My mother worked for the government for 38 years. First, let that sink in…38 years! Since 1977 when my mother began her teaching career as a Home Economics teacher, she worked diligently for the government of Uganda. In return, the government paid her a paltry salary, just enough to keep her alive but not enough to cover most of her bills.
Like most teachers, and indeed most government workers, the only reason they remain in the civil service is the hope that once they retire at 60, they will get their “pension” or retirement benefits. The salary earned is to too little to write home about. So, they soldier on. A large majority die before they reach retirement age. Still, their next of kin are entitled to compensation for the decades of sacrifice and hard work.
Luckily for my mother, she is still alive, but barely. Retired at the beginning of 2015, she is 63 years old in 2017. By Ugandan standards, she is very old. My mother suffers from chronic illnesses that require frequent hospital visits.
She promptly applied for her pension in early 2015. And the government promptly cut her off her salary. But forgot to promptly pay her pension. Thus began her journey to secure the pension. For nearly three years, my mother has not received any pay from the government.
According to the Ministry of Public Service which is charged with salary and pension payments, “a public officer shall, on retirement, receive such pension as is commensurate with his or her rank, salary and length of service. The payment of pension shall be prompt and regular and easily accessible to pensioners.” This is even laid out for all to see on the ministry’s website. But nothing can be further from the truth.
On any given day, a visit to the ministry’s offices you will find old people, who have been reduced to beggars, sitting at the reception. These men and women served and trusted their governments to pay them what is due to them, especially in old age. But why then is the process so complicated?
I have tried and failed on several occasions to assist my mother to secure her pension, I have been to the Ministry of Public Service offices several times, armed with a manila folder full of documents, some older than myself, moving from office to office in search of stamps and signatures. Numerous officials have appended their signatures on those documents. I have been to Embassy House along Parliament Avenue where the Education Ministry officials have to attach more stamps and more scribbles. At one point, I was told that I had everything and that it was time for the Mitooma District Local Government where my mother worked last, to pay. A letter ordering the district to pay was signed and attached. I happily delivered the file to my mother. And we began plotting how we are going to “eat” the money. It’s been over 15 months, no money, and no sensible explanation.
Two weeks ago in May 2017, my mother made another trip to the Ministry of Public Service to check. She was told to check again at the end of June. As she explained her journey to me, you could hear a sense of resignation and desperation. But why? Who has no empathy for old people? Why do they have to beg for what is actually theirs? Why are the processes so unclear, so zigzag? Where can these old people report their frustration?
“Things get difficult at the district,” she told me on phone just the other day. Now, the government apparently had eased the process by decentralizing part of the process, so that our mothers and fathers do not have to make the journey to Kampala. But now, the districts are seemingly complicating things.
I ask her why she says the process is difficult.
“Kanshi corruption,” she says tiredly. I press on. How do you know there is corruption? Has anyone asked you to pay money, I demanded?
“No, no one says anything,” she says quickly, afraid to implicate anyone. “But the Personnel Officer keeps asking you to check again, and again. When you talk to others that have received theirs, they tell you how much they gave as bribes. They tell you nothing will be processed until you promise to give an exact figure. I had hinted that she would get something, but it seems she did not understand. For example, your father had to part with Shs.2.5M, others 3M, others 1M. But don’t write these things before I get mine and it fails to come out,” she pleaded.
There it was, the fear. Fear of being sabotaged. Fear that one person whose job it is to put a stamp or click a button will refuse because either 1) you have not given a bribe/promised them a bribe, or 2) you have hinted somewhere that the process is not straight and they “sit” on your money.
She ended the call begging me to please not say anything, not mention her name or district.
My prayer is that she lives long enough to receive her pay. Shame on the government officials that profit from pensioners’ money. I will not repeat here all the corruption scams regarding pension payment in Uganda. It has become a song. But this song is affecting lives of real people.