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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Reps and “Missing” N24 Billion Pension Funds: Pension Reforms Bill as a Panacea – By Malam Yusuf Lamai



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I am sure most Nigerians were not shocked following the familiar news of an alleged missing N24 Billion Police Pension fund. After all, it is the same Police Pension Office where the Senate indicted Abdulrasheed Maina of mismanaging N273.9 billion; where Atiku Kigo is standing trial for pension looting; and where a former Director, Mr. John Yakubu pleaded guilty to stealing a whooping N32.8 billion.
However, the stealing in the old or Defined Pension Scheme is not restricted to the Police Pension Office. Only recently, the Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, Mr. Ekpo Nta, told a baffled House of Representatives Committee on Anti-Corruption, National Ethics and Values, how his Commission arrested a junior officer in one of our Pension Departments (not PENCOM as erroneously reported earlier) who held multi-million naira-stashed 50 bank accounts with different names and signatures.
Meanwhile, it is a bit healthy for our hearts that the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela is the one denying the alleged missing of the N24 billion. I pray the civil servants are supplying her the authentic documents.
Expectedly, the House of Representatives is back to the usual circus of probes to “get to the root of the matter”. Sadly, apart from the doubts of the public as to the real intent behind the too many probes by the National Assembly (NASS), there is an inherent limitation in the same Section 88 of the 1999 Constitution, which empowers NASS to investigate.
The Section provides: “Each House of the National Assembly shall have power… to direct or cause to be directed investigation into – (a) any matter or thing with respect to which it has power to make laws, and (b) the conduct of affairs of any person, authority, ministry or government department charged, or intended to be charged, with the duty of or responsibility for – (i) executing or administering laws enacted by National Assembly, and (ii) disbursing or administering moneys appropriated or to be appropriated by the National Assembly.”
However, Subsection 2 (b) permits investigation by NASS only to “expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of laws within its legislative competence and in the disbursement or administration of funds appropriated by it”. The question then is: after the invitations, probes and expositions, what next and to what effect?
A conspiracy of ineptitude, lack of political will, and slow pace and corruption of justice ensures that relevant government institutions hardly follow through with the findings and recommendations of such parliamentary inquisitions. Thus, indicted those indicted have the effrontery to lampoon the parliament and buy the courts to quash such indictments. Abdulrasheed Maina who was supposed to be a wanted man even stormed NASS with hordes of police guards sometime ago.
Yet, while NASS may lack the powers to punish, it can end the pension looting and reposition pension system if it so desires. Section 8 Subsection 2 of the Constitution provides: “The powers conferred on the National Assembly under the provisions of this section are exercisable only for the purpose of enabling it to – (a) make laws with respect to any matter within its legislative competence and correct any defects in existing laws”.
It is sad and ironical that while the NASS actually opened the eyes of the country to the looting of pension funds, it has failed to treat the Pension Reform (Amendment) Bill 2013 with the expected sense of urgency. Instead, devious interests within and outside the NASS have politicised and held the bill down, thus making it possible for the stealing to continue.
For instance, the Bill provides for the creation of new offences and provisions for stiffer penalties that will serve as deterrence against the mismanagement or diversion of pension funds and assets under any guise or the infractions on pension law. It seeks to review the sanctions regime to reflect current realities.
It not only carters for the proper establishment of the Pension Transition Arrangement Departments (PTADs) to take over the transmittal of benefits to pensioners under the Defined Benefits Scheme (those who retired before the Contributory Pension Scheme came into force in 2004). With the PTADs fully in force, this category of pensioners would now receive their pensions directly rather than through third parties or looting centres called the Pension Department/Offices. This arrangement will effectively nail the coffin of impunity and looting, while enhancing the regulatory authority and efficiency of PENCOM to reposition and provide greater oversight on the PTADs.
The Bill also seeks to reduce the waiting period for accessing benefits in the event of loss of job from six months to four months.
It emphasizes competence in the qualification for appointment as the Director-General of PENCOM as is the case with the CBN, FIRS, NDIC, among others rather than the current 20 years cognate experience, which is both fraudulent and out of sync with local and global best practices in financial regulatory institutions. This particular proposition and the whole amendments are very popular among pension stakeholders like the NLC, TUC, NANS, National Union of Pensioners, the Association of University Pensioners, and Nigerians in general, except the pension thieves and their beneficiaries who also have their foot soldiers within the National Assembly that help them to pin the Bill down.
So, the House of Representatives, if they are truly serious and courageous, should spend less time on probing alleged stolen monies that are hardly ever recovered and the thieves hardly get commensurately punished and spare some time to pass the Pension Reforms (Amendment) Bill to stop the looting entirely. The old Arabian proverb says: “Strike the shepherd and the flocks will scatter”. We don’t need to spend time treating symptoms of our observed sickness in the pension system when indeed we can cure thecause of the illness itself.
Malam Yusuf Lamai, a pensioner writes from Maraba, Nassarawa State

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