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Pencom crisis: Beyond the youth protest

By Abubakar Gwandu

It is no longer news that some young men and women numbering hundreds stormed the headquarters of the National Pension Commission (PenCom) a few weeks ago to protest what they termed illegal suspension of the employment of some 43 youth, whom they claimed were duly recruited by the Commission. They grieved over Mustapha Ajiya#, said to have died, unable to afford medical care while awaiting the lifting of their assumption of duty.

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The youth and the Acting Director General of PenCom, Mrs. Aisha Dahir-Umar, have been trading words in the public. The Acting DG has argued that she met a 19th  April 2017 letter by the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Federal Character, Hon. Ahmed Idris, directing the Commission to suspend any employments. She has also alleged that the previous PenCom leadership had quickly issued the letters of employment without obtaining the Certificate of Compliance from the Federal Character Commission, FCC. This, she said, resulted in the Federal Character not approving the employments.

However, the youth have virtually torn her arguments apart with some plausible and convincing facts. The group’s spokesperson argued:  “There is nothing like quickly issued appointment letters. Aptitude tests/interviews were conducted in December 2016/January 2017 and the Commission waited till March 2017 after receipt of the Certificate of Compliance before issuing the appointment letters. And if Mrs. Oninyangi indeed issued appointment letters without such approval, why has she not been queried, investigated, and sacked for close to two years now?

The spokesperson of FCC, Mr. Abdullahi Idris, also vindicated the youth when he told a national daily (Daily Trust, 5th September 2018) that “The FCC had no reason to order the cancellation of a legitimate recruitment process; FCC frowns at organisations, who after being duly issued with Certificate of Compliance will turn around to cancel same without genuine reason”.

As further argued by the youth, Aisha’s claim of federal character balancing does not hold water because you can only employ people who applied for jobs, met the criteria, and passed the interviews. And importantly, the statistics of the appointments show geopolitical balance. Federal character balancing in terms of states is addressed over time, not in one fell swoop.

Another plausible argument by the youth is that it was illegal to suspend already concluded employment on the strength of a letter by a House Committee Chairman- assuming there was any such letter.

The purported letter was dated 19th  April 2017, but the recruitment was already concluded and appointment letters issued to successful candidates by March 2017. By then, the Commission and the newly recruited staff had already entered into a legally binding contract, which their employment letters represent. Many of them, like the late Mustapha Ajiya, had also resigned their previous little jobs to take up the PenCom employments on the strength of that contract. And if she is so sure of her facts, why didn’t PenCom write the new recruits, instead of resorting to mere phone calls.

Equally sound is their argument that a letter from the Chairman of a House of Representatives Committee doesn’t represent a resolution of the House, which itself doesn’t even carry the force of law, although weightily advisory and persuasive. And where there is a House resolution, it is usually conveyed by the Clerk of the House, not a Committee Chairman.

It is clear therefore, that Aisha Dahir-Umar is rather clutching to straws to save her face and neck in the heat of the embarrassing youth protest since the inception of PenCom. So, the protesting youth were deservedly incensed by the fact that the employment suspension and rigmaroles happened because the new recruits are the children of nobodies, and sons and daughters of citizens without addresses.

But beyond the protests are the yawning leadership schism, rot, and impunity that have now been the lot of PenCom   without a PenCom Exco and Board since April 2017. The employment saga is only one of the many legal infringements bedeviling the pension industry now.

What does one say about a situation where an Acting DG increases the exit allowances of herself and other senior staff by 300 percent and commences payment, which should have been at the end of the beneficiaries’ service? What does one say about a situation where an Acting DG unilaterally increases the positions of General Managers, GMs, from 10 to 17 for just a parastatal like PenCom?

Yet Section 25 (2) (a) of the Pension Reform Act (PRA) 2014 provides that “The Board shall have power to approve rules and regulations relating to the appointment, promotion, and disciplinary measures for the employees of the Commission”. Section 25 (2) (b) provides that PenCom Board shall also have power to “fix the remuneration, allowances and benefits of the employees of the Commission”. Section 24 (n) of PRA 2014 is clear that the Commission can only “make changes to its structure with the approval of the Board”.

Section 31 of the PRA 2014 clearly states: “There shall be an Executive Committee of the Commission consisting of the Director-General and four Commissioners”. One Commissioner each takes charge of Administration, Technical, Finance and Investment, and Inspectorate Departments to ensure the effective administration of the pension industry. Unfortunately, only an Acting DG is in place since April 2017.

Section 19 (1) of the Act also provides: “There shall be established a Governing Board for the Commission (in this Act referred to as “the Board”)”. Section 31 (2) goes further to list the composition of the Governing Board.

They are: a part-time Chairman (who shall be a fit and proper person with adequate cognate experience in pension matters); the Director-General of the Commission; four full-time Commissioners of the Commission; a representative each of the following agencies and institutions: Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, Federal Ministry of Finance, Nigeria Labour Congress, Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, Nigeria Union of Pensioners, Nigeria Employers Consultative Association, Central Bank of Nigeria, Securities and Exchange Commission, Nigerian Stock Exchange, and National Insurance Commission. Unfortunately for the pension industry, PenCom has been without this all-important and inclusive Board.

While one may agree with the protesting youth that they have been feeding the presidency, especially the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, Mr. Boss Mustapha, with the wrong information on the suspension of the employment saga, that matter and other sad acts of impunity at PenCom also reinforce the need for quality corporate governance.

Labour leaders, including the former Vice President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and General Secretary of the National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria, NUTGTWN, Comrade Issa Aremu, have been lamenting over the non-constitution of the PenCom Exco and Board for more than a year and half now. In line with stakeholders’ position, Aremu had once advised: “President Muhammadu Buhari has to quickly, as a matter of urgency, give priority to the proper constitution of the board of PENCOM.

 It is completely unacceptable to working people, we the contributors to the scheme that a critical labour market institution, is board-less or without a board for almost two years. It is unacceptable that you now leave trillions naira pool of pension fund to be administered without a board. What happened to corporate governance?”

So, whereas it is important that the Federal Government urgently intervenes to resolve the PenCom employment imbroglio, especially since creating employment, not rendering youth jobless, is at the heart of President Buhari’s administration, it is most imperative that the presidency quickly appoints a   hand from within the PenCom hierarchy to immediately take charge of the Commission, while it works to send the names of the PenCom Exco nominees announced since May 2017 to the Senate for confirmation. This is even most expedient now that the country is close to another general election.

Toying with a labour market institution like PenCom, which directly affects the well-being of the Nigerian workers/pensioners could be a costly mistake.

  • Gwandu writes from Kaduna

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