The most striking image of the week in Nigeria has to be that of a clean shaved, pudgy-faced smiling man. A zanna cap of beige and brown threads sat squarely on his impressively round head—almost like a ball—sinking into his plump body that was robed in a voluminous beige babban riga.
He was about to duck into a green truck that would convey him to the Kuje prison, where, according to Justice Okon Abang, whose courtroom he had just exited, he would spend the next eight years of his life (actually six, counting from when his trial began in 2019.) His name is Abdulrasheed Maina. His crime—for which he has been duly convicted after nearly eight years of intrigues, drama, mysterious disappearances, international manhunts and the regular episode of collapsing in court— was stealing N2 billion from money meant for pensioners.
But there was Maina, on his way to prison, smiling and waving at acquaintances like someone who knew something we don’t.
Of course, he had made that claim before. In a 2017 interview he granted Channels Television, he had said he wasn’t a saint but that he wasn’t corrupt either. He implied that his travail was because he was blocking leaks in the system and so was being hounded by corrupt officials. Now with a conviction to his name, I wonder if he will stick to that narrative.
But the Maina story typifies Nigeria’s battle against corruption, one in which angels quickly morph into demons and villains sometimes become heroes.
Maina, a civil servant, was installed as the Pension Reform Task Team head in 2010. For the next three years, his job was to clean up the pension mess at the office of the Head of Service of the Federation.
The pension malaise has denied thousands of pensioners their dues, leaving many of them to die in queues while chasing their entitlements after putting their most productive years to the service of the country.
At first, Maina seemed to make some startling revelations and ruffled some feathers until it emerged in 2013, that he had helped himself to some N2 billion belonging to the pensioners he was supposed to be fighting for.
He fled justice and became one of the most wanted men in the history of the country. Yet, remarkably, with that toga hanging over him, Maina still pulled off one of the greatest scandals in the Buhari administration. He somehow wormed his way into being reinstated into the civil service, on grade level 16, as a deputy director at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and had been positioned for a promotion exam. All this while he was supposedly a fugitive.
A leaked memo by the then head of Service, Mrs Winifred Oyo-Ita, showed that the plot to reinstate Maina went all the way up. That she had advised the president against reinstating Maina as that would rubbish his anti-corruption mantra.
What the president said in response, we never know. What we know was that Maina was eventually reinstated. As Maina himself said in an interview, this reinstatement was done with the facilitation of the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN), with whom he had a meeting and who had triggered the reinstatement process. What Malami relied on was a 2013 Federal High Court injunction that restrained Maina’s arrest, not any declaration of his innocence.
If ever there was a probe of Malami in this scandal, nothing was said of it. Ironically, he is still in office but Mrs Oyo-Ita would later be retired in connection to a N3 billion contract scam of her own.
Whatever the case, the media, like the vigilant watchdogs they are, howled over this atrocity being perpetrated in daylight under the watch of a government that promised to fight corruption. The reinstatement stopped and Maina resumed his fugitive status.
He was first arrested in 2019 in a hotel in Abuja, where his son Faisal, only 19 at the time, pulled a gun to stop his father’s arrest. He jumped bail after his trial had commenced and was later rearrested in another hotel, this time in the Republic of Niger. His son was not there to pull a gun at the arresting officers but it makes one wonder how a man so large could evade the law so often and for so long.
What is clear is that Maina has friends in high places. He has only been convicted because he really is too tainted to be exonerated.
The exploitation of pensioners predates Maina. It had been going on in the Defined Pension Scheme under which many pensioners died awaiting their payments.
The 2004 Pension Reform Act established the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) and the Pension Commission to ensure that employees and employers of labour both make a monthly contribution to an account to be held in trust for the employee until such a time he or she is retired.
However, as of today, some 20 states of the federation are yet to commence payment to retirees after opting into the (CPS) according to a recent report in Punch. While 25 states have enacted laws to join the scheme, only five states—Delta, Lagos, Kaduna, Osun and the Federal Capital Territory – are paying pensioners under the CPS. Others like Abia, Adamawa, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo, Nasarawa, Oyo, Sokoto and Taraba are yet to establish a pension bureau to commence the scheme, while some slowpoke states are still at the stage of drafting bills to enable them to migrate to the CPS nearly 20 years after the scheme was established.
No surprise then that there are genuine fears that the non-payment that characterised the previous scheme is steadily creeping into the CPS. Across the states, it is still not uncommon to see a raggedly bunch of retirees waiting under a tree or lining up for some verification exercise to get their pension. While all this is going on and some small-time civil servant with incredibly humongous ego is playing God over the dues of people who had preceded him or her, many of these people suffer, their unfortunate children kept out of schools and their future jeopardised.
And yet, Maina smiled.
One who is going to jail for eight years for defrauding thousands of Nigerians and their dependants should not be seen smiling like that. Beyond the bad optics, it suggests something.
When Bode George, a Peoples Democratic Party chieftain who was in 2009 convicted for inflating contracts to the tune of N84 billion, served a jail term, every day for him was a party. If reports are to be believed, he ate as if he was in a five-star hotel and was far more comfortable than the average prisoner. And when the Supreme Court ruled in his favour and he got out of jail, his thanksgiving service was televised live and had in attendance even former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Of course, there is a reason Maina smiled even if his now 21-year-old son had been convicted for money laundering and sentenced in absentia to a 14-year jail term. He knows Faisal will be fine. After all, reports by the EFCC suggest the young man had fled to the US. But Maina also knows that even in prison, his life would be infinitely better than the thousands of people whose pensions he had looted. His loot and his investment from it would be making more money for him while he put up his feet and is hailed ranka ya dade by even his jailers. His children would go to the best schools in the country and abroad and in the next eight years, or pending how soon another court can secure his freedom, he may return home to an opulent feast and fanfare and will, like Bode George, proceed to tell Nigerians who to vote for and when.
Maina’s hell in Kuje would be 10 times an average pensioner’s heaven on earth. And that is the sad reality of this country.