…. adequate funding, office space, others constrain to PTAD’s operations
….Pensioners’ unions very important to pensioners’ welfare
Political will of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration, and culture of empathy, commitment, dedication, efficiency and effectiveness exhibited by the Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD) on pension administration and management in the country, are the major factors that engenders the success stories and better living condition of the Defined Benefit Scheme pensioners across Nigeria. However, the Executive Secretary of the Directorate, Dr. Chioma N. Ejikeme, in this interview with CHRISTIAN APPOLOS, noted that adequate funding, office complex sizeable enough to accommodate PTAD’s departments and facilities, and other necessaries are needed to smoothen the agency’s operation, put corruption away and over all; provide a deserving retirement experience for pensioners. Excerpts…
Pensioners’ Unions sing praises of PTAD and President Buhari administration , regarding prompt pension, arrears and entitlements payment. What exactly are the new things PTAD is doing that cause the praises?
Well, let me start by going directly to tell you that PTAD is not doing anything new. What you’re seeing is a cumulative results of what PTAD had been doing over the years. PTAD was actually set up as a model agency to provide exceptional innovative technology driven pension services.
You know what happened to defined benefit pensions in the past. Apart from funding that wasn’t regular, we also had the issue of Corruption, fraud and all kinds of things which actually necessitated the pension reform.
With the pension reform, what we now have as a pension policy that is currently operational is the contributory pension scheme. But we at PTAD are taking care of those pensioners who did not transit to the contributory pension scheme. And the pensioners who were part of the defined benefit scheme before the onset of the contributory pension scheme. The defined benefit scheme is 100% Treasury Funded pension scheme, that is to say that the beneficiaries made no contribution at any point in time as against the contributory pension scheme.
From the get go, PTAD was created to change the pension narrative. So it’s been a progressive thing. What you are seeing and what the pensioners are seeing is a cumulative of what has been happening over the years.
When PTAD took over pension. We first of all started with verification to create a database of pensioners. Who exactly are pensioners, the people that are collecting pension are they eligible pensioners? These were the pointer questions. Don’t forget that at that time, the government had an issue of ghost workers, and those workers naturally will transmit into ghost pensioners.
There was a whole lot to be done. So PTAD embarked on an aggressive verification exercise to be able to ascertain who the eligible pensioners are and it involved production of career documents. We captured the biometrics of these pensioners, and we created a database.
Now, one of the interesting things that happened with the creation of PTAD is that verification was taken to another level. We had what we call a pensioner friendly verification exercise. We got air conditioned halls, chairs for the pensioners, gave them breakfast and lunch. Had ambulance services. I mean, Nigerian pensioners had never seen anything like that. Because they were used to being left in the rain, matched in the streets. Nobody even talked to you not to talk of giving you a chair or shade for you to stand.
The verification exercise was a field exercise. So we showed that pensioners are entitled to their dignity and empathy. These are senior citizens. PTAD rolled out with that culture of making sure that dignity, empathy, passion, commitment, were core values inculcated in the PTAD staff. Don’t forget that from inception, government invested in a dedicated and competent workforce. Government took time to recruit the quality of people who work in PTAD and it has paid off big time.
We had a mobile verification exercise in addition to the field ones. We will go to hospitals. Assuming a pensioner is not feeling well, we will go to hospital and verify the pensioner there. A pensioner cannot come out from their homes, we will go to their homes to get them verified. So that is what I will call the beginning.
But before I go on to the major deliverables we have achieved, that is, things that you can feel and see. I would want to say that all what I have described and talked about would not be possible without a positive political will.
The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, has demonstrated a very strong and positive political will towards the Nigerian pensioners. They’ve never had it this good in so many ways. And I’m going to enumerate a lot of the things that have happened in the course of this administration to illustrate to you why pensioners are very happy.
Sometimes they jokingly say maybe it’s because Baba is a pensioner. They also say the Minister of Finance is a pensioner and to top it all, the Executive Secretary of PTAD is a pensioner. So when you have your constituency lined up, you can’t afford to mess up. But that’s not it. Like I said, the positive political will is very important, without which we can’t do anything.
I also want to also commend apart from the Budget Office, the National Assembly. They also have been very, very supportive. When we bring our pension budget, they don’t mess around with it. Because they believe that these are senior citizens, people who have served the country in their youth and put-in their best and they deserve to have a good retirement.
So apart from the verification exercises, for this particular administration; pension payment is a first line charge. The minute they paid salary, the very next day pension is paid. Like now, we have already paid pensions for the month of May. Their pensions are coming regularly. Now they can plan, knowing fully well that at the end of the month, they’re going to get their pensions.
In addition to that, PTAD used technology not only for the computation of pensions, the payment process also as designed by government is an automated technology based payment process, using the GIFMIS platform, that is, Government IntegratedInformation Management System. So that’s how the payments are made.
We don’t interface with funds, the pension funds are domiciled in the Single Treasury Accounts. All we do is prepare and send to the office of the Accountant General, and immediately the funds are transferred from the CBN directly to the account of the pensioner.
So that payment process also has been of a help. Then the icing on the cake, which if you ask me is the main reason why the pensioners are very happy is that when we inherited pension payment, we inherited a lot of arrears. Pensioners were been owed a lot of money.
Gratuity, next of kin of pensioners. So when I came in 2020, I actually had a press conference where I declared a state of emergency in the civil service pension department, because we had people who have been verified since 2015. The reason was because PTAD had to first of all go on a marathon verification exercise to verify all the pensioners. So as they were being verified, it was difficult to come back and do computation and put them on the payroll, because we wanted to first of all know the ones who supposed to be with us or those are not.
So I declared a state of emergency and we started computing all those files of these pensioners. We computed over 24,000 files and we paid over N8 Billion in arrears. For pensioners who were not on the payroll, we enrolled. Some people will just stay and N9 million naira will arrive in their accounts. They didn’t know what’s going on, because it was a project.
At that time, there were so many complaints. All these pensioners being owed money were complaining. There was no point treating them one by one. What was the problem with this thing, bring all the files, run it as a project, complete everybody’s own, find out what their areas are, whether they complained or not, and pay them off.
Why were they owed for that long? What was the reasons for the piled uncleared pensions and gratuities? The political will to direct for peoples’ pensions be paid weren’t there, was that the problem or because the payment system was not automated?
Government were not paying pensions before. They were owing people pensions, owing arrears. I don’t have the historical perspective figures. But at that time, pension funds were in commercial bank accounts, being managed. You and I know the kind of amounts that has been alleged that were stolen at that time. So I don’t know whether it was that the funds were not being provided or that they were provided and were being misappropriated.
I don’t have the evidence. I can’t come out and tell you they were not providing the funds, but all I know is that when you look at the dynamics of how pension was managed at that time, there were a lot of room for manipulation. The way it is being managed now, it is very difficult to manipulate pension funds, very difficult because a lot of internal control mechanisms have been put in place.
From the verification exercise for instance, when we capture your biometrics we have your your fingerprints and ensure you are a bonafide pensioner. You can’t come in as a ghost. But the system we have put in place now, Mr A alone cannot verify a pension. It goes through a process, from Mr. A to Mr B to Mr quality assurance and somebody else does the computation.
So we’ve done the verification, collected biometrics, so you’re solidly on our database as a pensioner. The next thing now is to continue to confirm that you are alive. We’ll get there. It is one of the innovations that we have brought in to also help pensioners. The alternative would have been every year or something we go back on the verification exercise. But we brought the solution that will enable the pension confirm he is alive, because when the pensioner dies, automatically he or she drop off from the payroll.
With all the mechanisms you’ve put in place, can one say that the days of corruption in pension administration and management in Nigeria is behind?
You see, even in the most civilised economies, there are still rooms for improvement. The important thing is that PTAD has zero tolerance for corruption. Processes have been put in place to make sure such doesn’t happen within the administration. In fact, most of the pension fraud that we have now is coming from fraudsters. The pension fraudsters deal with the pensioners. They will call a pensioner and say you are being owed N10 million if you bring N1million we will help you facilitate it. No such thing happens here in PTAD. Nobody from PTAD will ask you for money to process your entitlement.
Within the organisation (PTAD) processes have been put in place, from the verification, to the computation. We don’t do manual computation. Our computation is automated. What we do is; Mr Appolos Christian: when did you retire? What is the salary structure for the organization or agency, what grade level and step? We put it in and automatically the computer pulls out what your pension is supposed to be. So the issue of somebody who is Mr Appolos’ friend, adding N20,000 to his pension because it’s manually computed is out of the question.
Now, after that process of computation, it still goes through an auditing process. Auditors will have to go through and look at it. In fact, this is one place where you have federal auditors and internal auditors working at the same time. The internal auditors will look at the pension payroll, the federal auditors will look at the pension payroll before payment is made. So in terms of payment process, nobody interfaces cash, nobody can. It is automated straight into the account of the pension.
Pension issues in Nigeria has been going on for awhile, now you mentioned automation to ensure the processes are easy, fast and corruption free. You also mentioned Political will and first line charge earlier, is there anything, maybe something like a legislation that can solve all the issues surrounding pensions administration and management once and for all?
The first line charge thing is not a legislation and I must tell you the Chairman of the Establishment and Public Service Committee in the Senate, Distinguished Senator Shekarau, has been very very passionate concerning pensioners.
So in terms of legislation or something that will make it mandatory, we don’t have that in place. But I think it is something that should be pursued because there might be a Pharaoh that doest know Joseph. When we have that Pharaoh that doest know Joseph, we might find ourselves sliding back to where we were. Somebody who now decides pension would not be a first line charge, for instance.
Some time ago the Minister of Labour and Employment regrouped the Nigeria Union of Pensioners into 3 separate unions. He said the purpose was to entrench efficiency and effectiveness, to what extent is PTAD dragged into the issues and crisis of pensioners’ unions especially in regards to checkoff dues?
The pensioners’ unions are very, very important because in the events that any government comes in and tries to mess around with the pensioners, they are the ones that will fight the battle to make sure that pensioners are continued taken care of. So they are very important.
PTAD has always tried to be neutral. We don’t take sides with any pensioners’ union. So far, we have been trying to logically look at situations when they’re having issues. We call them, talk to them, to the extent that some of them will even allege that PTAD is siding this one or siding that one which is not the case, because we do not want to dabble into the pension union politics. It’s huge.
Now, where it concerns us is when it comes to checkoff dues because they demand the checkoff dues. So recently, I set up a committee because previously, we’ve not had any checkoff due policy for PTAD. So I just recently set up a committee to look into formulating a checkoff dues policy for PITAD since we pay this checkoff dues. Can we now formulate a policy that would give us the checklists of what qualifies a pension union for checkoff dues.
So if you come or you tell us you’ve been registered by the Registrar of Trade Unions, in which case you are entitled to 1% checkoff dues, we will check our boxes. Okay, you are this, you are that, no problem. Whether we were paying checkoff dues before or not, we will begin to pay you checkoff dues. But without that policy, it becomes a subjective thing.
That is what we want to put in place because there are quite a number of them who are agitating. They already have their registration with the Registrar of Trade Unions, and by extension and implication they are entitled to checkoff dues. They have issues where some people who they’ve been lumped together to be part of them are saying we are not part of you. So there’s a contention. Now as a rule (this also is will be part of our pension policy), for every union that there’s a contention, we don’t pay anybody. We pay 100% of the pension to the pensioners.
Don’t also forget that the checkoff due policy also has an exception to it. It is optional. If a pensioner says they don’t want to pay check up dues pay me my 100%. I’m not part of this union, It is allowed. So I want to believe that by the time we finish with that checkoff due policy, it’s going to go a long way to solve the issue of checkoff dues, because that’s the only time they come to us. If they have any other quarrel they don’t come to us. It is only the Money one that brings them here. So we’re trying to get a policy that will deal with that and it’s going to happen sooner than later.
What is the greatest challenge PTAD is having right now in its operation?
Funding. You see these people (pensioners) I’m telling you about with all the arrears and all of that, they go very sentimental about it and they make you feel guilty. You want us to die before you give us the money, emotional blackmail. So funding is a big issue.
We’ve been trying to make a case to government concerning this funding. So that if we’re owing this pensioner 100 and something billion, can we be getting 25 billion every year, until we liquidate the liability. The fact that this particular regime has already started paying them part of their arrears, is also one of the major things making the pensioners very happy. And it is a positive thing.
So we have been making proposals to government because we would love to liquidate all the liabilities that we have in which case PTAD would just be doing a routine thing of paying pensioners who are still alive and giving them their monthly pension. If there’s a pension increment, we implement it, if a pensioner is dead we remove the pesioner from the payroll. if the next of kin of the pensioner is entitled to anything, we give the next of kin whatever it is that they are supposed to get as beneficiaries. That is the key thing
The second thing is; you have seen where we are. First of all, it’s a rented premises. Secondly, it is not fit for purpose. This is where PTAD started. PTAD is supposed to be a transitional agency and I guess at inception, government didn’t know the size of the problem because it was a bit unknown, if you ask me. It is only when we now started verifying and all of that that we are now understanding the size of the problem.
With the kind of data we have now especially with the introduction of defunct agencies, there are lots of people who were retired before they were 45 which is even the qualifying age for pension and they have to wait till they are 45 years of age to get on the PTAD payroll. If you are 45 now, are we going to kill you off?
The ACT establishing PTAD says PTAD winds down when the pensioner dies. So people who are 45, all those young people we are not going to kill them off. They might have another 45 years to go. So you now begin to look at 45 more years for instance and how transitional can that be.
So it now behold us to see how we can have a commending structure of our own. Space is a constrain for us. Where we can store our files is a constrain for us, to have records well kept and all of that. So these are some of the issues.
And then issues concerning the welfare of our pensioners. We are pursuing health insurance for our pensioners and we thank God government has positively responded to that. There is now health insurance ACT that government has signed into law. Before that, government had already set up a committee to look into provision for health insurance for senior citizens and that committee has completed its report and would be submitting it very soon.
These are the vulnerable people. When you are working they are deduting money for NHIS, then you now leave work which is the time when hypertension will set in, diabetes will set in, arthritis and all those things. Then when you need the health insurance the most, you are not been provided with that. So for us, it is a big challenge and we would really love for our pensioners to benefit from health insurance. So it’s a big issue for us.
Then I told you about the I AM ALIVE thing that we are going after, because that’s something to help us to maintain the integrity of our database to make sure that it is only people who are alive and still eligible to collect pensions that are still on our payroll.
Our mandate tells us about welfare, there’s a whole lot we can do with welfare because when we get all these things streamlined, complains taking care, we now look at how to increase the life expectancy of this pensioners A lot of people are retired at 60 years. These ones that retire at 40 something years of age, they are retired but not tired and the only way that they can make use of their time is to look at certain welfare scheme that can be generated for them.
We have alot of ideas. The fact that they are pension unions, government can initiate programmes that can take care of such people. Some of them can be given soft loans and they can be paying about 5%, they can go into things like poultry, farming, animal husbandry that is not stressful. You can rear goat in the field at the back of your house and you are selling it that it would be complimenting your pension salary.
So we are also thinking of things that could help increase the life expectancy of these our pensioners so that their retirement will be a very good. So far they are very happy with us and we are very happy.