Liberia: Senate Repasses Controversial Pension Bill



— The Senate’s move to repass the bill after it was rejected by the House of Representatives in 2022 has been described as a greedy and unnecessary tax burden on the struggling population grappling with high living costs and rising poverty.

A controversial pension bill that continues to be widely unpopular among the general public has been passed by the Senate.

The legislation aims to provide a pension annuity equal to 50% of the basic salary to certain public officials who have completed their term and retired from government service.

Critics of the bill had argued that it will benefit only public officials who already earn exorbitant salaries, while leaving the vast majority of public workers who earn an average wage of US$150. 

Many see the Senate's move to repass the bill after it was rejected by the House of Representatives in 2022 as a greedy and unnecessary tax burden on the struggling population grappling with high living costs and rising poverty.

If passed into law, the bill will provide annuities for the positions of Speaker, Deputy Speaker, Pro-tempore, President, Vice President, Chief Justice, and all Associate Justices, as well as circuit court judges. 

“Under the modifications, the current line in the budget for ‘benefit and served officials’  should be carried from  year  to year pending enrollment  of the beneficiaries  who have served prior to the effective date of this Act into the NASCORP  Program or any other beneficial program,” overview of the Senate bill reads. 

“At the same time all benefits will be a certain percent as indicated of basic salary instead it being apply on sum total of salaries and benefits,” it added.

“The last modification is indicating that if any of the officials retires and subsequently receives gainful employment and then retires finally, his pension will be the highest of the two instead of being asked to make a choice.”

The Senate's decision however to pass the controversial pension bill is taking place against the backdrop of Liberia's persistent poverty and inequality, despite its relatively small population.

According to World Bank data, poverty affects 50.9% of the population, with rural areas bearing a heavier burden, where poverty incidence is 71.6%, more than twice as high as in cities. This means that roughly 2.3 million Liberians are unable to meet their basic needs, and 44% of the population lives under the extreme international poverty with poverty projected to increase in the coming years.

This is despite the fact that Liberian lawmakers and public officials continue to earn well-paid salaries with fabulous allowances, averaging over US$6,000 per month. 

It is worth noting that Liberia ranked at the bottom of the Human Capital Index,  with a score of 0. 32 -- performing better than only three African countries in the world — namely, the Central African Republic (0.29), Chad (0.31), and South Sudan (0.31) — out of 174 countries assessed, the  World Bank said in a 2022 report on human capital investment in Liberia. 

Also, Liberia has the lowest human capital in ECOWAS, together with Mali and Niger. Ghana (0.45) is the best performer, scoring 41 percent higher than Liberia, followed by Togo (0.43), The Gambia (0.42), Senegal (0.42), and Benin (0.40), the Bank added. 

This reality however, did not stop Senators from reenacting the bill, which maintains its previously favorable benefits in its entirety. 

According to the bill, the Speaker, Pro-Tempore, and Deputy Speaker are entitled to receive 50% of their last salary as an annuity upon honorable retirement, “paid in equal monthly installments.” 

They are also entitled to state security protection and other services around the clock, as well as personal staff. In the event of their death, their spouses or children would receive benefits.

The bill also provides for Senators and Representatives to receive the same annuity as the Speaker “upon retirement” but  Representatives would not be given any personal staff and other benefits. 

Senators however are entitled to personal staff, police, and other services around the clock. Similarly, retired Presidents, Vice Presidents, Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, Associate Chief Justices, and Judges of the Circuit and Specialized Courts are entitled to the same annuity and state security protection, personal staff, and other services around the clock. 

According to the bill, Associate Chief Justices, Judges of the Circuit, and Specialized Courts are not entitled to police, personal staff, and other services around the clock.

The proposed bill has been sent to the House of Representatives for concurrence, but it is unclear whether they will approve the so-called pension reform law.

Meanwhile, Senators who voted in favor of the bill include Saah Joseph of Montserrado County, Steve Zargo of Lofa County, Jim Tornalah of Margibi County, Francis Paye of RiverCess County, Emmanuel Nuquay of Margibi County, and Joseph Jallah of Lofa County. 

Milton Teahjay of Sinoe County, Augustine Chea of Sinoe County, Glebo Brown of Maryland County, Varney Sherman of Grand Cape Mount County, Numene Bartekwa of Grand Kru County, Simeon Taylor of Grand Cape Mount County, and Marshall Dennis of Grand Gedeh County also voted in favor.

Senators who voted against the bill were Darius Dillon of Montserrado County, Nyonblee Lawrence of Grand Bassa County, and Jonathan Boychie Sogbie of River Gee County.

Those who abstained were James Biney of Maryland County, Dr. Henrique Tokpah of Bong County, Commany Wesseh of River Gee County, and Botoe Kanneh of Gbarpolu County. Meanwhile, Senators Jonathan Kaipay of Grand Bassa County, Edwin Snowe of Bomi County, and Jeremiah Koung of Nimba County were absent from the session when the decision was made to pass the bill.

Other absentees include Prince Johnson of Nimba County, Zoe Emmanuel Pennue of Grand Gedeh County, Prince Moye of Bong County, Morris Saytumah of Bomi County, Wellington Geevon Smith of RiverCess County, and Daniel Naatehn of Gbarpolu County.