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PenCom Probe And The Public Interest

There is something about legislative probe in Nigeria that is scary. The lawmakers turn the principle of justice which presumes an accuse innocent until proven guilty upside down. To some of our legislators, oversight investigations means you’re guilty and you must prove your innocence.

Sadly, that was the impression I got again on February 7 watching the House of Representatives committee probing PenCom.Indeed, anyone who attended the public hearing must have been either utterly disappointed with the lawmakers or harboured a feeling of despair on the viability of the Project Nigeria. The event looked and sounded like a hatchet job carried out by mercenary elements to foster a private interest at the expense of overwhelming public interest. This is certainly a sad commentary for Nigeria where agencies or organs of government allow themselves to be used to undermine other public institutions.

The attack on PenCom, which began immediately after the sack of Mrs. Chinelo Anohu-Amazu, the former Chief Executive Officer of the agency in April 2017, appeared to have now shifted to the National Assembly. The former CEO, who had resisted her sack and had to be forcefully evacuated from office, has continued a fight to reclaim the lost seat.

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It would help to trace the genesis of the crisis that had been foisted on PenCom by some unwholesome interests bent on having their way. Traditional public service practice in Nigeria requires that when the executive management team of an institution vacates office, the most senior career officer is tasked with the responsibility of holding forth pending the appointment of the substantive Management and CEO by the Federal Government.

Thus, when the pioneer executive management led by Mr. MK Ahmad completed its tenure in 2012, Mrs. Amazu superintended over PenCom as CEO in acting capacity for 20 months from December 2012 to October 2014. The long transition was informed by the desire of the political actors at the time to adjust the rules of the game by amending the Pension Reform Act 2004 to allow the confirmation of Mrs. Amazu as the substantive CEO of PenCom, even though she was not qualified by law.

The legal position was that based on the provisions of the Pension Reform Act 2004, Mrs. Amazu did not possess the 25 years minimum qualifying experience for appointment as a substantive CEO of PenCom. However, private interest gained pre-eminence and national political authority was deployed to drive the legislative process of statutory amendment to make possible what was otherwise impossible.

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This led to the enactment of Pension Reform Act 2014, which, three months after, made it possible for Mrs. Amazu to be appointed as the substantive CEO of PenCom. In the process, many other fundamental issues that needed to be addressed by the amendment were either left out or superficially addressed, because the objective of the exercise was clearly not public, but private interest. The institution was, therefore, left with the challenge of grappling with a weakened legislation that left many questions unanswered.

Nigerians would recall how the National Assembly inexplicably ignored the numerous cautions raised between 2013 and 2014 by members of the public and pension industry stakeholders against the lowering of the qualifications for appointment to the office of the Director General of PenCom.

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It was, therefore, unimaginable for Mrs. Amazu to accept her removal from office in April 2017. Although the dissolution of her management team in PenCom came together with the dissolution of the management of 22 other Federal Government agencies, Mrs. Amazu refused to leave office and waited to be sent packing by security agencies. Thereafter, she elected to challenge her removal from office through various methods and platforms including exerting pressure on her political and social circles as well as her ethnic, media and legal platforms.

She further embarked on smear campaigns against her successor, Mrs. Aisha Dahir-Umar, who is merely in acting capacity the same way Mrs. Amazu did after the exit of the pioneer management. For two years now, Mrs. Amazu has refused to move on, but instead, continuously uses all manner of tricks to fight her way back to the leadership of PenCom.

It is curious but amazing, why someone would be fighting so tenaciously to reclaim a lost position in the public service as Mrs Amazu seemed to be doing.

The weak legal arguments she attempted to use to justify her cause seemed to have fallen flat as the Government appears to have relied on cogent provisions of the PenCom Act and other sound legal arguments to put her case in the cooler. Thus, in addition to the provisions of the Pension Reform Act 2014, lawyers have explained that Mrs. Amazu must recognize the President’s express constitutional powers to appoint and remove chief executives of all public institutions in Nigeria.

Her direct and indirect overtures appeared to have created the apparent impasse on the issue of appointment of the executive management of PenCom despite two attempts by the Federal Government. After reaching a legal dead end, the battle ground seemed to have shifted to the National Assembly since the last quarter of 2018.

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Thus, in order to salvage the integrity and moral authority of PenCom from further erosion, the Federal Government should immediately address the issue of reconstitution of the Board of PenCom. Mr. President must be guided by the series of events since the dissolution of the last PenCom Board to avoid, at all costs, reversing himself. The desperation with which the former PenCom boss is seeking to return to power leaves no doubt about the existence of sinister vested interests in pension administration in the country. The government must not allow them to succeed using the unwholesome strategies of blackmail and intimidation.

Nigeria is blessed with very qualified, capable, resourceful and experienced persons who can effectively lead PenCom without compromising the law or public service rules and values. Nigerians look forward to having an executive management of PenCom manned by people with the right philosophy, competence, experience and above all, integrity.

PenCom must thereafter embark on stakeholder consultations to review and amend its enabling law. The amendment must, of course, be carried out with public interest objectives to correct the misadventures of the 2014 exercise and address all outstanding fundamental issues necessary for strengthening the Commission as a strong public institution. That is the only way to ensure that PenCom continues to effectively play its role as the sole superintendent of pensions for both the public and private sectors in Nigeria.

-Ating wrote in from Abuja

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Disclaimer: This article is entirely the opinion of the writer and does not represent the views of The Whistler.

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