17 February 2013

Nigeria: No Soft Landing for Maina!


This country has produced many controversial civil servants during our relatively short life as a nation, but it has been quite a while since we had one as impudent, as reckless and as boastful as Alhaji Abdulrashid Maina, chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Pension Reform. As last week ended, Maina had single-handedly caused a major confrontation between the Presidency and the Senate, with the latter threatening to move against the president such as it has never done before since Dr. Goodluck Jonathan's rise to the presidency three years ago.

On Wednesday, the Senate gave the president a 48-hour ultimatum to dismiss Maina from the public service, and just before the ultimatum expired on Friday, President Jonathan caved in to the Senate threat, kind of. He directed the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation Alhaji Isa Bello Sali to initiate disciplinary action against Maina for absenteeism. Jonathan's reason was that he received a report from Police Inspector General Mohamed Abubakar, in which the IG said all police efforts to execute the arrest warrant signed by Senate President David Mark came to naught. Abubakar said police detectives led by a Deputy Inspector General had mounted surveillance at both Maina's office and his house but could not find him because he had gone into hiding.

President Jonathan's order for Sali to initiate action against Maina was clearly a reluctant one. Only a day earlier, his spokesman Reuben Abati said in response to the Senate's ultimatum that the president could not sack Maina because he is a civil servant and that his fate could only be decided according to the civil service procedure.

That indicator of presidential reluctance was made a day after the Senate issued its ultimatum. A motion had been moved on the Senate floor titled "Dismissal of Mr. Abdulrasheed Maina for refusal to appear before the Senate." It was sponsored by Senate Leader Mr. Victor Ndoma-Egba (SAN) and was co-sponsored by 107 senators [out of 109], an almost unheard-of level of Senate unanimity. Senate President David Mark had said while rounding up debate on the motion, "I have been extremely patient with Maina...This Senate has teeth to bite, the Senate will bite when it needs to bite and when we decide to bite, there will be no room for escape. We have been pushed to the wall...No matter who is behind Maina, we are not going to accept it."

For several months now, Abdulrashid Maina played cat and mouse games with the Senate Committee on Pensions by refusing to honour several invitations to appear before it and defend allegations that he had personally directed the mismanagement of N664 billion in pension funds. He also refused to accompany members of the Senate committee on a tour of states in order to hear firsthand the complaints that aggrieved pensioners were making. The committee said it received 7,800 petitions alleging wide-ranging misdeeds by the Maina-led task force. Given this country's recent experience with Police Pension Fund managers, it was obvious that a similar thing was happening under Maina's watch but his team and himself totally blocked the Senate from finding out the truth. He regularly issued combative statements against the Senate, including one he issued last Thursday from his hiding place.

An officer is accused by a Senate committee of mismanaging nearly a trillion naira in such a sensitive area as pension and he refused for many months to appear before the committee. What did the Presidency do? With one telephone call, top Presidency officials could have ordered Maina to respect the Senate but they clearly enjoyed and abetted his game of hide and seek. No wonder that some civil society groups accused the presidency of complicity in Maina's shenanigan deeds. Many Nigerians suspect that the large scale abuse of pension funds could not have been possible without the collusion of top officials. Some even allege that the pension funds were a likely source of campaign funds during the last election.

Such suspicions were hardly helped by open evidence that Maina, who is but a deputy director in the Customs, Immigration and Prisons Pensions Office (CIPPO) has a place in the Jonathan administration that is far more powerful than his supervising minister. Maina goes about town with a strong detachment of police guard. He even lines up among top officials at the airport to receive the president on his return from foreign trips.

Even now that the Presidency has been forced to move against Maina, there is reason to believe that it is preparing a very soft landing for him. Jonathan's directive to the Head of Service mentioned absenteeism as Maina's offence. Accordingly, Sali directed the permanent secretary in the Internal Affairs Ministry to discipline Maina under Section 030402 of the Federal Government's Public Service Rules, which lists Absence from Duty Without Leave as "an act of serious misconduct punishable by dismissal."

Are we talking about absence from duty or about possible mismanagement of N664 billion in pension funds? If, as the government is obviously planning to do, Maina is dismissed from the federal service for absenteeism, will he then vanish from the scene or will he be available to answer the Senate's queries? In fact, the Senate alone can no longer handle this matter. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission [EFCC] which has greater investigative ability should quickly wade in and find out why thousands of pensioners who have served this country meritoriously are still dying in the streets despite the provision of ample funds for the settlement of their pension claims.

The fact that Alhaji Abdulrashid Maina went into hiding merely because he had been asked to come and explain a few things should be a logical starting point for the EFCC. He must not escape with a John Yakubu Yusufu-like slap on the wrist.

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