Daily Trust (Abuja)

Nigeria: In Defence of Pension Assets

President Goodluck Jonathan in the New Year has the responsibility to urgently call to order the Chairman of the Presidential Pension Reform Task Team (PRTT,) Adulrasheed Maina. Importantly President Goodluck Jonathan has the additional responsibility to safeguard and protect the eight- year-old pension reform of 2004 which currently stands at 3.6 trillion naira.

Stakeholders including the organized labour led by NLC watch with utter dismay how Maina last year defied public summons by the Senate Joint Committee on Establishment and States and Local Governments during its recently concluded public hearing on public pension administration. Also clearly unacceptable is the way and manner the controversial chairman of what is supposed to be a short term presidential task force carries on as if the task force (meant to manage police pension fund mess and which clearly lacks any legal backing whatsoever ever!) has come to stay permanently. Presidential task force cannot and should not be another alternative pension commission in the country. There is only one regulatory pension commission and that is National Pension Commission, PenCom established by an Act of parliament in 2004.

Maina has been making ill-informed, unguarded commentaries on the accumulated pensions assets contributed through the hard earned savings of Nigerian workers in both the private and public sectors of the economy in the past eight years the Pension Reform Act of 2004 came into being. These commentaries if unchecked are capable of undermining the budding national pension fund and even subverting the entire pension market. For instance he was recently quoted as saying that about trillion naira pension assets already built in the pension system commendably managed by PENCOM led by M.K. Ahmad and scores of pension fund administrators, PFAs as well as pension fund custodians should be made available to the state governments for their so-called infrastructural development in clear violation of pension reform Act of 2004 and investment rules guiding pension fund in the country.

The point cannot be overstated. Pension funds assets (contributed by close to 6 million workers) are a contributory scheme by workers for pension after work. Nigerian workers in the past decade did not save 7.5 per cent of their relatively low earnings to fund the so-called infrastructural development of the state as being canvassed by new funds scavengers like Miana. On the contrary, workers voluntarily contribute to pension fund every month against the raining days, for life after work up to retirement age through their respective Retirement Saving Accounts (RSAs).

Workers' RSAs must be protected at all costs failing which Nigeria might witness a national pension strike. Nigerian workers are currently witnessing all forms of wage theft either by short changed payments, delayed payments, diverted pay and bare faced pay official robbery. Any additional pension theft through dubious pensions "for infrastructural developments schemes" or phony top-down social insurance scams as being proposed by Maina will be one pension /wage theft unacceptable and clearly provocative.

Nigerian pensioners especially in the public sector are already caught between the two extremes, namely official government neglect and public sympathy, none of which is beneficial to them. Contributory Pension scheme which is now in trillions is a legitimate hard earned savings of workers. It is a deferred payment, which both the workers and employers are compelled to set aside so that workers at old age will not be living on some degrading charity as if they are destitute. The challenge lies in how to make the principle of contributory pension work in Nigeria and not undermine it through illegal raid on the fund and sheer diversion to other purposes rather than pension payment as being canvassed by the likes of Maina. Most state governments that can hardly account for monthly federal allocations cannot be further privileged with pension assets. It will be illegal, extortionist, arbitrary and resisted by all the labour/pension Market actors.

Pension Act of 2004 represents a progressive labour legislation because it attempts to address the naughty issue of compensation after work. The scheme is also strong on corporate governance arrangements that are radically different from the past mismanaged public sector schemes; National Pension Commission supervises the Pension Fund Administrators and Custodians.

President Jonathan must put a time line on the activities of the Task Force on pension in the public sector. It is not the amount of billions the task force claims to have recovered. It is not amount of claims and counter-claims of stolen pension funds both the Task Force and the legislators are trading. The critical issue is how many pensioners in the relevant public sector institutions have been paid their pensions and gratuities? This is the critical question the Pension Act of 2004 sets to address. Already PenCom commendably pays some 2 billion naira monthly to some 60,000 retirees under the new Contributory pension scheme, a radical departure from the hitherto unfunded non-contributory scheme. The president must strengthen the new contributory pension scheme by protecting it against invaders looking for funds for other purposes rather than payment of retirees. Let no one touch or divert pension asset from its legally sanctioned objectives.

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