The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), literally stunned the nation’s retirees recently, and indeed, other Nigerians. It announced, to the chagrin of many that it has preferred a case against 32 members of staff of the pensions department of the office of the Head of Service of the Federation for allegedly defrauding the pension office to the tune of N12 billion.
The accused, according to the anti-graft commission, include Dr Sani Taidi Shuaibu, Mrs. Phina Ukamaka Chidi, Aliyu Bello and 29 others, who would soon be arraigned on a 134-count charge. Dr Shuaibu was the Director, Pension Administration in the office of the Head of Service of the Federation, while Mrs Chidi was the Deputy Director (Finance and Accounts), in the office. Aliyu Bello was a personal Assistant to Dr. Shuaibu.
Investigation shows that they used ghost pensioners to pay N2 million and N3 million into their accounts monthly, and later diverted the sum by awarding fictitious contracts to some companies which they manage.
The EFCC’s charge, reports say, came under charge number PHC/ABJ/CR/28/2011, dated March 21, 2011. The accused were alleged to have used various fictitious firms to divert the sum of N12 billion into private use. The commission said it had already frozen N12 billion in three accounts allegedly operated by the two directors following a fresh discovery by its team of investigators. The team had since 2010, been probing alleged massive pension fraud in the pension unit of the office of the Head of Service.
However, the National Pension Commission (PENCOM) has denied the alleged pension fraud. Addressing newsmen on the matter recently in Abuja, Mr Emeka Onuora, Head of PENCOM’s communications unit, said there was no pension fraud as being alleged by the anti-graft commission, and insisted that they were ready to face the EFCC. Onuora maintained that the commission was not worried about the allegations being levelled against it by the EFCC.
Be that as it may, what beats one’s imagination over the N12 billion fraud borders principally on the fact that over the years, the nation’s retirees have suffered untold hardship following delayed and/ or non-payment of their retirement benefits, a situation which the authorities blamed on non-availability of pension funds.
As it were, the issue of non-payment of pension and gratuity to government retirees, years after retirement from active service, has in the recent past, been a subject of public discourse in the nation’s polity.
Perhaps, moved by this touchy national issue, the former Minister of Justice and Attonrney-General of the Federation, Chief Richard Akinjide, not too long ago, took a swipe at government at various levels over the mind-boggling issue. His words: “It is breach of contract for any government to deny its retirees the payment of pension and gratuity.” He observed that since the nation’s economy is not static, it was necessary that pension and salary be seen as index link in view of the prevailing purchasing power, and called on government to fulfill its obligation to their workers by ensuring the early payment of pension and gratuity.
Not done with the issue, he intoned: “when a salary earner is retired and not paid his benefits, it means that he has been shortchanged,” and insisted that the benefit of the civil service is the security and the certainty it affords workers who expect that at the end of retirement, they would be paid their benefits.
Sadly, an average retired Nigerian worker had over the years been literally wailing over the non-payment of his pension and gratuity. There were confirmed reports that some retired workers even died before their entitlements could be paid.
Apparently worried by public outcry, the last administration established the National Pension Commission, with an Act by the immediate past National Assembly, in order to give legal teeth to the commission. This was greeted with applause by the general public, especially the retirees.
Indeed, the contributions of Nigerian workers and employers to the contributory pension scheme now stand at over N847 billion, according to report from the pension commission.
But, it is rather unfortunate to hear that some states in the country are yet to implement the laudable scheme in spite of the awareness campaigns mounted by the federal authorities, thus hanging the fate of their retired staff in the balance. This is sad, to say the least!
Worse still, a section of the private sector has also reportedly refused to implement the National Pension Scheme, for some inexplicable reasons, an attitude that is giving concern to the authorities of the commission, in view of the anticipated plights of the retired staff of such firms.
It is therefore imperative to ask the Federal Government to wade into the issue and prevail on such defaulting state governments and firms to implement the pension scheme, in order to lay a good foundation for their retired staff.
Yes, there has already been fears over the safety of the funds so far contributed to the pension scheme. But the provisions of the Pension Act, squarely allay such fears, especially the various levels of risks involved in the management of the contributed funds.
That said, one sure way to implement the National Pension Scheme is for the National Assembly to act immediately to address the issue. This, it could do, by directing the committee concerned to work with the management of the National Pension Commission. That way, the committee would be able to identify the alledged N12 billion fraud; defaulting state governments, as well as a section of the private sector, and thereafter roll out the sanctions against them.
The future of the Nigerian retired worker must be protected and assured, no matter whose ox is gored. Yes, time has come when a retired worker should smile home rather than cry home. The contributions by employers of labour to the pension scheme, appears to be the only sure way.
This is why the alleged N12 billion pension fraud must not be swept under the carpet like other uncovered frauds in government establishments and institutions. All those found to have been directly or indirectly involved must be exposed and prosecuted by the EFCC in order to protect the future of retirees.