Like a prophecy or a dream, it surely came to pass. All fears and doubts were allayed. It possibly may have just been a threat. But this time, it was not so. It assumed the boldness of an army troupe. Old and well stricken in age, men and women with wrinkled cheeks came matching on, with placards in their hands.
Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital could not settle. It was a strange picture. Dust raised as old men and women assembled somewhere at the Ibom Connection. That’s the Plaza-end of the Oron Road, Uyo. Straight into the Wellington Bassey Way, they zoomed off and emptied into the Akwa Ibom State Government House. With no iota of fear, they chanted the aluta songs. Though with coarse voices, occasioned by their late ages, they kept singing. The well organized retired teachers made their mission bare.
Though slow and gentle fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers as well as great grandfathers and greatgrand mothers, the retired primary school teachers could no more bear the pains. They could no more die in silence. They may have ‘exhausted’ the ‘meaningful lives’, but their best of courage were still unspent. As promised last week, that they would embark on hunger strike, if their entitlements were not paid, the retired teachers made good their promises. The told the Governor to his face that their dues must be made. From those who retire in 2010 to those who left office in 2018, they demanded that their entitlements be duly given them.
Accordingly, the senior citizens led by Rev. Felix Ime Cookey (Amb. P.) and Hon. Emmanuel S. Udoaka, the retired workers lamented the plights they have experienced since 2010, asking Governor Udom Emmanuel to immediately pay them their dues. They condemned the “sampled payment” style adopted by the present government, saying a situation where their pensions were paid once in every three months, especially when other categories of staff were being settled, was a confusion to members of the public.
“It is highly regrettable to see that from 2011 till date, after all documentations and verifications had since been completed by the government, we have not received our gratuities from 2011-2018 and leftovers of 2010.
“Death gratuities to next of kins are still pending.7.5% compulsory deduction from our salary are still being held. From today, December 16, 2019, we’d be on Hunger Strike until government pays us our entitlements. Whereas all other pensioners including secondary schools retirees receive their pensions as at when due, our own only comes once in three months”, their spokesperson, Rev. Felix Ime Cookey said.
Unlike the experience of year 2017, the state government treated the gesture with a dose of civility. The aggrieved and hungry pensioners had protested on the Governor’s birthday, July 11, 2017. They were very devastated. Hungry and angry, they rolled on the ground, crying and shouting on the Governor to pay them their entitlements. But unfortunately, their actions became a grave embarrassment on the Governor. It became a big provocation as they were literally chased away.
Admittedly, the exercise was a big news in town. They seemed to have practically destroyed the reputation of Governor Emmanuel by protesting on his date of birth. In reaction, the Governor directed an interim ban on all street protests in the State. He directed that any group of persons who wished to do any protest must obtain clearance from government. Interestingly, the ‘volatile’ Akwa Ibom critics went ‘berserk’, calling on the Governor to immediately withdraw the order. Yours truly was part of the unsettled crowd. “Forget not the Beggars’ Strike: A Modest Proposal to Governor Emmanuel” became my utmost contribution. As if it was a worthy tutorial, and like an obedient child, the Governor lifted the band.
Meanwhile, the Commissioner for Information, Mr Charles Udoh in a recent reponse to the matter said government would pay attention to the issues, only from inception of Governor Udom Emmanuel’s tenure. In a release issued on Monday by the office of the Head of Civil Service, Elder Effiong Essien stated that retirees’ pleas were received. Saying the Udom Emmanuel government inherited “a monstrous backlog of uncleared entitlements”, including “salaries, gratuities and “pensions arrears’, dating back to 1991”, the release noted that the Udom’s administration had “commenced the payment of gratuities to other categories of workers through the systematic (batch by batch), approach”.
“On the whole, government appreciates the civil manner with which the affected Retired Primary School Teachers/Next of kin registered their issues and wishes to assure them that the State Governor, Mr. Udom Gabriel Emmanuel, in his characteristic workers-friendly disposition have (sic) the well-being of all workers, including teachers, at heart and is not relenting in ensuring that all their outstanding financial issues are given prompt attention”, a part of the release had said.
A deduction from government’s defenses reveals that the issues raised by pensioners were genuine. Both parties have noted that backlogs of pentions and gratuities were owed by the administration of Chief Godswill Akpabio. Unfortunately, this tends to reveal the halftruths cooked by government who denied that Akpabio’s era had left behind debts. Sharp memories will not find it difficult to recall that Governor Emmanuel and other government officials under him, had defended Akpabio as not having left behind any debt. Innumerable instances abound to show how they had covered up for the former minority leader of the 8th Senate. Even when opposition parties kept demanding answers about the health of the State treasury as left behind by Senator Akpabio, the kept singing his praises. When Governor Emmanuel had accused him of leaving behind “a huge financial burden on him, only two days to his reelection in March 2019, it became a thing of joke.
Questions are, now that government has said the payment would be in batches, what fortune should we expect for the retired teachers? They have vowed to remain hungry throughout the season. For as long as their entitlements are not paid, they would so remain. How long this shall be is still to be imagined. But question is, does a government which takes priorities in trivialities have the good conscience to give retired teachers their rights? Does a government which builds Lagos Lodge, sponsors rallies, buys and will continue to buy votes have the conscience to give to Caesar what belongs to him.
Not minding the health conditions, financial needs and other challenges of retired teachers, can the Udom’s government have peace of mind withholding their dues? When billions of naira is being spent on daily feeding in government house, could the government reflect on its negligence to treat retired teachers right? One only wonders whether this attempt on hunger strike is not a suicide mission.