Transparency International, which monitors and ranks nations of the world for corruption, defines it as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”
Nellie Mayshak has witnessed corruption at various levels during her many years working as a consultant on public sector reform projects around the world. But never as up close and personal as she experienced during her professional assignment in Nigeria. While Mayshak managed to complete her project successfully, she still has the battle scars that speak to the struggle, and has had two years to consider the lessons learned.
As an outside expert contracted by major funding agencies like UKAid and others to manage reform projects at the ground level, Mayshak has almost always been shielded from the worst of the pressures that cultures of corruption can exert over the process of government reform.
Then, while working on a UKAid-funded project in Nigeria to strengthen its institutions and build new capacities, Mayshak was convinced (after considerable resistance) to make a big change, and take on a major new project working directly for the Nigerian government.
The job, begun in September 2013, was to clean up the country’s old public pension system, a project that had been government mandated but resisted for nearly ten years. As head of Nigeria’s Pension Transitional Arrangement Department (PTAD), Nellie Mayshak was charged with forming a single, consolidated, functional and funded pension system out of multiple, independent systems run by different government ministries. Each was essentially a cash cow for corrupt officials, who put family members and “ghost” pensioners on payrolls in their schemes to line their own pockets.
Nigeria is consistently ranked by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt nations in the world. While Mayshak was well-aware of that dubious standing, “I underestimated its power and the lengths that people would go to in order to protect their personal interests,” she recalls.
Despite the resistance and attempts to undermine the reform of the pension system, Nellie Mayshak thrived. In less than two years, she created a new umbrella agency, the Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate, PTAD, and consolidated the pensions. She digitized the manual pension files. She instituted an electronic payment system that ensured regular, accurate pensioner payments and improved efficiencies that saved billions of dollars in pension funds. More importantly, she saved many lives by enrolling many discarded and ignored pensioners on the payroll, so that they could collect their meagre benefits.
Yet, with a change of government in 2015, the new, now disgraced minister of Finance, who has been exposed as a fraud, suspended Nellie Mayshak for “administrative irregularities” that were never proven, and unleashed fake news and malicious false allegations of fraud on social media. Mayshak was interrogated and detained on the instruction of the new minister, but never charged with any crime, as there was none.
Nellie Mayshak came out of the situation in 2016 a lot smarter. She’s learned many lessons from her experience, she says, but two of the most important to be taken to heart are these:
- It takes a lot of courage to fight corruption.
“Maybe this is obvious, but it can be surprising how many people who you would think have courage actually don’t, and those who probably have the most to lose still have the courage to forge ahead,” says Mayshak. She credits two particular Nigerian officials for having the courage to champion the cause of the pension reform.
One was Mayshak’s direct supervisor, the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a noted economist who convinced Mayshak she was the right person for the job and supported her work throughout the minister’s tenure. The Minister was determined to plug the leaks in pension fraud and provided the leadership and supervision for the new agency and Mayshak’s work to thrive. The Minister was extremely pleased with the results in pensioner services and financial management achieved by Mayshak and her team before the minister and government lost the election of 2015. The official support to fight the corruption in the pension system came to an abrupt end with the election of the new government in mid-2015.
Just as important, Mayshak says, was the then head of the Civil Service, Goni Aji, who headed the agency with the largest of the pension systems that stood to be consolidated. “There’s a reason why it took ten years to re-engineer the system,” she says. “His predecessors didn’t want to lose control of the pension, which was very profitable.” Goni Aji was the one who pushed back, who gave up control, who recognized this was a national scandal. “And he was as vilified by his agency as I was,” Mayshak adds. “They never forgave him for giving off a lucrative pension portfolio that made many in his agency rich, at the expense of pensioners.”
- There’s going to be pushback against change. Always fight it.
“It’s always a mistake to underestimate the anti-reform people and what they’ll do to protect their vested interests,” Nellie Mayshak believes. “From the beginning, people who had been making money off the pension system mounted serious resistance. Many of the pension offices to be consolidated refused to surrender pension data to the new agency, civil servants resented the new agency and staff, and they complained the agency salaries were too high.” And when Mayshak refused to allow an illegal and obviously fraudulent pay-off for this class of workers in December 2014, they and others embarked on a campaign of misinformation against Mayshak and the agency.
Despite her concern, Nellie Mayshak was told to ignore the campaign of misinformation and to continue with the vigorous reform of closing leaks and ensuring welfare of pensioners. But the more progress Mayshak’s team made with the new system, cleaning up ghost voters, saving what would be billions of dollars with new efficiencies, the more determined was the gang of pension robbers to get Mayshak out of the way.
The government did not take action to shield Mayshak and the agency from the spoilers because many senior officials were implicated and complicit in pension fraud.
With the change of government and the departure of pension reform champions like Okonjo-Iweala, the political support was removed for PTAD, and all went haywire, Mayshak recalls. It didn’t help that some in the incoming government also saw opportunities in the pension system and knew Mayshak as a blocker who would not let them access pension funds. They too joined in the campaign. “The new finance minister chastised me for trying to defend my agency against the fake news. And I knew my time there was getting very short.”
Since Nellie Mayshak returned home to Canada from Nigeria, she’s grown almost philosophical about the experience. She’s seen corruption in action and emerged from the experience whole. Yet she worries about the larger price society has to pay for corruption and corrupt systems.
“I’ve seen $2 trillion cited as what the world community wastes through corruption,” she says. “That shows that the struggles of poor pensioners in Nigeria who are unwillingly keeping their politicians and civil servants living in style is just the tip of the iceberg. Think of the global challenges that money could solve – world hunger, a basic education for all, a way to stamp out malaria. Isn’t it time to address this issue?”
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