The prompt and regular payment of pensioners is the reason for accepting government’s appointment and not for patronage, the Executive Secretary of PTAD, Mrs Sharon Ikeazor, says and wishes to be known as “Mama Pension”.
Ikeazor spoke on her service to Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD) in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).
What state did you meet PTAD when you assumed duty?
The state I met it in? I wouldn’t want to wash our dirty linens in public. The state I met it in wasn’t what I had expected; let’s put it that way, because I know what PTAD was established to do?
I met it with a backlog of pending complaints from pensioners, at which if you don’t resolve the complaints of pensioners, you haven’t even began to work. It was one of the areas I looked into – complaints resolutions. We have the Pension Support Service. We have the Call Centre where the pensioners can call in; even contact of staff with the pensioners didn’t measure up to my ideals. I feel they must have empathy when dealing with our pensioners. Besides empathy, you must treat them with a certain level of dignity; the highest level of dignity and to have patience with them.
So, we’ll have to train our staff, especially the call centre staff on how to deal with the elderly because not everyone has the patience to deal with them. So this is work in progress.
Also, the issue of delayed in pensions is part of complains; those who are not on the payroll, stocked pensions, harmonisation of pensions payments, among others. So when I came, the first things I said we must do was verification of the pensioners because it is after verification that the pensioners can be pay rolled. This is what we are working on as well. And we have taken the verification exercise to a better level. The days of seeing pensioners on queues are over in PTAD. They were seated comfortably at our verification centres. We even gave them lunch and bottled water, not even sachet water, for every stage of the verification.
Then those who are ill and hospitalised and who are immobile, who cannot move due to old age, we do mobile verification for them. So, PTAD is improving in that regard.
What has changed so far?
I will say that the excitement which the pensioners met us was what was really gladdening. It touched me a lot; because when I see their joy makes my job worth it. Because we find that a lot of states are not up to date paying their pensioners. So what we actually paid is the Federal Service, which they welcomed so much. That is why I said North-East was the first place we must go to because they needed it more than any other state considering what happened to them with the Boko Haram thing.
Considering the enormity of the challenges of paying pensioners, especially the backlog, how are you tackling them?
That is through the verification exercise. In here, we have the Federal Auditors from the Auditor General Office in-house with us. Then we have accountants from Account General Office who are internal auditors. So, we verify every payment that we make. We inherited a lot of pensions’ payrolls. Some of the files are not here. So for you to compute the payment of those pensioners, you must have their files. So we are going after retrieving all the files from the Pension Administrators that were handling them before PTAD came in.
Also, we are working very closely with the accountant general of the federation. You know, all pension payments are now through e-payment platforms. For instance now, November payments for parastatals agencies were delayed because federal auditors raised some issues on the payroll which they have now resolved.
But I made sure I notified the pensioners of the delay. That is another thing; communication is key with the pensioners to let them know every step of the happening with their pensions. We worked closely with the Office of the Accountant-General, and Ministry of Finance to perfect one of the e-payment platforms that we use to resolve the delayed November pensions. Some of pensions were able to go, because we were able to upload. The others, the ones for NIPOST were not uploaded. And we are already in the second week of December. I had go physically myself to the Treasury House to ask them what was causing the delay. I don’t mind you delaying salaries, but pensions, you cannot delay.
I have to collaborate and work closely with the sister agencies to make sure that payments are prompt. At our own end, we doing our own very best. We do the computations with payroll and we upload. You know its a chain, if anything goes wrong in that, we are the only ones that the pensioners know and are in contact with. So, I now have to follow up every step of the way to make sure they get it on time.
How many pensioners from the old pension scheme have PTAD paid their pensions since you assumed office?
I will say pay rolled, yes; because I’m learning the language. I will say about 220,000 on our payroll because, I know off head that for the verification of civil service pension in North West and South East, which we did the verification in 2015, we have now pay rolled about 4,500 in October this year (2016) when I came in. Because one of the lapses we had in PTAD when I came was that they would do the verification and it will take almost a year to payroll them. When they come back they have to do what we call quality assurance but this verification we did in the North-East as we are doing the verification, we were doing the quality assurance on ground there. So as they start coming with all the files fully batched pay rolling should not take more than a mount or two to get done. I’m glad to say the once we verified last year have already been pay rolled this year.
How long do you envisage that the Defined Benefit Scheme will last and what is the link with the Contributory Pension Scheme?
This will last as long as there is a pensioner. The pensioners we have are those who retired before 2007 until last pensioner dies, PTAD will be here paying. The Contributory Pension one is handled by the Pension Funds Administrators (PFA).
PTAD was actually put in place to end the era of pension administration abuse of the pensioners themselves not the only abuse of the system. You know about the corruption and all that. So now, for once PTAD has verified all the pensioners who should be under the Defined Benefit Scheme. Government now has a clean and verified database of the pensioners and with that government can clearly now know the number of pensioners that we have under the Defined Benefit Scheme, and that we saved a lot of money for government as well because right now we are just paying inherited payrolls.
Bear in mind that some of these agencies have been privatised as well. Take Railways, take New Nigerian Newspaper and some of them. Until we finish all the verifications, we cannot stop. So that is why we are driving hard.
Can you just give us projection?
Projection, it should take us another year. Customs and Immigration and Prison, the department we call CIPPD. They have concluded their verifications. The major verification that is before us is the parastatals. All the parastatals, all the government agencies, we have to do there verifications. Civil Service is the one that the verification is on-going. That is what we concluded in the North-East.
The one they did last year as well was North-West and South-East were for civil service. Once we conclude the verifications, then we have the clear database which will help government to know their liabilities. Talking about the liability, that brings me to the issue of assets.
When PTAD was set up, the Pension Administrators were meant to transfer not only the liabilities to PTAD, but in most cases, its just liabilities that were transferred to PTAD not the assets. As I came in now I realised the issue of liability because I did ask question. I know there were insurance companies that were handling pensions in the old days. You had Board of Trusties for pensions and all that. One of the agencies where I met liabilities was the Nigerian Railway. We now found out that there is a lot of money there. As we speak now, they transferred N1.2 billion into the PTAD TSA Account. And there is still more where that came from. So, we are going on asset recovery to track all the agencies and we have to do it in conjunction with Ministry of Finance and the CBN and any other relevant agencies.
Is there any reason why four agencies are still operating the old pension scheme?
For now, we only have four departments; we have Police Pension Department, which inherited police pension liabilities of all those who retired before 2007. Then we have the Civil Service for those who worked in Civil Service, Federal Perm Secretaries, Head of Service all of them and ordinary civil servants. Then we now have the parastatals department – universities, all the Federal Government parastatals are under them. The Police, what we did was to inherit the police pensions, liabilities and assets. Right now we are going after police, because of the assets. Customs, Immigration, used to be called CIPPO, we are calling it CIPPD – Customs, Immigration, Prisons and Prisons Department now. They as well inherited their liabilities and their assets. They had what we called Legacy Funds, they transferred everything to us. So, for ease of administrating, administering their pensions is easier to separate them, but when we get the pension fund its in one pot, one TSA account. Each department now knows what their liabilities are and they make presentations for payment. They do their verifications, they do their quality assurance. Not that they are operating in separate pension agency, no. They are not.
What were your experiences from your recent outing to verify pensioners in the North East?
I will tell you, it was full of joy and awe because a lot of pensioners I met, especially the civil service ones, were all retired civil servants. I met the perm secretaries, I met former head of service of the federation who were all from the North East. I was amazed at the information that they still had about Nigeria and how Nigeria can move forward.
I have never been to any of the states that I went to in the North-East. I was amazed at the beauty of Nigeria because I drove from Yola to Taraba state. From Taraba state I drove to Gombe. From Gombe I drove to Bauchi and back to go. I covered four states in three days and I was amazed at the beauty of Nigeria. This issue of insecurity and insurgency, I didn’t experience anything like that. My staff were very happy and motivated as I went round every centre. There are few bad patches on the road but besides that everything was going on. The welcome I had from the pensioners was very touching because I always feel that we are not doing them a favour, it is their right. They’ve worked all their lives, they deserve their pensions. We must do everything humanly possible to make sure they get it. That is why I am looking forward to Borno and the Yobe states ones. I am leading the delegation for that too, because we are going to carry that out in January. We have planned the security logistics of it.
After Borno and Yobe states where are you going to. Are you going to the South?
We are heading to South-South. That should be end of January and the beginning of February of 2017, because as we speak now, my team is already at South-South for venue selection.
We have sent an advanced team of one or two people to go ahead to engage with the state government, to security agencies there and the pension unions. We work very closely with the pension unions when we do the verifications because they are the ones who can identify who their pensioners are. Those that the news don’t get to on time, unions are the ones who can get to them as well. So, we have gone on the pre-verification meetings for the South-South. We are covering the six states – Cross River, Bayelsa, Edo, Akwa Ibom, Delta, River states. We will do that in February because we need to clear the whole of civil service pension verifications before we will now go to parastatals. So, we do it department by department. Bear in mind, that besides verifying pensioners, we have Next of Kin who have claims and we have to verify those ones too.
When are you going to South West?
South-West is huge. For the whole of North-West, we have about 6,000, pensioners. South-West is the largest. South-West is so large that have to do Lagos separate from the rest of South-West. Lagos accounts for the highest number of the Civil Servants. North East was about 6,030, for South-South of Delta and Edo, we have 11,000 pensioners, Akwa-Ibom and Cross River, we have 9,201, but Lagos alone has about 25,000 pensioners.
The Directorate recently promised to pay 33 per cent of pensioners’ arrears, what is the update on that?
The update on that is that for CIPPD – Custom, Immigration and Prisons pensions, we paid about 42 months; we have cleared all the 33 per cent arrears. The only place that there is an issue is the police pensions. The issue with the police is that the monies for their 33 per cent arrears was mopped up by the last administration. This was about N26 billion or 27 billion. That was never put back. So, police was only able to receive the three months of the arrears. As I came in it was an issue that I was presented with. And I now wanted to pay them that 33 per cent arrears. But on going through my records, I realised that 33 per cent arrears for the police was not in the 2016 budget. I can’t pay for anything outside the budget. So, I can’t do it just based on sentiments. I had to do it within the ambits of the budget and the laws. But now, we have included that in our 2017 budget proposer. So we pray the National Assembly will approve that so that we can pay it. But their pension payments, they’ve been getting on a regular basis. It is just the arrears. You know the arrears come up when government increases wages. You have to readjust the pension difference.
Which other departments have you paid?
We have paid the Civil Service, Parastatals of the Federal Government and CIPDD, except police that is just three months payments.
How does PTAD address the challenge of dead pensioners vis-à-vis their Next of Kin?
Their next of kin, they usually come to us with their letters of administration. We do their verification outside our premises. We have two days of the week when they can come to PTAD headquarters and we do their verifications. No, there are no issues with them. The only people we have issues with are the Police Next of Kin (NOK). There was no budgetary allocation as well for them.
By the time I knew all these, I engaged with them, I kept my communication channels open. So, I talk with them on twitter they engage me and I get information back and forth. That was the report I have been given on that and we know the amount of the police NOK. Hopefully, in the 2017 budget, we should be able to clear the NOKs. In fact, we have just carried out verification of Steel Rolling Mill’s NOKs here. Their unions organised them, they brought them in a bus here, we did all their verifications and they went back to their states. We are now pay rolling them,
The number of pensioners on our payroll are 222, 000 on the four operational departments. Another thing we have been doing on this our payroll is going through the bank. If you have bank accounts, you don’t have BVN, we don’t pay because how do you verify the bank accounts without the BVN. We have now issued instructions that without BVN, no payment. This again, we partnered with ICPC. So, they helped us go through the banks and find all the accounts without BVN. In civil service department, we have identified 9,000 bank accounts without BVN. So, we flagged them. That means they won’t get any payment. So, you can imagine the savings we are making for government monthly on that. So, the same will apply in all other operational departments if you don’t have BVN on your account, PTAD will not pay. Even, while we are doing verification in the North-East, we noticed lot of accounts without BVN. Pensioners were physically there, so what we did was to organise them, take them to banks to get their BVN. So, we hope by next verification, we will collaborate with the banks to be present at our verification centres, so that they do their own BVN biometrics for the pensioners instead of stressing them going to the bank to get it done.
Can you elaborate on your relationship with the associations?
National Union of Pensioners (NUP), I have asked them that I want to be their grand matron. My relationship with them is very close. I went for their annual meeting and they welcomed me. I was very comfortable with them because I need to be close with them for us to work well. My relationship with them is extremely cordial.
We just attended the public hearing on PTAD. They were all there and they all made their presentations. They are the National Union of Nigerian Pensioners, you have the union of federal universities, health workers, the police one. They the umbrella body is the NUP. As usual they will make their demands and all that. But its work in progress.
How often do you capture pensioners for update?
Once they finish with the verifications, they want to start with the another phase that we call “ I am still alive“ some biometric. The ideal thing is that the pensioners will have an ID Cards that identifies them. We also have the way to verify that they are still alive. For now, there are the pension unions that we are relying on to let us know when their members die. Sometimes the banks will let us know. But by the time we upgrade our ICT, we should be able to know where the pensioners on his own without physically coming to us. He will put in his biometric, his finger prints, and we verify that it is him; that is still alive. Sometimes, bank will write us letter of administration for them to release all the money to the late customer of theirs. But under the law, they are meant to return the pensions funds to us. So, a few banks will write us and return those monies to us. So, there must be a better way of us knowing that the pensioner is late than waiting for the banks to tell us and not all banks do that. Even the families can still be withdrawing money by the ATM cards long after the pensioner is dead. So, we are working hard on our IT because everything we do in PTAD depends on IT. Our database, everything is IT.
What are mechanisms put in place to handles pensioners’ complaints?
Actually, we have the call centre where they call in with their complaints and it will now be resolved with our centre people calling them back. We have our complaints portal online where they send in e-mails of their complaints. They are working. Again, we are training our staff to be able to resolve their complaints faster and to do it with empathy as well because we must give our pensioners back their dignity as.
What is the future of PTAD?
It is what I envisage for pensioners, not even for PTAD. Pensioners are number one; without them there won’t be PTAD. What I envisage for pensioners is that they will sit down in the comfort of their homes; they will see their alerts without them having to complain that their payment has not come. Regular payments all on time. Then again, another dream I have for them is to have ID Cards. That ID card should be able to guarantee them some rebate either in the shops, the airlines, in the hospitals because in every civilised country, the senior citizens don’t pay full fare. They have a discount on virtually everything. I want our Nigerian pensioners to have this senior citizens’ card issued by the federal government for them to get discount on their purchases, on their health. If there is a way we can even link them with the national health insurance scheme as well because at their age, they need the health insurance. We have to find away for them to have access. That’s my dream for the pensioners. I will do all to make sure the card works and be structured in line with the best global practices and zero tolerant for corruption.
There should be no room for corruption in PTAD. That is why I set up anti-corruption transparency unit in collaboration with ICPC. All they do is to address any pension fraudulent claims and fraudsters that come up as pensioners. Some fraudsters also call to ask for certain amount saying they are processing your pension. And we find out they don’t work in isolation, they must have inside information to know whose pension is being processed. The internal ones; that is why the anti-corruption people are in different departments in PTAD. When such a thing happens with the way we are open and in contact with our pensioners, they call us to inform us to say so so and so called me to say I should bring this amount. Once the pensioners have been able to identify the person, we hand the person over to ICPC; ICPC will investigate and hands over the person to EFCC for prosecution. We have zero tolerance for corruption in PTAD.
What do you want to be remembered for?
Do your work with passion and compassion. Passion and compassion are different things. You can have passion and not be compassionate. Once you have these with empathy and top it with integrity you can achieve anything.
Like I always say, I came into government not for patronage but for service. At this age, what more do I want. One day I will be elderly; I will be a senior citizen. So its the foundation that you lay now that all of us will rely on. So if we don’t set it straight, we will never get there. We say in our national anthem “the labours of our heroes pass shall never be in vain“. So, it must not be in vain. We must pay pensions on time as at when due. All I want to be remembered for is to be called “MAMA PENSION’’, and the grand matron of all the pension unions. That is it. (ENDS)