ColumnsSteve Nwosu

Buhari, Atiku and the Pension ‘thieves’, By Steve Nwosu

Franktalk

I’m deliberately taking a break from partisan politics today. For I don’t need anybody to tell me that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is troubled by the emergence of Atiku Abubakar as the presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Atiku is one of the three or so presidential aspirants APC was hoping would not get the ticket. The other was Sule Lamido. And to ensure that this never happened, the ruling party even went into some unholy alliances with some prominent PDP leaders to ensure the emergence of a candidate who would make the 2019 presidential election a walkover for President Muhammadu Buhari.

I know APC leaders will deny all these, but the party hit the panic button as soon as reality dawned on them from Port Harcourt. They resorted to the old, tired lines of dollarized money politics – as if APC plays its own politics with cowries.

Suddenly, the story that Atiku can’t visit the US returned. Suddenly, they begin to push the story that Atiku is desperate to be president. I then compare this to PMB’s three failed attempts. I also consider the fact that Atiku has a document compendium of programme he would pursue as president, and has not shied away from debating and interrogating them. So, whose more desperate? The person who just wanted to answer civilian president without a clear-cut development programme or the man who wants to be president and has actually prepared himself for the job.

Well, the die is cast and there is a clear promise of a battle royale, irrespective of whether or not someone wants to hoodwink us into believing that they already have 15 million votes in the bag.

Atiku is rich. I don’t think he owes anybody any apologies for being rich, especially when we can point to his sources of income – unlike several other billionaires on both sides of the political divide.

Rather than trying to make Atiku look bad for being rich, this federal government should beam its anti-graft searchlight on its billionaire civil/public service appointees who are feeding fat on the system, especially those currently preying on the pension administration system.

I first got a first-hand experience of the suffering and trauma pensioners go through in Nigeria sometime in the mid ‘90s. It was at the Ebute-Meta, Lagos, headquarters of the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC), where, as a fresh reporter, I had gone to cover a planned protest of some of the corporation’s retirees who were yet to receive either their pension or gratuity-or both.

Some came on crutches, others were doubly bent over and supported by all manner of walking sticks. Several others came in wheelchairs, while yet others were carried to the venue by younger family members, and laid out on raggedly mats and paper cartons. Others limped and wobbled in the aftermath of stroke and other debilitating diseases, made worse by abandonment and lack of money to get proper medical care.

When I couldn’t stand the thick stench of penury and disease on the grounds, I scampered to the balcony, from where their leaders and, hopefully, some senior NRC officials were to address them.

But from that vantage position, I looked down to be confronted with another pitiful sight: all I could see was a sea of grey heads – greyed more by hunger and suffering than by age.

At the end of the day, another round of promises was made. And the retirees, too feeble to raise a voice, let alone, protest, limped out of the premises, one after the other. They would return in another month or two to the same ritual, as they continued to die one after the other. Broken. Frustrated.

Since that experience, I’ve always reserved the worst of curses for all those who play fraudulent pranks with people’s pension, gratuity or whatever called.

I also believe the hottest part of hell is reserved for them and their ilk who, at the expense of the country, approve and pay themselves all manner of abominable salaries, severance allowances and terminal benefits.

I know everyone’s mind would automatically swing in the direction of our National Assembly members and the governors. But you know what, those ones (even if they were former Akwa Ibom Governor’s) are ‘saints’ compared to the often overlooked tin gods in our government parastatals.

That was why, despite the fact that I admired a certain Mounir Gwarzo from a distance, I still wanted the law to squeeze every pip out of him when, last June, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, arraigned the suspended Director-General (DG) of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on three charges of alleged fraud.

Also arraigned was SEC’s Executive Commissioner, Corporate Services, Zakwanu Garuba, for allegedly conniving with Gwarzo to commit the fraud.

Gwarzo’s alleged offence was, among others, that while being the Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, (he) received the sum of N104, 851, 154.94 as severance benefits when he had yet to retire, resign or disengage from the service of SEC.

Gwarzo, however, pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

But that did not stop the supervising Minister from suspending him, nor administrative panel from finding him guilty and recommending his sack.

Speaking before the House of Representatives Committee on Capital Market and Institutions at the National Assembly then, the suspended SEC DG had admitted receiving the N104m severance benefit, defending the payment as his due, having served as a Commissioner for over two years before his appointment as the DG. He held that his DG position was a totally different and new appointment. It didn’t seem to matter to him that he had to literally do the approval himself, since the governing board that was to approve the payment was not in place at the time it was made.

A short while before the SEC scandal blew open, the Executive Secretary of the Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD), Ms. Nellie Mayshak, was placed on indefinite suspension for, among others, allegedly placing herself on a N50 million monthly salary and allegedly misappropriating the N500 million take-off grant for PTAD.

Luckily, the EFCC has yet to prove its case against Mayshak.

Of course, I will not go into the case of Abdulrashid Maina, the police pension, and others.

While these remain in the realms of allegations until the accused are pronounced guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction, government’s swift actions on them, especially the institution of high-power panels of investigation, as well as the order of the anti-graft agencies to investigate the alleged infractions, portrayed a government serious about the war against corruption. Likewise, the Federal Government’s immediate removal/suspension of the heads of the affected agencies to facilitate unimpeded and unadulterated investigation were welcomed by Nigerians as government’s walking the talk on the anti-corruption war.

Such steps were also supposed to serve as a deterrent to other heads of government agencies.

Unfortunately, when Nigerians thought that they had heard the last of such corruption, fraud, impropriety, and financial recklessness, came a screaming front page story, “Hike in Severance Allowance Sparks Controversy in PENCOM” in the Sun Newspaper of 4th June 2018. According to the story, the Acting DG, Mrs. Aisha Dahir-Umar, not only hiked the terminal benefits of herself (as a substantive GM acting as a DG) and other GMs and senior staff by a whopping 300 per cent, but had, in fact, started paying same to herself and the rest while still in service.

The story also revealed that Mrs. Dahir-Umar illegally increased the number of General Managers, who are equivalents of Directors in the civil service, from 10 to a hollering 17.

But it would seem the revelations are coming too close to electioneering campaigns. May PMB’s APC government does not want to score another own-goal at this injury time. Just maybe.

So, while many Nigerians, who were used to the strict corporate governance and industry regulation by PENCOM did not believe that such alleged rip-off was possible under the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, expected a swift denial from PENCOM, mum has been the agency’s word over the serious matter. Not even the media outcry, including an editorial by Vanguard Newspaper (in its July 13, 2018 edition) lambasting and denouncing the development has moved the Acting DG to deny the actions.

For the avoidance of doubt, Section 25 (2) (b) of the Pension Reform Act (PRA) 2014 vests in PENCOM Board the power to “fix the remuneration, allowances and benefits of the employees of the Commission”.

In other words, not even substantive DG of PENCOM can attempt what has happened with these curious approvals, even as there appeared to have been a questionable urgency to start paying the humongous severance/terminal benefits even while the beneficiaries are still in service. Terminal/severance benefits, as the name implies and is the practice in public service, is something you get at the end or tail end of your service.

I suspect Madam Aisha has unwittingly played into the hands of the pension mafia who may have cleverly convinced (or confused) her into approving an illegality. But then, the law is an ass: it does not pardon ignorance.

Ironically, while the PENCOM chiefs are busy increasing and paying themselves severance packages even while still in service, reports have it that they would not allow some young newly employed recruits under the last leadership of PENCOM to resume. The new leadership suspended their assumption of duty upon receiving the handover note from the former EXCO in April 2017.

One particularly bad case was that of a recruit who allegedly died from frustration, after resigning his former employment 15 months ago, in the hope of resuming at PENCOM.

For me, rather than this present hitting of the panic button over the emergence of Atiku as PDP presidential flag bearer, the best campaign PMB can do for himself is to clean the government’s Augean stable. Cut the overemphasis on witch-hunting perceived political opponents, and attack the cankerworm eating away at the moral fabric of the government from within the government. Don’t make certain corrupt heads of government agencies and parastatals look untouchable.

And if there are agencies that cannot statutorily function satisfactorily without their boards, let’s not create sole administrators. Let’s send the names of the appointed new management, like in the case of PENCOM, to the Senate for confirmation. The searchlight would then shift to the lawmakers if they fail to do the needful.

That, to me, would make a lot more sense than this meaningless desperation to impeach Saraki and Dogara, as well as the deliberate misrepresentation of the issues around the INEC budget. For surely, there are ominous signs emanating from the pension offices.

 

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