interviewBy Bassey Udo
The executive secretary, Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD), Sharon Ikeazor, says the agency will not be distracted from its commitment to continue cleaning up the pensions system to make payment of defined pensions to retirees a painless experience to beneficiaries.
She spoke with the Business Editor, Bassey Udo, in Abuja.
PT: Can you shed more light on the lingering reports of sacked directors that have refused to go away?
SHARON: When I resumed office in October 2016, from my briefings with staff, I could see their attitude to work, the disquiet and the upset. I had to ask: What is going? Why this disenchantment with their work?
As we know, pension work should be taken passionately. Most of them said they did not have the confirmation of their appointments.
My investigation revealed that started in 2013. PTAD staff started taking over the pension offices in 2014. A lot of them did not have their appointments confirmed since then. Some of them complained of wrong placements above their grade levels.
The first thing I did was to write to the Head of Service of the Federation, requesting for a staff audit to be conducted. That was done.
During the audit, staff were expected to present their first employment letters, certificates and other documents. The other side of the audit was the vetting of certificates by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other offences Commission (ICPC).
When the report of the staff audit came out, it was found out that four directors were over the age of 50 at the time of their employment. That clearly was in violation of the public service regulation.
During the vetting, those found to have forged certificates, resigned and left before ICPC could prosecute them. There is only one the ICPC is actually prosecuting. He had actually gone to court over the issue.
After the directors were asked to leave after the staff audit, I invited them to my office and showed them the findings.
They said, in fact, they were waiting for it. They said this is what has been dangling over their heads ever since inception.
I asked them why they did not bring the issue to my attention since I arrived in October 2016. The staff audit was done in March 2017. I gave them their letters terminating their appointments.
In fact, while the staff audit was going on, another personnel audit by the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation in 2015 was brought to our attention. The report of that audit pointed out the same issue of age against the directors.
The letter terminating the appointments of the directors clearly stated that the salaries they earned throughout the period of their irregular appointments must be recovered and returned to government treasury.
However, I told them PTAD could offer them contract appointments for the period, since we were doing verification of pensioners. The next thing we got was court summons from them. We (PTAD) filed our defence.
Before the court, they took us before the National Assembly Committee on Establishments (Senate) and the Pensions Committee in the House of Representatives.
One of the questions the Committee asked them was: As senior management staff and foundation staff of PTAD, why did they not sort out these irregularities in their employments and ensure they were confirmed? They could not answer.
While the matter was still in court, they continued pursuing the matter in the Senate. As Senate was about to come out with the resolution, they quickly withdrew their case in court against PTAD.
PT: But, they said you refused to respond to the Senate’s invitation. Why did you do that?
Sharon: I am 33 years at the bar. As a lawyer, I could not have responded when the matter was still before the court, because that could have been subjudice.
When they withdrew the matter from court, the senate passed the resolution. If the senate had the true picture of the issues, I am sure they would not have passed the resolution.
The people who are still saying I refused to respond to the Senate invitation have chosen to hear one side of the case.
PT: What about reports that you also ignored the vice president’s directive to reinstate the directors?
Sharon: The sacked directors wrote petitions individually through their lawyers to the vice President alleging irregular termination of appointments.
The vice president wrote to us through his Chief of Staff, Ade Ipaye. Of course, I responded. How can I not respond to the vice president’s letter? I attached the staff audit report to my response. I highlighted what was stated in the report.
After the staff audit report, the then minister of finance, Kemi Adeosun, who was our supervising minister, approved the implementation of the staff audit. That was how the confirmation of the appointment of all the staff were done.
So, all the reports in the media about PTAD, including payment of pensioners and other successes recorded are by the same staff.
Now, the staff appointments have been confirmed. They have done their scheme of service. There was no scheme of service in PTAD before my arrival. There was no condition of service. These are all we have achieved in a year to get the turnaround we are witnessing in PTAD.
After the staff audit, we got that ratified by the Head of Service of the Federation so that everyone is sure of its job. That is what has made PTAD have all these successes.
PT: What about this reports of the SSS coming to invite about 30 senior staff of the directorate for investigation?
Sharon: Okay, its normal vetting of senior government officials in the service. When one attains a certain level in government, and working a place like the pension office, it is compulsory one must undergo the process.
I went for mine as well. It is not for selected persons. So far as you have attained a certain level in government, you must do it. I understand the Federal Inland Revenue Service is also doing its own vetting of its officials. It is not something one should be afraid of.
PT: Are you saying it has nothing to do with allegations that you deliberately asked the SSS to invite the staff to harass those who do not share your views or that of your management, to whip them into line?
Sharon: Why would I do that? Whip them into line to achieve what?
PT: Some say there are a lot of illegal things you are doing that are at variance with the corporate objectives of PTAD.
Sharon: Like what? Everything I am doing is absolutely in line with the objectives of PTAD. Pensioners are happy. We have just pay-rolled NITEL workers and Delta Steel. These are agencies that have long been forgotten by the system.
The invitation by the DSS is a normal vetting exercise. Why should anybody be frightened that they have to do it? I went for mine. These are some of the things we ought to have done ever since, just like the staff audit. I have just told you we have just done the condition of service and scheme of service, which were not in place.
PT: What about allegations online about some alleged illegal activities you are linked to?
Sharon: Those ones are by one George Uboh. It still boils down to those directors, because letters attached to those publications included those from the vice president’s office asking for my opinion on the petitions they got over alleged wrongful dismissal.
PT: Who is George Uboh? And what’s his interest in the matter?
Sharon: That’s what I don’t know. May be he is acting on behalf of the sacked directors, because what he attached to the publications were letters from the vice president’s office, the senate resolutions and the HGF’s office.
Some of those publications were not only derogatory, but libelous, which were absolutely unnecessary.
PT: But, to be more specific, what about the allegation of illegal employments they said you undertook lately? People say staff have been seeing a lot of people resume in various offices without due process?
Sharon: No, no, no. You know we had the staff audit, which started in March 2017. In the process of that audit, some of those indicted left on their own. But, there is one the ICPC is still investigating.
It has taken a long while to vet all the certificates. They have to write to all the universities and other institutions all over the world the man claimed to have attended. So, as those staff were resigning, we were doing what we call replacements.
There is no way we could have done those replacements without approvals from the Head of Service of the Federation and the Ministry of Finance. So, there is absolutely nothing illegal about that. Once we see a gap, we get approval and fill it, because PTAD is under-staffed.
PT: One would have thought the process should have been for those vacancies/gaps to be advertised before filling them?
Sharon: We will do that when we are doing the full employment. If not, the Federal Character Commission will come hard on us. Whatever we do, we follow due process. Some of those replacements are even secondments from other agencies.
PT: How many of those replacements are we talking about?
Sharon: Just nine of them. It is when we move office that we know we will need to employ more people.
Again, pension reform sct establishing PTAD says we must have offices in all states of the federation.
PT: So, how many are you having now?
Sharon: PTAD has offices in only eight states. Lagos (which has become the regional office, where pensioners can walk in there and be verified), Benin, Kano, Sokoto, Yola, Kaduna, Yobe and Enugu. We are going to open Anambra shortly.
What we do to save funds for government is, we write to the state governments to request for office space in their secretariats.
With these offices, our pensioners would not need to come all the way to Abuja to get verified. This is in line with our motto: “Putting pensioners first.” We will rather go to them. We want to make pensions as painless and stress-free as possible. Pension payment ought to be a pleasure for our pensioners. That is what PTAD has been doing.
We also do mobile verification for those who are very sick and old and cannot travel. We go to their homes and hospitals to verify them.
PT: Can you talk a bit about your achievements since assuming office?
Sharon: If you go to PTAD’s website, you will see what we call monthly returns, which are updates about everything we do here on a monthly basis. These are the things we pass on to the ministry of finance, our supervising ministry.
If one conducts a background check on me and the activities of PTAD, everything there is true. If anybody has anything specific about what we have done wrong, let such a person come out with them. What I see is that this is what you get when you are in public office. But, we have resolved not to be distracted.
PT: The picture we get everyday about the situation with pensioners is a sorry one. What has really changed since 2016 when you took up the job at PTAD?
Sharon: A lot has changed. Let us start with the staff welfare. We have sorted out all the things I said made them feel disenchanted, to ensure they will not be tempted to go back to their old ways.
I spoke earlier about confirmation of staff appointments. All the verifications carried out so far were to enable us validate the data inherited from the four pension offices.
For instance, when we inherited police pensions in 2014, we had about 18,600 on the payroll. After verification, that figure came down to 16,000. Everyone had to come for verification. And when they come, they will show their service records and cross checked with the ones we had. We get their biometrics. The account number must have the bank verification number. These were captured into the PTAD data base. That is where the staff payroll is, so that monthly the true pension is paid.
We also have in-house federal auditors, which a lot of people do not realise. PTAD does not just compute and pay pension. After computation, federal auditors audit it. Those that did not show up for verification were taken off the payroll. The same thing applies to civil service pensions.
In December 2016, PTAD took about 24,000 pensioners off the payroll. If their bank accounts do not have BVN, how can they operate? We thought the outcry would be so much, but it was only 10 per cent of those we took off that came up. And we placed them back on the payroll, on presentation of their BVN.
These are the savings we have been making for government. Also, through our database clean-up, we have seen duplicated account numbers and pensioners. We have also seen people, for instance, who were on grade level 2, earning the pension of grade level 14.
PT: How many of such duplications did you record?
Sharon: Not more than about 4,000 of them. We are still doing what we call quality assurance. After we finish the verification, we clean up our database by going through every detail we have there.
We have been training our staff. Now, they are better at verification. In the past, they will put in wrong figures against wrong grade levels for officers. But, all that have now been cleaned up.
Again, as we are now verifying privatised agencies, we develop our expertise. So, it is a shorter period for verification and more accurate.
We have four operations departments. There is the parastatals pensions department, which handles about 260 parastatals. This includes agencies like NTA, PRODA, universities, health centres, colleges of education, polytechnics, and so on.
There is the civil service pensions department, which has all ministries under it. There is also the police pension department, which is the old police pension office, which was collapsed under PTAD.
Also, we have the Nigeria Customs, Immigrations and Prisons service department, now called CIPPD under PTAD.
PT: There are certain reports recently about thousands of ghost police pensioners. Are you aware of this?
Sharon: Probably not under PTAD. It must be under contributory pension scheme. PTAD is the defined benefits scheme. We cover the pensions of those who retired before 2007, who did not transit to the contributory scheme handled by PENCOM through the pension funds administrators (PFAs). That is why you have transitional in PTAD’s name. PTAD handles the old defined benefits scheme, which is 100 per cent treasury funded.
PT: Am sure it is not all smooth sailing. What are the challenges?
Sharon: The number one problem we have is staff strength and office space constraint. We are currently in a rented building. We have been wondering why government should be paying so much in rent when there are so many recovered and abandoned properties all over the place.
We have actually written to the federal government to allocate an office building to PTAD, which EFCC handed over. We have not moved in yet, because we have not been able to receive funding under our capital budget. We are hoping next year we will.
As for funding for payment of pensions, that has always come in regularly. Government has always met its own side of its obligation.
In fact, in a lot of states, the pensioners do not receive their pensions from their governments. PTAD pays the federal share of the pensions. This is what has been keeping a lot of pensioners going.
May be we have not been able to do a lot to communicate about what we are doing on many of our verification exercises and other PTAD’s work so that people would understand what we do.
PT: We learnt majority of staff here are on secondment from either the office of the Accountant General and so on.
Sharon: No. It’s mainly the accounting staff who were on secondment from that office for two years before returning to their parent agency. You know we are treasury funded inter-ministerial agency under the ministry of finance. Majority of the workers here are regular staff.