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Sad tales trail railway pensioners

With its dilapidated infrastructure and poor living conditions, Kano’s rickety Railway Estate is not different from many railway quarters across the country. Most of these quarters that were built before Nigeria’s independence were intended to provide shelter to the then demanding railway staff, but over the years, this vital transport system has been allowed to collapse along with the optimism of the staff and that of their families.

A visit to the quarters by Weekly Trust within the week reveals that most of the occupants are either pensioners, distressed families of deceased staff waiting for their benefits or retrenched staff yet to be settled. Even the palatial houses springing around the senior and junior quarters located along the busy Civic Centre road could not give the ramshackle estate a better look.  

It was despite this dereliction that Weekly Trust approached 48-year-old Salamatu Silas, one of the widows left behind in a filthy and rusted two-bedroom apartment to cater for the family over the years.

A casual look at Salamatu would depict an old woman in need of assistance. With faded clothes, Salamatu was on the day of Weekly Trust’s busy trying to cook for her six children and a three-year-old grandchild, Moses, in the little space she uses as kitchen.

Salamatu has all cause to be mistaken for a destitute. Her husband died five years ago in the service of the Nigerian Railway Corporation. The house she lives in with his children is the same in which he breathed his last breath. She has been forced to step into Silas’ shoes in every sense; to put food on the table for the family and educate her children and she has been doing it all alone.

“Nobody has ever given me any kobo in the name of my husband’s benefit,” the widow said, adding that, “it is through the akara (bean cake) and fried yam business I’m doing that I get money for the upkeep of the family.” She has been in the business since the time her husband was alive and she has had to retain it to stay alive.

Her late husband, Silas, had worked for 25 years in the Nigerian Railway Corporation before he died in 2004. His family hopes that his benefits would be paid, so that in the not too distant future, they will pack out of the Kano Railway Quarters. Salamatu put what plan she has for the money succinctly, “It would be used for my children’s education and we will get a house.” However, when the money will come is what neither Salamatu nor any other dependant of the deceased railway worker can tell.

Just a few metres from Salamatu’s apartment lives another widow and mother of three called Rabi Raphael popularly known in the quarters as Mama Hannatu. The woman’s story is pathetic. “Honestly,” she said, “we have faced uncountable and enormous problems since my husband died nine years ago. He left me with three children, two boys and one girl. I have been selling akara to survive.  Everyday after the akara business, I go to the market to buy half or one mudu (bowl measure) of corn, grind and bring it home for the family to eat. When we have lunch leftovers, we warm it in the evening and eat as dinner. That is how life is with us.”

She was first brought to Kano by her late husband in 1982 and that year, she lost her first born after a chronic illness. As years went by, she put the tragedy behind and moved on with normal life until the death of Raphael plunged the whole family into a struggle for survival. In a chat with Weekly Trust in her house, Mama Hannatu said, “The problem was so big for us that my eldest son had to relocate to our village to start farming before he subsequently got married.

I could not sponsor him for higher institution after he finished his secondary school; therefore, he had to abandon schooling. However, two of his siblings managed to forge ahead; one of them has finished from a polytechnic and the other is about to graduate.”

Her greatest source of joy in spite of their predicaments, according to he, is their good health: “Except once that my son fell sick and was admitted in the hospital, there was never a time through all this trying period that a member of the family was afflicted by any serious ailment,” she said.

Mama Hannatu also nurtures the dream of purchasing a house for her children from the benefit of her late husband because she says, “I know when they pay us the money, they will evict us from the quarters, and if we don’t have a house of our own, where are we going to live?”

According to her, Raphael spent 32 years working in the railway service. She said the only money that came to them from the authorities since his demise was N30,000 burial allowances. “After we buried him, they sent us condolence letter and N30,000 as burial allowance,” she said. Some of the dependants, it was learnt, got tired of waiting in vain in the quarters and moved out or relocated to their respective home states.

The number of pensioners who died waiting for their disengagement benefits “is rising so quickly that the government needs to look into their plight,” a staff of the corporation who prefers not to be mentioned said.  He classified the pensioners into three categories namely NICON, Pre-1996 and OBJ pensioners.

Under the NICON category, “10 persons have died so far,” according to Musa Ahmad, the union’s chairman. He also revealed that a lot more have also died in the pre-1996 and OBJ pensioners categories. “I cannot give you the exact figure for the pre-1996 and OBJ ones because they are not under me, but I can tell you they are many.”

According to Ahmad, Kano alone has more than one thousand railway pensioners with cases of non-payment of pensions. Some of these men take to hanging out at a mosque inside the premises of the Railway Station. They call the mosque, Masallacin Yan Fanshion (Pensioners’ Mosque). When Weekly Trust visited the place, the old and frail men could be seen chatting under trees.

Weekly Trust was told by a source that the delay associated with the payment of entitlements and benefits to railway workers does not end with the deceased alone; the living pensioners are also not faring better. The source said three categories of pensioners are waiting for their backlog of pensions arrears.  The pre-1996 category, according to the source, are still being owed 25-month arrears, while the NICON and OBJ ones are owed 18 and 15 months arrears respectively.

A pensioner, it was gathered, who was regularly engrossed in discussion and thought of his benefits while on admission in the hospital went into hallucination and started welcoming his visitors with the question, “Have you come to pay me my pension?,” It was said that he eventually died  with the dream.     

“The corporation allegedly has a negative policy towards its deceased staff,” the anonymous staff explained, saying the moment a staff dies, his name is struck out of the corporation’s payroll thus putting his families in critical condition which has “no end in sight. The staff also revealed that, “There is a staff that died when his children were still very young. Today, some of these children are married, but very sadly, their father’s benefit is yet to be paid.”

He then appealed to the authorities to look into the plight of the orphans left behind by the deceased staff, arguing that their parents made the decision to serve the country in order to get the resources to fend for their families. “People work to get what they will eat and fend for their families,” he said. “They are breadwinners; when they are no more, how do you think their widows can properly handle the affairs of the family they left behind?” he questioned.

He berated the practice of striking out a staff’s name from the payroll the moment he is confirmed dead, describing it as unhelpful to the wellbeing of the families they leave behind.  “Assuming today is 29th of this month and salary is going to be paid tomorrow, then a staff who has worked for the 29 days falls ill and dies, the Nigerian Railway Corporation will strike out his name from the payroll so that his salary for the month will not be paid. The policy is very bad and its formulators never anticipated by their actions the hell that his family will be forced to pass through,” he lamented.

Ubale Ado Garko who retired as a yard supervisor after 35 years in the service disclosed that he has been waiting for his gratuity for almost four years. “I’m no more concerned about the pensions but I am about the gratuity,” he said.  He lives with his two wives and 13 children in a two-bedroom apartment in the Railway Quarters. When asked how he takes care of the large family, Garko stated that he uses his monthly pensions and the money he earns from porting to settle his family problems.

However, it was gathered from the widows and pensioners that a verification exercise was conducted last week in Kano where all the pensioners awaiting payment of their arrears and gratuity and dependants of the deceased personnel had their documents examined.

NRC officials and representatives from federal ministry of transport Weekly Trust learnt, were also in Kaduna last week on a verification exercise to determine the actual number of pensioners in the district. The exercise, according to a source, offered a ray of hope in the otherwise grim situation but no date has been fixed for the commencement of payment. Right now, there are about 419 pensioners in Kaduna district, with the pre-1996 category having the highest number of 256 members. The

In Niger state 20 out of 2000 existing pensioners died owing to hardship occasioned by non payment of their pension arrears.  

Narrating the ordeal of the pensioners is a 66 years old Mr Daniel Danube Kadiri, who told Weekly Trust that over 20 families are wasting in abject poverty as government is yet to oblige them with the outstanding due their deceased who was a staff of the corporation.

Kadir hoped that the verification exercise recently conducted in Niger and other places will once again put a smile on the faces of these categories of troubled Nigerians and restore their confidence in the old adage that says there is ‘dignity in labour.’

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