It’s one of the ironies of the times that those getting the worst deal from retirement savings are the most vulnerable, the people that the scheme is supposed to help.
Stories about pensioners dying in long, waiting lines have moved from front pages to obscure spots, yet we’re often confronted with news of incredible stealing by public officials managing pension savings.
After months in hiding, former Chairman of the Presidential Pension Reform Task Force, Abdulrasheed Maina, returned to the crime scene, hoping that we would have moved on from the allegation that he pocketed N2 billion from the fund.
Maina was an Assistant Director Works, Customs, Immigration and Prisons in the Pensions Office when former Head of Service, Stephen Oronsaye, recommended him to former President Goodluck Jonathan for a job.
Highly connected, Maina is the grandson of Mai Ali Dogo, the Emir of Biu (1920-1935) and his late father, Abdullahi Aliyu Biu, was an ambassador to Mali. But these were not qualifications for the pension job, a job that was clearly beyond him.
Asking Maina to head an inter-agency team on pension reform, which comprised senior officials from at least five other agencies – and whose job was to straighten out the pension system – was like inviting a carpenter to perform tooth-extraction.
So, this carpenter came with his chisel and hammer to finish the bloody job that charlatans before him had started.
Maina had no business going near the pension fund and if his appointers had bothered to look, they would have found enough wreckage in his own life to warn them.
As an Assistant Director – the lowest rung in the directorate in the Federal Civil Service – he was heading a small unit, under the supervision of at least two other cadres of Directors.
He was on a salary of between N150,000 and N200,000 monthly; and even if he added every naira from his side hustle the best he would have hoped for was a small apartment in the suburbs of Abuja and a neat tokunbo car.
But that would have been another Maina. Abdulrasheed Maina still managed to live the life, apparently, from the sweat of pensioners pining away from unpaid entitlements.
This Maina, a third league Director, paid $2 million cash to buy a house in Abuja. And it has now come to light that that $2 million property was only one in his collection of houses. As a fugitive, he escaped, not to his village in Biu, but to Dubai – that haven of princes – where he stayed for many months, plotting his triumphant return.
When he assumed office on a 30-month appointment to sort out the perennial pension mess, one of the major contracts awarded was for the emplacement of a biometrics system to cater for the estimated seven million plus registered pensioners, whose savings have been raided over the years in the name of "ghost workers".
Maina actually claimed that he substantially cleaned up the system and exorcised the ghosts. He claimed that his committee recovered over N280 billion for the government, which was handed over to former Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who in turn handed it over to former CBN Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi for the treasury.
He claimed that he blocked loopholes in police pension, which had allowed officers to cream off N1 billion monthly and he actually carries around a hefty cheque stub to prove his claim.
He insists that he is, alas, the innocent victim of vested interests, including politicians, led by former Senate President, David Mark, who waylaid him in the National Assembly, demanding his head on a saucer.
His story hardly passes the smell test, not because it may not contain grains of truth, but because his own lips are shimmering with oil from the spoils. The unnamed persons he is pointing at are not blameless; but while he is pointing one finger at them, four are pointing back at him. It’s a case of who got a bigger share of the pension pie.
I’m surprised that President Muhammadu Buhari’s Special Assistant on Prosecution, Okoi Obono-Obla, an otherwise reasonable man, is talking as if Nigeria owes Maina an apology for the expose by PREMIUM TIMES that led to Maina’s removal this week.
If the government was not ashamed to reappoint a man on the EFCC’s wanted list, pay him salary arrears and move to promote him again, because he has not been convicted of any crime, we may as well ask Diezani Allison-Madueke to return and help tidy up the mess in the NNPC.
This is a shambles too many.
To be sure, pension assets have grown over the years, especially since the Pension Reform Act of 2004, which widened the pension net, expanded the market and established better regulation. Pension assets have also increased by over three fold since 2009 to nearly N7 trillion with over N480 billion invested by fund administrators.
But the gains have been in spite of multiple scandals in public sector pensions, and the growing misery among public sector pensioners at federal and state levels. Virtually all those who were supposed to ease their pain have ripped them off. A labour union president, one Ali Abatcha, even faced a trial over a N2.7 billion pension fraud.
In 2013, a former Director of Pensions Account in the office of the Head of Service was accused of offering a Senate committee chairman at the time N1 billion to look the other way in a pension scandal being investigated by the EFCC.
The investigation followed reports that civil servants had, over the years, creamed off N159 billion from the pension fund.
That was not all. In a ruling that showed that forlorn pensioners were still on a long way to hope, an Abuja court sentenced one of six federal officials accused of making away with N33 billion of police pension fund to two years in prison, with an option of N250,000 fine.
This scandalous ruling was, among other things, also a parable to Maina at the time of his appointment that he, too, could game the system and get away with a light touch. Yet, his restoration through the backdoor was more than he could have bargained for.
He’s been complaining since his removal, threatening to name names and to tell all. That is precisely what we need: to get Maina to tell us the full story about how an assignment to reform pension turned into a personal gold mine.
Buhari’s government of change cannot stop with removing Maina. With comparisons between Buhari and his predecessor, Jonathan, becoming worryingly shrill, failing to follow through quickly on the outcome of the presidential investigation into Maina’s second coming, can only further damage his government’s reputation.
It was, to say the least, shocking that the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, and the Minister for Interior, Abdulraham Dambazau, whose offices should have raised the flag, actually held the system at gunpoint to reinstate Maina, while the Head of Service and custodian of the rules, acted as a willing accomplice.
Coming one week after the face-off between the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu, and the GMD of NNPC, Maikanti Baru, on the ugly state of affairs at the NNPC, the Maina expose is another test of the vital signs of Buhari’s government.
Taking out Maina and letting the kingpins go unpunished will not only embolden others; it will give the dangerous impression that the anti-corruption war is finally on life-support.
And just after the head scratching on the Kachikwu-Baru saga, and lingering questions about Babachir Lawal and the delay in the release of the findings on the $43 million Ikoyi money, Buhari will struggle to convince the public that the heart of his anti-corruption war is still beating.
Speed kills but in the increasingly perilous highway of Buhari’s cabinet, delay kills even faster.
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network