5th March, 2013
Despite the sack of Abdulrasheed Maina-led Pension Reform Task Team, the mess and corruption associated with the administration of pension threaten to return in full force
The past few weeks must have been particularly bruising period for Abdulrasheed Maina, Chairman, Pension Reform Task Team, PRTT, who is alleged by the Nigerian Senate to have mismanaged over N195 billion pension funds. Deserted by the Presidency, his major backbone in the accusation and counter-accusation brawl he has had with the lawmakers for many months, and declared wanted by the police, Maina is now on the run. Speculations on where he may be hiding his head range from countries in Asia to Latin America, though some are ready to bet that he is still in the country.
What is certain is that, apart from the police warrant of arrest waiting for him whenever he comes out of hiding, there will also not be the privileged office of PRTT Chairman for him to return to. Early last week, Alhaji Isa Bello Sali, the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, ordered the dissolution of PRTT. Mr. Tope Ajakaye, Deputy Director, Information and Public Relations Officer, HoS, said in a statement that the Task Force had already been dissolved following Presidential directive and that all members of staff in the agency should report back to their respective ministries, departments and agencies, MDAs.
The dissolution of PRTT, it was learnt, was meant to be the final, back-breaking punishment of Maina for absence from duty without lawful excuse. President Goodluck Jonathan had on 15 February directed the Head of Service to punish Maina according to Section 030402 of the Federal Government’s Public Service Rules which lists absence from duty without leave as an act of serious misconduct punishable by dismissal. “In his directive to the Head of Service, Alhaji Isa Sali, President Jonathan noted that the Inspector-General’s report clearly indicated that Alhaji Maina had absconded from his official duties,” presidential spokesperson, Reuben Abati, said in a statement.
The directive to punish Maina is the climax of months of muscle flexing between the Senate, especially the The The Senator Alyosius Etuk-led ad hoc committee, which spent over four months investigating the alleged mismanagement of N469 billion pension funds on one hand and the Maina-led PRTT on the other, had in the course of its assignment invited Maina, whose task force was saddled with the task of re-organising pension in the office of the Head of Service, to appear before it.
The Committee said it invited Maina to defend himself over various allegations of misuse of public funds that came against him in the course of its sittings. But Maina, it said, serially ignored its invitations, even when he was accused of diverting over N195 billion as the head of the pension office of Customs, Immigrations and Prisons. Frustrated by the repeated lack of respect for the Committee, the members had reported back to Senate President David Mark, who personally issued a warrant directing the Inspector-General of Police to arrest Maina late last year. But even the police refused to act on the warrant.
On his part, Maina had accused the Committee of working for some cabal his Task Force displaced when it was saddled with the task of re-organising the pension system by Steve Oronsaye, former Head of Service. He also accused members of the Senate Committee of demanding N3 billion gratification from him and that he was not sure of getting a fair hearing before the panel. But senators said Maina treated the Committee with such disdain because he enjoyed the support of the President and this was evident on 13 February when the lawmakers discussed the issue during their plenary. “We’ve been pushed to the wall. It doesn’t matter who is behind Maina. The executive has to choose between Maina and the Senate and if they choose Maina, we have to react appropriately. This is a test case. If Maina remains, the Senate would react. Nobody in this country is bigger than our democracy. We’ve been extremely patient with Maina, and he has crucified himself. We have teeth to bite and when we bite, there will be no room for anybody to escape,” Senator Mark said while rounding off a discussion on a motion on the issue titled, “Dismissal of Mr. Abdulrasheed Maina for Refusal to Appear Before the Senate”, sponsored by Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba.
Senator Etuk said Maina was discovered to have spent N1bn screening 29 pensioners, another N8 million on a weekly basis on 38 security officers guarding him, and was also found to have forged his transfer letter from Borno State even as all the lawmakers passionately condemned the PRTT boss in their contributions. The Senate also ordered the Inspector-General of Police to ensure that Maina is arrested or risk sanction from the legislative chamber.
The Presidency had initially dismissed the directive to sack Maina from the Senate, arguing that as a civil servant, only the Head of Service can relieve the PRTT boss of his job if he is found to have contravened the terms of his employment in any way. It was however learnt that, afraid of confrontation with the lawmakers, the Presidency later found a way out, with the directive to the Head of Service to sanction Maina for abscondment from duty. Sources told this magazine that true to the allegations of the Senate, the Presidency was indeed in support of Maina and once tipped him for appointment as Special Adviser to the President on Pension. This, it was gathered, was out of the belief that the PRTT boss had done a lot in cleaning up the rot in the Nigerian pension system since his appointment. Before he was appointed the Chairman of the Pension Task Force, Maina was a Director of Customs, Immigration, Prison Pension Office, CIPPO. At CIPPO, Maina was alleged to have been successful in cleaning up the jumbled pension administration, putting in place a biometric system that put an end to the need for endless verification and an automated system that ensures that accounts of retirees from the three services are automatically credited with their pension payments at the 25th of every month.
This, it was learnt, was why in 2010, Orosanye invited Maina to head a task force with the original mandate of tackling different problems associated with the administration of the federal pension system. PRTT was saddled with the task of solving the problems of non-payment of gratuities and death benefits to eligible beneficiaries, non-enrolment of eligible pensioners into the payroll, irregular payment of pension, non-payment, omissions and short payments in monthly pension and harmonisation of pension as provided in section 173(3) of the 1999 Constitution. The Committee has as members, representatives of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC; State Security Service, SSS; Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission, ICPC; Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation and Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation.
The Task Force went to work and in the process, uncovered various fraudulent dealings in the pension system as Maina told the Senate Committee during one of the few times he appeared before it. These include, placement of thousands of ghost pensioners on the payroll, which removal by his Committee, he said, resulted in savings of N1.3 billion in monthly payments to the Federal Government. He also alleged that officials of the Head of Service Pension Office had been discovered to be working in cahoots with the leadership of Nigeria Union of Pensioners, NUP, in devising various ingenious ways of creaming billions of naira monthly from the pension funds. The shady activities of Sani Teidi Shuaibu, former director, Pension unit, office of Head of Service of the Federation, HOSF, Phina Ukamaka Chidi; his former deputy, and 30 others who are battling charges of conspiracy, fraud and corruption before the Federal High Court, Abuja, were said to have been discovered by the Maina Task Force.
Already, EFCC has confiscated the sum of N12 billion found in two accounts which belonged to Shuaibu in two different banks and assets worth several billions of naira, including a hotel in Abuja and petrol stations in Lokoja, capital of Kogi State. Also recovered was over $2 million and another N560 million in Chidi’s company’s accounts.
Encouraged by Maina’s success, the immediate past HOCSF, Oladapo Afolabi, in June 2011 asked the task team to also examine the administration of the Police Pension Office, PPO. The assignment was to last from 9 June to 9 September, 2011. Maina said his Task team combing of the Police Pension system also resulted in the discovery of multibillion naira fraud and arrest of different officials of the office over the fraud allegations to the tune of over N20 billion.
This led to the arrest of Abubakar Kigo, former director, PPO, now on suspension; Esias Dangaba, a retired director, PPO; Ahmed Wada, former director, PPO, Abdullahi Umar, former deputy director, Ministry of Works, and John Yusuf who recently pleaded guilty and was convicted for corrupt enrichment to the tune of N22 billion. Officials of Police Pensions Office, in a memo signed and submitted on their behalf by Toyin Ishola, a Chief Superintendent of Police, to the Senator Etuk Committee early last year, accused Maina of exceeding his mandate by engaging in frivolous and extravagant expenditure, disruption of the Police Pension system with removal of names of genuine pensioners from the payroll and similar allegations. Ishola also appeared before the Committee and alleged that Maina spent the sum of N240 million for the conduct of biometric exercise on 20 retirees in the Diaspora and another N220 million for a similar exercise locally.
The list of those who were supposed to have gone on the trip for the verification included Afolabi, Ibrahim Lamorde, the chairman of EFCC and his predecessor, Farida Waziri. Also on the list for the foreign trip, on which over N240 million was to be paid out as estacodes, was Hafiz Ringim, the former Inspector-General of Police. However, the three top government officials denied being part of any planned trip. They also denied receiving money to go on the journey. But Lamorde agreed that some EFCC officials were sent to Atlanta for the biometric verification. Ishola, an Assistant Chief Accountant in the Police Pension Office, alleged that the Task Force, in the course of its assignment distorted the existing Police Pension Account by transferring the sum of N21 billion into three different accounts: N8 billion in Fidelity Bank; N3 billion in UBA and N10 billion in FirstBank.
But Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Minister of Finance, during her appearance at one of the Etuk Committee sittings confirmed the existence of the shady accounts with billions of naira deposits, which she said her office had now taken over after it was informed by the Task Force. Consequently, the Minister said, she directed the freezing of the accounts in September 2011 with a directive to the chief executives of the banks not to pay out any money without appropriate authorisation. Okonjo-Iweala also confirmed that through the various biometric screening conducted between June 2010 and 2012, the Maina Task Force was able to save N74 billion that would have been embezzled through the fraudulent activities of those in charge of paying out pensions.
The Minister added that investigations by KPMG, an audit firm, also confirmed that different accounts were being opened for the purpose of moving funds around by different management boards of the Police Pension Office: “It was discovered that every new management opened new accounts in banks and moved funds around. They confirmed that there was a struggle among the Head of Service, the Task Team and the Police Pensions for control over these accounts.”
Maina was not present when the allegation that his Committee took over the Police Pension accounts was made, but he later circulated documents indicating how his team discovered two major accounts in Lagos in which N21 billion and N24 billion belonging to the Police Pension were lodged. He added that his team further discovered that on a daily basis, various sums of money ranging from N200 million to N300 million was being withdrawn from the two accounts and that was why he quickly applied to the Accountant-General of the Federation for the transfer of the accounts to Abuja.
Maina said no transaction took place in the account before the approval by the Accountant-General. He also said the sum of N260 million he used in two months to verify 20 pensioners included foreign trip allowances of 85 officials engaged for the exercise. At the end of the allegations and counter-allegations, the Senate Committee had asked Maina to submit documents to back up his various claims. The Committee later invited Maina to shed light on the N195 billion alleged to be missing from the accounts of CIPPO Pension office when he was in charge there. He also ignored the invitations.
There was drama at the last day of the sitting of the Committee early in the year, when two sets of protesters – one in favour of Maina and the other calling for his arrest and prosecution – stormed the National Assembly. Maina later appeared to address the group bearing placards supporting his refusal to honour the Senate Committee invitation. He also later claimed it was the protesters that prevented him from going inside the National Assembly to appear before the Committee, which by then had waited for him for over four hours. Maina had based his actions on allegations that the Senate Committee members had made up their minds to crucify him, even as he alleged that they were working to restore the corrupt cabal his Task Force has displaced from the system and who are currently being tried for corruption by EFCC.
The Senate President said he had indeed received petitions from Maina in which he alleged that members of the Committee demanded for a N3 billion bribe from him and it was on this basis that he asked the Deputy Senate Leader and the Chief Whip to join the Committee on the day Maina was scheduled to appear before it. “I gave him ample time to clear himself and to carry his accusation to a logical conclusion but each time he was to appear before the committee, he would address a press conference and on every occasion, I pointed it out to the two chairmen and of course the committee denied that they ever asked Maina for anything,” said Mark. In his reaction, the embattled Maina accused the Senate pension probe committee, headed by Aloysius Etuk, and his deputy, Kabir Gaya, of “raising spurious” allegations against the PRTT simply because they “bitterly hate the Pension Task Team with an intense emotion”.
Hassan Salihu, spokesperson for PRTT, also said there are no facts to support the allegation of misappropriation of about N195 billion against Maina. He added that the National Assembly had never appropriated money to the Pension Task Team and so it was not possible for the team to have mis-appropriated what had not been appropriated. “All financial or material engagements of the Task Team are subject of approvals from the Head of Civil Service of the Federation. There is no period when the Chairman of the Pension Task Team who is an ordinary ‘Assistant Director’ became the Head of Civil Service of the Federation,” he asserted.
Beyond the statements, Maina approached the court to stop his arrest by the police on the strength of the warrant issued by the Senate President, but his request was turned down. It was however gathered that the Presidency supported Maina because they believed he has done a good job in cleaning up the Pension system. A source told this magazine last week that, but for the problems he is having with the National Assembly, Maina had been slated for an appointment that will put him in the driving seat of reform of the public pension system in the country.
Even then, the rot in the Nigerian public pension system remains. Already there are claims by different groups that pension payment has become irregular in the past three months that the office of the Head of Service took over the payment.
For one, the Association of Federal Public Service Retirees, AFPSR, recently accused the HoSF of re-introducing a regime of mismanagement of pension funds. In a statement signed by it National Chairman, Chief Emmanuel Omoyeni, the pensioners lamented the non-payment of their November and December pensions, a development they attributed to the take-over of the responsibilities of PRTT by the office of the HoSF. Omoyeni added that since the office of HoSF took charge of the payment of monthly pension to retirees of the Federal Government, at least 98 per cent of the members of his association have been grossly underpaid or totally unpaid: “All of us were denied our salaries in November and December, 2012. We celebrated the Christmas and New Year in hunger. Many of us can’t eat well or pay for our medications again.”
PRTT said it had achieved 70 per cent completion of restructuring of the Head of Service Pension Office and was expecting the release of funds for the completion of the remaining critical areas such as the production of the e-smart cards that will save the government over N2.5bn every quarter; installation of card readers in each Senatorial District in the six geo-political zones for pensioner revalidation and update of data; the final clean-up and articulation of the data of pensioners among others before the intervention of the office of HoS. “The Head of Service Pension Office desperately hijacked the preparation of monthly pension payment without the knowledge of the Pension Task Team or recourse to its authentic biometric database. This singular act shows that the Pension Task Team does not approve and has no control over their finances, contrary to what Nigerians are made to believe.” The HoS’ office however denied underpaying any pensioner on its pay-roll.
Speaking on behalf of the office, Ajakaye said all pensioners were fully paid their pension for November and December 2012 and advised those with genuine complaints to forward them to the Pensions Office in the OHCSF or the state councils of the Nigeria Union of Pensioners.
What is however clear is that administration of pension in Nigeria remains a corrupt, messy affair.