16th February, 2012
The inappropriate act is criminal. Even the active and vigilant personnel, the existing but ever struggling ones as well as the truly dead former staff of government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and some private establishments are often fleeced of their accrued and deserved retirement savings and benefits in billions of naira, years after active service, or when long gone from the planet earth.
Although a pension is meant to be an arrangement to provide people with an income when they are no longer earning a regular revenue from employment, the increasingly depraved, greedy attitude and inordinate ambition to acquire wealth by hook or crooked means by many top officials in both public and private sectors of the nation’s economy are fast becoming more worrisome than ever before.
Besides making nonsense of their lofty objectives in respect of the concerned pensioners, this grave societal malaise which is pension plan scam or fraud is a cankerworm that has eaten deep into the nation’s social fabric, thereby attracting Nigeria a rotten image in the comity of treasured nations in recent times.
However, what is a pension plan and what is the essence of having one in any establishment, be it public or private? According to Investopedia, an online lexicon, a pension plan is defined as “a type of retirement plan, usually tax exempt, wherein an employer makes contributions toward a pool of funds set aside for an employee’s future benefit. The pool of funds is then invested on the employee’s behalf, allowing the employee to receive benefits upon retirement.”
Put differently, a pension plan is a method in which an employee transfers part of his or her current income stream toward retirement income. Regrettably, instead of pursuing the fundamental goal of this ordinarily promising plan to ensure a retiree’s stress-free financial future, it is currently being defeated in the nation’s system. This observation is made against the backdrop of the questionable manner in which some pension authorities and accredited managers have allegedly misappropriated such dedicated funds running into billions of naira.
Besides the reported cases of misrepresentation of genuine pensioners with ghost pensioners, including the latest allegation by the defunct Nigeria Airways’ retirees in their petition, titled: “Re: Unlawful Removal Of Our Clients’ Names From The List Of Nigeria Airways And Fraudulent Diversion Of Their Pension And Other Benefits To Payment Of Ghost Retirees”, submitted to Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the disturbing issue of maltreatment being meted out to several genuine pensioners who are predominantly senior citizens, over the payment of their accrued pension as a survival wage is a recurring decimal in the system.
Acting on a similar petition to the anti-corruption agency, the EFCC operatives supposedly, have uncovered over N5 billion fraud in the Pensions Unit of the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (OHCSF) in Abuja, the nation’s Federal Capital Territory in the last one year alone. It is appalling that of the 141,970 pensioners on the payroll of the Federal Government, less than 90,000 were verified as genuine and over 34,000 were just spirit beings, following an investigation.
Of the cash involved in the fresh pension scam, the EFCC in conjunction with Pension Verification Committee, purportedly discovered N500 million and $2 million in the account of certain Mrs. Phiana U. Chidi, a Deputy Director (Finance and Accounts), and N12 million in the account of 29-year old Grace Francis, who is also a clerk in the office, among others who equally shared in various sums in the pension booty. At least six suspects are reportedly being detained over the pension fraud at the EFCC’s Headquarters in Abuja.
In the course of their spending spree of their wealth from the pension fraud, the EFCC disclosed that so far, it had traced and recovered about N24 billion and N15 billion worth of property from some corrupt government officials in the Pension Department of the OHCSF, while 66 illegal bank accounts with N180 million were also reportedly discovered in the process.
Similarly, current efforts by Alhaji Abdulrasheed Maina-led Pension Reform Task Team, Pension Reform Task Team set up to unravel the N151 billion pension scam discovered in pension offices across the Federation are said to be frustrated through threats to lives of the probe committee members by the affected dubious pension fraud cabal who have been fleecing the country of its commonwealth.
While one would have suggested the sustained adoption of biometric verification of pensioners to ascertain the actual number of deserving pensioners in especially the public sector across the country, nonetheless, Mr.Silas Gizo, a retiree who had worked with the Federal Civil Service, really condemned the mounting rate of pension mismanagement in the system
“This is serious crime; if you try this in some developed countries, you’ll rot in jail. However, the system in the first place gives room for all this nonsense. Imagine a system without any biometric data capture until recently, it was not fool proof…. Even the recent biometric capture can still be faulted. Corruption in the system cuts across all levels of people,” Gizo was quoted to have said.
In view of the damaging consequences of the poor pension administration in the country, in terms of dashing the hope of millions of bona fide pensioners of receiving their “survival payment” as and when due, the Pension Commission (PENCOM) in conjunction with relevant government agencies and accredited private pension managers and administrators must save this scary situation from degenerating into an unmanageable imminent national crisis.
As regards the reported application of effective information and communication technology (ICT) tools by the Edo State Government in fighting a similar financial malfeasance in the state’s civil service in which most ghost workers and pensioners were driven aground and the state revenue profile considerably improved, the Federal Government must take very seriously the automation of its seemingly ineffective salary and emolument payment system through increased investment in ICTs.
Taking this bold step in blocking any identified loopholes in the porous remuneration arrangement at this level of governance can well enhance the Government’s vision of e-governance, which is now global practice in other economies. Pension scam offenders must be duly prosecuted, and if found guilty, should be jailed accordingly.
Probity and accountability in civil and public service ought to be the hallmark of a truly transforming nation as Nigeria. All stakeholders in pension management and administration should realise that the issue of pension is never a trivial one to be handled haphazardly. Pensioners, who principally are already advanced in age, must not be made to suffer and die unduly while expecting their often mismanaged pensions endlessly.
•Kayode, a media and communication professional, writes from Lagos. E-mail: [email protected]