As much as N300 billion representing pension deductions of 25 per cent of salaries of Power Holding Company of Nigeria's 50,000 workers over several years may have been looted by unscrupulous officials, minister of power Prof. Bart Nnaji said yesterday as he requested leading Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in the country to help look into the management of the PHCN staff pension scheme.
The workers' union had refered to a figure of N88 billion as the amount acummulated from the deductions.
"If the PHCN 50,000 employees have over the years been contributing 25 per cent of their salary to the pension as alleged by the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), they should have over N300 billion in their bank account," the minister said in a statement.
The public scrutiny to be led by the CSOs, according to Nnaji, has become imperative because of the "the huge amount of money which should be in the scheme but cannot be traced. It is clear from the reports I have that either the PHCN staff did not contribute 25 per cent of their salary or that some unscrupulous officials made away with over N300 billion which was over the years deducted from their pay."
"What we have rather found is a paltry N3 billion which cannot cover the terminal benefits of up to 30 per cent of the workforce," Nnaji said in the statement signed by his SA (Media) Ogbuagu Anikwe.
The minister explained that the N3 billion came from PHCN internally generated revenue and not from contributions from the PHCN staff towards their retirements.
The minister's letter inviting CSOs to probe the matter was addressed to the Save Nigeria Group led by Pastor Tunde Bakare, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre run by Comrade Ibrahim Awaal Rafsanjani, Concerned Professionals headed by Professor Pat Utomi, Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria headed by Comrade Shehu Sani, and Law and Social Development Centre chaired by Bamidele Aturu.
Others are Institute of Human Rights and Democratic Studies led by Dr Josephine Okei-Odumakin and the Transition Monitoring Group which comprises over 200 non-government organisations and led by Moshood Erubani.
Exonerating the Ministry of Power and the Federal Government from culpability in a possible fraud in the pension scheme, the minister stated that the funds were managed by only a group of trustees made up of the PHCN management and officials of the three trade unions in the PHCN who are "also the sole signatories to the bank accounts," and hinged the call for a public scrutiny of the funds management on the need for values of probity, accountability and public morality.
Payment of severance benefits to PHCN employees in the wake of the privatisation of 17 PHCN successor companies has now pitched the workers against the government as the whereabouts of their pension contributions cannot be determined even as there are contradictory statements between government and the workers unions regarding the true position of the fund.
The minister on Sunday issued a statement where he expressed regret that the PHCN despite being a government agency was yet to comply with the pension law, eight years after it took effect and declared "if there were contributions to the pension scheme by any PHCN personnel at all, they are not reflected or bank accounts of the pension scheme."
Rather he said, what the PHCN management had been doing is to set aside N3 billion every year from internally-generated revenue to pay retiring staff members on the basis of 25 per cent purportedly taken from their salary in flagrant violation of the pension of the PFA.
In a statement issued by his special assistant, C Don Adinuba, the minister said the trustees of the PHCN pension scheme are officials of the trade unions in the power sector and the PHCN management. He said the federal government has never been involved in the management of the PHCN pension scheme.
"In other words, if there is any case of fraud or misappropriation of funds, the workers should know those to be held responsible," he said.
The statement also noted that the PHCN management was able to pay staff severance benefits for a couple of employees retiring annually "which led workers to assume that there were enough funds to settle their disengagement benefit," but with the mass retirement occasioned by privatisation, "it has become crystal clear that there were virtually no funds to pay the retirement benefits of the almost 50,000-strong workforce."