By Mathew K Jallow
It’s the thousand pound gorilla in the room. And it isn’t new. It’s a reality that reflects a counter-intuitive mindset exacerbated by deference to a culture of utter incompetence. Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation (SSHFC), is an enigma and a paradox; puzzling to its members, and its operations morbidly ambivalent to everyone else. Even the power-point presentations of its functions appear like a walk into a labyrinth of confusion. Internally, its various components parts look like organized chaos. But, you’ll be forgiven to think that its angles, cross-sections and intersections are a mechanism to deliberately confuse, mystify and obfuscate. The mere existence of SSHFC pensions fund as a business model is as dumbfounding as it is perplexing. My point is; Social Security is burdened with a catalog of risky adventures in investments, naked corruption, wasteful spending, crowned by terrifying lack of oversight. It appears as though the institution is conceptually reconfigured to purposefully deviate from its bedrock principle as a safety-net for retirees, even as the agency is shrouded in riveting circumscription that borders on detachment by its Board. SSHFC, in veering from its central organizing objective, as a safety-net for retirees, demonstrated a conceptual misunderstanding of the social and political materiality of the agency as a health and welfare issue, and thus a public service program under government supervision. The act incorporating the agency as a business, with normal bank functions, is ostensibly inconsistent with its core mission. SSHFC, in financing a cornucopia of state and quasi state agencies, private business, social events, and a piggy-bank for its employees and government officials, violated its pensions and banking rules. So far, the agency disbursed hundreds of millions, perhaps, billions, in nebulous deals, dubious projects, and suspect transactions. But, perhaps the most compelling piece of intrigue is SSHFC’s spurious take-over by its management as a bottomless money-pit; awarding housing and vehicle loans, study scholarships, exhorbitant per diems, and a compendium of other problematic, maybe even illegal financial expenditures.
Last week, the spat between SSHFC management and its staff, dramatized the severe financial improprieties at the agency, but the shift from this overriding issue, to that of personalities, did injustice to the agency’s unbearable stewardship of its pension funds. The crucible in this moral and ethical void; pensioners, were mythologized in banal rhetorical flourish often equivocated in the staid color of selective partiality. And crucially, when a second meeting concluded late last week, it projected spurious concern for pensioners’ interest, but the central theme of the meeting was obscured by high jinx ethnic subterfuge remarkable in its contextual silence. Subliminal attempts to straightjacket government from interference in this saga are impetuous at best, and at worst, a boisterous demonstration of subjective puerile irrationality. When pensioners’ demands ignore the very nature of SSHFC as a politically sensitive institution, inextricably tied to government interest, it does disservice to a crisis situation in which government is so deeply tied to, as agency founder and supervisor, to whom the Board itself is answerable. Last Saturday pensioners’ meeting, rather than dwell in the silly fantasy of non-government interference in state agency affairs, missed the opportunity to cast public consciousness on retirees preponderant issues of concern; separation of pension funds, as fourth rail of government, from the dangerous gambling in business adventures unrelated to objective design of the funds as retirees’ benefits program. The issue of institution building is of preeminent interest in economic development and expansion of democratic norms, yet quite often, state institutions are burdened with conflicting and contradictory assignments, personnel, who, in their mindsets, are entangled in corruption and self-interest, and a visionless workforce lacking the sense of nationalism, and the national interest as the supreme guide in the conduct of public service. More than reveal SSHFC’s slippage into a compendium of blundering financial transgressions, the clash for power at the agency has opened the playbook divulging the primal egocentrism that has deeply infected the heartbeat of a people, and the soul of continent.
The extraordinary hysteria over the SSHFC spat, fraught with platitudes of elysian reverence, disguise the less than frugal management of finances displayed by the entire management staff. But, the fierce partiality manifested in this sage have exacerbated the hurdles and further plunged the agency in hopeless quandary. In effectively and definitively tackling pensioners’ grievances, resolution of the chaotic entanglement must necessarily involve repealing the Act incorporating SSHFC as a quasi-business enterprise. The confusion of co-joining an area of public service with what is essentially an area of the private sector has, over the past three and half decades, robbed pensioners of their rightful entitlements, even as agency funds are exploited to enrich its staff. In obviating further abuse of pension funds, government ought to consider disassociating pensions funds from housing. Pension and retirement are social and health issues, and therefore, under the purview of government public service. A task of government is, through laws and Constitution, create or facilitate creation of institutions that address all areas of need, public or private. Thus, through a robust divestiture program that primarily seeks to open opportunities for the private sector to grow and expand, the need and necessity for government to remove the housing part of SSHFC from pensions, cannot be overstated. This area of the economy is more suited for private sector take-over, and banks, financial institutions, and housing corporation enterprises are tailor-made for this industry. Apart from expanding opportunities for job creation in the private sector, it has added advantage of expanding construction skills, stemming the abuse of pension funds and expanding government’s tax base. In order to separate pensions from housing, the National Assembly would be required to repeal the Act, and create a stand-alone Pensions Fund exclusively designed as an agency of government whose staff are employed and paid by government; not the pensions fund. This will enhance interaction between financial institutions and citizens, expand banking portfolios and further develop the institutions that Gambia needs in the drive to economic development.