By Ademola Olaniyi
Last month, April 2017, the news was everywhere on how security agencies showed up at the premises of the Pension Commission (PENCOM) headquarters. That this happened a little after the erstwhile Director General of the Commission, Mrs Chinelo Anohu-Amazu, was sacked by President Muhammadu Buhari raised a lot of suspicion of fraud.
The popular guess was that some whistle blowers might have embraced the new trend of exposing sleaze in government.
Nevertheless, as most Nigerians anxiously awaited the names of those involved in the story, they felt slightly disappointed when the Department of State Services (DSS) stated that its operatives did not raid the PENCOM office but were there to guide against a situation where sensitive documents would be tampered with ahead of the resumption of the new management.
For me, this was a good move on information management by the DSS but be that as it may, to most Nigerians, there is rarely smoke without fire as there exist many opinions that the fraud in the Nigerian pension system has not ceased.
If so, then the big question is how long will it take Nigeria to get it right on pension reforms especially in a country where pensioners still conduct regular protests over unpaid pension allowances?
From experience, the fraud in the pension system has been huge embarrassment for the nation. Far more worrying is that when we thought Nigeria was almost reducing corruption in the pension system through what was largely termed a good reform process that focused on almost eradicating sleaze, it was suddenly aborted under very controversial circumstances.
Emphatically, the greatest progress in pension reform happened in 2013 under the former Chairman of the then Pension Reform Task Team (PRTT), Mr Abdulrasheed Maina.
No doubt, at that important moment in Nigeria, Mr Maina demonstrated ability to institutionalize the fight against corruption in the pension system through many innovations and strategies that assisted his team to recover N1.3 billion and delist about 70,000 ghost retirees from only about five pension institutions that were investigated.
The outstanding 97 pension institutions that the PRTT disclosed had multiple trillions of Naira awaiting recovery of stolen funds were not investigated before the Task Team members were forcefully removed.
The story of Mr Abdulrasheed Maina and members of the pension Task Team efforts on fund recovery has been told in diverse versions, some good, some deliberately twisted but what still stands as unchangeable truth is that it was immediately when Mr Maina announced to State House correspondents at Abuja in 2013 that the Pension Task Team had uncovered that up to N3.3 trillion pension fund was stolen by what he described as pension cabal and expressed readiness to soon publish names of the agencies alongside the people involved in the scam that his problems began.
So, if really Mr Maina’s remarks that multi trillions of Naira of stolen pension fund were yet to be recovered, then that means what we might have considered excellent performance by the pension task team in recovering about N1.3 trillion might just have been a scratch on the surface of pension fund theft in Nigeria.
For any objective observer of a corrupt society, the conclusion herein would be that Mr Maina spoke too soon and that could have been why the conspiracy against him became untamable and deafening with accusations of sorts.
So, when the news surfaced that operatives of the security agencies arrived at PENCOM house to halt any move by some persons to remove some documents, what seemed apparent was that there could be a possibility that the pension reform has travelled back to the pre-Abdulrasheed Maina days and that the old dirty fraud schemes which the Pension Task Team tried to confront might have re-merged in the pension system.
After all, the forces that unjustly pulled down Mr Maina and the Pension Task Team through application of falsehoods are yet to be rigorously investigated.
In fact, the strange thing about the Maina led Pension Task Team is that it was disbanded over baseless allegations despite the reality that it was rapidly recovering from private pockets trillions of Naira for the Nigerian government.
Indeed, if the truth be told, the original story of Mr Maina on embezzling N195 billion though now publicly refuted by his major accuser, Senator Kabiru Gaya of the past Senate Assembly was cleverly crafted to ensure that false information gained acceptance and provided reasons for his removal.
The effort of Mr Maina’s enemies to play on gullible Nigerians was considered largely successful with the assistance of a section of the media.
For this set of Nigerians, castigating Mr Maina was a perfect weapon of distraction from fighting corruption. Also, for some persons in government that were enjoying the pension loot directly or indirectly, calling Mr Maina a criminal for recovering stolen fund was a ploy to influence perception against him.
Of course, these ignoble Nigerians succeeded but with Senator Gaya recent disclosure, it has become crystal clear that people that spread the story against Mr Maina then, were not interested in the facts; they were interested in removing Mr Maina because he was fighting against their selfish interests. Sadly, those against the corruption battle in the pension system were very skilled in their acts to the extent that it was not difficult for them to blow out of proportion what was highly a reconcilable difference between the then Senate Committee and the Pension Task Team.
Consequently, Mr Maina and his Task Team received slaps from many quarters. Specifically, the mass media played huge role through various means especially in the use of the press to adversely influence public opinion, thereby creating a dent to the character of Mr Maina, by painting a picture of him as a ‘corrupt man’ who embezzled public funds for his personal advantage.
Even the Nigerian Government which the Maina led Task Team had helped to redefine the complexion of pension reform and recovered money for removed him from office without any reasonable justification aside political pressure.
To make worse a bad situation, those that instigated Maina’s removal seemingly emerged victorious at the end of the day as they would have felt happy and free from probe when their target Maina was relieved of his job. The only gain for Maina was his narrow escape from an assassination attempt.
Beyond the flimsy accusations that almost ruined Maina’s reputation and nearly put him at a disadvantage, the truth is that even though the media dubiously delivered her verdict of sorts on Maina, the decision of the past Nigerian government to remove him was a weak unprogressive decision for corruption fight.
Indeed, with the new facts on the N195 billion fake accusations on Maina, it is very clear that all those that pressurized the government to terminate Maina’s work had contrast interests against the Nation’s fight on corruption.
Otherwise, it would have just taken simple common sense of the then Senate Leadership under David Mark to realize the absurdity of the position advanced by the Etuk led Senate Committee against Maina.
Unfortunately, as at then, nothing else mattered than removing Maina, thus the position of the Senator Etuk led Committee probably provided a perfect platform to make the Senate ignore worthy evidence as provided by the Pension Task Team.
Realistically, Maina’s story is a good example that truth is like a banana peel that will always find its way to the top of the river no matter how suppressed. Thus, it is good to now read from the same section of the Nigerian media that one of the Senators whom acted as the Deputy Chairman of the then Senate Committee which discredited and demonized Maina has affirmed that what the Senate Committee did was not far from engagement in anti-facts or use of half-truths.
If so, then Nigerians and their leadership have a task to decide fairly on whether or not Maina’s led Task Team still has a role to play in the anti-corruption fight on pension reforms. However, what remains obvious is that Nigerian pensioners cannot be suffering from delayed payment of allowances whereas trillions of Naira relating to stolen pensions fund are still in the personal treasury of the pension cabal. The necessity of enhanced action on stolen pension fund recovery by the Buhari administration cannot be overemphasized. Perhaps an investigation into what killed the Maina led Pension Task Team will offer new useful lessons.
Ademola Olaniyi, a retired Civil Servant writes from Abuja