eTranzact: The meeting was slated for one of the conference rooms in the Office of the Account-General of the Federation (OAGF) in Garki, Abuja.
Friends, mostly officials representing Pension Fund Administrators (PFAs) and Pension Fund Custodians (PFC), met and shook hands.
Foes, who belonged to the same industry, also exchanged pleasantries, pretending to be happy at the sight of one another.
The many challenges being experienced in the Pension Fund industry were discussed in small circles, amid banters and jokes, with contemporaries trying to make one another see why their respective organisations have the best welfare packages and services for contributors in the country.
The meeting was originally scheduled to start at 11.am. But 20 minutes after, no one present could exactly tell when it would commence any longer.
The reason was that the officials of the Integrated Payroll and Personal Information System (IPPIS) Department, the meeting hosts, were still nowhere to be found.
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When they eventually arrived at 11.35am, the PFA and PFC representatives hurriedly took their seats. Their once friendly mien had automatically changed into hostile expressions.
Men were no longer smiling.
At this point, a two-man contingent of eTranzact, a third party Payments Solutions Provider, had also arrived.
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Even the deaf could tell a war was about to ensue.
It was a war involving IPPIS and E-Tranzact on one team, and Pension Fund Operators (PENOP), comprising of PFAs and PFCs, on another team.
The meeting was about how E-Tranzact, with IPPIS’s blessings, had been indiscriminately deducting N30 service charge from the monthly pension contributions of over 1,500,000 federal government employees, across 711 Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), since February 2021.
GUNS BLAZING RIGHT FROM THE START
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In his opening address, Nsikak Ben, the Acting Director, IPPIS, expressed happiness that all relevant stakeholders were present at the meeting, going ahead to talk about the purpose for which the meeting was called.
“The purpose of the meeting is in compliance with the joint directives from the Head of Service of the Federation and the Honourable Minister of Finance that E-Tranzact, through IPPIS, should discontinue the N30 deduction from the source, and that stakeholders should meet and fashion out the means of sustaining services,” he said.
He also added that his office had written a letter to E-Tranzact, instructing them to discontinue the deduction, and to also find a way of refunding all the money that has been deducted from February 2021 till date.
This latest statement was met with several nods of approval from the PFA and PFC representatives present in the room.
“More importantly, we are here to put our heads together on the way forward. The Pension Commission (Pencom) has also made it clear that they would, upon review, embrace whatever resolution we arrive at,” Ben added.
“In suggesting a sustainable way forward, we should all see this as a call to national service. We should be able to shift positions, we should be flexible, because anything that has to do with pension contribution has to do with the whole country.”
Sensing where the conversation was headed, the PFA and PFC representatives shook their heads vehemently at the latest utterance by the acting director.
It was clear IPPIS wanted them to be responsible for a percentage of the charges going forward.
The representatives’ body language told anyone that cared to decipher that there would be no shifting of ground.
‘WE DO NOT KNOW E-TRANZACT! WE HAVE NO AGREEMENT WITH THEM!’
When it was his turn to speak, Oguche Agudah, the Chief Executive Officer of Pension Fund Operators Association of Nigeria (PENOP), the umbrella body for PFAs and PFCs, thanked the hosts for orgainising the meeting.
What then followed were statements reflecting the position of the body he represents.
“I have had extensive engagements with the managements of the 22 PFAs and 4 PFCs under our body, and the first thing I would like to make clear is that they feel slighted that they were not consulted before the decision to deduct the charges was reached,” Agudah said.
“In terms of moving forward, one of the key feedback I got from them is that E-Tranzact is not known to us, we do not have any agreement with them, we do not have any arrangement with them, we do not have any contract with them and we do not see a reason for paying for a service that is not privy to us. We also believe that if a principal has hired an agent for a special service, the principal should be the one to pay the agent, not any other way.”
The PENOP executive also used an illustration to further buttress his position.
“If I take a schedule containing the pension payments of my employees to the bank for processing, I won’t say the service charges should be taken from the payments that are meant for them, I would have to be the one to bear the charges. In this case, IPPIS would have to be the ones to bear the charges, not innocent pension contributors,” he said.
Agudah closed by restating that his body was not open to paying the fees and that PENOP is not also open to engaging with a third party that is alien to it.
‘ADMIT THAT YOU ARE WRONG!‘
When a PFA representative was given a chance to speak, he said it was very clear that the questionable decision by IPPIS to engage E-Tranzact in carrying out the deductions, was made, without a conscious effort to carry all other relevant stakeholders along.
“We have a pension reform act around which all relevant contribution matters revolve. I don’t think there is any approval that IPPIS would have gotten from the Ministry of Finance that would override a clear law of the land that prohibits the deduction of any kind from an average pension contributors’ fund,” he continued.
“It is on this basis that I think IPPIS should admit that they have done the wrong thing right from the onset. Another critical aspect we all have to realise is that deducting N30 from all contributors’ funds, on a monthly basis, is a no-no.
“Another problem we need to highlight is that we have continued to look at the business angle of this issue, without considering the humanitarian and responsibility angle.
“It is the responsibility of IPPIS to ensure that all civil servants that have diligently worked, day in day out, get their pension contributions remitted into their Retirement Savings Accounts (RSAs) in full, and without any unlawful deduction.”
YOU DON’T SHAVE A HEAD WITHOUT THE OWNER’S APPROVAL
When another PFA representative rose to speak, he said there was no engagement with relevant pension stakeholders before the decision was reached by IPPIS to engage the services of E-Tranzact for the remittance of pension contributions into the RSAs of government workers, and more importantly, for N30 charge to take effect.
“You don’t shave a head without getting the consent of its owner. It is very clear that this action was taken without carrying all relevant operators along,” he added.
“It is totally wrong for anyone to negotiate costs on our behalf. This is simply a deliberate move by those responsible, to blindside all major stakeholders, and execute the deductions.”
WHAT IS ON GROUND
The IPPIS is a department under the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation (OAGF), and one of its functions is to effect the payment of salaries and wages directly into government employees’ bank accounts.
It is also the responsibility of the department to carry out deductions and remittances of third party payments such as Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), State Boards of Internal Revenue (SBIR), National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), National Housing Fund (NHF), Pension Fund Administrator (PFA), Cooperative Societies, Trade Unions Dues, Association Dues and Bank Loans.
On the Pension Fund N30 service charge deduction alone, FIJ can establish that IPPIS, through E-Tranzact, is responsible for the pension remittance of over 1,500,000 federal government employees, working for the country’s 711 MDAs.
Going by an estimated calculation, a total of N45,000,000 is being deducted monthly from the RSAs of unsuspecting federal government workers, and without their knowledge.
From February to November, which is a 10-month period, a total of N450,000,000 has been deducted as service charges from the collective RSAs by E-Tranzact.
The bigger picture, however, is that these deductions are also effected on remittances like NHIS and NHF.
Unlike the pension remittance service charge, however, FIJ gathered that the cost of remitting NHIS and NHF contributions come at N50 per transaction.
Going by the same calculation for pension remittance charges, and taking into consideration the N50 charge per transaction, it means a monthly charge of N75,000,000 is being realised on each of NHIS and NHF levies.
Accordingly, a February to November summation of the charges on remittances for the respective schemes would amount to N750,000,000 each.
Invariably, this means the ‘silent service charge’ deductions on Pension, NHIS and NHF remittances have amounted to N1.95 billion, from February to November 2021.
DEADLOCK DESPITE THE CONSTITUTION OF A SUB COMMITTEE
After an hour of crossfires and deadly punches from all corners of the room, it was suggested that a sub committee consisting of representatives of PENOP, E-Tranzact, PFAs, PFCs and IPPIS be constituted to fashion a way forward.
However, after close to an hour of intense deliberations, no significant progress was made.
In the end, it was unanimously agreed that E-Tranzact, in conjuction with IPPIS, make a presentation to all relevant directors and senior management staff of PFAs and PFCs on how the service charge would be borne, going forward.
However, one thing is clear, the deduction would no longer be borne by innocent civil servants. The uncertainty, though, is when the earlier deducted funds would be refunded by E-Tranzact.
This investigation was published with development support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).