Pension Scam and the Faces of Corrupt Officers

It is a moment of grief and sadness for the families of public officers caught and arraigned for stealing pensioners' funds. The media have published their photographs as major culprits in Nigeria's largest pension scam.

So far, their names have been disclosed, their offices mentioned, their positions revealed, their faces unveiled, their looted wealth uncovered, their image tainted and reputation shattered. What a disastrous way to end one's career in the public service.

While they stole the funds, their victims, old pensioners live in abject poverty. In fact it is public knowledge that some pensioners die wretched while on queues to collect their meager retirement benefits. Although every corruption is condemnable, but the systemic looting of poor pensioners' funds is abomination of the last order which Senate President David Mark describes as accumulating "blood money."

In their initial arraignment, an Abuja High Court remanded all the accused persons in prison custody for their alleged complicity in the illegal diversion of N32.8billion from the Nigeria Police Pension funds. The accused include a Permanent Secretary Atiku Abubakar Kigo and top senior officers in the federal civil service: Esai Abubakar, Ahmed Inuwa Wada, John Yakubu Yusufu, Mrs. Veronica Ulonma Onyegbula and Sani Habila Zira.

The mindboggling scandals were revealed at a public hearing conducted by the Senate Joint Committee of Public Service and Establishment and State and Local Government Administration probing alleged corruption in the management of pension funds. Some of the disclosures are just unconceivable of how persons in the civil service could amass so much wealth as if they would live forever.

It was alleged that the suspects had stolen N24 billions of police pension fund through falsified documents to siphon pensioners' money. They were alleged to have withdrawn the amount from the Budget Office for a pension payment that required just N3.5 billion. It was also revealed that whereas N5bn was paid to the Office of the Head of Service monthly for the payment of pensions, only N1.9bn was actually required. While 141,790 pensioners were registered and listed on the government's payroll, only 70,657 were genuine pensioners.

The Police Pensions Office also collected a monthly N5bn as claims for its pensioners, while it actually needed N500m. Illegal withdrawals were made by staff using multiple cheques in fictitious names in excess of 30 cheques per day to withdraw cash from their bankers amounting to over N14bn.

So far in the recovery of the looted funds, a staff of the Police Pension Office turned in N1bn cash while another surrendered three luxury estates with about 27 blocks of deluxe flats he built in Abuja. A whopping sum of N2 billion cash was recovered from a house belonging to a suspect, while hotels and fuel stations belonging to other suspects have been confiscated by law enforcement agencies.

There was also a twist of event as fresh allegation was made against the leader of the taskforce, Abdulrasheed Maina that investigated the scam who also was accused of spending N240 million on a biometric exercise for less than 20 retirees in the Diaspora and another N220 million on the local bio data. The investigator was also alleged to have unilaterally opened three accounts in different banks without recourse to extant financial rules and approval from relevant authorities. One of the accounts was domiciled in the account of his younger brother with a huge monthly interest of over N100 million. In his defence, the leader of the taskforce claimed that the money was spent on foreign trip allowances of 85 officials engaged for the exercise, including top civil servants, top police boss and top officers of EFCC. The national embarrassment did not stop there as the Chairman of the committee probing the pension sector, Senator Aloysius Etok and his members are also busy defending themselves on an allegation that they demanded huge bribe from the same pension taskforce.

Before this incident a similar shameful accusations and counter-accusations had been played out just recently when House of Representatives Committee on Capital Market led by Herman Hembe that was probing the cause of the dwindling fortunes of the Stock Exchange and the Director General of the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), Arunma Oteh took themselves to the cleaners over misappropriation of public funds and bribery.

From all these Nigerians are increasingly distrusting of the probe panels, especially those constituted in National Assembly, that are fast becoming money-spinners. Not long ago there was a celebrated Elumelu-Power-Probe committee which was later engulfed in monumental financial scandals.

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As the legislative chambers suffer credibility problem from their so-called probe committees, Nigerians are sufficiently distrustful of the judiciary that provides flimsy excuses for suspects on corrupt practices to go scot-free. The judiciary continues to clear suspects over corruption-related charges on the basis of legal technicalities and judicial jargons rather from incontrovertible evidences of recorded assets and wealth accumulated by the suspects. Pertinent to this are cases against former governors: James Ibori of Delta, Gbenga Daniel of Ogun and Peter Odili of Rivers States among others. There are also judicial clearance of corruption against Senator Iyabo Obasanjo, Speaker Dimeji Bankole and Hon. Ndudi Elumelu of National Assembly.

The lukewarm attitudes of legislators and judges in the fight against corruption fuel public suspicion and negative perception on the two arms of government; legislative and judiciary, in checkmating the menace.

Deep inside me I emphatise with the families of the accused suspects whose images were widely displayed in the media. Their spouses, children and siblings may continue to live with this stigma of corruption by their bread winners.

While no single top civil servant in Nigeria may publicly declare that he/she is corruption free, we should be wary of evil of bigger corruption and fight the cankerworm with sincerity without pretext. Though every corrupt practice is condemnable, fraudulent denial of hapless pensioners' entitlement is grievous and bigger corruption.