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Aisha Dahir-Umar: The Quiet ‘Iron Lady’ at PENCOM

Aisha Dahir-Umar: The Quiet ‘Iron Lady’ at PENCOM

The Director-General of the National Pension Commission (PENCOM), Mrs Aisha Dahir-Umar, has lately come under attacks from different quarters, with some alleging that the staff of the commission are earning humongous salaries. What is fueling these attacks? Is there a merit in the allegations? Ebere Nwoji digs deeper and reports

Sometime in September 2022, reports started circulating that the staff of National Pension Commission (PENCOM) were on “jumbo pay.” It was widely reported that the least paid member of staff was paid N3 million monthly. The claim was made by a federal legislator who, in the video that was circulated from a House Committee hearing, was visibly angry. The video went viral. In a country where youth unemployment is high and salaries are generally poor, the notion that a cleaner earns N3 monthly, compared to the minimum national wage of N30,000, was bound to raise public anger and generate a backlash against the commission and its Director-General, Mrs Aisha Dahir-Umar.

But immediately, the commission issued a statement to counter the trending news. It said its highest paid official, which is obviously the DG, does not earn up to N1million a month. “The public is invited to note that the claim is absolutely false. The highest paid official of the Commission earns less than N1 million a month. It is therefore completely illogical and improbable that the least paid will earn a monthly salary of N3 million,” the commission said in a statement to the media.

It added, “From our understanding, it appears someone calculated all staff costs, including training, staff exit benefit scheme, and employer’s pension contribution, and divided the total by the number of the Commission’s employees and concluded that the least paid employee is on a monthly salary of N3 million. There is a clear difference between staff cost and staff salaries.”

The commission said there was an element of “mischief and possible blackmail” in the allegation. It is yet unclear if PENCOM got wind of what was coming since it did not say so in the press release, but thereafter various groups and student union activists began to issue statements alleging that there was corruption in PENCOM and Dahir-Umar should be sacked by President Muhammadu Buhari in what many onlookers would suggest was a coordinated campaign against her. The National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), which is not directly involved in the pension scheme, issued a press statement calling for Dahir-Umar’s sack for “corruption, abuse of office and embezzlement”. This was at a time the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) had been on strike for seven months and federal universities, its primary constituency, were completely crippled.

 “Occupy PENCOM” Threats

In its statement, NANS promised to “occupy PENCOM” until Buhari listened to their demand. Less than a week after issuing the threat, NANS made a U-turn and tendered an apology. In a letter dated October 3, 2022, it said: “In our quest to get to the bottom of the true happenings in PENCOM, we have come across information that is now at our disposal on the truth of the matter. In pursuant of this noble objective of ours, we wish to withdraw the letter earlier submitted and inform you of the official stand down of all proposed action therein.” It further said that “we are glad coming across the recent development in PENCOM under your watch that will allow for pension contributors to use 25 percent of their savings to access mortgage and own houses, this will not only improve the welfare of our nation’s workers but will also go a long way in boosting economic activities across the value chain of the Nigerian Real Estate sector.” Many found this astounding, but inside sources said the association decided to pipe down after one of its leaders confessed that its initial statement was induced.

If the PENCOM boss thought it was over after NANS’ public apology, she was making a mistake. Different groups started writing to her and threatening to “Occupy PENCOM” over the same allegations of “corruption, abuse of office and embezzlement.” They described themselves as anti-corruption groups. One was named Civil Society Groups for Good Governance, whose president is one Comrade Ogakwu Dominic. There was another one called Initiative for Leadership and Economic Watch in Nigeria with “Ambassador” Splendour Agbonkpolor as its Executive Director. Yet another group named Global Integrity Crusade Network (GICN) issued a press statement accusing the PENCOM DG of bribing NANS officials to stop the planned public protests. NANS, in its response to GICN, demanded that the group should name its officials that collected the bribe, describing the press statement as “not only false but malicious.”

While the brickbats went back and forth, sources said Umar-Dahir petitioned the security agencies, asking them to look into the allegations because there was an obvious threat to the public peace by the planned protests. A source at one of the security agencies said when some of the activists were invited to substantiate their allegations, they became jittery. “One of them said everything they did was based on the statement made on the alleged jumbo pay by a legislator,” the source said. One of the activists was said to have confessed that they were paid to organise the protests and that they had already rented buses for the protesterss and camped them at Lugbe, on the outskirts of Abuja, ahead of the “Occupy PENCOM” action.

The Politics of 2023 Elections

There seems to be an increasing pressure on federal agencies believed to be awash with money. According to a recent report, heads of several Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) are under pressure to make funds available to politicians ahead of the 2023 elections and are increasingly facing “oversight” heat as well as negative campaigns by various groups via the media. It should not be surprising that PENCOM, which technically superintends pension assets worth N14.27 trillion as at June 2022, would be one of the agencies under pressure. This may be mistaken. The N14.27 trillion is not in PENCOM’s coffers and it belongs to the millions of contributors across the federation. However, PENCOM is classified as a revenue-generating agency and is allowed to retain some of what it generates. This may be the major attraction for the politicians and activists.

Dahir-Umar, the PENCOM DG, is described by many in the industry as a “quiet but tough lady.” A top official of a Pension Fund Administrator (PFA) said the DG has carried out far-reaching reforms and tightened regulations since assuming office. “PFAs would want more leeway than she is ready to yield but we believe the industry would be the better for it,” the manager said, citing the example of the stoppage of gifts to Retirement Savings Account (RSA) holders in order to allow for “free movement” of contributors. So far, neither Dahir-Umar nor the commission has made any public statement on the aborted protests. Rather, she reportedly got her lawyers to write “cease and desist” letters to the groups, failing which they would be slammed with libel suits to prove their allegations in a court of law.

Exits from Contributory Pension Scheme

The controversies, accentuated by the claim that the least paid PENCOM employee earns N3 million monthly, could also be traced to the insistence of the commission that certain government officials should not be allowed to exit from the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS). Dahir-Umar has stood her ground that it is wrong and unconstitutional to exempt the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (HCSF) and permanent secretaries from the CPS. This has not gone down with some top government officials. Her argument has been that the Pension Reform Act 2004 (PRA 2004), amended in 2014, and well as constitutional provisions do not allow the exemptions and doing otherwise could affect pension reforms and take the country back to the pre-reform era when all pension liabilities were on the government and retirees ended up being owed for years.

Her stance ruffled feathers but the exemption has not been reversed. The police are currently at the National Assembly seeking a legislation that would allow them to exit from the CPS completely, describing themselves as “peculiar”. It has also been reported that some retired senior officers of the policy are now drawing two pensions – one from the police PFA and another from the Federal Government payroll. Umar-Dahir has raised a string opposition to this, although all indications are that the police may get their way as more Federal Government employees seek to return to the Defined Benefit Scheme (BDS) or take away the prying eyes of PENCOM from their PFAs.

Will Umar-Dahir Survive the Blitzkrieg?

So far, the “Iron Lady” has not appeared to be perturbed by the negative media. If anything, she seems more determined to continue to leave her mark on the pension industry. Since she assumed office in 2017, the assets have grown from N6.42 trillion to N14.2 trillion. In 2019, PENCOM introduced the Micro Pension Plan for the informal sector workers under the CPS. It was launched by Buhari. The minimum capital base of PFAs has been increased from N1 billion to N5 billion, despite opposition from the administrators. This, according to Umar-Dahir, is to strengthen the sector. Most recently, PENCOM allowed access to a percentage of RSA balance towards paying for equity contribution for residential mortgage. The RSA holders now have a yearly window to change their PFAs in what is expected to encourage healthy competition and service delivery.

Despite the sporadic media war, the PENCOM DG does not appear to be in danger of being fired by Buhari as being canvassed by the groups. This might have been helped by the fact that the president could be aware of the undercurrents, especially as he is said not to trust a senior member of his government who is said to be pushing for her sack. Buhari is also said to be weary of “coordinated” media campaigns and organized public protests asking him to sack any appointee. It is also possible that he has been briefed by the security agencies over what is going on. Apart from politicians looking for slush funds to run their campaigns in 2023, some political appointees are also believed to be looking for “severance packages” from MDAs as they are not likely to be retained by the next administration. It is a web of intrigues.

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