LAWAL AND MANAGEMENT OF MILITARY PENSIONS

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Sabiru Lawal has instilled a culture of integrity and transparency at the board, writes Jackson Ali

It’s been one full year since Commodore Sabiru Abayomi Lawal assumed duty as the 28th Chairman of the Military Pension Board (MPB). His tenure officially took off on September 18th, 2020. Managing pensions in Nigeria has over the years proved difficult. And this is not limited to military pensions.

Most retirees of ministries, departments and agencies have had to endure insufferable conditions to get their gratuities and pension. In some cases where they are paid, they are delayed for years on end. Several studies and researches carried out on Nigerian pension management have returned the same verdict – it is fraught with challenges, mostly administrative.

The administrative challenges include inadequate personnel; lack of biometric data capturing machines resulting in poor automation of processes; too many pensioners on the payroll, some of which are ghost pensioners; corruption underscored by embezzlement of pension funds. These have remained sore points in the nation’s pensions administration.

Obviously, Lawal may have understudied these flaws as he came prepared for his brief. He didn’t have to learn the ropes. Pronto, he set out to rev up the human capital capacity at the board through a new order of orientation and re-training of staff. He introduced automation not only to hasten the processes but also to clean up the register of pensioners, ridding it of ghost pensioners, a syndrome that has over the decades blighted pension management across board in the nation’s public sector.

It’s often said that leadership is about having a vision and pushing through the vision against all odds. This is what Lawal has done. When he mounted the saddle as the Chairman of the MPB, he promptly announced his vision and mission in sync with that of the board. Ever since, he has kept faith to his vision of automating the administration and management of military pension in Nigeria. One of such measures being undertaken is his determination to electronically verify Nigerian military pensioners within and outside the country. Lawal believes that automating the processes will help eliminate multiple human errors and unwholesome incidents that had dogged the operation of the board and stymied its efficiency at delivering the right service to the nation’s retired gallant military personnel both at home and in the Diaspora.

One noticeable departure from the past and which attests to the reformation of the military pension within the past one year is improvement in the prompt and regular payment of retirement benefits. This takes its bearing from the computerization and re-organization of gratuity and pensions payment system. This has helped to eliminate the hitherto needless delays in payment and processing of refunds of contributions made by military personnel to the Contributory Pensions Scheme.

Lawal has proven that effective management of pensions in the 21st century especially with the benefits of technology is possible in Nigeria. The introduction of the NOK (Next-of-Kin) Indemnity Form to prevent continuous payment of pension to deceased pensioners is yet another masterstroke which showed his understanding of the challenges that have over time frustrated the process.

Globally, serving in the military evokes a sense of patriotism and national commitment on the part of the officer. This is why serious nations don’t toy with after-service welfare of their veterans. Lawal has introduced this time-tested global best practice of catering for veterans by improving the synergy between the board and the veteran bodies.

It was, therefore, no surprise when the Senate Committee on Establishment and Public Service recently commended the board for its promptness in the payment of pensions and gratuity to retired military personnel, in addition to timely payment of death benefits to the Next-of-Kin (NOK) of deceased military personnel. Ordinarily, this was one of the reasons the board was set up. But that has not been the routine. Delay in payment of military pensions has been the enduring feature of the board. This explains why doing the right thing as Commodore Lawal did is attracting the headlines. The bottlenecks have been removed via human capital and infrastructure reforms. And we no longer see long queues of military retirees or their dependants litter the streets of Abuja just to collect elusive pensions. Some have dropped dead on such queues. Some, too sick and weak to stand the rigours and drudgery of the pension exercise, have collapsed while waiting. That’s not how to treat the body of persons who risked their lives, got disconnected from their families and sacrificed their social lives just so the rest of us can live in peace.

Lawal’s revolutionary reforms have helped to cushion the pains of dependants losing loved ones in the line of duty. The Chairman, Senate Committee on Establishment and Public Service, Senator Ibrahim Shekarau, did not hold back words as he gushed in gratitude and unvarnished commendation for Lawal and his team during the Committee’s oversight visit to the board’s head office in Abuja on 3 June 2021.

Senator Shekarau said with a tincture of certitude that Nigerians were grateful to the leadership of the board for not only promptly paying pensions and other benefits, but also for reorganizing the gratuity and pensions payment system, thus eliminating unnecessary delays which hitherto characterized the system.

The senator who should know, having excelled as a civil servant and administrator and now a politician, said Lawal’s reorientation of staff and reorganisation of the board has repositioned it for nimble-footed efficiency and saved Nigerians the embarrassment of seeing military retirees loitering the streets of Abuja, begging for their entitlements to be paid after serving their country meritoriously for many years. There is so much about a working pension system especially for the military. This has become even more essential these recent years when the nation is embroiled in an insurgency war with persons not easily identifiable.

During this period, not only has the nation lost top military personnel through retirement, she has also lost young and active ones in the course of the insurgency battle. The demands of this internal war and the need to meet with the United Nations prescription for army personnel to population ratio means that the nation must ramp up recruitment of young men and women to join the military. For this mandate to be met, prospective candidates wishing to make a career in the military must first know and be convinced that should the unexpected happen while in active service, the persons they left behind would not have need to go through insufferable conditions of life.

In one year, Commodore Lawal has engendered a culture of integrity, transparency and accountability at the MPB, and the staff attest to this. The Senate says so and military pensioners tell it across the nation. Even his seniors in the military say he was never one to fall short of expectation. They say so because of his pedigree of sterling service and scholarship.

He flaunts a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the Nigeria Defence Academy, a Master’s degree in Business Administration (Finance) from the University of Lagos, Certificate in Public Financial Management in a Changing World from Harvard Kennedy School of Executive Education, USA. He is a member of the Institute of Cost and Management Accountants, Institute of Chartered Economists of Nigeria, the Nigerian Institute of Management (NIM) and the Association of National Accountants of Nigeria. All this has made him a game-changer in pensions management.

Ali, a public policy strategist, wrote from Lagos