Over the weekend, the Senate and Mr. Osinbajo, in his Acting President capacity, had a running battle over the National Pension Commission (PenCom). A bystander would reasonably wonder what the issue was. The truth is that in the last six months or so, PenCom has become a fierce battleground for the Vice President, Mr. Osinbajo. PenCom has become a near obsession for him to the point that one wonders why a seemingly decent man would be that desperate about PenCom. Allegedly, Mr. Osinbajo has always wanted his friend and kinsman, Mr. Funso Doherty, as the DG of PenCom, but for some reasons, his interest here runs against some other interests in the Villa.
When the presidency unceremoniously and illegally ousted the former DG – Ms. Chinelo Anohu-Amazu – in April 2017, the idea was for Mr. Doherty to become the DG of PenCom. However, this wasn’t the case, as Mr. Aliyu Dikko was appointed the DG and Mr. Doherty the Chairman of the Board. This was shortly before Buhari travelled out to London for an extended period on medical grounds. This was seen as a terrible miscalculation for the other party interested in PenCom because Mr. Dikko didn’t meet the requirements of the 2014 Pension Reform Act. Although the interest group behind him was keen to make it work against Mr. Osinbajo’s interest, Mr. Osinbajo in his extreme and subtle dexterity at political maneuvering wasn’t asleep. He largely appeared quiet about things in public and never kept quiet within. He lived with it and waited for the opportunity to take advantage. And the opportunity did come.
Buhari returned from the first trip to London and needed to travel again in May 2017. This time, as the Acting President, Mr. Osinbajo thought it wise to go for his pound of flesh. He reversed the appointment of Mr. Dikko, as the DG of PenCom, and moved him to the Bank of Industry as Chairman of the Board. Mr. Dikko must be the only Nigerian capable of such roles or he must be a politically relevant actor! But that’s just by the way! When he moved Mr. Dikko out of the way, he had the chance to install his person – Mr. Doherty. It is pertinent to state that both Mr. Doherty and Mr. Osinbajo served on the Board of ARM, an institution that owns one of the largest Pension Fund Administrators in Nigeria. While Mr. Doherty was the CEO, Mr. Osinbajo was a member of the Board. Not surprisingly, both men are next door neigbhours in Lagos.
Unfortunately, for Mr. Osinbajo, the appointment of Mr. Doherty has attracted a lot of opprobrium – ranging from seeming illegality to adversarial ethnic and religious nepotism. There are several law suits on this matter and the presidency has not been able to send Mr. Doherty’s name and those of his team to the Senate for clearance, as stipulated in the 2014 Pension Reform Act. There is also a swell of public opinion against these appointments. As such, PenCom has been without a substantive DG for over four months now. It has been mainly run by an Acting DG from within.
While these issues have been on, Mr. Buhari was in London for treatment. This time around, he spent 103 days and returned on August 19. But Mr. Osinbajo in his wisdom desperately gave a directive on August 18 – his last day as the Acting President – for Mr. Doherty and his team to resume at PenCom on acting capacity until they are cleared by the Senate. If this is not a classic art of desperation, then nothing is.
It does not only fly in the face of common sense, which is not common anyway, it makes a grand mockery of the role of the Senate in such appointments. It is like asking one to start acting and answering a professor before one is cleared by the University Senate. It is unheard of and a clear insult to the Senate as an institution. Does Mr. Osinbajo want to say that the Senate is no longer an important institution in Nigeria? Does he want to suggest that the role of the Senate in such appointments is not necessary and merely ceremonial? Does he not understand that the Senate has a significant role to play in safeguarding the independence of such appointments in the execution of their lawful duties? Why appoint an Acting DG for PenCom when the institution already has an Acting DG? Why the haste?
It will be foolhardy to assume that a Professor of Constitutional Law lacks the intellect to appreciate the full consequences and implications of his actions here. The other way to interpret his action, apart from his desperation, is to read it as despotism. It is exactly this Mr. Osinbajo’s despotism that irks the Senate most. As such, the Senate on August 19 issued a counter directive strongly warning Mr. Doherty and his team not to resume at PenCom. But let’s see what happens. It is very clear that the battle line has now been drawn. It is unfortunate that Mr. Osinbajo and others have chosen PenCom – an institution regulating a N7 trillion industry – as the football pitch and battleground. And this is not good for the sustainability of PenCom.
It is not in doubt that Mr. Osinbajo might seriously be warming up for 2019 and needs to create a support base for his ambition through appointments and it won’t be out of place to see him contest for the number one position in the country at some point in his political career. To pretend otherwise is preposterous. But is PenCom the right target for such?
In all, Mr. Osinbajo seems to be a rather complex personality in many ways but one. He apparently wallows in extreme but misguided pretence. This appears to have so far worked for him in his intractable rift with the different interest groups in the Presidential Villa. There is no better expression of his desperation than his unalloyed interest to capture PenCom for reasons best known to him. And he will do himself no good fighting with the Senate as his action is unlawful and unconstitutional.
While it is expected that Mr. Osinbajo being a Professor of Law would lead in the fight for the adherence to the Rule of Law, especially the Pensions Reform Act 2014, with regards to the appointment and removal of the Director General of PenCom, which is currently the subject matter of various lawsuits at our courts, he is doing exactly the opposite because of reasons attenuated by narrow interests. This contradicts the desire of the government to attract foreign direct investment as no investor would be comfortable to invest in a country where the Rule of Law isn’t adhered to.
After all said and done, Mr. Osinbajo will continue to fly the flag of one Nigeria and one Government. But deep down, he appears, divisive and desperate.
Thankfully, President Buhari is back in the driver’s seat and one expects that he shall, in line with his adherence to the rule of law, equity and constitutionality, revisit the PenCom debacle and reverse the unlawful removal of the Commission’s management. Mr. President had previously taken the side of the Law when the Governing Councils of Federal Universities were dissolved in clear violation of extant laws. The affected officials were not only reinstated but all their benefits for the period they were out of office paid. The travesty in PenCom should be reviewed by Mr. President so as to guarantee investor confidence in the multi trillion retirement benefits industry.
May PenCom be saved from Mr. Osinbajo’s desperate clutches and may he not engender the collapse of a burgeoning system that has been a model to emerging economies across the globe.
Godson Ikiebey, a public affairs commentator, is a sustainability researcher, whose research focuses on the interplay between implementing sustainability strategies, business development and socio-economic development. He tweets @ikiebey