She’s unassuming and rarely craves the press. But whenever she does, it’s usually to get the media behind her policy drives. But the self-effacing, affable Director General of the National Pension Commission (PenCom) is not shy to step on toes or butt heads to deliver on the mandate of her office.
Aisha Dahir–Umar has been doing just that since getting into the top office at PenCom. She had been as audacious as an Amazon when the occasion called for it. But never a colossus forcing everyone to bend to her. Like in 2019 when an employee of PenCom and daughter of a member of the House of Representatives, Deborah Agbonayinma, was found to have entered the service with fake credentials.
Deborah was immediately dismissed from PenCom in March 2019 even though the organization was under House probe at the time and her father, Ehionzuwa Johnson Agbonayinma, was a key member of the Adhoc committee conducting the investigation.
PenCom was then under probe for alleged recruitment and arbitrary increment of staff salaries, which were later found to be untrue. But perhaps, any other person in her position would probably not want to further incur the wrath of the National Assembly by dismissing a legislator’s daughter from work. But she did it, knowing she was taking the right step, but ensuring it was not misread as fight back.
At the end, she got the backing of the House and the committee and the action was properly interpreted as decent and in the public interest.
No DG of the Commission had faced the amount of distraction that confronted Aisha Dahir-Umar since her appointment in acting capacity in 2017. She was appointed at a time that PenCom was on an upward trajectory. Mrs. Chinelo Anohu-Amazu, her vibrant predecessor, had moved pension assets from N2.5 trillion in 2014 when she was appointed to N6.5 within three years before she was sacked in April 2017.
Her sudden removal from office rattled the pension industry and there were fears that growth in the sector may be stifled while pensioners confidence may dip. It was also feared that investors’ confidence in the industry may be jeopardized.
Thus, unseen forces used every means available to undermine Aisha Dahir-Umar’s appointment as acting DG. They fought her in the media, they penetrated the legislature and pulled levers of government. But she remained calm, comported and focused.
But after nearly two years of storm, she was eventually confirmed as substantive DG in October 2019 largely on account of her performance in office. She disappointed her traducers who underrated her resilience and capacity. She demonstrated leadership and team spirit which has served the industry well, and put it on a stronger footing than she inherited.
Not only has she exponentially increased pension assets, she has also brought in the informal sector into the pension net through the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS). By December 2020, the year she was confirmed DG, she had brought pension asset to N12.31 trillion within three years. No fewer than 19,000 workers from the public and private sectors have joined the CPS, boosting the asset by N470 billion in the period.
In March 2019, a year before she became substantive DG, President Muhammadu Buhari also launched a micro pension plan for self-employed Nigerians at the State House Conference Centre, Abuja. The President appealed to trade associations, workers unions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the informal sector to join hands with the government in enlightening their members on the importance of the scheme.
It was a PenCom initiative that will capture those that are not fully captured in the existing pension scheme and bring more Nigerians into the pool.
The rapid upward swing in pension asset was ample confirmation that rather than jeopardize investors and pensioners confidence, Aisha Dahir-Umar’s tenure has stabilized and boosted the industry.
The evidence is everywhere- from new regulations, stricter enforcement regime to online registration and prompt pension payments- the Nigerian pensioner had never been happier. The new pension structures and the robost enlightenment of workers approaching retirement have now made many to look forward to exiting service.
Aisha Dahir-Umar has continued to defy the odds, and her resilience is certainly baring the right fruits. Nigeria has truly left the era when retirees go through hell to access pension payment. You no longer need to travel to Abuja to file pension documents. Prospective retirees only need to visit the commission’s website www.pencom.gov.ng to complete the process of Self-Registration.
During the first quarter of 2022 alone, PenCom approved 7,724 requests for retirement benefit payments. The requests consisted of 5,326 payments under Programmed Withdrawal (PW) and 2,398 under Retiree Life Annuity (RLA). PenCom also approved PFAs to pay N6.545 billion to 9,578 RSA holders under the age of 50 years that lost their jobs.
It’s an unprecedented growth trajectory which has also seen pension funds secured despite ravages of the Covid-19. The increasing number of pension contributors and funds was a result of the recapitalisation of the pension fund administrators (PFA’s) by the commission. PenCom increased the minimum regulatory capital (shareholders’ fund) requirements of PFAs from N1 billion to N5 billion in 2021.
The recapitalisation exercise was to ramp up the capacity of the PFA’s to manage the increasing number of registered contributors and the value of pension fund assets which stood at 9,795,957 million and N14.27 trillion respectively, as of June 30, 2022. The figure represents a growth of approximately N843billion when compared with N13.88 trillion recorded at the end of March this year.
Pension activities recorded the highest quarterly movements of contributors in the first quarter of 2021, 20.1 per cent quarter-on-quarter, which is an indication of increased competition in the industry.
It’s credit to PenCom that despite the global economic meltdown occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic, the pension industry is not experiencing a dip but resurgence. A total of 9, 795,957 contributors registered into the CPS between March 2021 and March 2022, according to a monthly report of the commission for the first half of the year 2022 published on the commission’s website.
This is no doubt the result of a committed PenCom management which has been able to improve confidence in the pension industry. The vibrancy of the industry is illustrated by the growing number of contributors and the healthy competition we now see in the industry.
A total of 27,157 contributors migrated to new pension fund managers between January and June 2022, bringing the total number of RSA transfers processed by the commission to 78,549 since the opening of the transfer window barely two years ago. The transfer window is an initiative of the commission, which gives contributors opportunity to move from one pension fund administrator to another.
RSA registration also grew by 2.8 per cent to stand at 9.79 million from 9.53 million recorded in December 2021, representing an increase of 266,830 new RSA registrations in six months.
Under Aisha Dahir -Umar, PenCom has ensured that investment of pension fund are wisely and cautiously done with eyes on returns. This is why Pension Fund Assets were mainly invested in federal government securities, which accounted for 61.26 per cent of total assets. FGN Bonds account for 92.20 per cent, Treasury Bills: 3.45 per cent, and Agency Bonds, Sukuk and Green Bonds accounting for 1.29 per cent.
But investments in corporate debt securities also rose by 26.11 per cent to N1.19 trillion in the review period while investments in real estate increased by 50.66 per cent to N236.2 billion as at June 2022 from N156.8 billion recorded as at the beginning of the year.
However, investments in private equity funds dipped slightly by 0.24 per cent to stand at N38.87 billion from N38.96 billion. PenCom reported that PFAs raked in a total of N191.44 billion in the period under review.
The atmosphere of acrimony and uncertainty which pervaded PenCom and the pension industry in 2017 has slowly and steadily given way to an air of tranquility and stability. The DG’s affable personality has no doubt calmed the storm while her commitment to the industry she regulates had ensured standards remain high, and service delivery more efficient.
Prior to her emergence as the chief regulator, allegations of corruption, unprofessional conduct and lack of proper regulations in the industry were rife. PenCom officials were even fingered in such unholy compromises of regulation standards.
Federal and state governments had also continued to pilfer workers’ Pension fund without remitting their own quota to the fund as mandated under CPS arrangement with fewer than 10 states implementing the CPS in the country.
Even the most implacable critics of PenCom will concede that this is no longer the situation today. While there is still a lot to be done, a lot had also been achieved. PenCom was able to get the FG and many states to pay the backlog of pension funds in their hands while prompt payments is also becoming the norm.
The howling and cries of retirees who were unable to receive pension long after leaving service have been replaced by commendation and supportive criticisms appreciative beneficiaries. Everyone now sees the effort of the regulator and what they can do to improve service delivery.
It is an indisputable fact among industry stakeholders that the biggest achievements in terms of pension growth were recorded in the last two years. This was reflected in the implementation of the window transfer mechanism and the release of the guidelines on the use of pension assets for mortgage. Not forgetting also the Micro Pension plan which has given hope for informal sector operators.
Under Aisha Dahir-Umar, PenCom is setting the pension template for Africa. It’s not by accident; It’s hard work and resilience. It’s that stubborn spirit to overcome obstacles which the DG so amply exemplifies.