaleel

The source continued: “The current situation where the union is telling retirees that, ‘we are paying them,’ is also unfair. Yes, you are paying, but how much are you paying, after one, two or three and more years; how much are you paying me? You give me N100,000 and you said you are paying me? Of a whole entitlement of somebody which may be at least about one or two million, you begin to pay the person N100,000, what will the money afford?

“So that is the situation in the union, let nobody tell you otherwise, and we have been avoiding making it a public issue for so many years. If you see NULGE retirees, they look so miserable. Before Khaleel died, a staff who retired in Lagos as Secretary, Comrade Showele; he was looking as if he would die any moment, and upon the miserable situation, he has a health challenge, he is diabetic. His condition was so miserable that when Comrade Khaleel saw him, he almost shed tears and he had directed that they should give him some money.

“The last rain school we attended in Akwa Ibom State, Khaleel came and saw Comrade MacDuncan Umana who retired as an Assistant General Secretary on level 17, when he saw that his trousers could not stand on his waist, he directed one staff to get money from anywhere and he was given N50,000. It is that bad! Comrade Umana was to get about N8 million and the N8 million is being paid piecemeal; the money will not make any sense to him now.

“Comrade Joshua was to get about N14 million. Today, they will pay him N500,000, after a long stretch of time, they will give him N1 million, next tomorrow it is N200,000 and so on and so forth. Is that how he is going to be paid until the money finishes? Joshua had stroke in March [2021]. God helped him, he overcame and began to walk again. As he was coming out of that stroke, his wife and mother-in-law were kidnapped. From the N30 million ransom demanded, the office could only give him N250,000. Joshua’s son had been in Cyprus for 7 years now. The boy had issues there as the father could neither pay his fees nor give him feeding money and the boy had to miss one year…”

Another highly placed source in NULGE, confided in our correspondent that though the situation of NULGE pensioners is not good for the union, he however stated that the leadership is doing all it can to resolve the matter and that taking the matter to the media will not help anybody, particularly the retirees.

The source revealed that NULGE currently has more than 70 retirees with some under the old pension scheme and others on new contributory pension scheme. “Most of the people making noise are the most senior ones and when they are paid, they will not admit that the union has paid them. As I talk with you, the current leadership disbursed N10 million two weeks ago to both senior and junior staff, including to families of staff who died.

“We are all staff but before Khaleel died, those people who started the crisis [agitation] in the union include Mahmoud, Maria and Irapakob. Before Khaleel died, he paid gratuity close to N108 million, the records are there. Between when Khaleel died and now, close to thirty-something million have been paid of gratuity and pension, a huge chunk of which went to the senior retirees. What about the junior retirees who do not know anybody? Are they not human beings?

“Maria and Mahmoud signed an MoU that we should pay them directly instead of paying into their PFAs. Mahmoud has collected close to N3 million,” the source told National Record late December shortly before New Year.

The root of the problem

National Record gathered from different sources in NULGE early in the course of the investigation that the crisis is remotely linked to a decision to borrow from the union’s pension fund saved in a bank to augment the payment for the National Headquarters building in Utako.

According to our sources, when the then leadership of Comrade Kingsley Ogba wanted to buy a fully developed property to serve as the union’s National Secretariat, they levied state councils of the union to fund the project. Unfortunately, the total amount realised from the levy was not up to the amount agreed for the property that was eventually identified, which was reportedly valued at about N230 million as at 2009.

As a result, the then leadership of the union resolved to borrow the difference from the pension account to add to the levy to conclude the transaction. However, Comrade Ogba could repay the money before he left, although he was said to have left in the pension fund almost forty million naira. Neither our sources nor Comrade Ogba and the current National President was able to recall the exact amount borrowed from the pension fund.

Comrade Mahmoud, others speak

All the retirees who spoke to National Record confirmed the piecemeal or haphazard payment. They also noted that the union’s pension fund saved in a bank account had been mismanaged by the leadership of the union.

You know, when we started, we were paying to national secretariat; we paid for about 3 to 4 years. So when we heard that they were not remitting to the PFA, some of us personally resolved to start paying directly to Trustfund and collected their bank account number and started paying on our own from the state I was serving. That was what we did; but the whole money we saved with the secretariat, they chopped that one

Comrade Mahmoud described the payment of his gratuity benefit as stipend while he is yet to start receiving his monthly pension payment. “They only pay me stipends as my gratuity, but they have not started paying me monthly pension for four years now. I am tired of the same empty promises they have been making. As a result, I decided to write to NLC headquarters if there is any way they can help. I have written the letter and wanted to personally deliver it to the NLC President but he is not in; so I will return tomorrow to deliver it to him,” Comrade Mahmoud told this reporter last October.

Comrade Mahmoud

He said the ‘stipend’ stopped sometime in 2020 with the last payment being the sum of N140 thousand. He added that since he retired, he has never been paid any lump sum out of his entitled N5.5 million gratuity, and that so far he has through the piecemeal payment process received a total of two million naira. At the time we spoke to him last October, Mahmoud said he was almost five years in retirement and yet “no kobo has been paid to me; I have not been paid pension even once.”

Asked why there were no remittances of pension deductions directly to his Retirement Savings Account (RSA) managed by a Trustfund Pensions Ltd, Mahmoud replied: “You know, we did not start pension earlier; so, from the time we started, my total payment to Trustfund was just N480,000 before I retired in 2017. So, they paid me when I wrote to them. They said I am not qualified or entitled to monthly pension; and they said I am just to be paid once by paying me all my savings. So I don’t have anything with them now.”

When asked why the union did not pay into his RSA the deductions from previous years, Mahmoud said: “You know, when we started, we were paying to national secretariat; we paid for about 3 to 4 years. So when we heard that they were not remitting to the PFA, some of us personally resolved to start paying directly to Trustfund and collected their bank account number and started paying on our own from the state I was serving. That was what we did; but the whole money we saved with the secretariat, they chopped that one; we were told Kingsley Ogba went away with that money. All the savings under pension were said to have disappeared after Kingsley left. They were not remitted, not one kobo.”

Comrade Mahmoud stated that there was an employee of the union who got wind of the mismanagement earlier and took the decision to personally make remittances into their RSAs. “There is a colleague from Borno who said he heard the information long ago that they were not making remittances to PFAs and as a result, he started personally sending money to his pension savings account. So, when he retired in 2017, he was having more than one million naira in his pension account. Now he is getting little amount as monthly pension. Apart from that, I doubt if there is any other person.” [Read his full interview here].

Like Mahmoud, another retiree, Comrade Abba Sanda Kyari, told National Record that when he retired from the services of the union in 1980, he was not paid anything until 5th July, 2019 when the union paid him N1 million. He said after he received a second payment of N458 thousand on 18th November, 2020; he has up to the time he spoke to our correspondent mid-October last year not gotten any other payment.

Comrade Sanda

Comrade Sanda is not even sure of the category of payments made to him, whether gratuity or pension when asked. “I don’t know, you may contact the national secretariat; they said they followed percentage; all of us, by giving some of us, some N25,000, some N170-something; based on some percentages. [Read his interview here].

For Comrade Abdullahi Yan Keke, another retiree, who said he joined the services of NULGE on July 1, 1991 and retired in 2018, when he alleged that he was forced to retire by the leadership of the union for “telling them the truth on the situation in NULGE,” he was paid only N159,000 out of a gratuity benefit of N1,950,000.

“I joined NULGE in 1991; 1st July, 1991, and I retired 2018. I put in 29 years. My plan was to retire 2020 but when we started telling them the truth on the situation in NULGE, they said we were being stubborn and so they retired me. I have left everything to God. After they retired me, I wrote to them, I wrote to the DGS, the present DGS, Comrade Ayo; he is aware of my details,” Abdullahi said, while stating that “they don’t give us pension; they said no payment of pension.”

Asked if pension deductions were not made from his monthly salaries while in service, Comrade Abdullahi said: “They deducted but they never gave us.” [To read his interview, click here].

Comrade Irapakob’ views

Former General Secretary of the union, Comrade Joshua Irapakob, told our correspondent in a telephone interview on 19th October last year that the leadership of the late Comrade Khaleel had told the union that he did not meet any pension fund in any account, a situation he said was not true as he asserted that between when he became General Secretary in 2012 and 2017 when he retired out of frustration because of what was happening in the union, the leadership of Comrade Khaleel refused to sign cheques of pension deductions that were supposed to be paid into the union’s pension account.

I left in 2017. It was not that I really retired. I left because they were not taking my advice when they were going wrong. So I said okay, I didn’t want to continue with what was happening. How will you be deducting somebody’s pension money and not remitting it but keeping it in an account where you will be making interest. So I voluntarily retired. If I raised a check, he will refuse to sign it, showing me that he has power over me, that I am just a staff.

He said the non-remittance and the fact that the about N40 million that was in the pension account was mismanaged has now resulted in the current problem. He said he is a victim of the mismanagement, and had throughout the tenure of the late president fought to get his retirement benefits but is still being owed.

“We have been on this almost throughout the leadership of the late Comrade Khaleel. When he was alive, I went to him and said please, call a meeting of retirees of the union; even if you do not have the money, we should meet and discuss when and how the union will pay us.

“I told him that the random payment process where the union pays some retired employees a little money this month and some others next month is really unfair, he seemed to agree but didn’t call the meeting until he died.”

According to him, when he retired, there was about N40 million in the pension savings of the union. “When I retired, I left N40 million in the pension account. Comrade Ambali [current President of NULGE] is aware of it; N40 million. I don’t know what they have done with the money,” Comrade Irapakob said.

He added: “I was the General Secretary then, but they didn’t take my advice. I told them it was not right to deduct pension money and keep it.”

The former NULGE scribe said when he even raised a cheque and counselled the signatories to sign; he was told that they were not bound to take his advice. “I wrote a cheque and sent, that time Chief Oluyemi Esan was National Treasurer, but Comrade Khaleel refused to sign the cheque, he broke all our briefs, between me and him. You know, there is one thing in union politics, which is very bad politics; the moment you give advice, you are seen to be challenging the authority of the President. Khaleel told me to my face that he is not bound to take my advice,” Irapakob said, adding that he had to leave as the leadership was not taking his advice.

He said: “I left in 2017. It was not that I really retired. I left because they were not taking my advice when they were going wrong. So I said okay, I didn’t want to continue with what was happening. How will you be deducting somebody’s pension money and not remitting it but keeping it in an account where you will be making interest. So I voluntarily retired. If I raised a check, he will refuse to sign it, showing me that he has power over me, that I am just a staff.”

Comrade Irapakob, who confirmed problems with the payment of gratuity to retirees of the union said out of frustration he had in the past taken the pension issue to the EFCC and the National Pension Commission with any positive result, said current staff of the union are still undergoing the old process of deduction without remittance. “Even the current staff, some are still suffering it,” he asserts. [Read his full interview here].

Comrade Lebeke, corroborates mishandling claims

Any time we raised cheque, Comrade Khaleel will refuse to sign. At that time, the current President, Comrade Ambali was the National Treasurer, they crippled us. When we went to Trustfund Pensions Ltd, they said we do not have money in our accounts; and that we should go back to our office to collect our money. Throughout my service years since the contributory pension scheme began, they only credited my account with N800 thousand.

A former principal staff and Director of the Accounts Department of NULGE, Comrade Maria Lebeke, who at some point acted as General Secretary before retiring from service, corroborated the claims of mishandling of the pension savings made by Comrade Irapakob.

Comrade Lebeke, now a factional chairperson of the Labour Party, said she is also victim of the haphazard payment of both gratuity and pension. According to her, when cheques are raised for remittance of staff pensions deduction to the union’s pension savings account, the then President would refuse to sign.

Comrade Lebeke

“Any time we raised cheque, Comrade Khaleel will refuse to sign. At that time, the current President, Comrade Ambali was the National Treasurer, they crippled us. When we went to Trustfund Pensions Ltd, they said we do not have money in our accounts; and that we should go back to our office to collect our money. Throughout my service years since the contributory pension scheme began, they only credited my account with N800 thousand. This thing is affecting us so badly now.

“We demanded that they should use the old scheme to compute our pension, they refused. Every time, they will form committee for pension; for years now, they have been forming pension committee and that has not yielded any good result. Even the money they said the saved is nowhere to be found. I can’t understand! During Khaleel’s time, they said they had calculated our pension. For my 32 years in service, they said both pension and gratuity are N11 million.

“The first payment I collected was when I was about to do operation on my eye; it was N1.6 million, and that was after I had retired for almost two years. In fact, they refused to pay me until I signed an undertaking, and that the petition I wrote to PenCom should be withdrawn. I had to write and sign.

“How can I retire as a director and after 32 years, I am collecting only N11 million? I calculated on my own and gave them, they refused. I was the accountant. I was the one calculating for everybody until Comrade Ambali came as the National Treasurer, and from there he became president,” Comrade Lebeke told National Record.

Lebeke, who said she joined the services of NULGE in July 1985 and retired in 2017 as the Director of Finance, confirmed that she has received payment of her pension and gratuity up to N5 million. She said all she is asking for at now is the payment of her retirement benefits.

“I served 32 years and they said I have N11 million for both gratuity and pension; pay me; that is all I ask. They said experts computed it and that it is eleven million naira,” Comrade Lebeke stressed, adding that she told the President of NLC, Comrade Ayuba Wabba of the desperate situation of NULGE retirees.

“The President of the NLC is aware [of our situation]; I told him. Really, we are suffering; people are dying, I am sure most pensioners of NULGE have died as a result of non-payment of their pension. Let them use the old scheme to pay us, old scheme is better than nothing.” (Read her full here)

Comrade Ogba defends decision of his leadership

When contacted via telephone, Comrade Kingsley Ogba, who served as National President of NULGE between 2005 and 2009, said he has not only successfully defended all his actions while in office but is still available to do so. He said he served without blemish with impeccable records that no one after him will be able to indict.

Every kobo in NULGE passes through our bank accounts; you understand what I am saying. If you have the capacity, ask the present leadership to give you access to the account, the pensions account; everything will be glaring there. We left about thirty-something million naira in the account

When asked that the leadership that succeeded him alleged that his [Ogba’s] leadership did not leave any amount in the union’s pension account, Comrade Ogba said both the EFCC and ICPC had probed the allegation and cleared him of any wrongdoing.

He said: “No, no, no; I didn’t go away with any money. You know, when I was still in office, the EFCC and ICPC asked me about this money. Do you know what I did? I called our account department and told them to release our bank statements to EFCC and ICPC and whoever wants to look into them. We don’t operate without bank account.

“The EFCC collected the certified true copy of our accounts statements. After about two weeks, they EFCC called me and commended me beyond measure. ICPC called me and did the same thing. I didn’t even go to them; my going to them was when they announced my resignation.

“Every kobo in NULGE passes through our bank accounts; you understand what I am saying. If you have the capacity, ask the present leadership to give you access to the account, the pensions account; everything will be glaring there. We left about thirty-something million naira in the account.

“I am not moved by sentiment, I am moved by facts. Look, ICPC called me and said; look, if there are three Nigerians like you, this country will be a golden land. Every kobo that went out of NULGE’s purse was in writing and was released through a voucher.”

When asked if his leadership borrowed from the pension savings to augment the purchase of the union’s National Secretariat in Utako-Abuja, Comrade Ogba said yes but stressed that it was a tiny amount meant to be repaid.

“We got some money from the pension fund but it wasn’t the whole money; the money we borrowed was infinitesimal, it was inconsequential, it just helped us to beef up the money for the house we bought, and we never went to that fund again to collect one naira. We also intended to repay before my tenure ended.

“The people that took over from us, I don’t know what they did with the money and they started lying that we were the people who withdrew the money. The truth is that the money we took is small and it is on record. Well, the current National President was there although he was not the National Treasurer in the first four years after I left. He was the treasurer in the last six years and by that time they may have finished that money from the account,” Ogba said. (Read his full interview here).

Issues will be resolved, says Comrade Ambali

Even as at then when they started, it was the state councils of the union that were paying salaries not the national body; and when the state councils were paying the money, and because they were at liberty to pay, we discovered very late that some of them did not deduct the percentage that was supposed to have been contributed by their employees; some deducted and did not remit.

Current National President of NULGE, Comrade Olatunji Akeem Ambali, told National Record in a telephone interview last December that by the nature of the inquiry, which is on personnel matters, it was supposed to be directed at either the General Secretary or Deputy General Secretary of the union. He however said he chose to speak in order to give information on the things he knows even as he admitted that he is not in the position to speak on the tenure of Comrade Ogba’s handling of the pension fund.

“Well, I wasn’t there then when Comrade Kingsley was National President. As you may know, I came in newly. Some of these things I don’t know. What I realised was that when I was coming on board as the National Treasurer; I realised that there were lots of mishandling of that case. One, they didn’t start when they were supposed to start; they started around 2014. Ordinarily, they were supposed to have started as far back as 2004, 2006.

“Even as at then when they started, it was the state councils of the union that were paying salaries not the national body; and when the state councils were paying the money, and because they were at liberty to pay, we discovered very late that some of them did not deduct the percentage that was supposed to have been contributed by their employees; some deducted and did not remit. It was in 2016 that we centralised salary payment to employees of the union and we took over the payment of salaries for National Secretariat to guarantee internal control,” Comrade Ambali said.

According to him, it was at this point that the leadership realised a number of anomalies in personnel grading without following extant rules. According to him, when he emerged as National Treasurer; he discussed the pension hiccups with the late Comrade Khaleel to find a workable solution.

Comrade Ambali said: “So we decided, and for us to also have an internal control so that they also do not recruit without the approval of NEC, and at NEC level, we got that approval and we centralised salaries payment. Having centralised salaries payment, the burden now becomes that of National Secretariat, whether they had remitted or not. One thing that should be noted is that it is not that they were remitting to National Secretariat and National Secretariat was not paying the money; from our investigation, that was not the case.

“What we now did, during the era of the late Comrade Khaleel, I was the National Treasurer; I discussed the issue with him that if we allow this problem to continue, it will affect the retirement plan of our employees. So what did we do? We decided to contact NLC and NLC gave us the actuary, a specialist, to work out the modalities of payment to determine the actual entitlement of each employee; whether serving or retired. So this was computed and it was published; it was sent to all the state councils and all the employees; those who have complaints and those not happy.

“Generally, as employees, no worker wants to be under the contributory pension law; so all of them started complaining that we should return them back to the old pension scheme and we said no, once there is a law that says mandatorily all employees should go under the contributory pension act, we can’t breach the law.

“Having done that, you know we had assumed the responsibility of those who did not remit and those who remitted and were diverted at the state level, the leadership at the National Secretariat will have to take over the responsibility. When we took over the responsibility, we started by calculating the entitlements for everybody especially those that had retired and we realised that even the gratuity I inherited was about N200 million. Even if I used the check-off dues of the union to pay for one year, we couldn’t have finished paying which means we couldn’t have paid salaries to the present employees and we will also not do anything.”

The new National President said, among other things, that the piecemeal disbursement of gratuity and pension, which was adopted was mainly due to the non-payment of salaries to local government workers in many states across the country, a situation which he said has affected check off dues which the union depends on to fund its activities.

He described as insensitive and selfish those leading the agitation, some of whom he accused of contributing to the current retirement benefit anomie being senior employees, and who have been the major beneficiaries of the current disbursement process. (Read full interview here.]

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