The PENCOM Employment Controversy

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Youth under the aegis of the Nigerian Youth for Change stormed the headquarters of PENCOM to protest the suspension of resumption of new rectuits whose employment has been in abeyance since May 2017.  Benneth Oghifo Captures the arguments and issues

The issue of youth unemployment took the centre stage again on Wednesday at the National Pension Commission (PENCOM), when youth numbering hundreds, perhaps over a thousand, marched on the headquarters of the agency in Abuja in a peaceful protest over what they explained as the indefinite suspension of resumption of duty of 43 young people employed by the Commission in March/April 2017. They also alleged that the “undue” delay had resulted in the death of one of the employees, Mustapha Ajiya, an indigene of Zamfara State.

Bearing a mock casket the (type used in Islamic burials) draped in white and marked “RIP Mustapha”, the youth under the aegis of the Nigerian Youth for Change, literally took over the PENCOM and and Rockview end of Adetokumbo Ademola Crescent, Wuse II, as early as 9am to vent their anger over what they termed “insensitive treatment of the youth population contrary to the genuine efforts of President Muhammadu Buhari to give the youth a new lease of life”.

Spokesperson of the group, Comrade Azubuike Okafor, said that the 43 youth successfully completed the aptitude test in December 2016/January 2017 and also passed the various interviews. He was, therefore, offered employment vide a letter dated March 2017 and was directed to resume on 2nd May 2017.

They also accepted the offer and those already employment resigned their previous jobs as required by law, preparatory to resumption at PENCOM. However, following the removal of the Executive Management Committee of PENCOM in April 2017 and the ascension of Mrs. Aisha Dahir-Umar as the Acting Director-General (DG) as the most senior staff, the their already legally concluded employments were indefinitely suspended by mere phone calls.

Amidst solidarity songs in support of the President and chants of “Aisha Must Go”, “Buhari dey patch, Aisha dey leak”, “Nigerian youth dey suffer, Aisha dey chop 300 percent”, by the mammoth crowd of youth, Comrade Okafor explained that the new employees petitioned the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Boss Mustapha, when several oral and written appeals to the Acting DG fell on deaf ears.

However, in a reply dated 4th April 2018, the SGF informed the 43 employees that the Commission said that “the decision was based on the need to allow for a review of the earlier recruitment exercise(s) to: ensure compliance with Extant Laws and due process; keep recruitment within approved manpower establishment; and provide required infrastructure to accommodate new appointees”.

But the Nigerian Youth for Change accused the Acting DG of deliberately misleading the SGF, insisting that the employment strictly complied with due process and was approved by PENCOM Executive Committee as stipulated by Section 25 (2) (a) of the Pension Reform Act (2014). They explained that other employments by PENCOM also followed the same process; hence if this one is defective, it means the last two batches of employment were defective too.

“The truth is that Aisha Dahir-Umar wants to do business with the employment of young Nigerians. She wants to sacrifice their employments for selfish interest and the Nigerian youth won’t take it.  “She also unnecessarily increased the number of General Managers (GMs), equivalents of Directors in civil service, from 10 to 17 to favour her cronies, thus making PENCOM very top heavy, but the young Nigerians would not be allowed to resume work and earn their little salaries.”

The protesters contended that the Acting DG acted ultra vires regarding the employment and increase of Exit Allowances and the number of GMs.

It said: “Section 24 (n) of the Pension Reform Act 2014 very unambiguously provides that ‘the Commission SHALL have powers to make changes to its structure with the approval of the Board’.  Therefore, board approval is mandatory and Aisha has no right whatsoever to make changes to the structure of the Commission in the absence of PENCOM Board.

“Section 25 (2) of PRA 2014 provides that ‘the Board shall have power to: (a) approve rules and regulations relating to the appointment, promotion, and disciplinary measures for the employees of the Commission and (b) fix the remuneration, allowances and benefits of the employees of the Commission’.

“So, not even a DG confirmed by the Senate can under any guise suspend or upturn a legally concluded employment approved by the PENCOM Executive Management Committee We are also aware that PENCOM has been without any Executive Management Committee and Governing Board since April 2017. So, who approved the increase of Exit Benefits?

“She committed illegality by increasing the number of GMs from 10 to 17 because Section 24 (n) of PRA 2014 is clear that such structural change can only be done by the Commission with the approval of the PENCOM Governing Board”, the spokesperson added.

The protesters argued that the fate of Mustapha and 42 others would not have been different were they the children of Ministers, Governors, and Members of the National Assembly.

They, therefore, called on President Buhari to “order the immediate resumption of duty by the remaining PENCOM recruits to save their lives”.

Other demands include the immediate removal of the Acting DG PENCOM, Mrs. Aisha Dahir-Umar, and her replacement with other competent hands in the Commission pending the expedient forwarding of the names of Funsho Doherty and other Commissioners announced since May 2017 to the Senate for confirmation to salvage PENCOM and the pension industry.

They decried a situation where a vital regulator like PENCOM controlling about N8 trillion contribution by Nigerians workers existed without an Executive and Governing Board for close to two years now, thus allegedly giving ample for impunity.  

Although efforts made by reporters to speak with the Acting DG or get PENCOM’s side of the controversy from the senior management staff that fruitlessly tried to stop the protesters proved abortive, the Acting DG later stated that that the contentious employment did not comply with the number approved by the Federal Character Commission (FCC).

She explained that whereas the FCC approved the employment of 16 staff, PENCOM, under the former Executive employed 43. She also denied suspending the employment as a letter directing the suspension predated her tenure as Acting DG.

However, in a rapid reaction, Comrade Okafor, in a statement in Abuja on Thursday, vehemently faulted the claims, describing them as “lies from the pit of hell meant to mislead the public and the President, especially the SGF”

“We had investigated all those before embarking on the protest because we believe that an injury to one Nigerian youth is injury to all. We can say unequivocally that the FCC approved 43 and we have the proof. In fact, the letter to that effect was received by Hadiza Oninyangi as Acting Head of Human Resources of PENCOM. It was on the strength of that approval that Oninyangi signed the employment letters. Also, there was no letter predating her, which restrained the late Mustapha and others from resuming. Let the Acting DG tell us the date and author of such letter.So, this is an afterthought, having sat on the jobs of the helpless Nigerian youth since May 2017.

“If she had such a serious case, why did she not formally write the recruits rather than resorting to phone calls? We challenge her to publish the letter. We also challenge her to make public the FCC’s letter approving only 16 new employees, bearing in mind that other persons also have officially received copy of FCC’s letter approving the employment of 43 new staff. And they should bear in mind that the destruction or forgery of government document is a serious crime under our legal system”.  

“Since she now claims to be a stickler to due process, we also challenge her to make public the minutes of Board meetings approving a whooping 300 percent increase of exit/severance benefits for herself and other senior management staff and also authorizing the increase of General Managers (equivalents of Directors) from 10 to 17 contrary to Sections 24 and 25 of the Pension Reform Act 2014 because as said during our protest, there has been no board in place since she assumed office”.

The group reiterated its call on President Buhari to remove and investigate the Acting DG and appoint a competent hand pending reconstitution of PENCOM’s Executive Committee and Governing Board.

In the midst of the big controversy, one thing is certain: anything that touches the youth and proper management of the pension industry should interest any government, especially on the fringes of a general election.