When they first appeared in court on a 16-count charge of illegal diversion of N32.8 billion from the Nigeria Police pension funds, they were so thoroughly ashamed of themselves that photographers at the court premises tried in vain to capture their image for posterity. It was a herculean task as they used all manner of tricks to cover their faces. We are referring to the six people standing trial in respect of the police pension scam. On that day of their first appearance, Thursday March 29, shame was clearly written on the countenance of Essai Dangabar, Atiku Abubakar Kigo, Ahmed Inuwa Wada, John Yakubu Yusufu, Sani Habila Zira and Veronica Ulonma Onyegbula. They tried to hide their faces to save their relatives the trauma of their betrayal of the nation. For to them was given a weighty assignment and they messed it up big time. Instead of looking after the interest of retirees who had served their nation diligently, the accused allegedly diverted various sums of the pension funds into personal accounts. And the amount involved is N32.8 billion. Although their lawyers applied for bail, they ended up in prison custody because the prosecutor told the court that he needed time to study the application.
After spending five nights as special guests of Zakari Ibrahim, comptroller-general of prisons, the accused were a happier lot as they sauntered into the court premises on Tuesday April 3. Although one of them still shielded his face with a newspaper, the others, all nattily dressed, wore broad smiles. And but for the prison officials escorting them, they could as well be ministers going for an executive council meeting. Surely, something had bolstered their dampened spirit in the days they were holidaying at Kuje Prisons. Thus, that they were their being granted bail did not come as a surprise. Just like mind-boggling thievery in both the public and private sectors and mismanagement of our national resources no longer cause a stir in many Nigerian circles.
That brings us to the job the Pensions Reform Task Force, PRTF, has been doing. The PRTF was set up by President Goodluck Jonathan in late 2010 to sanitise the nation’s public service pensions. It is led by AbdulRasheed Maina, head of the Customs Immigration Pension Office. Working quietly in the last 20 months, what the PRTF has unveiled in the course of carrying out its assignment is unnerving. The revelation came into the open at the ongoing probe by a Senate committee set up to look into the pension scam. The proceedings of the probe were broadcast live. And Maina told a stunned nation that the sum of N151 billion and £6 million had been recovered from pension thieves. Seventy-four billion naira of that sum has been channelled into funding the 2012 fiscal budget. That is not all. In just two pension offices, the Maina Task Force deleted some 73,000 fake pensioners. One pensions office that was getting about N5 billion every month only needed N500 million for their retirees. An employee in one government agency is said to have surrendered three luxury estates and 27 blocks of deluxe flats in Abuja, which were built from the money he siphoned from pensions fund. Another pensions thief, too afraid to stash his loot away in the bank, surrendered N1 billion cash to the Maina panel.
However, the story is getting more curious. The chairman of the PRTF has become mired in controversy as to how he handled some transactions. Testifying at the probe, Toyin Ishola, an assistant chief accountant, claimed that the Task Force spent N3.6 billion in the three months he spent at Police Pension Office. Furthermore, Maina caused to be opened two bank accounts in which was deposited the sum of N10 billion without due authorisation from the Accountant-General of the Federation. And to establish the bona fides of 20 retirees in the Diaspora, the Maina panel spent some N240 million. Ibrahim Lamorde, chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, is said to have been part of the team that went for the verification exercise. Lamorde denied ever being part of such trip. In the course of capturing bio-data of retirees who have not checked out of Nigeria, it spent only N220 million.
Perhaps, because of what amounts to financial recklessness on the part of Maina, his panel met a hostile reception at the Senator Aloysius Etuk Ad Hoc Committee probing the pensions scam. As it rose on March 6, the first day of its sitting, the committee was calling for the disbandment of the Task Force. It was quickly reminded by the House of Representatives that the task force was set up by the Executive. Thus the Senate cannot single-handedly disband it. As if that gaffe was not bad enough, on the second day of its sitting, the Senate Committee on the pension probe declared Maina wanted. And the mystery of what informed the hostility of the Etuk Committee towards the Maina Panel is getting deeper. There have been speculations that members of the Etuk Committee asked for bribes. Nigerians would readily believe this because of the notoriety of the nation’s legislators on such matters. But Hassan Salisu, the information and media relations officer of the PRTF, has debunked this speculation in a press release. He, however, said that the Senator Etuk Committee has been unfair in its dealings with the panel in the course of the probe. For instance, the senators chose to believe the testimony of Ishola, who came to the hearing with photocopied documents. Furthermore, it now wants the probe to hold in closed sessions, thus shutting out the public.
So what is Senator Etuk and his team trying to hide? Whose tune are they dancing to? Who are the kleptomaniacs that are uncomfortable with the revelations coming out live on national television network. And where lies the allegiance of the Senators handling this probe? And to further deepen the mystery, Etuk has alleged in an interview with The PUNCH that the Maina Panel has made overtures of bribery to the senators so that it could be given a soft landing. We have heard such kind of tales before in the Hembe/Oteh tango on the Capital Market probe. For the purpose of believability, Etuk may need to provide more evidence to convince wary Nigerians that Maina actually made this overture through some “big people.” Right now, Nigerians would rather believe Maina than Senator Etuk because the former has brought some sanity into the pensions fund administration. This is why the call by three non-governmental organisations – the Civil Society Legislative Centre, Centre for the Defence of Democracy, and the Zero to Corruption Coalition – on David Mark, president of the Senate, to disband the Etuk Committee, is one that would be shared by millions of Nigerians. Considering the allegations of bias made by the Maina Panel against the Etuk Committee, the air has been seriously fouled, and it is doubtful if the same dramatis personae can achieve anything meaningful if they continue with the probe.
However, one last word for Maina. While, going by what we know of his team’s performance in the pensions reform exercise, he surely deserves some commendation, he should clear the air on the allegations against him. Was it because he recovered so many billions that he decided to line his own pocket through the opening of bank accounts without due process? And what is the true picture in respect of the sums his team spent verifying the number of retirees in the Diaspora? Maina got the assignment in the first place because of how he successfully reformed the Customs Pensions office, thus ensuring that pensioners suffered no trauma in getting their monthly stipends. That sterling record has been smeared by these allegations. Maina cannot afford to keep quiet. He should open up pronto!