The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has injected his sectional politics into the National Pension Commission, further accentuating the leadership crisis bedevilling the commission. By nominating Aisha Umar from the North-West geopolitical zone as director-general of the regulatory agency, he is accused of brazenly seeking to circumvent the law. As vigorously contested by the Senate Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe, since the last incumbent DG, Chinelo Anohu-Amazu, was removed midway into her term, a nominee from her South-East geopolitical zone should complete her term. According to the Pensions Act, the commission’s DG is entitled to five years tenure of office, subject to renewal for another term in office.
PenCom, a critical agency tasked with regulating, supervising and ensuring the effective administration of pension matters in Nigeria, has been without a board or substantive head since April 2017. Government officials say the “replacement of any PenCom DG removed from office from the same region as the former occupant of the position only applies to occasional vacancies and not when the whole Board is dissolved by the President as was done in 2017.” Therefore, “the President reserves the right to reconstitute the Board from competent people across the country.”
Appointed DG in 2014 for a renewable five-year term by then President Goodluck Jonathan, Anohu-Amazu was controversially removed by Buhari in 2017 along with 22 other heads of federal agencies. Shortly afterwards, Buhari presented Aliyu Abdurahman Dikko from another zone to the Senate for confirmation as the DG along with five others as chairman and executive commissioners. This immediately provoked a storm of protests. Senators pointed out the illegality of the choice, as “an absolute breach” of 21 (1) of the Pension Reform Act 2014: “In the event of a vacancy (for the chairman, DG or other members of the board), the President shall appoint a replacement from the geo-political zone of the immediate past member that vacated office to complete the remaining tenure.” Based on this provision, a replacement for the Anambra State-born Anohu-Amazu should have been nominated from the South-East, not from any other zone. But Abdurahman is from Buhari’s North-West zone.
Undaunted, Buhari pursued his sectional mission: though forced to withdraw Dikko’s candidature, he retained Umar as acting DG since then, apparently to wait out Anohu-Amazu’s term that ended in 2019, to circumvent the law and deny the South-East zone the slot. The Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, has sent the nomination to the relevant committee. “That is (the Act) for me to interpret because I interpret the laws here. If there is any petition to that effect, it should be sent to the committee,” he boasted. Technically, Buhari allowed the Board’s tenure to expire before representing Umar for confirmation. However, Buhari should have doused the tension the exit of Anohu-Amazu created by looking beyond his geo-political zone for a new DG.
The intrusion of primordial politics into the delicate pension sector is deplorable. Once again, Buhari fails the leadership test by not resolving the PenCom DG appointment crisis once and for all. Having sworn to uphold the constitution, he as President, ought to be the embodiment of the ennobling principles of the primacy of the law, national cohesion, equity and inclusiveness. Next to free and fair elections, writes John Carey, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, USA, “one of the most defining characteristics of democracy is the rule of law; laws must apply equally to everyone, even the most powerful government officials and elected leaders.”
The main worry here is the dangerous infusion of ethnic politics into PenCom affairs. Then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, had looked beyond his South-West zone to headhunt Muhammad Ahmad from the North as pioneer DG of the commission. Regarded as a signature achievement of the Obasanjo administration, the Pension Reform Act 2004 was signed into law “to address and eliminate the problems associated with pension schemes in the country.” Before the enactment of the PRA 2004, pension schemes, both for public and private sectors, were awfully unorganised and bastardised. But the stench of politics started wafting in as Ahmad left in 2014. Jonathan started it all by asking Ahmad to hand over to Anohu-Amazu amid suggestions that she ought to have retired, having spent 10 years as pioneer secretary/legal adviser. The Jonathan government pushed through an amendment to the PRA, reducing the required years of experience for the DG in what many believed was to facilitate her substantive appointment. Jonathan was wrong. As acting President, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo’s attempt to push the nomination of Funso Doherty from the South-West was neutered by opposing forces. Buhari should have ended the unfolding travesty by putting an end to the travesty.
These are dangerous moves. For the 9.03 million persons registered in the Retirement Savings Account by June this year, this is their only social safety net. Total valuation of pension assets at N11.09 trillion represents a rare success story in a rambunctious economy, providing succour to millions of retirees and a stable pool of investible funds. Some 67 per cent is invested in government securities.
There is the need to anchor the PenCom board appointment on merit. Experts argue that obstacles to merit include political patronage and nepotism, discrimination, faulty definitions of merit, and its politicisation. Nigeria’s pernicious ethnic and religious politics should not be allowed to pollute and degrade the enviable pension scheme. If the stakeholders, especially contributors, come to believe that the commission is only implementing ethnic or partisan agenda that could change wildly every four to eight years, they will lose trust in the scheme.
The spoils system of employment is keeping this country back. The merit system keeps democracy safe, mediocrity is its destroyer. The award of jobs should be based on what you know, not who you know. For now, it is imperative that the Act is reviewed to make room for pure merit. Insistence on this must be implacable.
Senators should insist on adherence to the law and equity and stop rubber-stamping executive nominations. Rigour in the national interest is an absolute minimum for effective lawmaking and oversight.