LACED with twists and turns, the pension fund scandal starring Abdulrasheed Maina is getting messier. The long-running drama resurfaced in October when President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the sack of the former chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team from the Federal Civil Service shortly after his secret reinstatement. However, over a month after the President’s directive, the public is still nonplussed about the shoddy handling of the saga. Buhari has always been alarmingly slow in taking action on serious misdemeanour around members of his administration’s sclerotic cabal. For a government preaching rectitude, this is appalling.
Save for his discordant defence of his actions through proxies, Maina has been in hiding since his sacking. Stating that he fled because some unknown people were after his life, Maina has reiterated through third parties and his family members that he is innocent of the pension fraud charges for which the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission declared him wanted in 2013.
The Maina case has exposed the underbelly of Buhari’s anti-corruption war. The real calamity is that the scandal – like others before it – might soon be forgotten. A fugitive from the law, Maina’s reinstatement and promotion to the post of an acting director in the Federal Ministry of Interior in September are untidy, a pungent indication of Buhari’s weak strategy in combating graft. The government has not been able to tell Nigerians which public agency reinstated a public officer wanted for stealing. It is just a tale of denials and counter-denials by the Office of the Head of Service, the Federal Civil Service Commission, the Interior Ministry and the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation. What happened to the extant civil service procedure?
Absurdly, the AGF and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, has admitted before a House of Representatives ad hoc committee hearing that he had met Maina in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Malami said he sought advice from Lawal Daura, the director-general of the State Security Service, on whether he should meet with Maina. However, he claimed that though the letter clearing the way for Maina’s reinstatement originated from his ministry, he did not know who signed it. These are inconsistent testimonies. All along, Malami has not been above aboard in this case. He has a lot more to explain.
The pension agency is a honey-pot for thieves. The acting Chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Magu, told the Reps committee that N2.7 billion of pension funds was traced to Maina’s bank account, while his son had a turnover of N1.5 billion in one year. “Maina paid $2 million in cash in one day to buy a house in Abuja,” Magu told lawmakers. In 2012, the Nigeria Police declared Maina wanted for a N192 billion pension fraud. But with his connections in high places, he has managed to escape justice.
Apparently, Maina does not want to go down alone. From his place of hiding, he has fuelled allegations that Buhari approved the meeting between him and Malami in Dubai. “When this government came, the President (Buhari), gave the nod that (I should) ‘go and sit down with Maina; I’ve given you the approval,’” Maina alleged in a TV interview from his hideout. He said the Buhari government invited him back to help it recover a sum of N1.6 trillion that was stolen from the pension funds. Malami put the figure at N1.3 trillion.
This puts the President in a tight spot. It is a huge damage to Buhari’s avowal to fight corruption. If it is true, his query to the Head of Service, Winifred Oyo-Ita, to explain how Maina got reinstated, was a ruse to mislead the public that he (Buhari) was not in the picture. Nigerians should put the President under pressure to reveal whether he truly had a hand in Maina’s reinstatement.
The EFCC, probably the only agency standing in the fight to bring Maina to justice, is also facing accusations of being a party to the scandal. According to the Senate ad hoc committee investigating Maina’s controversial reinstatement, the PRTT returned 222 properties seized from pension fund thieves to the EFCC. The committee alleged that EFCC officials “shared” the recovered assets among themselves. In debunking the accusations, the EFCC has stated that it has “no record of collaboration between it and the Maina-led PRTT.” In a newspaper advertorial, the EFCC stated that the over 77 assets it recovered from pension thieves had no input from Maina’s PRTT.
This is no time for delays or fudges. The Presidency must come out clean on this scandal. Issues that have to do with corruption at the highest level of government need to be swiftly handled. These chaotic inquisitions and shrill rhetoric will not solve the problem; they will only lead to half-measures. If not well handled, it might tip the scandal under the carpet in the heat of politics. Moreover, based on experience, probes do not deliver in Nigeria. Therefore, it is critical to institute a judicial panel of enquiry into the case. A judge-led inquiry is better placed to thrash out all the issues.
The advantage of a judicial inquiry is that it will be conducted by independent judicial officials. It will allow Maina to come out openly to establish his innocence or otherwise.
Nigerians are waiting.
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