Vanguard (Lagos)

21 December 2012

Nigeria: Senate and the Pension Circus

Pensioners who deservedly should be enjoying their retirement through regular pension payments are in distress arising from the systematic fraud in the pension roll. An intervention by the senate takes the form of a circus upon mutual allegations of bribery between the senate panel and some indicted pension scammers. Who is thinking of the pensioners?

It was a spectacle at the gate of the National Assembly last Wednesday as rival sets of obviously hired demonstrators carried banners in support and against the activities of the Federal Government's Pension Reform Task Team, PRTT.

While one group praised the team for its work in exposing the pension thieves who have been accused of stealing more than N200 billion from the pension roll, another group chanted war songs accusing the team and its chairman, Abdulrasheed Maina of compounding the woes of pensioners.

Indeed, not many would be surprised at the morally offensive revelations flowing from the Senate and its investigations of the corruption in the nation's pension roll. After all, big money is said to be involved.

At the centre of the ongoing scandal is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Establishments, Senator Aloysius Etok who is handling the investigations and the PRTT head, Maina.

Both senior government officials who remarkably should be working on the same page towards solving the mess in the pension roll are now locked against one another in a moral crisis that should in better societies have been decisively solved.

The crisis between both parties emerged in March when allegations of subterranean dealings between both men surfaced in the media.

The Mania led task force was accused by the Etok panel of offering bribe to the committee for the purpose of twisting the findings of the senate investigations into the pension fraud last April.

Etok who said the panel members rejected the money observed: "The Taskforce team had some big people to bribe the senate committee to soft pedal.

"The task force team had sent some big people to offer us bribe and we refused because we are not ready to compromise our work."

"We cannot be intimidated and we see the media war orchestrated by the task force as a blackmail and attempt to distract the committee. Let the task force make public any form of bias by the committee," Etok added.

Etok's allegation was also in the wake of allegations that one of the suspects being prosecuted over the multi trillion naira pension scam bribed the senate investigation committee to the tune of N3 billion. A newspaper report claimed that out of the N3 billion allegedly received by one of the leaders of the committee, that only N500 million was shared out to other committee members, a development that stoked ill-feelings within the senate committee.

The bribe allegation is now the subject of an internal enquiry in the senate.

Remarkably, Senator Etok who claimed to have been offered the bribe has not disclosed who in the Pension Task Force tried to bribe him or the committee.

But the ill-feeling between the committee and the Pension Task Force has led to the well publicised rancor between the Etok led pension senate committee and the Maina led pension task force.

It is not surprising given the amount of money that is involved. Maina speaking at the presidential villa last Tuesday alleged that the pension scam had neared N3.3 trillion, that is an amount that is almost the size of the Federal Government budget.

"I want to tell you that what we have uncovered will surprise Nigerians. We have found that pension fund up to N3.3 trillion was stolen by the cabal and we are going to recover all the money," Maina told reporters in the presidential villa last Tuesday.

Maina said the task team has so far recovered about N221 billion and has deleted 71,135 ghost pensioners from the pension list.

"N74 billion of the N181 billion discovered and saved by the pension task team has so far been mopped up for utilization in the 2012 budget," he said.

He subsequently accused the Senate committee of bias. "The committee is unfair to us because they have taken sides with the cabal against those of us that are fighting the corruption in the system. That is why I wrote a protest letter the Senate President to complain how the committee is biased. They don't allow us to answer questions because they will insist on yes or no as answer and that is unfair."

He debunked knowledge of the alleged theft of N195 billion by the pension office pointing out that "we have been doing all this work without running cost and we don't even have money to buy some basic office items."

The bad blood between both parties came to a head last October when Maina refused to appear before the Etok following what he claimed was a petition he raised to the senate president alleging bias on the part of the committee.

Etok had responded with a threat of arrest and promptly got the senate president and the senate clerk to raise a warrant for the arrest of Maina.

The controversy was deepened penultimate Tuesday when the Etok committee alleged that N195 billion was missing from the pension fund, a development that they asked Maina to compulsorily come and defend the following day.

Maina's retort during a chat with some senate correspondents last Sunday was that Etok was misinformed even as he claimed that another N20 billion lodged in a secret account by government officials has been discovered by his task force.

Meanwhile, Maina has continued to defy the summons of the committee with his claim that Etok has lost the confidence of his task force.

The dithering procrastination of Maina to honour the summons of the Senate is itself significant. On what basis should a public official dishonor the summons of the senate?

Alleging loss of confidence in the committee, Maina had said: "We have documents, Newspaper reports and TV clips of such sentimental harassment and the Task Team views it as a deliberate attempt to tarnish its image and it further buttresses our claim that the Distinguished Senator Aloysius led Committee had declared judgment against the Task Team even while the probe is ongoing."

Senator Etok in defence of his committee's determination had fired back: "We have not shown any sign of bias, we work according to our conscience, and these boys in the task force have resorted to black mail because we have refused to be compromised. Nigerians would judge us at the end of the day."

Following the failure of Maina to again appear before the Etok committee, the senate committee earlier this week deferred further deliberations to next year.

Meanwhile, the country's pensioners continue to bear the brunt of the power play and intrigues that obviously only a cabal can weave. Something is obviously fishy.

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