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Still on corruption in pension scheme

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The recent expose by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on corruption in Cross River State, shocking as it were, is but one of the many plagues currently ravaging this country, which would explain why it barely elicited the deserved reaction from average Nigerians, as they have to deal with these situations on a daily basis. It is no longer a question of the magnitude of corrupt practices in the system, which is not in doubt, but one of who bells the cat; seeing as the anti-corruption crusade on which the current administration rode to power appears to have derailed.

An investigation by BBC Africa Eye into pensions in Cross River State uncovered an unfair and corrupt system, which leaves some elderly people sick and penniless, with government workers soliciting bribes before paying out pensions, people arbitrarily being declared ‘dead’ and having to prove they are alive before their pension is reinstated and politicians being offered outrageous retirement packages. More than a thousand people in the state had their pensions stopped because the state decided they were no longer alive. Sadly, this scenario goes beyond Cross River, but is replicated in states throughout the country.

According to the Nigeria civil service rules, the statutory age of retirement for civil servants is 35 years of service or 60 years of age, whichever comes first. However, in reality, most civil servants hardly ever retire, as they have to put in enough hard work by way of repeated visits to the Pension Commission just to get their pension funds.

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It may be instructive to note that the objectives of the Pension Reform Act 2014, includes ensuring that every person who worked in the public service of the federation, federal capital territory, states and local government or the private sector receives his retirement benefits as and when due; and assist improvident individuals by ensuring that they save in order to cater for their livelihood during old age. The irony is that government has however proven to be most improvident, that it becomes pertinent to question the prudence in its continual management of what should guarantee the future livelihood of average Nigerians who have given most part of their lives in service of the state.

In spite of efforts by successive governments, either at the state or federal level to address this menace, corruption around pension funds yet persist, which suggests a lack of political will on the part of government. These half-hearted efforts have culminated into what is best described as a theatre of the absurd. Abdulrasheed Maina, the former chairman of the Defunct Pension Reform Task Team was in 2019 arraigned before a Federal High Court, on a 12-count charge bordering on money laundering of suspected pension funds to the tune of N2 billion. Maina denied any wrong doing and alleged that his prosecution is malicious; he in fact raised counter allegations of misappropriation against highly placed public office holders. In a statement credited to his spokesperson sometime in 2017, between the office of the Head of Service and the Police Pension office, the two places PRTT worked, a leakage of N5.32 billion was stopped per month. While the police authorities had denied these allegations, it would be recalled that, a former Director, Police Pension Fund, Esai Dangaba was until his death sometime in 2019 standing trial alongside others for allegedly defrauding the Police Pension Scheme to the tune of N32.8 billion.

A former Assistant Director in the Federal Civil Service, John Yakubu Yusuf was awarded a ridiculous sentence of two years imprisonment with an option of a fine totalling N750, 000 after pleading guilty to stealing the sum of N24 billion of Police pension fund. While the Court of Appeal had reviewed the sentence to two years imprisonment without an option of fine, with an order for a refund of N22.9 billion, it was reported that Mr. Yusuf still walks the street a free man and not much has been heard of his ordered incarceration. In 2013, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arraigned Dr. Sani Teidi Shuaibu, a former director of pension accounts, Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, for the appropriation of over N18 billion of pension funds.

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There have been various other reports of investigation and supposed prosecution of persons involved in pension funds theft, but the wheels of justice appears not to grind at all, or is grinding too slowly.

Nigeria can surely do better. A pension fund is not a gratuitous payment from government to its retired workforce. As rightly held by the Court of Appeal in a decided case, it is a constitutional right guaranteed under the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended),  which does not depend on the discretion of the government.

Cases abound of aged pensioners dying under the scorching sun while waiting to get what has been rightly earned, while in spite of the humongous amounts arrogated to former governors as pension and other severance pay, there hasn’t been a report of delays in these payments. The government needs to offer more than lip service if the issue of corruption in pension scheme is to be addressed. The system can be better automated to address issues of “ghost” beneficiaries and stiffer measures put in place to deter offenders. Where payments are not received as at when due, it becomes an infringement and someone should be held accountable for this. Retired public servants deserve more than what is currently being offered by the system.

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