By Victor Ahiuma-Young
SINCE 2015 when the government of President Muhammadu Buhari dissolved the Board of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF, constituted by the previous government of President Goodluck Jonathan, the government through the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, has refused to reconstitute the board.
In spite of pressures from stakeholders and social partners, the government has remained adamant in breaching the law setting up the fund on how it should be managed. It prefers to administer the fund the way it likes rebuffing complaints from social partners.
Stakeholders, however, heaved a sigh of relief when after operating without a board for about two years, the government in 2017, named members of the NSITF Board with veteran labour leader and pro-democracy activist, Chief Frank Ovie Kokori, as Chairman of the Board.
But to the surprise of all, nearly two years since the Board members were named, the supervising Minister has refused to inaugurate the board despite entreaties from critical social partners such as Organised Labour and Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association, NECA.
At different fora, Organised Labour and the umbrella body for employers in the country; NECA, have pleaded with the government to inaugurate the board to no avail.
It is on record that Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUC, United Labour Congress of Nigeria, ULC, Assoiciation of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions, ASSBIFI, Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, and Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria, ASCSN, had at one point or the other, decried the absence of a board at the fund and its effect on social partners.
In October last year, the National Executive Council, NEC of NLC mandated the leadership of congress to take all necessary actions to ensure that the minister inaugurated the board.
A communiqué signed by NLC President, Ayuba Wabba at the end of the NEC meeting said: “The NEC observed as follows: That the constitution of the board of the NSITF has not taken place almost four years after the dissolution of the last board of management. The board has not been constituted despite several directives and promises. This situation has also thrived amidst conflicting reports and information.
“The NEC, therefore, resolved as follows: Demands under the Freedom of Information Act for the report of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, on its investigation and prosecution; Demands for the release of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment’s Administrative Panel Report; the NEC approved that Congress leadership takes all necessary actions not limited to protest and engagement, to ensure that the board of NSITF is constituted to protect the interest of workers.”
There is also report that the NLC has petitioned President Muhammadu Buhari, accusing the minister of among others, stalling the inauguration of the NSITF Board for personal reasons.
Few days ago, NECA, through its Director-General, Timothy Olawale, called on the Federal Government to immediately inaugurate the boards of the National Pension Commission, PenCom, NSITF, and other agencies, lamenting that the “current situation of non-functional Boards is a violation of the laws setting up those agencies, and could erode the confidence of Nigerians in those agencies.”
Employment of 131 staff
Recall that in 2016, the fund was enmeshed in perceived illegal recruitment of 131 workers propelling the Senate Committee on Labour and the House Committee on Labour to summon Ngige among others over the alleged skewed and lopsided appointment of 131 new workers at the Fund in October 2016.
The recruitment was also said to have made nonsense of the federal character as it was alleged to have been skewed to favour one state.
Chairman of the Joint Committee, Senator Suleiman Nazif, while lamenting the alleged skewed recruitment, noted that it was in violation of the federal character principles.
According to Senator Nazif: “Employment is of paramount importance and the committee would ensure that employment is done in a manner to reflect the principles of federal character. I think there’s something going on in NSITF that no one is willing to talk about.
It is clear that the Minister, Chris Ngige, is responsible for the irregularities, impunity and anomalies, resulting in gross abuse of his office, and we will take action on it.”
Recruitment of 370 managers
Similarly, the issue of the recruitment of fresh 370 managers by NSITF, raised another serious dust in 2017.
In fact, ASSBIFI, which was very vocal against the recruitment of the 370 managers, lamented that the organisation was already bloated with managerial staff.
In a petition to the management of NSITF, and copied Senator Ngige, among others, President and then Acting Deputy Secretary General of ASSBIFI, Oyinkan Olasanoye and Yekeen Shittu, said: “We have been informed by our NSITF Unit on recent plans by Management of the NSITF to employ another 370 officers from the rank of Managers and above into the service of the organization and this was subsequently confirmed by the Minister of Labour and Employment at a meeting with him on Friday, 15th December, 2017.
“As a responsible union representing Nigerian workers, we are not opposing generations of employment for Nigerians. Our concern is the present situation of NSITF which calls for caution. Aside the implication of being top heavy in a 21st Century organization, NSITF presently has over 5,000 workforce. With an additional 370 staff and its consequent increase in remuneration, we are worried that, at this rate, the organization may eventually be unable to meet the obligation for which it was set up. Kindly note, sir, that NSITF is presently funded mainly from the contributions by the private sector through Employees’ Compensation Scheme. It is, therefore, morally wrong for government which is yet to contribute anything from the public servants to now overburden the institution by not only insisting on employment where there are no vacancies, but that they must be at the management level.
“More importantly, NSITF has several long unresolved staff welfare issues which we wish to place on records. These include: Improper staff placement arising from the previous lopsided recruitments. For example, newly employed graduates were placed on the rank of Assistant Manager instead of entry officer level making it difficult or causing avoidable delays in promoting experienced hands. Outstanding Statutory deductions not remitted (Pensions and Housing Funds). Outstanding allowances/remuneration not yet paid (Education allowance for example is due since September 2017). Salary scale overlapping.
“Having at one time or the other drawn attention of NSITF Management to these issues during the year, including a visitation by our President without a remarkable resolution, it is totally unacceptable that the same Management will now embark on mass recruitment to further jeopardize the staff welfare issues. We therefore appeal for your immediate intervention to put the current unnecessary recruitment on hold to avert an avoidable industrial crisis and before it becomes an issue in the Finance sector. This nation cannot afford to let NSITF fail just a few months after the demise of a sister institution, National Economic Reconstruction Fund, NERFUND, for similar reasons.”
Oshiomhole, Ngige altercation
Recall that the National Chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, and former Chairman of the Board of NSITF, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, last year had altercation with Senator Ngige over his refusal to inaugurate the board of NSITF.
The Labour Minister had blamed alleged massive corruption perpetrated by the previous administration and the need to clean the mess before a new board could be inaugurated.
Strangely, the same fraud was investigated by the EFCC and no fewer than seven members of the immediate past board are currently being prosecuted in the court by the anti-graft agency over a alleged fraud at the fund.
The Minister had not only set up an investigative body to investigate the perceived fraud in the fund, he equally set up an implementation panel of the findings and recommendations of the his investigative panel.
This, the minister spoke eloquently about while responding to the query by APC National Chairman and former President of NLC, who is also an ex-governor of Edo State.
In a letter to Comrade Oshiomhole, dated July 17, 2018, the Minister, said among others, said NSITF had been enmeshed with major issues of corruption involving about N48billion comprising Federal Government and Employers’ contributions to the Employees’ Compensation Fund plus some non-remitted PAYE taxes, carted away through well perfected sleaze operation.
He informed that this resulted in the Agency coming under the EFCC investigation/prosecution of members of the former Board and some of her serving Officials.
According to him, “an Administrative and Financial Panel of Enquiry was instituted with a Presidential approval as a follow – up to the criminal investigations. This was followed by a House of Representatives Committee on Labour and Employment probe in March 2018 which is still ongoing, and also in situ.
“However, I wish to assure you that the Administrative and Financial Panel of Enquiry has just concluded its work and presented her Report today( July 17). The Board will be in place very soon to assist the implementation Committee that is being put in place by the Ministry to effect the various policy recommendations that are aimed at sanitizing the Agency and strengthening the very weak Internal Audit System that allowed N5Billion to be taken out of this organisation in one single day without voucher(s).”
On July 18, 2018, Ngige while receiving the report of the Administrative Panel of Inquiry, described the document as a financial roadmap to a healthy NSITF and promised that an implementation committee would be swiftly set up to faithfully execute the recommendations.
In a statement by the then Director of Press in the Ministry, Prince Samuel Olowookere, the Minister argued that financial corruption to the tune of N62, 358,401,927.80 in an agency set up as a critical pivot for the welfare of workers and employers was such that no responsible government would successfully tackle without unearthing the root causes.
He maintained that this was the reason for setting up an inter-agency administrative inquiry notwithstanding the criminal investigation and prosecution of some of the accused persons by the EFCC.
According to him, the fact that former board members as well as some staff of the agency were involved in the orgy of looting made a thorough cleansing of the organization before inaugurating a new board mandatory.
His words, “a new wine cannot be put in an old wine skin. Now that the panel is done with its work, inaugurating a new board will come soon.”
It will be recalled that the Minister had assured that the board would be inaugurated before the end of July 2018.
This, the Minister has failed to do even till today.
While inaugurating a Seven-Man Implementation Committee on the Report of the Administrative Panel of Inquiry, in July last year, Ngige declared that the board would only be inaugurated after the Implementation Committee might have completely finished its jobs.
He charged the members to strictly abide by the directive of the President to work expeditiously and round off assignment within two weeks so as to pave way for the inauguration of the board.
Board not coming soon
Seven months down the line, the Labour Minister is yet to inaugurate the board. Nothing has been heard of the implementation committee which was given two weeks to work.
As it is, the inauguration of the NSITF Board appears not in the agenda of the Minister.
The question is, who is afraid of a board in NSITF?
Sources at NSITF pointed accusing fingers at some highly placed presidency officials who are stalling the inauguration of the NSITF Board for personal gains.
One of the sources said “a lot of unimaginable things is going on at the fund and the fear is that a new board with Chief Kokori as Chairman, will not permit such. Those behind this prefer a boardless NSITF for them to have unhindered access to whatever they want at the fund. Our fear is that if it were true that over N62 billion fraud was perpetrated when the fund had board, only God knows what is going on since 2015 when the fund has been functioning without a board with overbearing influence of the supervising ministry. We fear the fund may have become milk and honey for some presidency officials to the detriment of those who the fund was set up for.”
He called for President Buhari personal intervention, saying “at it is now, the board cannot be inaugurated until the President personal intervention.”
A visit to any of the offices of NSITF across the country including its head office in Abuja, reveals how a foremost Organisation set up to advance the welfare of workers is gradually and systematically being ambushed by political manoeuvering.
Activities of the fund are being hampered as the management has a limit it can do legally without a board in place.