By Sam Akpe

It is common sense to imagine what the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) would have achieved in the last two years under its present Executive Management Committee if it had a functional and responsible board of directors in place. Or to put it appropriately, if the Labour Minister, Chris Ngige, did not display the stubbornness of Okija shrine priest by trying to play god when he personalised the issue of who should head the board of NSITF—a situation that delayed the inauguration of the board since it was appointed.

Ismail Agaka, Acting Managing Director of NSITF

At last, the board is in place. Buhari has bowed to the stubbornness of his minister. He has reversed himself. Who would ever think before 2015 that the man we used to know as General Muhammadu Buhari could be so arm-twisted by his minister to reverse himself? Indeed, change has taken place. Dr Ngige must be smiling and punching his chest in self-congratulations and stroking his beards in self-glorification for bending the rules to suit his personal purpose. If what has happened under Buhari were to happen under President Goodluck Jonathan—a situation where a sitting president makes an appointment and a minister forces him to overturn it—both the opposition political parties and certain spineless civil society groups would have called him unprintable names.

However, this analysis is not about Ngige. Last week, the current leadership of NSITF met in Lagos to celebrate what it called two years of silent revolution at the Fund. The almost week-long stakeholders’ event featured stock-taking, reflections and the way forward. In the end, the Fund’s Managing Director, Adebayo Somefun, declared rather solemnly, “We might not yet be there, but certainly, we are not where we used to be. We are focused. We are determined. We are resolute. We are ready to soar higher. The vision and the mission of the Fund remain our propelling force.”

A little bit of background will help before we look at the failures and successes of NSITF. What is today known as NSITF actually started in 1961 based on an Act of Parliament, which was later amended in 1962 to further strengthen government’s resolve to realise the original vision of the founding fathers of the idea? At that time, it was called the National Provident Fund (NPF). The idea was to provide a pension scheme for employees in the private sector who were not covered by the Pension Service Scheme that was meant mainly for public servants.

PenCom, vested interests and security of pension fund

Its transformation from NPF to NSITF climaxed under the military administration with Decree No. 73 of 1993 with a mandate to provide a pension benefit scheme for the Organized Private Sector covering such areas as old age, invalidity, survivor and emigration (for contributing members relocating permanently outside Nigeria). Then came the Pension Reforms Act of 2004 which consigned the administration and custody of pension funds to private sector companies who serve as Pension Fund Administrators’ or Pension Fund Custodians.

In the midst of this and as a safeguard measure, the NSITF decided to establish Trustfund Pensions PLC to serve the interest of contributors to the defunct scheme. It also transferred pension assets estimated at about N60 billion ($382million) to the newly established subsidiary company, Trustfund Pensions PLC. With this, the new firm was firmly positioned to perform its fresh mandate of managing the Employees’ Compensation Scheme (ECS), otherwise known as employment injury scheme, which is one of the contingencies of social security as defined in the ILO Convention 102 of 1952.

The ECS is structured to provide social security and insurance for the injured during the course of work. Or in the case of death, it is structured for the benefit of both employees and their employers. It seeks to lighten the burden placed on employers when their workers become incapacitated or lose their lives in the course of work. Under the existing law, such burden is transferred to NSITF, which is the body statutorily allowed to handle it. The ECS draws its powers from Section 2 of the Employees’ Compensation Act 2010.

Put in simple words, this is how the ECS works: With proper documentation, the NSITF underwrites the medical bills of such injured workers. All it costs the employer is one per cent of the total payroll of the staff per annum. When that is done, it becomes the duty of NSITF to carry the burden which otherwise would have gone to the employer at a higher cost. The beauty of the scheme is that it is a “no-fault” scheme, and covers all categories of workers in every sector of employment. As the law setting up the NSITF stipulates, every organisation that employs even one worker is under statutory obligation to register for the ECS.

What will make any fair-minded person to give the present leadership of NSITF a pass mark for a wonderful performance is this: at no time in recent history has any leadership of NSITF been saddled with controversies it did not generate as has been the case in the last two years—from a fraud scandal it inherited to ministerial high-handedness which made it look like an orphan in the absence of a board of directors. Yet, the Fund kept pushing on. It refused to either be distracted or be discouraged from its original agenda of consolidating and improving on the achievements of the past; raising the contribution collection; re-branding itself and motivating the staff through improved staff welfare.

Somefun told journalists in Lagos that within the last two years, the operations of the Fund have been de-bureaucratised to the extent that registration of employers in the scheme is now completed within one day.

; yearly Compliance Certificate is issued within seven days of the request.

while certificates would soon be printed online; and all claims and compensations, including death benefits, are paid within 14 working days upon application. All these are possible through the digitalisation of all processes in a manner that registration can be carried out online from the comfort of the employers’ offices through the Electronic Compliance, Collection, Claims and Compensation (EC4) platform in line with global best practices.

In order to lift the staff morale towards maximised productivity, promotion of stagnated staff was conducted; a proper placement committee to ensure proper placement of deserving staff with organisational hierarchy was set up while all outstanding allowances of the staff were paid. One could say that all these are statutory functions of the Fund. Unfortunately, the previous administration spent more time engaging in activities that have placed most of them on the run in the past two years.

Somefun’s disclosure that between 2015 and 2019, the Fund employed 1, 051 members of staff, may attract a few questions and suspicions. Were those vacancies advertised for qualified and interested members of the public to apply? Or were they only opened to cronies of big men in government such as ministers and leaders of the ruling party?

One significant achievement of the management team has been the move to boost statutory compliance by employers of labour so as to shore up contributions towards the provision of meaningful ECS to Nigerian workers. NSITF deliberately sought the assistance of the House of Representatives through a motion to enforce compliance to the ECS. As a result, after two public hearings, a total of 87,179 employers have so far been registered under the ECS to affirm their compliance with the law. This number covers more than 6.7 million employees. The increase in registration has thus far, accounted for a 35% increase Contribution Collection.

Available information shows that pro-active steps have been taken to promote transparency and accountability in the Fund by putting in place a structure for corporate governance. As a departure from the past, the Fund is presently implementing a procurement policy and solidifying its partnership with the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP). This means that every procurement process must be advertised, formal bidding conducted before the award of job is made to the most competitive bidder. Perhaps, it will take the advent of another management team to ascertain if the process was adhered to in the line of extant laws.

Let me conclude these reflections with what I consider the most important achievement of the Fund in the last two years. It has to do with employees’ compensation. This is the primary function of NSITF. About 24,880 claims and compensation are said to have been paid to beneficiaries in the last two years under different contingencies. If this is true, then it is a record in the history of the Fund. Within this period also, 42 persons were rehabilitated bringing the number to 54 since the implementation of the scheme in 2011. Other beneficiaries include 347 dependents on monthly payroll; 448 disability beneficiaries on a monthly payroll, while 20 persons above 55 years were paid lump sums on a one-off basis.

So, Some fun and his team seemed to have challenged themselves the more with these disclosures, because as they say, the best reward for hard work is more work. These achievements may not be without certain undisclosed shortcomings. Still, it has been a rewarding two years for NSITF.

Akpe, a journalist, contributed this piece from Abuja

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