From Uche Usim, Abuja
Her appointment as the substantive Executive Secretary/Chief Executive Officer of the Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD) by President Muhammadu Buhari on September 26, 2016 has reinvigorated the agency by ending months of uncertainties and anxiety that come with having a head operating in acting capacity.
Since assuming office, Sharon Ikeazor, a lawyer, has already rolled up her sleeves to tackle the challenging job of managing retirees’ pension.
She says it breaks her heart to see pensioners languish in penury due to unpaid emoluments, promising to dismantle all bureaucratic bottlenecks that hinder smooth, credible and transparent pension administration.
To achieve her dreams for the agency, the PTAD boss revealed she has commenced a nationwide verification of pensioners under the Defined Benefit Scheme in 2014 to create a credible, authentic and digitalised database for them.
When the Senate Committee on Establishment and Public Service visited PTAD on November 1, 2016, Ikeazor revealed that the agency has since completed the verification of the Police, Customs, Immigration and Prisons pensioners.
“We’ve also worked with the banks to weed out dead pensioners. ICPC has also helped in this regard. We discovered about 6,000 questionable accounts,” she stated.
In this interview held on the sidelines of the Senate Committee’s visit, she speaks more about her job.
33 per cent arrears
The 33 per cent pension payment increase came as a fall out of the upward review of the minimum wage to N18,000 in 2010. The Presidential Committee under the leadership of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) at the time had negotiated the 33 per cent with pensioners and labour unions. Though the increment was approved, it was not implemented immediately, thus creating accumulated arrears.
PTAD commenced payment of the 33 per cent pension payment increase in October 2014, and all arrears for the year 2014 were paid in December 2014. The arrears for 2010 to 2013 remained unpaid as outstanding government liabilities at the end of 2014.
However, the 2015 budgetary appropriation for pensions did not include provisions for the 33 per cent. The issue is compounded as a result of the current economic realities that government is facing due to dwindling revenues.
As at September 2016, PTAD has, however, been able to offset some of the 42 months arrears from al the pension departments based on available resources under each pension department.
The one on the front burner is the 33 per cent for the police pensions, which we’re now addressing to make sure we pay the backlog. Before the end of this month, it’s all sorted. That’s why we’re going at the pace we’re going.
PTAD commenced a nationwide verification of pensioners under the Defined Benefit Scheme (DBS) in December 2014 towards the creation of a credible, authentic and digitalised database of pensioners. So far, PTAD has completed the verification of the Police, Customs, Immigration and Prison pensioners. The verification of civil service pensioners commenced in the North-west Zone and was followed by the South-east Zone. We are currently planning for the remaining zones: North-east, South-south, South-west and North-central. The database of Nigerian pensioners under the DBS is being systematically sanitised, even as the verification continues this year. It will continue until all pensioners and Next-of-Kins (NOKs) of deceased pensioners under the DBS are verified.
This year, we haven’t been able to do the verifications. You know the hiatus between the last DG being removed and the acting one. So, as I came in now, I’m going for verification because without it, we can’t pay proper pensions because we could be paying ghost pensioners. But with verification, we’re now eliminating ghost pensioners from our payroll. And those who have been dropped off, who haven’t been captured in the database will now be captured. And after verification, we even do quality control of our database.
We’re working closely with ICPC to clear these issues and it’s because of lack of information of what PTAD does. A lot of pensioners have fallen prey to fraudsters. Some call them and say all sorts to them like we’re processing your pension payments, so pay this amount of money and we’ll sort you out. But now, PTAD has established a call centre. We’ve a website as well which states clearly that pensioners don’t have to go through a third party to get their pension issues resolved. Be it them being verified or their arrears or computation or whatever the complaint is; PTAD is now set up in a way to address all these issues promptly.
Addressing sudden death of pensioners
That’s where we work closely with pension unions. Since I came in, I’ve seen several letters that certain banks will write notifying us of the death of the account holder who is a pensioner. Even this morning, a family member wrote notifying me of the death of her brother. So, when I get these notifications, I send them to relevant department; be it civil service or police or parastatal and they take the person off the payroll.
Blocking internal leakages
Yes! The issue of staff being involved in shady deals is handled by EFCC. We’re waiting for the EFCC to come up with the conclusion of it. Government is a continuum and we must continue running pension payment despite whatever cases PTAD has. Again, I’m working hand in hand with the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) so that we put proper checks and balances in place on how to manage a government agency. The people working here have to learn that there has to be some confidentiality because what we do here is very sensitive. So, every staff member will have to go through that process of re-assessment so that we get the right people in place because the fraudsters don’t operate in a vacuum. Information could still come from within. That’s why we partnered with ICPC and EFCC. ICPC cannot prosecute but EFCC can.
Then our communications department is going out there to dish out the right message. That’s why I want to have a parley with the media to let the people know that PTAD is here to serve them and they should not go through a third party. They can come directly to us. Since I resumed, I’ve been receiving pensioners directly. Some insist they won’t see anyone in the department. They want to see the Executive Secretary/Chief Executive and I take them on. Our staff now have realised that everything we do must be done with empathy.
Funding is a challenge but we understand the economic situation in the country right now. On that, we’re sitting down with the Ministry of Finance, Budget Office, PenCom which is our regulator and the Account General of the Federation (AGF) so that we find ways to surmount the challenges. I hardly talk about challenges because there are always ways through them. All I am saying is the positive side of this; once we have the passion to do what we have to do, we’ll do it.
In the current year, PTAD has continued to build upon its institutional frameworks, processes and systems needed to run a sensitive operation such as pension administration.
At the completion of the PTAD verification exercise, the Federal Government will be able to estimate its monthly pension liabilities under the DBS more accurately to aid annual budgeting and resource allocation. It will also help ascertain government’s financial savings from pension payments. Another thing it seeks to achieve is to develop policies based on a consolidated view of the DBS pension sector and finally, the verification will help access accurate data and profiles of over 200,000 pensioners after completion of verification.
PTAD is tackling and resolving pensioners’ complaints by improving the complaint management system for effective tracking and resolution of complaints. We’ve also established state offices to ensure that pensioners do not travel far to make a complaint. We currently have state offices in Lagos, Kaduna, Enugu, Kano, Sokoto and Benin. We are resolving all complaints from verified civil service pensioners in the North-west and South-east. We actually intend to make payment of all entitlement and benefits to this group before continuation of the civil service verification in other zones. We have reactivated the PTAD toll-free line for pensioners to use at no cost to them. Complaint forms have also been made available on our website for completion or download.
Experience so far
I was appointed the Executive Secretary of PTAD by President Muhammadu Buhari on September 26, 2016. My appointment came on the heels of a seven-month period during which PTAD was under the leadership of an Executive Secretary in acting capacity, following the suspension of the former Executive Secretary by the Minister of Finance.
I’m happy for the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of our pensioners, who this country owes a debt of gratitude for their dedication, service and sacrifice. It is my conviction that every pensioner should be able to live out the remainder of their lives in dignity and good health. My vision is an agency that serves pensioners with the upmost respect and empathy. Since I assumed office on October 5, I have been working together with my staff to device and implement plans for the fulfilment of our mandate to manage pensions under the DBS in compliance with the provisions of Section 30, Sub-section (2)(a) of the Pension Reform Act of 2004 and as restated in Section 42(1) of the Amended Act of 2014.