Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
In December 2018, when the Speaker, House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara set up an Ad-hoc Committee to probe alleged violations of the National Pension Commission (PenCom) Act and the activities of the agency from April 2017 to date, it was taken for granted that the assignment would be completed within the eight weeks timeframe.
However, four months after, the probe has been bogged down by controversy, power play and intrigues within and outside the Green Chamber.
The Committee, is investigating the absence of a governing board, alleged illegal and unlawful appointments and provisions and the management of the pension fund, amounting to about 9trillion naira, since April 2017, when Mrs. Aisha Dahir-Umar assumed office as the acting Director General of PenCom.
It was set-up following the adoption of a motion by Benjamin Wayo last November on the need to investigate alleged violations of the PenCom Act.
Wayo in his motion had stated that :“the Acting Director-General, Mrs. Aisha Dahir-Umar has been acting unilaterally without any backing of the law, increased her terminal benefits and that of other Senior Staff of the Commission by an outrageous 300 percent, and has also jerked up the number of PenCom General Managers from 10 to 17 clearly in breach of extant laws governing the institution of PenCom…it is dangerous and too risky to leave a treasury of N9 trillion without proper custodians and regulators.”
Since the Ad-hoc Committee commenced a its first public hearing in February, it has trappings of intrigues all the way with PenCom, Pension Fund Custodians (PFCs) and Pension Fund Administrators ( PFAs) playing hide and seek with the investigative panel.
However, the probe assumed a new twist recently when the chairman of the of Ad-hoc Committee, Ehiozuwa Agbonnayinma announced his resignation. Agbonnayinma’s resignation is the climax of the battle of wits between him and the agency on one side, and between him and a few of his colleagues on the other side.
The lawmaker in announcing his resignation alleged that there has been intense pressure on him from unlikely quarters and attempts to compromise him. He alleged that PenCom was blackmailing the committee and pointedly accused the chairman of the House Committee on Public Procurement, Wole Oke of working with the agency to undermine the probe.
Prior to its first public hearing, the committee had requested PenCom to furnish it with the net assets values of the contributory pension funds; details of supervisors and regulators of PFAs and their key instructions and performances, compliances and defaults; and annual pension operations of all the PFAs, details of amount collected from contributors and amount being paid out to retirees from April 2017 till date.
Besides, the committee sought for details of investment percentages and profits from the investment of pension funds; details of the Federal Government contributions to Federal Government bonds; contributions of retirement savings account holders to PFAs and details of payments from PenCom into the Single Treasury Accounts (TSA) and bank accounts details by the commission among others.
On the flipside, PenCom in response to the committee’s request reportedly told the panel that some of the information it is seeking are confidential under the Pension Reform Act 2014.
The committee says the agency was hoarding information from it , noting that since December 2018, it has written 10 letters to PenCom, requesting for documents relevant to its assignment, without much coming out from the letters.
However, in her presentation at one of the public hearings, the acting PenCom DG dismissed allegations against her as false.
“On the allegation that we recruited massively, it’s false, we did not recruit a cleaner and what we did is to promote deputy general managers to directors in 2018. On the issue of payment of massive arrears to some top management staff, we only followed the law as stipulated by the tenure system for office holders. The Tenure System advocates that no director should stay beyond eight years and what we paid was 300 per cent of their annual income after occupying such office after five years and thereafter, 10 per cent. On massive promotion, we followed stipulations of Section 17 of the PenCom Reform Act and it was duly approved by the SGF,” Dahir-Umar told the panel.
Regardless, the panel queried the whereabouts of N33 billion debited from one of PenCom’s account in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), without a trace of what it was used for.
Agbonnayinma shortly before his resignation had in an interview with a radio station insisted that the agency must explain the whereabouts of the “missing” N33 billion.
“The problem is that they (PenCom) gave an instruction to withdraw N33 billion from Central Bank. So, it is for them to tell us where the money is. Was the money disbursed to PFAs or the Custodians? Tell us how this money was authorised, how it was expended” the lawmaker asked.
Daily Sun gathered that while PenCom and others summoned in respect to the probe have been attending the public hearing, the PFAs have consistently stayed from the hearing. Prior to the maiden public hearing of the probe panel, the Pension Fund Operators Association of Nigeria (PenOp), said to be an umbrella body of the PFAs, had written to the Ad-hoc committee, to say that the PFAs will not be able to honour the committee’s invitation, because they have other engagements slated on the date of the public hearing.
In a letter dated January 28 and signed by its Executive Secretary, Susan Oranye, PenOp expressed regret that PFAs will be unavailable for public hearing and sought for a an adjournment to later date.
Ironically, two days to the second public hearing, PenOp wrote the committee again to say that the PFAs will be unavailable. In the letter dated April 2, 2019, and also signed by Oranye, the group had stated that “ On behalf of the invited Pension Administrators, we regretfully wish to inform you that they would be unable to attend the scheduled meeting as requested due to prior industry engagement slated for the same day. “
Exasperated by the incessant excuses, Agbonnayinma had threatened to issue a warrant of arrest against the PFAs, banks and other agencies that treat the committee with contempt.
The lawmaker told journalists that it was obvious that some interests were out to sabotage the efforts of the committee in quest to get to the root of how pension fund amounting to close to N9trillion were been managed. He expressed shock that PenOp which was not invited to the public hearing is consistently writing him to say that PFAs, which are supposed to appear before the committee would not come.
“We have been having different issues of people trying to avoid coming to the public hearing. We had our first public hearing – in order for us to continue with our investigations that was slated for Thursday, I believe some people are trying to derail the wheel of the progress of our ad-hoc committee.
“There was no time this ad-hoc committee wrote a letter to PenOp. They have been representing the various PFAs we have invited, the administrators, some of the banks and the custodians of the funds.
“To our greatest surprise and dismay, we also received another letter today (Wednesday, April 3, 2019) written to us that the pension operators will not be able to attend the investigative hearing slated for tomorrow,” the lawmaker stated.
Few days after the threat by Agbonnayinma to issue an arrest warrant against PFAs and others, who failed to appear before his committee, reports emerged that his daughter, Deborah was sacked from PenCom for allegedly securing employment in the agency with fake certificates.
The news about the sack of the lawmaker’s daughter had raised concern as to whether it will amount to conflict of interest for him to continue to preside over the PenCom probe, as some persons tried to link his stance with his daughter’s ordeal.
At the resumed hearing of the committee on April 18, Agbonnayinma announced his resignation.
In a valedictory speech entitled “The hand of Esau but the voice of Jacob (cabal),” the lawmaker, who represents Egor/Ikopba Okha Federal Constituency, stated that, “Ab-initio these responsibilities bestowed on the committee by the House met stiffer oppositions and challenges immediately after its inaugural meeting with various motions for the rescission of the motion setting up the ad-hoc committee to subvert the directives of the honourable House, and derail the activities of the ad-hoc Committee.
“But for the parliamentary gallantry of Mr. Speaker, there were various uncomplimentary and savaged tactics to make the ad-hoc committee a still birth. Please note that Oluwole Oke, a member of this Parliament and a ranking member threw decorum to the wind when he took it upon himself and through his deliberate actions to derail the activities of the ad-hoc Committee, his conduct is morally and parliamentary unacceptable.
“From inception of the investigations, his actions were infamous and uncomplimentary, unbefitting of a lawmaker which is to walk on the path of justice.”
He alleged that Oke had led the PenCom DG and the Director of Operations to his office on March 20 to find out what it will take to scuttle the investigation.
Agbonnayinma added that “the management of PenCom is on a path of war because of the ongoing investigations by the ad-hoc Committee, using public funds to blackmail and threaten the committee through some members by saying I am hard on the commission because of the sack of my daughter. It is germane to note that the commission sacked her on the 27th February, 2019 and the ad-hoc committee started its investigations on December 12th, 2018. It is scandalous to link PenCom probe to my daughter’s sack.
Contacted to react to the allegations against him, Oke told Daily Sun that he is innocent of the charges made against him by his colleague. He stated that his offence was that he advised Agbonnayinma to step down as chairman of the ad-hoc committee in view of the case involving his daughter.
The lawmaker added that while he supports the ongoing PenCom probe, he also believes strongly that the image of the legislature must not be dragged in the mud.
“I have nothing against the investigation of the commission. But when allegation of the daughter of the chairman of the ad-hoc committee was raised, bordering on forgery of her certificate, I was bold enough to advice the chairman to say ‘ look my brother, in the face of this issue, you have to be careful. You need to step down, so that you don’t become a judge in your own case,’ that is my offense. Some of us are conscience of the society. Some of us are old in the parliament and we don’t want the image of the parliament to be dragged in the mud,” Oke said.
He reiterated that “so, my offence is advising him to step aside in view of allegations that he is witch hunting the commission because of his daughter’s issue. That is my offense. If there is anybody that has brought bills to the parliament that PenCom has come to oppose vocally, it is me, when I exited the armed forces from PenCom scheme. I don’t have any interest, other than being a contributor myself, as an employer of labour. “
Following Agbonnayinma’s resignation, another member of the panel, Iboro Ekanem has assumed the chairmanship of the ad-hoc committee. The committee resumed hearing yesterday.
However, the key question is, with the turn of events, what becomes of the probe, especially, as the eight Assembly has only about five weeks to wind up?