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THE GUARDIAN (Jul 29, 2001)

SENIOR CITIZENS LEFT IN THE LURCH
By Andrew Iro Okungbowa

"WHEN in 1968 Mr. Sunday Joseph decided to join the Nigeria Army as a recruit, he had his eyes trained on serving his fatherland. As a young man then, he was full of energy and patriotic blood running in him.

As of the time in question, Nigeria was the peak of fighting a civil war. It therefore, followed that to survive the unslaught of the daredevil Biafran army, Nigeria needed the strongest and most virile of her youths to fight on her side.

For Oliver Drambi from Bazza in Michika local government council area of Adamawa State who is now in his early 60's and his likes who signed up earlier than Joseph (1967), the attraction then was the task of "keeping Nigeria as one".

Interestingly, that was the resounding theme of the civil war era. Having enjoyed the benefits of living together as one country, it was understandable why Drambi and his fellow travellers risked their lives in ensuring that the status quo was maintained.

For spending the twilight and the most productive parts of their lives in the service of the fatherland, for the likes of Joseph and Drambi, the expectation is that the country would in turn reciprocate by way of looking after them at this later stage of their lives.

But that belief seems to be a dream. Life for them has suddenly taken on a new dimension. All that they have laboured for over two decades have disappeared into thin air. The country they have given their youths for, with some of them killed, maimed and incapacitated for life has turned its back and left them in the lurch.

Joseph and Drambi, who are among the over 4,000 army pensioners currently fighting to have their pension arrears of over nine months paid to them belong to the growing army of Nigerian senior citizens who are daily suffering state neglect.

A visit to the Alexander Avenue, Ikoyi where the office of the Department of Military Pension (DMP) is located presents a sorry and unpleasant collage of scenes. The scenes are a study of how not to look after senior citizens that have given their best to the country in their retirement.

Here, these ex-military officers sleep out in the cold. What some of them have as shelters are make shift roofs. It is a picture of a refugee camp. One may even take the men for destitute as most of them have long abandoned their homes and taken up residence at Alexander Avenue in anticipation of getting their due entitlements.

According to Joseph, who was educated at Lagos City College, Yaba before joining the army, where he was recruited by the late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha at Asaba into One Division, life since his discharge from the army in 1979 on medical ground, has been one harrowing experience.

To keep soul and body together, Joseph who is a father of five children (four males and one female) had to take up a security job with Guinness in their Benin City office where he lives with his family. After 13 years, Joseph again was shown the door. That the family is still alive today, Joseph says is because of God's mercy. "I have my God to thank Who has been taking care of my family".

The wife too, he says has been the backbone and breadwinner of the family. "The assistance of my wife as a trader is what has kept us all till today", he says, stressing that all the bills are virtually settled by her. This includes paying the school fees of the children and ensuring that all their financial commitments are met. All the children are students with the eldest child schooling at Auchi Polytechnic while the last child is at the University of Benin.

For Joseph who in the last couple of weeks has pitched tent with his fellow travellers at the DMP Alexander Avenue office, going back to his family in Benin without his entitlements is like a suicidal mission.

Why is this so? One sought to know from him. The answer is that short. "I am indebted to so many people I dare not go back home to them empty-handed". Joseph today is living a life of misery due to no fault of his. His only problem was that he chose to serve his country in a most honest manner. The question is, for how long will Joseph and his fellow hold out at Alexander Avenue? "For as long as necessary," he replied.

While Joseph is lucky to have his wife as the breadwinner of the family, Drambi and many others are not that lucky. Infact, Drambi's story is that pathetic. Since his discharge in 1979, he has resorted to subsistence farming. But unfortunately, the proceeds are hardly enough to meet the family needs.

Drambi says he is sad man because the family he so much cherished is today in disarray due to his inability to live up to his fatherly role. All the children are scattered here and there. For instance, one of the boys lives in Lagos with his brother (uncle).

Like others Drambi says he is not happy because he hasn't heard from his family ever arriving at Lagos. And the possibility of doing so in the near future is not there because he hasn't the money to send down any message. At the Alexander Avenue, these men live by borrowing here and there.

One Nigerian that has looked in their direction, according to them is one "Madam Ibadan" who lend them money for their upkeep. They are made to deposit their discharge certificate as collateral for the loan. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) is another group that has ever since showed compassion for them. They visit the site regularly on Sundays with foods, clothing, drugs and other items, which are distributed, freely, to the Alexander refugees.

For now, the case of these men is like that of "waiting for godot" as the authority doesn't seems to be in a hurry to wade into their issue. Angered by this show of state neglect, an NGO, which is known as Global Peace Movement (GPM) have taken the case over. The group has so far succeeded in bringing the plight of thes.e senior citizens to the organised by them recently.

According to Mr. Sam Enudi, the co-ordinator of the group, GPM decided to fight on the side of these Nigerians because they see what is happening to them as a gross violation of the human rights of the pensioners. For the state to neglect those who have honourably served the nation at their hours of needs, he said is tantamount to display of irresponsibility and insensitivity to the plights of Nigerians by the state.

Enudi also said it is pertinent for every Nigerian to see the treatment being meted to its senior citizens as of grave concern. According to him, it is not only antithetical to the anti-corruption crusade of the government but encourages public servants to steal the nation blind while in service because the moment they leave, they are immediately consigned to men of yesterday whose today and tomorrow is of no concern to anyone.

Because of the danger it portends to the nation, Mr. Mike Uyi, the president-general of the group said his group would not stop at fighting for the military pensioners but for all other senior citizens of the land who are neglected and ill-treated after their service to the nation. On the next line of action to be taken by the group, Uyi says this is dependent on the response they receive from the military authority that they have already written to.

In the letter entitled, "urgent appeal for the immediate payment of pension arrears to the ex-soldiers discharged since 1979", the group is among others asking the military authority to pay without further delay the arrears of the pensioners, to investigate the source of the military signal - NA/357/A of May 7, 2001 sent to DMP to the payment of their arrears. The group also want those entrusted with the funds of the pensioners investigated, the issuance of cheques without any figure, except the amount "N0000" to some pensioners, and to issue the pensioners with identity cards. The letter that was sent to the minister of defence was copied to the minister of state for the three military units, the Senate president, Speaker of the House of the Representatives, Human Rights Commission and the Presidency.

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