The Rivers State Government has bought new SUVs – Toyota Land Cruisers – worth hundreds of millions of naira for the 16 National Assembly members from the state, despite the fact that the state is owing retired civil servants their pensions and gratuities for over three years now.
Three of the vehicles are said to be for the senators, while 13 are for the House of Representatives members.
The State Governor, Nyesom Wike, on Monday, released the vehicles in Port Harcourt to two federal lawmakers who were around, according to a Government House press statement.
The two lawmakers are Betty Apiafi and Bari Mpigi. Both are members of the House of Representatives.
“This is from the Government of Rivers State which you are part of,” Mr. Wike was quoted to have said, as he gave out the new vehicles. “This is to aid you to carry out your official functions in Abuja.
“Defend the interest of the state wherever you are,” he said
Mr. Wike said the vehicles were for all members of the National Assembly, irrespective of party affiliation.
By PREMIUM TIMES’s calculation, the cost of the 16 vehicles should be more than N484.720 million, going by the unit price of $83,665 for a Toyota Land Cruiser in the U.S.
The N484.720 million does not include other costs such as customs duties and clearing cost.
The lawmakers from Rivers, like other federal lawmakers, are entitled to and had received their official vehicles from the National Assembly, Abuja.
Besides, the purchase of the vehicles is coming at a time that Rivers, like most other states in Nigeria, is facing an economic crisis due to the slump in oil prices.
President Muhammadu Buhari a few days ago ordered that more money from the Paris Club refund be released to the states, including Rivers, before Christmas to help ease their financial hardship.
Meanwhile, the Rivers government appears unable to meet its financial obligations to some of its retired civil servants whose main source of income ought to be their pension.
Edward Abibo, the state Chairman of Nigeria Union of Pensioners in Rivers, told PREMIUM TIMES, Monday, that over 1,850 retired civil servants in the state were yet to be accommodated in the state pension payroll for more than three years now, even when, according to him, they went through screening during the state biometric verification exercise.
He also said that the state government for 15 years now hasn’t done an upward review of the pensioners’ monthly take-home.
“An average pensioner collects less than N5,000 monthly from the Rivers State Government,” he said.
“Rivers State Government has remained silent over the Paris Club refund which was meant to help them clear the entitlements of pensioners in the state.
“Our governor has refused to make any comment about the money he has received.
“Those on the contributory pension scheme are also suffering because the state government has refused to contribute its counterpart funds totaling about N30 billion to the pension funds administrators,” Mr. Abibo said, adding that the pensioners were going through terrible hardship and emotional pains.
Apart from the pensioners, Rivers has also been unable to meet the financial needs of its students who are studying abroad under the state foreign scholarship scheme.
The state’s financial burden for the scheme is uncertain for now.
Stranded abroad, the students recently protested in front of Chatham House, London, against Governor Wike who was there to speak on the effort of his administration to develop the oil-rich state.
The state Commissioner for Information, Emma Okah, however, defended the purchase of the vehicles. He told PREMIUM TIMES, Monday, that it was a long-standing policy of the state to buy vehicles for federal lawmakers.
“Celestine Omehia did the same thing when he was in office as governor; he bought Toyota Land Cruisers for senators and Toyota Camry for House of Representatives members.
“I don’t know about Amaechi, but I know that he was paying money. So, it is always the policy of the state government to give them support.
“It shouldn’t be seen from the purview that they already have vehicles; it should be seen from the purview that it is part of the entitlements that the state government accords to them.
“Would anybody say that part of the government policy should no longer be carried out?” Mr. Okah said, adding that it took the government more than two years to buy the vehicles because it was doing so in bits because of lack of money.
Mr. Okah said the purchase of the vehicles shouldn’t be compared with the government’s inability to fund the scholarship scheme initiated by the previous administration of Rotimi Amaechi.
“It’s not every policy that you meet that you must continue, particularly if you cannot carry it,” Mr. Okah said.
“By the admission of one of the students who spoke inside the Chatham House, the payment that should be made to the final year students alone in the foreign scholarship scheme is N3 billion.
“If you put final year students, put the fourth year, third years and the rest of them together, how much would that be for a state government in one year?
“Now, the government has come out very clearly to say look those who are doing core science courses continue to stay there, we will manage to pay and we have been paying. Those who are doing arts-related and management courses, those courses that can effectively be taught in Nigeria, please come back, we will secure admission for you and give you scholarship here in Nigeria.
“Some of them are attracted by the lure of staying overseas, they don’t want to come back home.
“So, if you cannot carry a problem and you give reasons why you cannot, the minimum that anybody expects is understanding. Even in homes, if things change for a family and they can no longer do the kind of things they use to do, eat the kind of food they used to eat, and drive the kind of vehicles they used to drive, you scale down according to your circumstances,” the commissioner said.
The commissioner said it wasn’t true that some pensioners in the state were receiving as low as N5, 000.
He said Governor Wike deserved commendation for clearing salary and pension arrears that were left behind by the Amaechi administration.
“Pension is not the only problem that the Rivers State Government has to contend with. There may be cases where pension have not been extended to a few persons for one reason or the other, some due to the biometric problem, some due to the fraudulent pension system that the government has to battle with and all of that.
“I am not saying that we are running a 100 percent perfect administration; the point I am making is that where we have done well, it is important that people should appreciate us. We are calling for the understanding of everybody,” the commissioner said.
Magnus Abe, an All Progressives Congress, APC, senator from the state, is among the beneficiaries of the new vehicles.
When PREMIUM TIMES contacted Mr. Abe, he corroborated what was said by the information commissioner.
“As far as I know, every government in Rivers State in the past has bought vehicles for the legislators at the national level. It has been like that for sometimes.
“I have not received a vehicle so far from this administration, but I have heard that the governor gave out vehicles today.
“But for the question, whether it is okay to buy those vehicles or not considering the present day economic realities, it is the governor who should be able to make that determination because he knows his challenges and his priorities,” the senator said.