Rising Demurs over PENCOM’s Succession Template

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The recent disruption of an established succession template in the Pension Commission has continued to elicit protests from stakeholders, writes Olawale Olaleye

Long before the reform of the pension system in the country through the Pension Reform Act (PRA) 2004, the sector was just another cesspool of organised graft, maladroitness with many years of unpaid arrears that virtually retired a majority of the retirees and consigned them to a life of avoidable poverty, ill-health, and sudden death, sometimes while queuing to be paid their entitlements after many years of patriotically serving their father land.

While the sector still has a long way to go, no doubt, the Pension Reform Act (PRA) 2004 reform is believed to have addressed, albeit to a commendable extent, some of the critical issues confronting the pension system in the country.

The reform, for example, gave rise to the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS), which has improved the nation’s pension assets from over N2 trillion deficits in 2004 to more than N6.5 trillion in 2017 as evidenced by recent statistics. Such investible funds in a recessed economy signpost promises, coupled with the fact that there have not been reported cases of corruption in the CPS. Such a record is certainly enviable by an average standard.

Also recorded in positive digits against the reform was the establishment of the Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD), designed to stem the tide of corruption as well as foster regeneration in the Defined Pension Scheme (DPS).

Activated in 2013, the PTAD, today, boasts the record of having brought all the various federal government Pension Departments under one roof to ensure that the pension benefits of the retirees under the old scheme were centrally processed and paid directly into their accounts and based on biometrics-backed verifications.

In addition, the sector has won the confidence of both local and international stakeholders as well as investors. No doubt, the face of African pension systems, the PENCOM and Nigeria’s Pension Fund Administrators (PFAs) had recently emerged tops in the past few African Pension Awards.

Thus, with strong and effective legal framework put together, some of the great feats so far recorded were made possible by what many would refer to as policy consistency and consolidation on the part of successive Nigerian governments, starting with the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who founded the initiative.

Obasanjo also gave fillip to this fact of history during the 10th anniversary of Pension Reform in 2014, when he commended one of his successors in office, former President Goodluck Jonathan, for not only upping standards and strengthening the Pension Act in 2014, importantly for not reversing the Act that established it, because, according to him, “In a country like ours, for us to make progress, we must build accumulatively on measures, structures, and where necessary, make amendments”.

Also supporting this are the strict and effective regulations by PENCOM as seen in the last few years. Although it is commonplace that laws and sound policies have never been an issue in Nigeria, the problem, truly from ages to ages, has remained implementation.

PENCOM’s regulatory standard, which had been acknowledged through international recognitions and awards even by the organised labour, such as the Trade Union Congress (TUC), is comparable only to what is obtainable in the National Administration for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) in the days of the late Prof. Dora Akunyili.

Even more instructive is the fact that PENCOM itself has succeeded, largely because it had leveraged committed and stable leadership that have been immune to political changes as envisioned by Section 20 of Pension Act. And without any iota of doubts, it has also benefitted from ingenious headship with very good understanding of the new system.

A handy example of such leadership is Mr. Fola Adeola, who headed the Presidential Committee on Pension Reform and emerged its pioneer Chairman. Also, the recently removed DG, Mrs. Chinelo Anohu-Amazu, who served as a member of the Committee and became the pioneer commission’s secretary/Legal Adviser, putting cumulative 16 years into the system before her curious removal, gave outstanding performance.

Interestingly, Obasanjo, at the event mentioned earlier, had narrated how he personally led the search for the likes of Anohu-Amazu to put the modern pension system in place, noting also that she had proven that “whatever a man can do, a woman can do better”.

The former president shared that one of the lessons he learnt from the reform and the success since recorded was that “Within and outside Nigeria, there are Nigerians of world class that we can make to do world class work for Nigerians”, noting that “all the members of the Committee were Nigerians, and the work they produced is of world class, and the way it has been managed is of world class management”.

Therefore, when this is placed against the recent developments in the pension industry, following the brusque removal of the Anohu-Amazu-led Executive Management Team of PENCOM midway into its statutory tenure, it is niggling!

Apart from breaking what has come to be appreciated as the tradition of stable leadership and regulated tenure as guaranteed by Section 20 of PRA 2014, there are also issues of alleged non-compliance with Section 21 (1) (a)–(j) on cessation of office and Section 21(2) on filling of the resultant vacancies.

Section 21(2) provides that “In the event of a vacancy, the President shall appoint a replacement from the geo-political zone of the immediate past member that vacated office to complete the remaining tenure.”

Yet, Alhaji Aliyu Dikko from Kaduna State, North West, was initially appointed as the replacement to Anohu-Amazu, who was from Anambra State, South-east. But Chief Funso Doherty was later appointed the Chairman of PENCOM Board, while Nyerere Anyim, from Abia State, South-east was appointed as an executive Commissioner along with Akin Akinwale, Abubakar Zaki Magawata, and Ben Oviosun.

When this is tied with the disagreements over alleged breach of Section 19 of Pension Act on account of Dikko’s shareholding and chairmanship of the Premium Pension Limited, a PFA, it must have informed Acting President Yemi Osinbajo of the implication of his decision to replace Dikko with Mr. Funso Doherty, while the South-east nominee was appointed as mere commissioner, more so at a time the South-east is vigorously alleging marginalisation against the government.

It is believed, therefore, that the presidency is still begging the issue, which is why controversy has continued to cause resentment in the pension system. This is because the South-east still strongly believes the office of the DG belongs to it, and rightly so. The organised labour too has joined this needless agitation, because the N6.5 trillion pension assets belongs to about 7.4 million workers/retirees, who subscribed to the CPS.

A statement jointly signed by frontline labour activist/Vice President of the 50-nation strong Global IndustriALL Union/Secretary-General of the National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers, NUTGTWN, Comrade Isa Aremu and President of NUTGTWN, Comrade John Adaji, raised concerns about the developments in the industry and insisted that “a labour market institution like PENCOM is a specialised field that should not be a place for political appointees”.

Adaji said: “We acknowledge the sensitivity of the Acting President to address the controversy following the abrupt termination of the appointment of the former Director General of PENCOM, Mrs. Chinelo Amohu-Amazu. However, the recent appointment of Funso Doherty by the Acting President as the replacement of Dikko Aliyu Abdulrahman will further lead to crisis of confidence in the leadership of PenCom.

“The best way is for the federal government to return to due process by recalling the former Director General, Mrs. Chinelo Anohu-Amazu, to complete her tenure in accordance with the Pension Reform Act 2014.”

Office of the Acting President has however argued that Section 21 (2) of PRA 2014 did not arise in filling the positions at PENCOM since the entire management board was dissolved. Curiously, this had triggered some newspaper editorials, which dismissed the argument as dangerous, self-serving, and inequitable.

Indeed, no part of the pension law empowers the FG to ‘dissolve’ PENCOM management team, but the five-year tenure for DG and Chairman and four-year tenure for the Executive Commissioners, clearly explain that the law did not envisage total exit of the entire management team at any point.

That would be against the spirit of continuity, many years of experience, and institutional memory, which has been described as the nucleus of PENCOM.

But whether or not the presidency removes a person or everybody in exercise of its powers under Section 21 (1) (j) (to remove any member of management team if he considers the person’s continued stay in office inimical to the interest of the nation or industry), the fact is that ‘vacancies’ have occurred before the end of tenure. And subsection 2 of the same Section states unequivocally how such vacancies are to be filled without subjecting same to avoidable debates.

But Osinbajo recently assured the South-east leaders of government’s commitment to “urgently and decisively address the agitation” and asserting that “Burying our heads in the sand and expecting the storm to blow over of their own accord is not an option”.

For the South-east, therefore, it could amount to conceding to others what the region has in the Muhammadu Buhari government and pretend as if nothing happened? It may not be out of place to wonder if the change of the PENCOM leadership was worth it after all, especially when critical stakeholders had agreed that it acquitted itself creditably and grew pension assets from N2.9 trillion to over N6.5 trillion in a record time.

However, when taken together, the federal government must embrace convincing initiatives to correct these evident anomalies, because to further delay this could mean an extension of the destabilisation initiative, which is believed to now bedevil the pension system as well as eroding the huge gains, confidence, and credibility its leadership had garnered over the years, while at the same time entrenching the agitation and the growing discontent in the country.