INVESTIGATION: How Governor Umo Eno spent a Whooping N18bn on “Happy Hour” (Part I)

By Ibanga Isine

When Umo Eno promised a “Happy Hour” while campaigning for the state’s governorship, nobody expected him to spend so much in pursuit of happiness.

Many stories, same problem

Mfon Udo (not real names) had taught in many primary schools across the state before being promoted to a headmistress. She spent much of her adult life nurturing the character, developing skills, and broadening the sympathies of the children who passed through her care. Some of the pupils she taught are now medical doctors, lawyers, architects and top flight professionals across many fields.

After 35 years of committed service, she wasted no time filing her papers as she prepared to take a well-deserved retirement. A little retirement party was organised for her, but there was nothing fantastic about it – a few bottles of soft drinks, a cheap bottle of wine, a jerry can of palm wine and some sticks of fried meat and some speeches – and the party was done.  It was a simple affair.

Mma Udo, as she is fondly called, went home and waited for her pension and gratuity. It did not take long before her pension was approved, and she began collecting the small amount many pensioners refer to as “mkpo inung” to keep body and soul together.

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Many senior citizens refer to their pension as “mkpo inung,” meaning “token for the purchase of salt,” because the money is so meager it wouldn’t cover a day of enjoyment at a place like the Four Points by Sheraton in Ikot Ekpene, Nigeria’s beautiful Raffia City.

Few are aware that some civil servants, particularly primary school teachers, earn less than N25, 000 monthly as a pension, and Ma Udo is among them.

“My father was a teacher and I followed in his footsteps. I love teaching and throughout the years I served, I did my best to raise disciplined, God-fearing and smart pupils. It was not easy. I used to ride on a motorcycle for several kilometres every day to get to school.

“One day, I was riding to school in the rain when lightning struck. The currents surged through my body, throwing me to the ground and nearly electrocuting me. After I recovered, I didn’t hesitate—I got back on the motorcycle and went straight to teach my pupils,” Mma Udo recounted, sharing one of her near-death experiences as a primary school teacher.

Another primary school teacher, Ama Okon, who was first employed by the then Cross River State Government in 1978 has another variant of a pathetic story.

Mma Okon taught in schools across the state as part of inter-local government transfers until she retired exactly 35 years after her first appointment.

“I retired on August 30, 2013 and applied for my entitlements at the same time. While we got our pension not long after we retired, nothing was done about our gratuity. Initially, I was owed two months arrears of pension but they later paid me,” she told our correspondent.

Mma Udo and Mma Okon represent the metaphor of the pain and anguish of many senior citizens who, after pouring their lives out in the service of their communities, find themselves abandoned and neglected during retirement.

These two women and several hundreds of others, male and female, who were once pillars of the society, were left to face their most vulnerable moments in tears, their sacrifices forgotten by those they once taught and supported.

It is hard to relate the painful stories of every senior citizen who contacted us in this single piece, but Mma Udo and Mma Okon’s experiences shed light on the difficulties that many senior citizens in Akwa Ibom State confront.

These stories, particularly those of primary school teachers suffering and dying in their homes while waiting for gratuities, would traumatise even the most hardened man. However, for more than a decade, their cries fell on deaf ears.

The long road to protests, beatings and humiliation

In the complex corridors of power, where bureaucracy often stands as the Rock of Gibraltar, only a few civil servants get their ways effortlessly. These fortunate ones, with their influential connections to politically exposed persons, navigate the system with extraordinary ease. For them, getting pensions and gratuities is a smooth process, often done without ever having to leave the comfort of their homes.

In fact, our correspondent found how previous administrations in the state selectively paid gratuities to those with connections to the Hilltop Mansion. It was, however, an open secret. Unfortunately, this privileged treatment is a luxury reserved for a few senior citizens.

The majority, far removed from the corridors of power, endure a strikingly different reality. Day after day, they queue under the scorching sun or the relentless rain, waiting outside the offices where their entitlements are processed.

To add to their sorrows, the younger civil servants, assigned to handle the retirement paperwork, offer little or no sympathy. Instead, they exploit every opportunity to extort, insult, and belittle the retirees. Each interaction becomes a trial, as these older citizens, who have dedicated their lives to public service, face indignity and neglect at the hands of those now wielding the power.

Relentless in their quest for justice, they dressed in mourning clothes and marched through the streets. Their voices ballooned in a chorus of sorrow as they marched, shouted, and cried, waving placards that pleaded for attention.

However, instead of compassion, they were confronted with a reality that was harsh. Hordes of mean security agents were drafted to chase them away and clear the streets. Each time they appeared on the streets to protest their withheld entitlements, the clashes with security agents were brutal – a clear reminder of their powerlessness in the face of ruthless power.

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Reminiscing on their shattering experiences, Mma Okon said, “In those days, we were often invited to join protests. We would scrape together money for transport to CKS Primary School, along Barracks Road. From there, we would march all the way to the Government House. Before getting there, armed soldiers and riot policemen would be waiting for us. They would beat us mercilessly and chase us away.”

With a look of resignation, she paused and then continued. “Even during national and state programmes, we would go to the stadiums with our placards, protesting the non-payment of our entitlements. And yet, every time, they would chase us away like petty criminals.”

On her part, Mma Udo said, “It was tough. Years after we retired, the government would not release our gratuity. We protested several times. Sometimes we wore black gowns and trousers and shoes. We marched to Government House to make our voices heard.

“When we got there, the police shot tear gas at us and soldiers opened fire and we ran. They chased us like criminals and we fell down and rolled on the ground while they flogged us. They pursued us and we went home bruised and devastated.

“We took the next protest to the IBB Junction. All the retirees came out and we blocked the road and put up a banner with an inscription, ‘We want our rights. Pay us our gratuity.” But nothing happened. We left that day. At another instance, we went to CKS Primary School and walked from there to Government House House. Again, we were pursued. The police and the army shot guns and we went home.

“Every time they called us for a meeting, the organisers would demand money. We paid from N500, N1, 000, N2, 000 and so on,” she lamented.

Due to such dehumanizing treatments, many retirees lost hope of ever receiving their gratuities, and Mma Udo was one of them.

“One day,” she recalled, “I told God that since I didn’t die while on duty, He shouldn’t let me die before getting my gratuity. I used to go to school in the rain and under the scorching sun.”

Mma Udo’s situation was really bad. “I retired just after my husband died,” she continued, “and all my children were in the university. I needed to pay their fees and take care of their other needs. But the beatings I received during protests left me completely exhausted. I vowed never to participate in any protest again.”

Retired primary school teachers protesting non-payment of gratuity and other entitlements in Uyo. Credit: Daily Post

Retired primary school teachers protesting non-payment of gratuity and other entitlements in Uyo. Credit: Daily Post

The pastor and his happy hour

The day was March 15, 2023. In the frenzy of the campaign, Umo Eno, the then governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), set the internet buzzing. His promise was somewhat bizarre and bold: if elected governor, he would declare “Happy Hour” for the people of the state on Fridays.

The announcement sparked a flurry of harsh reactions, capturing the public’s imagination and adding a provocative twist to the election discourse. Media analysts and critics, including this reporter, took time to dissect and criticise the promise. Political opponents were furious in their attacks and suddenly, Eno became the butt of jokes at bars, markets, motor parks, public gatherings and even during family banters. It appears that “Bo Eno,” one of his campaign slogans, could no longer sell him.

The persistent question was how declaring a “Happy Hour” could be a priority in a state where unemployment was walking on two legs, pensioners were owed billions in backlogs of entitlements, the multidimensional poverty index was one of the highest in the region, and the government owed in excess of N200 billion.

Through a scepter of luck, divine intervention and a never-say-die-spirit, Eno won the election and in his very soft and natural baritone voice, described himself in his inaugural speech as “a product of God’s awesome grace, a testament of His enduring love, and an instrument of blessings in His steady and dependable Hands.”

Immediately after the inauguration, his supporters were excited and many eagerly anticipated free drinks and plates of local delicacies like isi-ewu, nkwobi, goat pepper soup, and ikpa-enang garnished with periwinkle and utasi every Friday during a state-sponsored “Happy Hour.”

However, Pastor Eno has not been seen anywhere near a bar to fulfill his controversial campaign promise. Instead, findings reveal that he has spent a whopping N18.2 billion in the pursuit of happiness between May 29, 2023, and now.

The state’s Accountant General, Uwem Essien, confirmed that Governor Eno has been far from extravagant. “His excellency has approved and released in excess of N18 billion between May last year and now,” he told our correspondent over the phone.

Don’t tell Umo Eno

While the government has yet to deliver on its promise of free booze and culinary delights after one year, findings show that Governor Eno has been allocating substantial resources in areas previous administrations deemed wasteful.

Mma Udo has even confirmed that she and hundreds of retired teachers and local government workers have been enjoying a different kind of “Happy Hour,” thanks to the governor.

Relating her “Happy Hour” story, she said, “I was sitting at home sometime last year when I got an alert on my mobile phone. When I checked, a huge amount of money had just been deposited in my account. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I went and picked up my diary where I recorded what the government owed me and found that it was exactly what I received.

“I kept quiet, went into my bedroom, bowed my head to the ground, and waved to the heavens in thanksgiving. I thought I was dreaming. It was when my son came back and I showed him, and he confirmed it was my gratuity that I realised Umo Eno had given me a real happy hour.

“I am asking God Almighty to suspend everything He is doing and bless Umo Eno and his children for not allowing me to die and before my gratuity is paid. Now, people won’t say I died in active service,” she said with an air of fulfillment and joy.

The knowledge that the governor has been releasing funds to pay the backlog of gratuity and other benefits owed to retired workers, especially teachers and local government staff, has rekindled hope for Mma Okon and other senior citizens.

“I have heard, and many of my friends have called to tell me they have received their gratuity. When I open my bank statement, it is still empty, but I am hopeful that I will be paid soon because Umo Eno has decided to prioritise our welfare. I pray God to bless him,” Mma Okon said with a flicker of hope.

The Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Ekerette Udo, stated that Governor Eno came prepared to change the narrative in Akwa Ibom and is determined to ensure the happiness and fulfillment of the people.

Similarly, the Commissioner for Information, Ini Ememobong, noted that the governor’s passion for the elderly stems from his compassionate nature.

“His attention to pensions and gratuities, financial support for the elderly, and the old school party he organised during Christmas Unplugged were all aimed at providing comfort for the elderly. In both private and public life, the governor does not hide his soft spot for the elderly.

“In fact, he has pledged his administration’s commitment to improving their living conditions, and he has demonstrated this eloquently in his first year, promising to double down in the coming years,” Mr. Ememobong explained.

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