Barely 24 hours after President Muhammadu Buhari constituted a committee to audit assets recovered from alleged looters of the treasury, the Senate has also instituted a probe into the purported looting and sale of recovered pension assets at below market value to officials and cronies of the federal government.
The assets include 222 properties comprising residential and commercial properties in several parts of Nigeria, an unstated number of luxury vehicles and portfolio investments, which were recovered by the Abdulrasheed Maina-led Presidential Task Team on Pension Reforms and handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Owing to the new information available to the Senate, it expanded the scope of its ad hoc committee charged with investigating the circumstances of the return and reinstatement of Maina into the civil service to include the looting and disposal of pension assets.
The new mandate to the committee followed a point of order raised by its chairman, Senator Emmanuel Paulker who said the investigation of government officials suspected to have been involved in Maina’s reinstatement into the public sector, had revealed that the assets had been disposed off.
Paulker therefore sought the leave of the Senate to mandate the committee to unravel the identities of the beneficiaries of the looting and acquisitions.
In his presentation yesterday on the findings of his committee, Paulker had said: “The Senate should note that before Maina left, the Pension Reform Task Team had recovered assets from alleged pension looters, working with the EFCC, ICPC, DSS, police and paramilitary agencies who executed the recoveries and thereafter, EFCC took over custody of the recovered assets.
“The Senate should equally note that the EFCC, as a member of the Maina-led Pension Tax Force Team, had the statutory powers to impound and take custody of the assets.
“The Senate is alarmed that the total recovered assets from the alleged pension thieves were reported to have been shared by some interest groups.
“The Senate further notes that this revelation emerged during the current investigation by the ad hoc committee on the reinstatement of Maina and the committee equally received a petition on the recovered properties by the task force.
“For this alarming revelation, sir, this committee requests the Senate to expand the scope of its investigation on Maina by extending it to the management of assets recovered by him and handed over to EFCC before his removal as Chairman, Presidential Task Force on Pensions in 2014 and by so doing, extend the duration of the assignment.”
The request of the committee was overwhelmingly voted for by the senators.
Presiding, Senate President Bukola Saraki charged the committee to do a thorough job and unravel the allegations.
“This is a very serious matter and more of large scale corruption going on in forbidden places. We just hope that it remains at the realm of allegations and not as it is presented,” he said.
The committee is expected to submit its report in four weeks.
A senior lawyer said to be close to the presidency was alleged to have bought one of the high-scale properties in Abuja.
The said property located on Gana Street in the highbrow Maitama area of the city, was allegedly valued at N1 billion but was sold to the lawyer for N600 million.
A credible source informed THISDAY that officials, responding to queries on the Maina’s reinstatement, had notified the committee of the looting of recovered assets, including cash recoveries.
In addition, a group – Concerned Federal Pensioners – had petitioned the Senate over the looting of the recovered pension assets.
In a letter signed by its chairman, Adodo David, the group had called for the probe of the allegations.
“These properties are under the custody of the EFCC. The properties as we speak have been shared among top officials of the commission, friends and family members including lawyers,” it said.
In the course of its probe into Maina’s reinstatement, the Paulker-led committee had met with officials of the Federal Civil Service Commission (FCSC), the Minister of Interior, Lt.-Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau (rtd.) and the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami.
‘There are No Such Properties’
But in response to the revelations made in the Senate, the EFCC last night said there was no such asset seized from alleged pension thieves indicted Maina.
EFCC Head of Media and Publicity, Wilson Uwujaren said in a statement that the allegation by the Senate was alarming and disingenuous.
He said: “The attention of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has been drawn to comments attributed to the Chairman of the Senate ad hoc committee investigating the controversial reinstatement of Abdulrasheed Miana, Senator Emmanuel Paulker, alleging that officials of the commission shared 222 properties which Maina’s panel seized from pension fund thieves.
“This sweeping allegation, coming from a Senate committee is disturbing, more so as no attempt was made to verify the information from the commission.”
Uwujaren explained that “the EFCC was never invited by the committee and given the opportunity to educate it on the status of assets seized from suspected pension thieves, yet the committee was comfortable with scandalising the EFCC with the public disclosure of unverified claims by unknown interests”.
“For the avoidance of doubt, there are no 222 properties anywhere that were shared by anybody. The EFCC did not receive a single property from Abdulrasheed Maina.
“All the pension fraud assets that are in the recovered assets inventory of the commission were products of independent investigations by the EFCC, for which Maina and his cohorts had no clue,” the EFCC added.
He contended that if Maina or any government official witnessed the sharing of any recovered pension assets by any official of the EFCC, they should be willing to name the official, the assets involved, and when and where the sharing took place.
“As far as the EFCC is concerned, there is no controversy regarding the status of assets recovered from suspected pension thieves.
“The record of all the recovered assets from both the Police Pension and the Pension Office of the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, as well as their current status are intact, and have been communicated to the relevant organs of government.
“However, in view of the consistent display of public ignorance about the profile of recovered assets by even those who should know, it is important to state that it is impossible for anybody to share a property that is the subject of an interim forfeiture by court.
“Of all the properties seized from pension fraud suspects, it is only properties that are linked to John Yusuf, who was convicted under a plea bargain arrangement that have been forfeited permanently and handed to government.
“All the others, with the exception of Brifina Hotel, are subject of an interim forfeiture order. And the cases are ongoing in courts,” the EFCC stated.
AGF Washes Hands off Maina’s Recall
However, the AGF thursday disowned the letters written and signed by him recommending the reinstatement of Maina into the civil service.
In the letter from the FCSC on Maina’s reinstatement, which was published by the media, the commission had referenced two letters from the AGF who had asked the commission to reinstate the former pension boss on the basis of a court ruling vacating Maina’s dismissal from the civil service after he had absconded to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2013.
However, although Malami yesterday admitted that Maina had applied to his office for reinstatement, he insisted that no reinstatement process had commenced with respect to the request.
Speaking at an investigative hearing by the House of Representatives ad hoc committee on the disappearance, reinstatement and promotion of the former pension boss, the AGF said the likely consideration of Maina’s application for reinstatement was “still work in progress as of October 5” when the news of his reinstatement was reported by the media.
Malami maintained that he had nothing to do with the purported letters, adding that an inquiry had been launched to determine the circumstances leading to the letter emanating from his office with his signature.
He said he never had any engagement with the Ministry of Interior effecting Maina’s recall by the ministry.
Malami also stirred the hornest’s nest when he alluded to the fact that Maina belonged to a pension scam syndicate made up of influential and powerful people including politicians, top civil servants and members of the National Assembly.
This led the committee chairman, Hon. Aliyu Madaki to demand that he name the lawmakers involved in the pension scam, if possible.
But the AGF declined, arguing that any revelation at that point may undermine ongoing investigations.
Malami said his initial interface with Maina dated back to January 2016 in Dubai, UAE, when he was on an official assignment.
He said at Maina’s insistence through a third party contact, he granted him audience in the presence of the National Security Adviser who was on the entourage to the UAE, and the meeting afforded him the opportunity to get first hand information on the pension scam.
He said Maina told him that the sum of N3.7 billion was being shared on a monthly basis among members of the task force syndicate while ghost pensioners were deliberately included in police and military pension records.
Armed with the revelation, Malami said on arriving Nigeria from the overseas trip, the information given by Maina was acted upon, leading to blockage of several leakages.
Malami said Maina’s lawyer had only applied for his client’s reinstatement on the strength of a court order on the issue.
He said none of the government agencies joined in the suit had exercised any right of appeal within the legal timeframe, giving room for Maina’s quest for reinstatement.
The AGF said there were no strings attached in his decision to entertain Maina’s application, as it was purely a request for justice to be served.
He said that he was saddled with the responsibility, anchored on his oath of office, to listen to such complaints.
He said his correspondence with Maina was in good faith and did not shield him from future arrest.
Also appearing before the committee, the acting chairman of the FCSC, Mr. Joseph Akande, in his submission, said Maina was declared absent from duty in 2013 when attempts to locate him proved abortive
He said the Ministry of Interior (Maina’s ministry at the time) had queried him but was unable to locate him.
He said, consequently, when he did not respond to the query, the Staff Service Commission had recommended that he be dismissed.
According to Akande, sometime in 2014, Maina reportedly wrote to the commission to reconsider the dismissal.
“But we turned down his request,” he told the House committee.
Nonetheless, Akande said in January 2017, “we received a letter from the attorney-general demanding an update on Maina’s reinstatement and we said he remained dismissed”.
According to him, the AGF then sent a third letter noting that the basis of his dismissal could not stand because his arrest warrant had been botched by a high court.
Akande further revealed that Maina was not promoted as reported by the media but was reinstated on the civil service grade level of his dismissal in 2013.
The Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (HoS), Mrs. Winifred Oyo-Ita, in her testimony, said the Ministry of Interior acted in error by reinstating Maina without a formal letter.
She said she had expressed her reservations and concern over the letters and decided not to act on it even though they had purportedly originated from the Office of the AGF, as it could not have been in the interest of the present administration’s posture on fighting corruption in the system.
However, citing procedural lapses on the side of government, the legal counsel to Maina, Mr. Muhammed Sani Katu, argued that it was not true that his client had been dismissed from the civil service as widely reported.
“He remains a staff of the civil service,” he said, adding that Maina still works for the federal government attending to letters addressed to him by government agencies, among others.
Asked by the committee if he was still being paid salaries and emoluments.
Katu answered in the affirmative, adding that files had been sent to Maina within the last two months to treat and minute on as an acting director.
He promised to provide evidence to back his claims at the next hearing.
The counsel said his client’s purported dismissal had been carried out despite the fact that the matter was already in court where the power to sack him was already in dispute.
Although the HoS and the Ministry of Interior as well as the FCSC claimed they were unaware of the court proceedings against them, Katu said evidence will be provided to the committee at its next sitting.
He said Maina, who was “avoidably” absent from the hearing due to security concerns will need the cover of the committee against arrest by the law enforcement agencies, given that the House had passed a resolution which aside from calling for an inquiry into his reinstatement, had also urged the EFCC to immediately arrest him.
Katu said by that declaration, the House appeared to have adjudged him to be guilty.
On Maina’s disappearance in the heat of the alleged pension scam, his counsel said the former pension boss had to go into hiding as a result of threats to his life, especially from the State House.
However, a mild drama ensued to the consternation of the committee when the Inspector-General of Police (IG), Ibrahim Idris said the police did not play any role whatsoever in the disappearance and reinstatement of Maina, as no member of the force was a member of his committee.
Represented at the hearing by the Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG), Research and Planning, Tochukwu Valentine, Idris said the police had no knowledge of the circumstances other than what was in the public domain.
When the committee, however, reminded him of a good number of policemen providing security to the embattled Maina amid the crisis, the police boss said: “We don’t have any record of any police officer guarding Maina” and challenged anyone to provide such details.
Idris said the only point at which the police got involved was when Maina was declared wanted based on a bench warrant issued against him by the Senate.
He added that till date, the police were still looking for him.