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NIGERIA: Politics of Pension Reform and 2015 Elections

 When the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) declared during the 2013 National Assembly public hearing on Pension Reform Bill, 2013 that it was going to make pension reform an election issue in 2015 and beyond, pension stakeholders and Nigerians supported the declaration. This is understandable.
Pension is a matter that borders on catering for citizens’ welfare, especially the aged ones that have worn out their youth in service to the nation. There is no better corroboration or affirmation of this fact than the statement of the Senate President, Senator Dr. David Mark, that “as Christians and Moslems, we have religious injunctions to take care of the elderly, the old and the children”.
The mess and uproar generated by the massive looting of pension funds in the country led the National Assembly to declare that the corruption in Nigeria’s pension administration is unheard of in other climes and that pension money is “blood money”. President Goodluck Jonathan sent the Pension Reform Bill to the National Assembly as his administration’s response to the numerous challenges facing Nigeria’s pension system.

Mr. President’s action has no doubt cleared any question about his government’s commitment to pension reform and fighting corruption in the sector. It was against this backdrop that pension stakeholders led by NLC resolved that they were going to support political parties based on their pension policies and also vote candidates for election based on their commitment to pension reform.
I praise the efforts of the National Assembly and pension stakeholders for jointly and overwhelmingly condemning the fraud that characterised pension administration in the country and resolving to tackle the menace. In the wake of the mindboggling pension funds looting saga, our federal legislators had taken the bull by the horns to sanitise our pension system. Even though the National Assembly does not administer pension, it offers intervention where necessary through laws that set standards and encourage best practices that take care of pension problems and curb corruption. The National Assembly insisted it must not be business as usual and made pension reform a national priority.

However, being a matter of urgent public national importance, I was one of those that thought the 2013 Pension Reform Bill will go down in history as one of the fastest bills passed by the National Assembly. But nearly one year after the NASS Joint Public Hearing in June 2013, the Pension Bill is yet to be read the third time and passed.
There are reports that the Pension Reform Bill has been caught between the efforts of President Goodluck Jonathan to address the challenges facing the pension industry and the interest of the pension cabals; the beneficiaries from the status quo, who are allegedly resisting Mr. President’s reform through their “legislative politics”. Experience has shown that people resist change when it threatens their interest. In as much as one would not want to believe that political factors have impeded legislative pension reform, how do we explain the back and forth movement on the Pension Bill in the National Assembly? It is worrisome that all sorts of untenable reasons have been adduced by the few forces working against the Pension Bill to delay its passage. Every now and then, I read reports on the contestations about the removal of 20 years’ experience. But I make bold to say that the executive was right when it reduced the 20 years age limit for the head of the Pension Commission (PENCOM). I agree with Issa Aremu, NLC National Vice President, who gave an indication that people with 20 years’ experience in pension could be those who have also acquired experience and expertise in fraud. And the truth is that in the past 10 years of pension administration, those who had run and done damage to Nigeria’s pension industry had over 20 years’ experience. So what has age got to do with it?
The global trend in the appointment of heads of financial institutions like PENCOM places more emphasis on competence, honesty, integrity and the requirement of fit and proper test.

Therefore the National Assembly was right when it further reduced the years of experience requirement for the head of PENCOM. A cursory look at the laws setting-up the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and the Nigerian Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC) will reveal the absence of years of experience limitations for their heads. Yet, these financial institutions like PENCOM manages about double, and in some cases N20 trillion above that of PENCOM and they are doing well. What the promoters of the so-called 20 years’ experience have failed to tell Nigerians is that those who looted billions of pension funds had over 20 years’ experience.

With just about 11 months to the 2015 general elections, our well-meaning legislators and in fact the National Assembly leadership should not allow a few deceitful elements playing politics with the Pension Bill to scuttle the country’s pension reform efforts. All over the world, the issue of pension or “life budget” for pensioners is so sensitive to play with and has grave socio-economic implications both for the citizens and the nation.  Nigerian Pension Reform is increasingly under pressure. The Presidency and the National Assembly have invested so much time, energy and resources in fighting for the actualisation of the country’s Pension Reform. Before the National Assembly embarks on another recess, one critical bill the Parliament should endeavour to pass is the Pension Reform Bill, 2013.Given the prospects the Pension Reform Bill holds for the welfare of impoverished Nigerian workers, millions of pensioners cutting across every constituency, and in fact the economy of this country, the National Assembly should rise to the challenge of giving the Pension Bill expeditious passage as well as oversight the commencement of its implementation before the tenure of this 7th National Assembly lapses. This will be a crucial centenary gift for Nigerian pensioners and a legacy the current NASS should aspire to leave.
As 2015 politics approaches, pension reform will be a big issue in the next election as pension stakeholders are mobilising to support those who supported the pension bill and work against those that worked against the bill.

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