Agony of a retired Nigerian diplomat

IN the midst of a cacophony of apocalyptic reports of violent deaths, kidnappings and extortions, acute economic difficulties and political unease across Nigeria, the reality is that daily living for those whom one would assume to be in the upper-middle class is just as dreary as that of the  ordinary Nigerian on the street. Such was the depressing experience that I encountered when I visited a retired diplomat in Ibadan recently.

The respected gentleman had an outstanding career in the Nigerian Diplomatic Service. Though his situation cannot be described as pathetic, his description of life in retirement was acutely at variance with the glitz and glamour associated with the sheltered life of serving diplomats. The reflections of this venerable diplomat was at once as enlightening as it was scary, a true but sad tale about the abject condition of retirement life for the average civil servant in Nigeria. The case of the retired gentleman in Ibadan was all the more pathetic because, while in service as a peripatetic diplomat, he had travelled the world and experienced life at its best.

Listen to him in his own words: “We seemed to enjoy the limelight and indulged in the international exposure occasioned by the Foreign Service. Indeed, we actually lived in a bubble, as the life of a diplomat abroad does not reflect his standing at home.  Whereas an average diplomat from a developing country like Nigeria live in the neighbourhood similar to Asokoro and Maitama or Ikoyi and Victoria Island in foreign capitals, back home in retirement, you may actually find yourself living in Karu, Kuje, Lugbe in the Federal Capital Territory or similar neighbourhoods in states across Nigeria.”

It is true that some Foreign Service Officers made attempts to build their own houses while abroad but the risk was too high. There have been cases where relations of diplomats serving abroad have used money meant for building houses for different purposes while being unapologetic when called out for bad behaviour. At the end of the day, family pressure will ensue and the monies meant to provide decent retirement homes for these diplomats evaporate into thin air. This is the story of the many Nigerian diplomats until recent times when you can buy houses directly from developers but that is not a guarantee that you will not be duped.

The inability of the older generation of ambassadors to have houses of their own and the retirement gale of eighty four officers during the first coming of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), between 1983 and 1985 had probably taught the younger ones to prioritise home ownership early in their careers. The monetisation policy of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration in 2004 greatly helped the lucky beneficiaries buy their houses or developed plots of land allocated to them.

It is in retirement that the implication of the Nigerian situation stares you in the face, especially having lived abroad on and off for such a long time that you have lost touch with home. Some diplomats actually in the middle cadre may decide to take up appointments with international organisations that necessitate staying abroad for long before returning home. Such a long absence from home is not without attendant consequences.

The main issue is the meagre pension on retirement that is barely enough to support a decent standard of living for a retired diplomat who could have risen to the position of an Ambassador and had served the country for over thirty years. Unlike before, many of the younger generations of retired ambassadors are able to enjoy their retirement in their personal homes.

Still, the pension arrangement is very much a problem to be resolved because it is grossly inadequate. It is important to state that one is not being insensitive since other public servants are also complaining about the insufficiency of the monthly pension. There is however a case to be made for the Foreign Service Officers who, considering the hazards of their profession, live most of their lives abroad.

Apart from the issue of accommodation and the miserable monthly pension, the officers are always at a disadvantage relative to their counterparts in the Home Service. While the diplomat spent most of his career either living abroad, the Home Service Officer in all probability gets to represent the government on boards of parastatals, thereby cultivating contacts that could prove invaluable in retirement.

Some, if not many, take up employment in private companies immediately after retirement arising from their activities while in service. Furthermore, their continuous, unbroken stay in Nigeria is an advantage that the Foreign Service Officers would never enjoy. There is no family dislocation and their children have members of old schools and their alma mater in Nigeria to relate with as adults. On the other hand, the children of Foreign Service Officers spend much of their adolescent lives outside Nigeria, thus contributing to economic woes for retirees who intend to visit children and grandchildren.

As a result of the regulations in many of the countries and the uncertainty of the tenure coupled with language barriers, many spouses of the Foreign Service Officers cannot work or engage in gainful employment while at posts with their spouses. This is definitely a big minus when compared with the spouses of the Home-based Officers who can contribute to the accumulation of resources for the family that would be useful in retirement.

Sometimes those of them that are professionals but have not practised the profession for an extended period of time could lose the skill. The consequence is that many of the retired Foreign Service Officers cannot maintain the same standard of living they were used to while in service. There is the case of a colleague who lamented his inability to travel outside the country for three years after retirement due to the exorbitant cost of flight tickets.

This was in contrast to the career lifestyle of this former colleague who, while in service, never stayed in Nigeria for one year without travelling abroad for one reason or the other. The fact that this much-travelled man could not afford to buy an air ticket to travel abroad in retirement appears to be the main causative factor of his post-retirement depression.

It is in this light that there is a need for a Foreign Service Commission (separate from the Federal Civil Service Commission) that will be able to take into consideration the socio-psychological effects of long stay abroad on officers, spouses and their children and the condition of service that will make retirement a pleasant experience, rather than lump all public servants under the same Contributory Pension Scheme as is currently the case. Retired diplomats may have lived a sheltered life while working for the country but the privileged ones are crying in retirement. That should not be the reward for a lifetime of hazardous work for Nigeria.

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