The Hub

November 2, 2016

Why thieves pick on Pension funds

By Josef Omorotionmwan

IS it still necessary to remind ourselves that in government, what people intend is usually different from what they bring about? In trying to evaluate governmental action, we ought to consider likely, even if unintended, consequences.

One fundamental promise of our national anthem is that “the labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain”. In this connection, two inter-related measures were put in place to ensure that the worker does not suffer undue hardships when he grows old – a pension scheme for the retired worker; and the Pension Transition Arrangement Directorate, PTAD, with the latter established as an independent agency that oversees the smooth management of the former.

The noble intentions here notwithstanding, budgetary allocations for their execution have constantly been plundered and vandalised. Yet, nothing happens to the plunderers and vandals, while the old people for whom the monies were originally intended die daily like poisoned rats. Two theories are gradually emerging as to why pension funds thieves are treated with kid-gloves; and why pension funds are the easiest to steal: first, the employer in Nigeria understands only one language – the threat of strikes and withdrawal of services! He has no regard for the pensioner who is already too old and too feeble to go on any strike; and who has no service to withdraw, anyway.

Secondly, there is the wide-spread belief that these big time thieves may not be the real owners of the money they steal. They could as well be mere commission agents or fronts for the big principal who in turn ensures that the agent remains tightly protected.

When the watch-dog becomes that one that must be watched, then, there is danger. The Director-General of PTAD, Nelly Mayshak, quickly understood the language of fraud – if you must do it, do it big! She carted away about N2 billion that was left in the pension accounts of the Head of the Federal Civil Service, Nigeria Customs Service  and the Nigeria Prison Service.

Without wasting time, Mayshak allegedly embezzled the N500 million meant to be a take-off grant for PTAD. She then proceeded to pay herself N50 million monthly in salary and allowances. This was not before she allegedly awarded several phony contracts to her cronies through which she enriched herself as these were mere fronts for her.

Around February 2016, she was suspended from office and in April, she was arrested by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. We are told that investigation is ongoing; but we also know that this is the normal route through which such cases travel into “the voice mail”. It happens all the time.

Stealing of pension funds is so pervasive that when John Yakubu Yusuf, an Assistant Director in the Federal Civil Service, proudly announced that after all he “stole only N23 billion”, he knew what he was talking about.

Today, Yusuf walks our streets in full freedom. For stealing N23 billion, he was sentenced to two years prison term with an option of a fine of N75,000, (representing 0.003% of his loot), which fine he paid instantly and became a free man, retaining his loots. The agent/principal relationship came into full focus in the executive/legislative handling of the Abdulrasheed Abdulahi Maina Affair in the President Goodluck Jonathan years. Maina was Acting Director of Customs, Immigration and Prisons Office. The National Assembly smelt a rat that all was not well with close to N200 billion in the man’s care.

At first, the matter was before the Senate Joint Committee on Public Service & Establishment and State and Local Government Administration. Efforts to get Maina to appear before the Committee were rebuffed to the point where the Senate issued a warrant of arrest on him. At a point, it became clear to the Senate that the Inspector General of Police at the time, Mohammed Abubakar, was foot-dragging on the execution of the warrant.

At the peak of it all, when Maina was being expected in the Senate Chamber, a rented crowd was instead, chanting war songs at the entrance of the National Assembly, demanding what right the Senate had to invite Maina. The Senate bared its fangs over what it saw as undue shielding of the embattled Maina, resulting in his pouring invectives on the National Assembly.

By a unanimous Resolution of the Senate with the concurrence of the House of Representatives, the National Assembly asked the President to dismiss Maina from public service and that he should be immediately arrested, investigated and prosecuted for the alleged multi-billion Naira fraud in the pension office. Nothing happened to Maina.

The Principal/Agent arrangement was perfectly at work. Why else would the executive dilly-dally on the issue until Maina finally vamoosed from the country? And why else would an Acting Director who had been declared wanted by the Senate still be moving around with a myriad of police guards? We hear Maina has since returned to Nigeria but apparently, his loot has expired and nobody is asking any question any more. Meanwhile, the rightful owners of the monies are dying without their entitlements being paid to them.

Ironically, today’s worker is tomorrow’s pensioner. We insist that Labour leaders must not sit aloof and watch these organised thieves toy with their future. Two things must happen: Proverbially, God drives flies for the cow that has no tail. This proverbial cow has no tail at all. And we are not about to allow the flies to suffer it to death. As the retiree is too old to go on strike, today’s worker – if only as a way of protecting his own future – must go on strike each time the retiree’s pension back-log is unpaid.

Secondly, our laws must be made to reflect the gravity of the crime of stealing pension money. The pensioners are people who, in their hay days, served this nation with their blood and sweat. The crime of stealing the money meant to support them at old age must be viewed as the moral equivalent of murder and commensurately treated as such.