By Joseph Atobisi
I read with utter disappointment, the opinion article written by Mr. Yinka Odumakin titled: “Letter to Dr. Ngige” and published simultaneously in Vanguard and Daily Independent on Tuesday, July 21, 2020.
Actually, I do not bother to read Yinka’s articles, but I became tempted to look through the piece because of the personality involved. Senator, Dr. Chris Ngige, is the Minister of Labour and Employment and has been holding this strategic and sensitive position since the inception of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Back to Yinka Odumakin’s letter/diatribe against Ngige, prompted by the recent suspension and investigation of the Managing Director of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF, Mr. Adebayo Somefun, three executive directors, Kemi Nelson, Jasper Azutalam and Alhaji Tijani Tarazo Suliaman and some other top management staff for corruption.
My interest is further buoyed by my labour background, a background replete with full knowledge of a recent past, where the former board of the NSITF chaired by a powerful Ngozi Olejeme ran a questionable regime with the then Minister of Labour and Productivity, Mr. Chukwuemeka Nwogu, a helpless onlooker.
Let me dissect Yinka’s misinformed and uninformed letter by first stating what is expected of an opinion writer. An opinion essayist must write objectively and inclusively so as to earn the respect and trust of readers. He must write in a style that does not alienate readers.
In other words, readers should not be estranged while reading the piece. But going by the latest postulations and ones before it, even the shallowest mind knows that Yinka, an unapologetic critic of the Buhari government, has fallen short of this standard. Needless, therefore, adding that his attacks on Buhari, whose spokesman he once was, is a critical measure of his inconsistent character.
In order not to digress further, let’s focus on the issues that led to the latest suspension at the NSITF. The Labour Ministry had explained that the suspension of the officers arose from “the preliminarily established prima facie infractions on the extant Financial Regulations and Procurement Act, and other acts of gross misconduct.
Some of the infractions uncovered by the Ministry include “N3.4 billion lavished on non- existent staff training split into about 196 different consultancy contracts in order to evade the Ministerial Tenders Board and Federal Executive Council, FEC, approval. Non- existent, unexecuted N2.3 billion documented and paid while N1.1 billion is awaiting payment without any job done, all totaling N3.4 billion. Same goes for projects of construction of 14 zonal/ regional offices in 14 states, running into billions of naira- a policy issue being done without board or ministerial knowledge not to talk of approval.
The Ministry said this was done in 2019 by the Managing Director and his three-man executive, describing some of the projects as duplications and waste of funds. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was their flagrant rejection of the Minister’s directive not to pay for these contracts until the completion of a procurement audit.
So, what have all these weighty allegations got to do with attempts to repair the Igbo/Yoruba relation as posited by Yinka? Should that aspect of nation-building amount to Dr. Ngige closing his eyes and allowing the management of the parastatal led by Yinka’s kinsman lavish the funds of an agency entrusted to them? Quite revealing is Yinka’s celebration of the statement by the Director General of Nigeria Employees Consultative Association, NECA, Timothy Olawale.
This further betrayed his ignorance of the latest developments in NSITF, ostensibly marking him out as an ethnic voyager who needs background information about the NSITF for proper guidance if bias allows him.
Yinka, NSITF is the descendant of the defunct National Provident Fund, NPF, established by an Act of the parliament in 1961. Under the provision of NSITF Act of 1993, all employers of labour in the private sector, registered under the Companies and Allied Matters Act, CAMA, 1990, either as companies or partnerships, irrespective of the number of their employees, or are sole businesses of not less than five employees were required to register as a member of NSIFT scheme and remit contributions monthly.
The benefits include retirement pension benefit, survivors benefit, retirement grant, death grant, invalidity benefit, invalidity grant and such other benefits that may be approved from time to time by the Board.
Regrettably, the NSITF is now being looted by those appointed to manage its funds to the detriment of retirees and others it is meant to benefit. It is only people like Yinka who feel connected, only with their kith and kin, who are questioning the patriotic action of Dr. Ngige, aimed at safeguarding NSITF fund. I hope that he does not expect the Minister to fold his hands like his predecessor who watched helplessly while NSITF fund was looted with the officials concerned being tried as of date by the EFCC. Yinka can’t ignore the fact that 46 houses have been recovered by the EFCC from one of these top officials.
But, come to think of it, if Yinka is not paying lip service to a warm Igbo/Yoruba relations, should he not have first spoken with Nnia Nwodo, the President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo before embarking on the media attack against the person of Dr. Ngige? He should know that even before Ngige became governor, he retired from the directorate cadre in the Federal Ministry of Health where part of his achievements were the relocation of the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital from Enugu temporary site to the Ituku-Ozalla permanent site as well as the conversion of Kano Specialist Hospital to Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital.
If Ngige was pursuing ‘ethnic cleansing’ in NSITF as being propounded by Yinka, how come three Igbo were among the top management staff under investigation? Do names like Jasper Ikedi Azutalam, Chris Esedebe and Emmanuel Enyinnaya Sike sound Yoruba to him?
On the legality of the suspension, it is a well-known fact that the President who appoints can also discipline by either suspension or outright removal. Contrary to the claim of the suspended management staff and their associates in NECA, the Chairman of NSITF Board, Mr. Austin Enajemo-Isire confirmed that the approval for the suspension was conveyed to the Labour Minister in a correspondence referenced SGF 47/511/T/99 of June 30, 2020 and assured that all the accused would have opportunity to clear themselves of any wrong doing before the probe panel already inaugurated on July 16 and headed by Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel, the National Treasurer of the Nigeria Labour Congress.
Besides, suspension and subsequent right of defence or fair hearing at a board-led neutral panel is fundamental to justice because the innocent will have all the rights restored without blemish!
More so, the issue of recruitments in Labour Ministry raised by Yinka looks very laughable and buttressed my position in the beginning of the piece that his opinion falls short of expected standards of inclusiveness.
Why should he furnish us with figures of recruitment in the Labour Ministry headed by an Igbo without doing same for ministries headed by the Yoruba, such as Works, Industry, Trade and Investment, Mines and Steel Development, among others? Does this not show the hypocrisy in the purported repair of Igbo-Yoruba relations?
If he intends to link what he alleged Ngige told his (Yinka’s) friend to the ongoing corruption purge in NSIFT, then, he has also failed. Though it is very unlikely that Ngige has made personal declaration of intention to anyone, much less sending emissaries, it is also beyond the realm of conjecture that he himself recently made it clear in an interview with journalists at his hometown, Alor, that “he is qualified to run for any political office, including Presidency and Senate in 2023.”
So, what is wrong with somebody who has distinguished himself in office as a former governor, Senator and two time minister, running for the presidency? To say the least is that Yinka’s piece clearly exposed his contemptuous disposition towards Ndigbo as people who are not eligible to occupy the number one position in the country and perhaps, this speaks to his thought on how to best repair Igbo-Yoruba relations.
Let me also educate Yinka that though NECA whose statement it quoted copiously has two statutory slots in the NSITF board, the position does not cede the overlordship of the board to it. NECA’s two members, upon the inauguration of the board in May 2019, were Olawale Timothy and Dr. Mohammed Yinusa, then NECA President, who is now late.
However, the membership of the board has preconditions of security screening and documentation by the Department of State Services, DSS, and subsequent approval by Mr. President, which the replacement of late Mohammed Yinusa must fulfill as others did. Obviously, this has not been done as revealed by this letter by the Minister to NECA DG.
“Even though you communicated to the Ministry the demise of the former President, the issue of his replacement on the NSITF board has to follow due process. As the Honourable Minister of Labour and Employment, I did not convey a Presidential approval for the replacement of the late Dr. Mohammed I. Yinusa on the Board and I understand that the NECA Acting President has been attending NSITF Board meetings and even heading a Board Committee without the legitimacy of having been cleared by the DSS and approval of Mr. President in order to become a legitimate NSITF board member.
“Therefore, he should henceforth desist from participating in NSITF Board meetings and other activities thereof, pending his clearance and documentation by the DSS as well as his approval by Mr. President. This is the due process for membership into NSITF board.”
In conclusion, it is important to point out that the developments in NSITF are not about repairing Igbo-Yoruba relations. NSITF is owned by the entire Nigeria, Fulani, Hausa, Tiv, Efik, Kanuri, Ibibio, Urhobo, Itshekiri, Ijaw, Jukun, Shuwa, Idoma, among others.
Thus, Dr. Ngige obviously knows that his interest goes beyond protecting the interest of Igbo and Yoruba, but extends to the interest of all Nigerians irrespective of tribe or religion. Let Yinka, therefore, write a letter to his kinsmen, to prove their innocence before the panel instead of taking opportunity of his columns in national dailies to amplify false allegations against the minister.
It smacks of extreme naivety for him to claim that Ngige inserted N1.2 billion in the budget and two SUVs when he is neither a member of Ministerial Tenders Board, Tenders Board of the parastatal nor a member of the National Assembly, to give him the leverage to tinker with the budget. That is not how to repair Igbo-Yoruba relations.