SSHFC: Gambia’s money pit; the chilling abuse of pensioners’ retirement savings

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By Mathew K Jallow

No one is clean in this epic revelation of insidious institutional corruption; no one. Left high and dry, Gambian pensioners, without realising it, have, for decades, been cheated of their pension savings. Gambia’s Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation has effectively morphed into a carnival of waste and abuse unmatched by any corruption and financial scandal in The Gambia’s history. Little or nothing is known of the abuse of the agency resources prior to the ascension of Yahya Jammeh to the ‘throne,’ but the tiff between its managing director, Manjang and SSHFC staff, reveals more about the culture of wanton disregard of pensioners interest, and more about the selfish interest of staff and its entire management; at the expense of pensioners hoodwinked and fleeced of their savings.

Recently, MD Manjang has done a good job peddling intent; rather than actually managing the total overhauling of this institution’s functioning. For, even as he instituted some cosmetic changes; he failed the first test of frugality by not restraining himself from abuse of agency resources. Most disturbing is MD Manjang’s per diem allowance of US$2,300, for leisure, falsified as official business, and his fairytale about missing a flight due to a traffic accident. But, perhaps what must kick one in the guts is the study travel of one Ms Bayo, to the tune of nearly D3,000,000 of pensioners’ savings. And in 2017 alone, Mr Manjang declared four foreign travels, which on the face, with one travel every quarter, doesn’t seem much, but what’s not disclosed is total per diem allowances for these travels.

Everyone is aware how overseas travel per diems allowances are designed to subsidise senior staff salaries, but which have little benefit to SSHFC as an agency. At this rate of travel, Mr Manjang and management staff would leave a huge gap in the financial outlook of the agency. But this disclosure doesn’t absolve other SSHFC management staff; far from it. After seeing the 10-point demand made by SSHFC staff, the financial mismanagement insanity at the agency became all too evident. And nothing in the staff 10-point demands comes close to addressing the pensioners’ interest; its all about the greed and entitlement of staff, who, like the management, think they are entitled to the resources of SSHFC; pensioners’ savings.

Evidently, the insane financial debauchery at SSHFC isn’t new; in fact, it was normalised years ago under Yahya Jammeh. Investing pensioners’ funds in order to generate more income from pension funds is a normal practice; however, in The Gambia, some senior management staff have engaged in an outrageous scam to defraud pensioners. SSHFC funds are placed in individual staff accounts and after a while, profits from this investment is added to staff private bank accounts; rather than in increasing pensioners’ monthly funds, to match annual rate of inflation. In reading the staff 10-point demands, it’s impossible not to feel like exploding. For instance; Demand F seeks to loosen red-tape on application of glasses, lens and referrals to Senegal, Dakar; Demand G seeks to open overseas travel and ‘motivational’ packages for management and staff; Demand I asks to honour good old traditions such as early pays and at least four (4) months of non-loan deductions; and finally, this one got me gnashing my teeth so hard, I was going to burst; Demand J asks to honour good old traditions as in Hajj and Rome packages for staff and other key stakeholders of SSHFC.

Anger over SSHFC staff’s sense of entitlement is mind-numbing. SSHFC’s current problems, as volatile as they seem, present The Gambia with a teaching moment that goes far beyond the four corners of SSHFC. This broad daylight robbery of pensioners’ funds is symptomatic of the pervasive corruption and egocentrism among Gambian civil servants in general. It is endemic and touches every level of the civil service; without exception. It’s estimated that D1.2 billion have been withdrawn from SSHFC funds, for private use and non-secured investments that produce no yields, and often go bust, at a huge loss to the pensioners. In total, SSHFC staff are estimated to hold a whopping D130 million in loans from the agency; an obscene amount that is both shocking and scandalous. In considering that staff of SSHFC will continue dipping into pensioners’ funds, each year, it’s more likely than not, that these loans may never be fully recovered, with the accrued interest. In the totality of the SSHFC’s negligent breaches of pensioners’ funds, what has become evident is that pension funds are utilised a bottomless money pit for staff and outside senior government staff.

Putting aside the ongoing SSHFC dispute for a moment, it seems evident that pension funds were scavenged by unscrupulous staff and senior government officials, and Yahya Jammeh, not only became the funds most chronic abuser, he emboldened the staff to overstep the boundaries of legality and into the depth of corruption and mismanagement. In reality, Social Security functions as a bank for government civil servants, in total deviation from its core mission, as a financial security net for the Gambia’s pensioners. If SSHFC funds were properly invested, those whose funds started back 1981 when SSHFC started, would have been making decent living from the accrued yields of their fund savings, but that’s not what’s happening. Each year, The Gambia’s Ministry of Finance should budget salary and other payments for SSHFC staff. SSHFC funds are not designed for staff salaries and ‘benefits’ and this practice needs to cease, so funds are reserved exclusively for pensioners.

This requires redeploying senior management who are practiced in the art of corruption and theft of agency funds. Rebuilding SSHFC from the ground up is necessary, in order to start from a clean slate, with a new mission statement for the agency. On Saturday, a meeting at Tango, sought to derail government’s plan to delve into Social Security staff complaints, but it’s inconceivable that a hodgepodge of amateurs with questionable motives as “fighters for pensioners” right will attempt to blackmail the president into following their own dictates. We only have one government at a time, but what seems so clear is that some pensioners are being exploited for one purpose only; undo the redeployment of MD Manjang. This purported interest in pensioners’ savings is laughable on its face and a ridiculous projection of power that doesn’t exist.

Most infuriating and laughable still is the group’s demand for President Barrow to disassemble the newly-instituted SSHFC commission, and accept the SSHFC board recommendations. On the contrary, this board should appear before the commission for dereliction duty; not present recommendations to the president, after being an integral element in the overall abuse and corruption at SSHFC; more specifically, in its failure to steer the agency towards efficiency, in the interest of pensioners. Due to this failure, the board has forfeited all rights to any longer represent government in the management of SSHFC. Instead, each board member should appear before the commission and explain their role in the cannibalisation of pensioners’ funds, over the years. And as in all things Gambian, the withering support for Mr Manjang has strong smell of tribalism which is completely unrelated to the pensioners’ interest and wellbeing.