32BIL FRAUD: IS CORRUPTION FIGHTING BACK AT PENCOM?

The Intrigues, twists, begging questions on the probe

By Our Reporter

With the resignation of Hon. Jonhnson Agbonayinma as Chairman of the House of Representatives Ad-Hoc Committee investigating PenCom, the agency is under moral and legal obligation to provide documents and answers sought by the Committee for diligent investigation

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•Hon. Johnson Agbonayinma

The old or defined pension scheme degenerated to a cesspool of corruption and unpaid arrears leading to an overhaul by Olusegun Obasanjo, which culminated in the Pension Reform Act (2004). It introduced the Contributory Pension Scheme, CPS, with the National Pension Commission, PenCom, as the regulatory body. The success was also sustained beyond Obasanjo with another wide-ranging reform in 2014.

“None of us could imagine that within a space of 10 years the fund would have built up to USD27 billion of cool money, not hot money. And we also heard that in the last 10 years, there has not been a single case of fraud”, an elated Obasanjo had confessed on the success of the system during the 10th  anniversary of the reform in 2014.

Alleged Corruption and Illegalities

But there are fears that corruption and impunity have crept back into the pension system. The House of Representatives vide a motion by Hon. Benjamin Wayo (APC, Benue), noted numerous illegalities and sharp practices allegedly committed in the body now.

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For instance, he alleged, that “The Acting Director-General, Mrs. Dahir-Umar has unilaterally, without a backing of the law, increased her terminal benefits and those of other Senior Staff of the Commission by an outrageous 300 percent… and jacked up the number of PenCom General Managers from 10 to 17”.

Wayo recalled that the Federal Government removed the entire PenCom management in April 2017 contrary to the provisions of the Pension Act, adding it was “dangerous and too risky to leave a treasury of nearly N9 trillion without proper custodians and regulators”.

The House, therefore, resolved to set up the Ad Hoc Committee to Investigate the Activities of PenCom with Hon. Johnson Agbonayinma (APC, Edo) as Chairman.

Interestingly, before the probe took off, there was a motion at the floor of the House urging the parliament to rescind its decision to probe PenCom. But it did not fly.

The Hide and Seek

The Committee Chairman, who resigned a few days ago citing unnecessary pressures and an attempt to bribe him to kill the probe, had accused PenCom of hoarding information. So far the panel has written ten letters to PenCom.

In a letter to PenCom dated 21st  December 2018 and referenced as NASS/HR.S/AD-HOC/01, the Ad-hoc Committee requested that relevant documents concerning appointments, handover notes, staff composition, including Management Staff, Contributory Pension Scheme, and financial records of all bank accounts operated by PenCom be submitted to it by 7th  January 2019.

But PenCom, in a reply dated 3rd  January 2019 (PenCom/DG/CSLD/2-19/TR03), requested a later date in January on the excuse that “the relevant staff responsible for generating and collating the requisite information have been on their respective leaves”.

The Committee in its letter dated 7th  January 2019 (NASS/HR.8/AD-HOC/02), grudgingly extended date of the requested to 14th  January, but reminding PenCom that it had a timeframe for the completion of its investigation.

In another letter dated 11th  January 2019 (PenCom/DG/CSLD/2019/TR11), PenCom told the Panel it didn’t understand its demands. The Committee, therefore, wrote on 21stJanuary 2019 and broke down the demanded documents. A second letter (NASS/HR.8/AD-HOC-PENCOM/03) on the same date also invited PenCom to a public hearing on 24thJanuary

Curiously, in letter dated 23rd  January 2019 and marked PenCom/DG/CSLD/2019/30), PenCom again sought clarifications on the request and demanded a later date, a request the Panel did not take kindly.

“The Ad-Hoc Committee observes with dismay your claims of not understanding the content of its communication, which is seen to be simple and unambiguous, requiring no further interpretation.

“In this regards, the Ad-hoc Committee and the entire House of Representatives will like to view your stand on this matter as being economical with the truth”, said the Panel in a letter to PenCom dated 24th  January 2019 marked NASS/HR.8/AD-HOC-PENCOM/05. It nevertheless extended submission deadline of all required documents to 4th  February 2019.

Estacodes and Contracts Palaver

In the course of the investigation and public hearing, memoranda by groups alleged siphoning of public funds through phony contracts, Communication Department, local and international trips allegedly not undertaken and illegal salaries. The Acting DG was also accused of suspending lawfully completed recruitment of 43 staff by the previous management.

At the 7th  February 2019 public hearing, therefore, the Committee directed PenCom to submit copies of memoranda by PenCom Board and Ministry of Finance approval of 300 per cent hike in exit benefits and salaries for the Acting DG and some senior staff; details of contracts awarded since April 2017, including payments for contracts, letters of award, and names of beneficiary companies; schedules of salaries expended on ‘the Acting DG, Directors, and all payments made to the Communication Department of PenCom; from April 2017 to date; copies of travel documents, tickets, and payments made in respect of local and foreign travels by both the DG and Directors (GMs) from April 2017; and a copy of the letter from House of Representatives Committee on Federal Character allegedly suspending the recruitment of 43 persons, even when the Acting DG acknowledged approval for their employment was given by the Commission.

However, the Commission failed to make them available, prompting to a reminder dated 20th  march, 2019 and marked NASS/HR.8/AD-HOC-PENCOM/07. When PenCom complied, it only forwarded minutes of meetings of the Management Consultative Committee (comprising the Acting DG and General Managers) on 9th  April 2018, 16th  July 2018, and 17th  October 2018, which stakeholders said is unknown to law establishing PenCom and does not also suffice for PenCom Board.

The “Missing” N33bn

Another bone of contention is PenCom’s inability to provide documentary proof on the whereabouts of the N33 billion, which it authorized to be debited from one its Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) accounts. It has also given conflicting information on the number of accounts it maintains with the CBN.

The Acting DG told the Panel on oath that PenCom maintained only one account with the CBN. However, PenCom’s Head of Contributions and Remittance Department, Mr. Lana Loyinmi, who represented Mrs. Dahiru-Umar, the Acting DG, at the April 9, 2019 public hearing, said it was three. Prodded further, he said,  “I don’t know the exact number”.  But in a letter to the Panel dated 9th  April 2019 (marked BKS/CSO/GEN/NASS/02/094), the CBN listed eight accounts maintained by PenCom with it. It reflected that N33 billion was debited from one of the accounts.

Curiously, the CBN did not provide account number of the debited account like the seven others. Also, PenCom’s authorisation to debit N33 billion did not list the beneficiaries like others.

The Twists and Turns

The probe took another twist as the daughter of the Panel Chairman was sacked from PenCom on allegations of securing employment at the Commission with fake certificates. The Commission said, having sacked her in what it described as “a routing exercise”. it had lost confidence in Agbonayima’s leadership of the panel.

However, speaking on a Raypower Radio programme, Agbonayinma alleged that his crime was his refusal to be bought.

“It is unfortunate that when you fight corruption, corruption fights back at you. When we started this investigation, from the first day, people have been trying to stop this investigation. I don’t know why. And, even a motion was moved at the floor of the House to rescind the resolution already passed to investigate PENCOM.

“I must say that I am very disappointed at one of our colleagues, who is now working for the interest of PenCom. He brought this same Acting DG to my office. I told her, madam, I am not witch-hunting you. Submit what we are requesting for. As a matter of fact, we have written several letters to PENCOM, for them to submit documents relating to our investigation.

“The problem is that they (PenCom) gave an instruction to withdraw N33 billion from Central Bank.   So, it is for them to tell us where the money is. Was the money disbursed to PFAs or the Custodians? Tell us how this money was authorised, how it was expended”.

On his daughter, he stated: “We started this probe back in December. My daughter was sacked in February (2019), that is, after we had started the investigation; so, if they are saying it is because of my interest that I am investigating them, it should be the other way round because in the course of my investigating them, I don’t know what happened to my daughter. My daughter never told me anything.

“But as a matter of fact, my daughter is an adult, married, over 30 years of age. So, she should be responsible for her actions. I won’t condone that.

“Whether I step down or not, the investigation will still go on. They must tell us what happened to the N33 billion of pensioner’s money. Nigerians deserve to know”.

What Next?

The questions on many lips are: what becomes of the PenCom probe now that Agbonayima has honourably resigned? Will the probe die or be watered down like some others before it? Since Mrs. Aisha Dahir-Umar has been accused of making efforts to frustrate and kill the probe, will she also step aside for unhindered investigation? Will PenCom now submit the requested documents? Only time will tell.

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