An international development expert with 30 years of experience in public sector reform projects in developing nations, Nellie Mayshak was not remotely prepared for the backlash that hit her when she took on the job of fixing the civil service pension system in Nigeria in 2013.

Today, two years later and back home in Canada, she’s still recovering from the experience and intent on continuing her work in fighting corruption.  She believes hers is a cautionary tale of the risks of trying to fix a financial system in an environment, like Nigeria’s, where corruption is entrenched.

“Even when a nation gains leaders who have the courage to push through positive changes that benefit the people, not everyone is ready,” Mayshak reflects. “And especially when it affects their pockets, they will fight back and try to stop you.”

Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, but one that, despite its economic fortunes in oil, still has a huge proportion of its citizens living in poverty. It is also considered one of the most corrupt nations in the world. The 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International puts Nigeria in the 148th spot of the 180 countries surveyed.

When Nellie Mayshak initially went to Nigeria in 2011, she already had years of experience in public sector reform. She was the go-to, on-the-ground team leader, hired to implement change programs funded by organizations like the World Bank, UKAid, and the Canadian International Development Agency, in countries ranging from South Africa, Ghana, Sudan, and Liberia.

In 2011, she was brought into Nigeria to implement a comprehensive £30 million UKAid program to strengthen central government core systems and processes, including central policy, budgeting, and civil service management. It was a five-year project and “right in my core area of expertise – policy management, helping establish effective systems and structures, and training people to do the job,” Mayshak says.

It wasn’t long before people began to take notice of the work she was doing. She was approached by the government with a proposition: The government’s old pension system was in serious trouble; it had become a national embarrassment. There was public outcry over documented pension fraud and fund looting, and also the mistreatment of pensioners. The creation of a new agency to overhaul the system had been mandated in 2004. But as of 2013, it hadn’t happened and attempts in the interim only made things worse. They pleaded with Mayshak to help rescue the system.  They needed someone with integrity, from outside the system, and Mayshak was the right person. They thought she could make it work.

Mayshak recalls: “I had no reason to take the job. I was happy where I was. I was well paid by the British. But the call to duty was stronger. Besides, I wanted to prove that the system could be made to work”.  So she accepted a four year Presidential assignment.

Before accepting the assignment, Mayshak had conditions. “I didn’t want to be beholden or strong-armed,” she says. “I didn’t want any interference from vested interests. And we needed sufficient funds to get the job done. And I asked for good remuneration – not just for me, but for the staff of the new agency, since civil service salaries in Nigeria are very poor.”

Mayshak was charged with restructuring a system that had been riddled with misappropriation and fraud for years. The task was to consolidate the system; separate government ministries managed their own small pension systems, but no one knew how much money was in each. The government did not know how many pensioners were in the system – there was no database! There was a huge number of “ghost” pensioners. This dysfunction served many government officials and their external collaborators, like the insurance companies, well.  They were duping the government.

In less than two and half years, Mayshak turned the system around. She created a model government agency and consolidated the various and scattered pensions under one umbrella. She created a database of pensioners and restored the sanctity of pension funds by ensuring direct electronic payment of pensions from the banks to pensioners’ accounts.

The civil service pension that was brought into the new system, for example, had just over 100,000 pensioners on its payroll and over 60,000 complaints. A painstaking verification process eliminated the “ghosts,” cut back the government liability, but also restored the hope of genuine pensioners who had been excluded from receiving their benefits for years.

It was the hardest work Mayshak had ever done, but as the system was being cleaned up, and loopholes closed and more real pensioners were helped, the previous unofficial beneficiaries mounted a campaign to undermine the work of the agency and discredit Mayshak. The pressure really stepped up by the end of the second year of the project because the more Mayshak and her team cleaned up the mess, the more the ministries lost control over their pension funds and cash cows. There were threats to Mayshak’s life and the reputation assassination went unabated.

In 2015, the government that had hired her to reform the pension system lost power. The new government ran on an anti-corruption platform and Mayshak thought she would have their support to continue the clean-up of the pension mess. It was not to be. She underestimated the reach of the reform detractors.

By Mid-March of 2016, despite large sums of money recovered and safe in the treasury and a sharply reduced list of “ghost”pensioners, she was suspended by the new minister of finance over “administrative irregularities”. The many reform enemies seized the opportunity and orchestrated a media campaign of falsehood, alleging exorbitant salary for Mayshak and missing funds. At the height of the media hysteria, she was detained and questioned about a bogus audit report by a rival government agency, an agency she had been butting heads with over pension funds. She was released without charge ten days later.

Five months into the ordeal, Mayshak returned to Canada and continued to wait for the release of the minister’s investigation report that was promised to the public. It never came. For those familiar with the corruption in Nigeria, this was never about any report. This was a charade to get her out of the way.

In September 2016, Mayshak finally got an apology from the government. She was officially disengaged from the appointment, and thanked for her services to the country.

Nellie Mayshak admits today that she probably under-estimated how serious and systemic Nigeria’s corruption was.  Her effort to clean up the pension system hit the looters hard and they fought back and succeeded in getting rid of her.

She reflects: “I was asked to clean up the pension system, make sure pensions were paid and funds were saved. I did it. It is possible to manage a pension fund without looting it, and, that’s what I did. But a lot of vested interests didn’t want that to happen.”

“Fighting corruption is possible but the personal cost is high. In this case, restoring pension to very poor pensioners and salvaging the system is a comfort that the personal sacrifice was not in vain.