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Pension Scam: It Was Tough Probing Maina, Others – Investigator

Mr Habibu Adamu Aliyu was the head of the Pension Fraud Special Team at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) before his resignation in 2016. In this interview, Aliyu, who is the chief executive officer of Strategic Transparent Solutions Limited, a consulting firm, spoke on how the investigation started and the difficulties encountered especially in unravelling frauds perpetrated by Abdulrasheed Maina and his accomplices

How did the pension fraud investigation start?

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was invited by the Head of Civil Service of the Federation to assist in the verification exercise of the federal civil service pensioners. During the course of that exercise, two fake pensioners were detected and brought back to the EFCC for further investigation. We checked their bank accounts and realised that they were paid from First Inland Bank, so we called for the account of First Inland Bank and scrutinized it.

So from that analysis, we realised that there were several more fake pensioners. That gave us the opportunity to analyse every transaction in that First Inland Bank account.

In that instance we stumbled on a payment mandate which comprised about 10 beneficiaries and they were paid a total of about N94million in pension, which is not possible. That was the transaction that triggered the entire pension investigation.

A sneak view of that First Inland Bank account gave us the idea of the amount of fraud that was perpetuated in the Office of the Head of Service. So at the end of the day we did a system-wide check on all Head of Service accounts.

What were your major findings?

We discovered the modus operandi through which pension funds were being stolen. The pension payment is a bit meager, so the perpetrators realised that it was not easy to steal in the name of just pensioners because the amount they could steal is not that much because they had to get a lot of people as ghost pensioners to steal as much as they wanted.

Our investigation confirmed four to five modus operandi through which they stole these pension funds. These modus operandi were uncovered as a result of our efforts to follow the money.

In fact, we started from the allocation sent from the federation account, that is through the Office of the Account-General of the Federation, through Head of Service account. We followed the money down to all the bank accounts that were moving these monies.

Fortunately and unfortunately that time, there was no Treasury Single Account (TSA), but the good thing for the investigation and one of the things that also helped our investigation was that as at January 2009, the then federal government, under the leadership of the late President Yar’adua, introduced e-payment, which stated that all government’s transactions should henceforth be made through electronic platforms, not the conventional way of issuing cheques.

That simplified our work. You can imagine having to go through a transaction of billions using cheques, like the experience we had during the investigation of police pension.

They violated that circular because they were more comfortable issuing cheques within the threshold. We confirmed that they issued like 33,000 cheques in one single name – that of the cashier.

What were the other means of siphoning the funds?

We realised that they were giving out fictitious contracts. Our investigation confirmed that they gave out contracts totaling N5 billion between 2009 and 2010.

Through use of ghost pensioners they got about N900 million. For the ghost pensioners they collected innocent people’s account numbers. In one instance, one of the accused persons went to his village and enrolled all members of a football team into the pension account. So every month, a certain amount would be sent to the account, such as N30,000, N40,000, N50,000. They were doing that over the years. The persons would withdraw the money and bring back to them on a percentage sharing basis.

The other modus operandi we also realised was collecting allowances under the guise of this biometric enrolment exercise. They were sending money in bulk to a group of civil servants within the office, under the guise that they were going for verification exercise.

They ended up withdrawing those monies and bringing them back, based on a sharing formula. Our investigation confirmed that they stole N1.5 billion using that.

We also realised that another means was through connivance with state pension boards. On a certain percentage of gratuity which the federal government contributes, there is a criteria the state has to reach, then arrive at a certain calculation; then that amount would be paid to those state pension boards.

What they did was that they would make arrangement with state pension boards to inflate the figures so that when those payments were made, they brought back their own share.

Another modus operandi we also discovered, which is unfortunately the saddest of it, was that members of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners were part and parcel of this fraud. They were using the association to send in overinflated check-up dues because they were entitled to it based on pension laws. The union is entitled to 1 per cent check-up dues; that is 1 per cent of each pensioner’s entitlement. It is supposed to be used as a poll for the welfare of their colleagues. But it became a tool whereby the leadership of the union and officials of the pension department connived to steal funds. We uncovered over N4billion stolen through this.

However, it is important to make it very clear at this point that there are categories of perpetrators of this fraud. The initial investigation targeted the officials of the Department of Pension Account because when we detected those pensioners, we called for all the payment mandates issued by the office of the Department of Pension Account from the Office of the Head of Service of the Federation. We traced those payments and matched them with bank records.

 

Through this, we brought out the names of the signatories of those pension accounts. That was how we focused attention to all the cashiers, accountants and the leadership of the Department of Pension Account. This was how our investigation initially started. That group of perpetrators is one.

As the investigation proceeded, we now realised another set of perpetrators led by Abdulrasheed Maina, under the guise of Presidential Task Team on Pension Reform (PTTPR).

They were supposed to take over the activities of this pension department. They came in with a reform agenda, but we later realised that they came up with their own stealing agenda. What they did was not different from what these other people were doing. What changed were just the characters; all the modus operandi were the same.

Unknown to us as at the time we were investigating the officials of the pension account, members of the reform task team were doing the same thing. Luckily for us, we were following the money; we didn’t care about the identities of the personalities doing those things.

We were investigating the core civil servants of the pension department and realised that some of the contracts and fake pensioners were awarded, and all were inputted by the so-called reformists under the leadership of Maina, through the use of some consultants. This was a slightly different modus operandi by Maina – the use of consultants.

What were the duties of those consultants?

The consultants were supposed to provide an industrial training support services to the biometric enrolment exercise so that at the end of the day there would be a robust data base instead of the manual system of pension process. That consultant ended up taking over the activities of the pension account.

When we later interviewed the civil servants, they told us they had nothing to do with all the pension payment being generated by the Pension Reform Task Team because they never allowed them to vet; they never allowed the auditors to go through those records. It was only the consultants that were doing those things. Our investigation confirmed that because one of the consultants was inserting fictitious pensioners into the pension data base.

What was the role of Maina in all these, especially because he claimed that he saved the country billions of naira through his work, but your investigation found something different? What really happened?

Saving money is relative because there is a situation where you embark on a bogus biometric enrolment exercise. In fact, in part of the claim that he saved money, there were lots of pensioners that could not be captured for biometric exercise; and they were the real pensioners.

In fact, midway into the exercise by the team, there was chaos in pensioners’ payment because apparently, certain genuine pensioners were not listed because they were not verified.

So it was just a phantom biometric exercise that ended up creating chaos instead of solving the problems of pensioners. In that regard, there was no saving.

He could not substantiate all those claims he made in the media. It was part of the things that came up in court. You claimed to have recovered so and so things, come and show it to the court; there was nothing like that.

How did you uncover all these amounts and assets linked to Maina, as we saw from the court?

Like I said, what led us to some of these discoveries was through the consultants. We identified that they engaged two sets of consultants. Initially, they brought in a consultant they awarded the biometric enrolment exercise sometime in 2009. They have been charged to court alongside Mr Oronsaye; that is innovative solution and the alter-egos of that company. They were engaged as consultants to provide technical support for the biometric enrolment contract at the sum of about N65 million, but it will interest you to know that they ended up paying them over N250 million. That was mysterious, but we ended up following up that same amount and we realised that it was shared.

That consultant confirmed that he withdrew the money and handed over to Maina. What they used for the exercise was just N35million, all other funds were handed over to Maina.

As we followed the money, we went to the bank, studied the CCTV and interviewed the account officer, who identified the two parties. We established that he actually handed over the funds.

There was the second consultant after that one left. The second consultant was paid over N140million to support the task team. We continued to follow the money, and this time, we went to Fidelity Bank, where it was paid as was stated in court – the same bank that Maina’s brother was working. They moved part of the money to a bureau de change, which we got and interviewed and he confirmed to us that they withdrew those funds, sourced for dollar and took it to Maina.

While investigating the consultants, we traced part of the money paid into Maina’s account in Fidelity Bank because part of the money was paid into some of the accounts he fictitiously operated in Fidelity Bank, through cluster logistics—Nafisat Aliyu, Abdullahi Faiza. There were multiple accounts he was operating.

He was taking cash to Fidelity Bank and those monies were deposited to conceal the source and origin of the money. It was this cycle of classical money laundry activities that led us to him.

The most interesting aspect of it, and in all fairness, is that apart from the efforts of the investigation, there were good Samaritans. God will bless them.

A lot of Nigerians volunteered information because of their passion to help in fighting corruption in the country. I wish I could mention their names because we owe them a lot gratitude for this feat because they volunteered information that apparently we could not have gotten.

In that Fidelity Bank account, for example, we realised that most of the transactions have been converted to dollars. Part of the money that was handed over to him in dollars here in Nigeria was done while he was still serving as PRTT chairman.

But when he absconded and fled Nigeria, the modus continued. Those funds in his bank account were also being converted to USD and sent to him in Dubai. We traced from here up to Dubai, including the BDC operators that were handing over the money to him Dubai. One thing is that they really cooperated. They told us what really happened.

The account officers normally asked them to source for dollars, which they arranged to be collected in Dubai. So we got all these connections.

Maina would normally send a Malian or Nigerien to collect this money, but mostly, he would hide around the area at the time the money would be collected in Dubai.

The bottom-line is that from Nigeria they confirmed to us that the money had been sent to Maina. That shows you the extent we had gone to confirm who collected the money on his behalf in Dubai.

At a point during this investigation, in a section of the media you were called out as someone who was constituting a bottleneck and trying to scuttle the work of the Pension Reform Team. How did it feel?

As an investigator you have to get ready for all those things, but of course it is painful. It is a big distraction, but as I said in several forums, we kept our eyes on the ball.

As we were following the money, we did not even know who were behind some of these companies. So looking back, those campaigns of calumny were started as at the time we really identified Maina’s companies.

In fact, it will interest you to know that the first day I saw Maina was when I got my confessional statement from him.

We took a request to the Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, listing over 100 companies we suspected to have gotten fictitious contracts. In my presence, Mr Afolabi called Maina and asked him to assist us with the information. As Maina flipped through the records, he saw certain companies and he pointed to them and said, “These are our transactions.” I said, “Yes, even if they were your transactions I need documents to show that they were genuine.” That was when Maina panicked and started all his evil machinations. He made all efforts to ensure that I was removed.

He actually reached out to the leadership of the EFCC at several points, even on that very day, making all sorts of unfounded allegations.

Perhaps they expected the EFCC to be used against a certain number of people, but unfortunately, we were people of integrity and professionals, so we were guided by facts. We could not manufacture evidence, and once there is any evidence we pursued it. So that made Maina to get agitated.

His mischief started that very day because he realised that this is not the guy he could compromise or manipulate. The die was cast that day.

There were allegation that you also benefitted from some of the proceeds, including houses…

Which house? I don’t have a single house in Nigeria or outside. That was a phantom allegation to distract us. In fact, at a point in time they said I owned houses in Dubai. Maina was flying all those allegations around.

I challenge anybody to prove that I have any house. As I speak to you now I live in a rented apartment, and I am happy that I can afford to pay the rent. It is just a matter of time and God will bless me with a mansion.

A job like this sometimes comes with dangers and threats. What was your own experience?

There were several threats to our lives, especially anonymous threats, which we later confirmed were coming from Maina. There was also a threat from Dr Teidi when one of my officers went to his village in Kogi to execute a search warrant. He actually sent thugs after them. In fact, he called to say that if they didn’t leave his premises he would send thugs after them, but as bold as my officers were, they stayed put. And we came back with an incident report to the management. He was called and cautioned, but nothing came out of that.

Maina’s threats continued, persistently. One of the major threats from him was media blackmail. In fact, as far as we were concerned, he engaged the services of a prominent radio presenter in Abuja to malign and disparage our image. We kept on saying he could not prove his case, so he should go to court and defend himself, not the court of public opinion.

As investigators we knew what we were in for – we have families who felt pained and disturbed.

There was a lot undue pressure from those campaigns of calumny; they almost derailed and disrupted us, but as God would have it, we remained focused and resolute.

In fact, that was one of the reasons I became determined to prove Maina’s case against all odds. I left the EFCC 5 years, but I have never left Maina’s case for one day. I voluntarily resigned from the services of the EFCC on October 6, 2016, and today is November 2021. Although I was not in the EFCC, I fully participated in that process.

Why were you so passionate about this case?

I wanted to prove that he stole pension funds. Instead of him to address the issues, he went after me and my personality, so I felt compelled that the best way to respond to him was to ensure that he was properly arraigned and prosecuted before a court of competent jurisdiction. Along the line, today he is a convict.

 

How did you feel when he was convicted?

I felt excited and humbled. There were a lot of emotions, but like I said, it boils down to team work. I sincerely appreciate the team I got; they are beautiful and brilliant, hard working and honest Nigerians.

I was just the face of this investigation, but I am happy that I have not disappointed them. They were doing most of the work; I was giving direction, and at the end of the day we collectively achieved this result. This couldn’t have been achieved without the courage of the judiciary. The judiciary really applied the law as it is because Maina’s case took like two years to conclude. Among the criminal prosecutions we have seen in Nigeria, it is one of the most expeditious.

Part of the reasons was that we were courageous enough to invoke the requirements of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, and the judge, on the first day of arraignment, ordered for day-to-day proceedings. If not because Maina jumped bail and absconded, we would have finished earlier than now.

This case brings to fore, the importance of proper collaboration. This result is a product of synergy and collaboration, both within and outside the country because a lot of individuals played a lot of roles in achieving this feat.

When Maina absconded to Niger, the Nigerien authorities, through our international law enforcement partners, intimated Nigeria that they got a fugitive, so he was expeditiously extradited and arraigned in court and the case continued. That singular act went a long way in seeing what we have today.

Also, the most defining moment for this thing we are celebrating today is the arrest of Maina in October 2019. I really feel humbled, honoured and excited by the fact that we approached the Department of State Services (DSS) under the leadership of Alhaji Yusuf Magaji Bichi to help us arrest him because he had some pending charges before the Federal High Court.

So the DSS swung into action and got a fugitive we had been looking for almost four years for us in less than two weeks. They deplored all the resources available to them, got him and immediately handed him over to the EFCC.

I really appreciate them. And I see hope if the Nigerian law enforcement institutions would work hand-in-hand to tackle the mandates given to them, honestly.

With your years of experience as an investigator; how do you see the challenges or frustrations, especially for those of you who picked a career in law enforcement around fighting corruption in Nigeria?

Honestly, to say the least, I felt highly disappointed and demoralised at a point in time because of all these campaigns of calumny, intimidation and harassment. There were times when my wife would be called at midnight and people would abuse her consistently. They deplored a lot of strategy to distract us.

But the good thing is that right from day one, we understood that they would try to compromise us through bribe; and if they did not succeed, they would try to intimidate us. If you don’t succumb, that’s where the issue of blackmail would come in. And they deplored all these resources.

It was really painful. In fact, I feel betrayed, even by the institution I was working for because, at a point in time I articulated all these problems, especially in 2016, shortly before I left the EFCC. I remember that I raised a memo shortly after we filed charges in July 2015, against Stephen Oronsanye, Mr Afe, Innovative Solution, Hamilton and Mr Maina at large. Shortly after we filed those charges, the blackmail was stepped up.

So, sometime in December 2015, I sent a memo to the then leadership of the EFCC under Ibrahim Magu, drawing attention to the fact that for several months, there was attack about the pension team in one radio station by Ahmed Isah on Brekete Family, consistently discrediting our investigation, which we found curious. If you have issues with our investigation, go and file charges and defend yourself.

I drew the attention of the management under Magu, saying the commission should take necessary steps under the law to ensure that we were given the protection to do our work. I specifically asked for certain steps to be taken. One was the conduct of the radio station, and that the presenter should be reported to the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC); that the coordinated blackmail be investigated and legal action against those behind it.

None was done; and that was when I began to contemplate that there was much more than what I was seeing. If the system you are working for is not willing to defend you, you have to look for alternative ways to defend yourself.

Four months after, I tendered my letter of resignation to the EFCC, sometime in March 2016. The chairman personally called to prevail and plead with me, saying I was one of their most important investigators. But I said I was leaving because I did not see hope in the system.

A lot of highly placed Nigerians were also putting pressure on me to rescind my decision. I said they should give me time to think through it, but I never withdrew my resignation letter. When I realised that nothing changed and there was no effort to protect us, I said the game was up.

And during those windows, I realised that even the government was talking to Maina without recourse to the good job we did. I said it seemed I was on my own.

So I took that bold decision and stated it very clearly in my letter of resignation in October 2016 that I felt abandoned by the system that could not give me the minimum protection. I was investigated severally at the instance of Maina and all these pension fund staff members. I was subjected to all forms of harassment, threats and blackmail, but I remained focused.

In my resignation letter, I made it clear that even if I was out of the EFCC, I would ensure that justice was done in all the pension cases. It will interest you to know that I am the lead prosecution witness in about 13 pension fraud cases.

We got conviction under my leadership against John Yusuf of police pension, where over 32 units of houses worth billions of naira were recovered. It was under my leadership of the pension investigation that a massive hotel was forfeited to the federal government, based on the level of investigation we did. All the owners denied ownership of the property. So it was forfeited to the federal government under section 17 of the Advanced Fee Fraud Act.

It gives me a sense of fulfillment because that property was handed over graciously to the Pension Transition Administration Department. I appreciate that.

Our investigation traced an asset bought by the proceeds of pension fraud and the government symbolically handed it over for the use of pensioners.

If given the opportunity, would you like to go back to the same job you did?

Honestly, I am assisting the course against corruption, and I am happy that the new leadership in the EFCC is doing well to reposition the system. We are available to support them in any way possible, but from outside the system.

While leaving the EFCC, I pledged to assist the government as a civic responsibility to ensure that these court cases are concluded; and in the last five years, I made myself available 24 hours in a week to ensure that justice is done in the cases, as we saw in the outcome of this latest investigation.

Sometime in 2017 when Maina was reinstated to the civil service, there was an outcry by the general public.

In fairness to the federal government, I was invited through the office of the attorney-general to assist the government conclude this case; and honestly, it was one of the things that also encouraged me to continue with this investigation.

In the face of all these challenges you have enumerated, what kept you going?

First and foremost, it was the fear of Allah. We also believed that we were on the course of justice. I also always looked at all the efforts put into the work by all the other team members as a source of motivation. Even after I left the EFCC, they remained in touch on these cases and always coordinated to tighten up the investigation. All of us saw the opportunity as a sober moment, looking at what we were about to do in the interest of the country and for the ordinary pensioners, who apparently have no other means of getting justice. We did not choose to do this case. We were selected based on merit. In fact, when we started looking at the area of police pension, the then chairman of the EFCC, Mr Ibrahim Lamorde, was told that he could not investigate police pension. He said he was going to do it and he had someone that could do it. Habibu could do it; and we did it. While on the investigation we were told that we could not take them to court and when we arraigned them; everybody was surprised.

My disappointment out of all these things is there was no proper recognition by the system. I can recall that Mr Lamorde, at the time, commended us and promised a special recognition by the chairman. But till I left the EFCC, there wasn’t anything like that. We were told there would be a special chairman’s handshake, but nothing happened. We were told that there would be a special lunch or dinner with the chairman; it didn’t happen. We were told that there would be an event where we would be properly recognized. None of us was acknowledged, not to talk of any reward.

Till today, my team members are very bitter. We keep asking ourselves what we did wrong. Is it because we were bold? Is it because we were courageous to do what we did? Is it because we ignored the body language of our superiors?

Based on my experience, I want to advise those doing the work to do their assignments diligently. Ask questions. Be as transparent as possible with your team because one of the secrets behind this investigation is the transparency among us.

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