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Unending struggle for soul of NSITF

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Labour Congress

Trouble began for the board of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) on Wednesday, March 9, 2018, when it was not a part of the boards that were inaugurated on that day.

Indeed, the boards of National Directorate of Employment (NDE) where the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige is chairman, National Productivity Centre (NPC) and that of the Michael Imoudu National Institute of Labour Studies (MINILS), Ilorin (MINILS) were inaugurated same day.

As the ‘star organisation’ of the federal ministry of labour, it was a curious ceremony as the cloud of uncertainty that descended on the NSITF board overshadowed the inauguration. 

Questions, questions and questions! Was Frank Kokori found unfit and uncompromising, considering his antecedents as a fierce labour leader, going to hunt him?

Perhaps more intriguing was the fact that considering the history of the Fund, which had been mired by controversies and allegations of corruption some of which are still in the courts, it was rationalised that certainly, a ‘Kokori’ was needed to restore probity and confidence in the organisation.

Upon assumption of office, the management team led by Adebayo Somefun, who had spent 34 years in the National Youths Service Corps (NYSC) and attained the level of deputy director and with the presence of Lagos political figure like Mrs Kemi Nelson, NSITF was on a revival journey.

In order to change the perceptions about the Fund, the new management established procurement department and got a senior procurement officer from the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) to supervise the department in a bid to ensure every contract complies with due process.

So, it was thought that a Kokori will further give this new direction a push with his no-nonsense approach to management, but what followed had been unending manoeuvres, and it has been difficult to fathom the reason (s) behind it. 

The sign of what to come emerged the night before the inauguration of other parastatals when a memo with reference number ML.AC/52/1 addressed to some of the invited guests to the occasion obtained by The Guardian in Abuja did not include board members of the NSITF.

Then the game began.

BUT before the real curiosity began, the Minister had set up a nine-man panel of enquiry on February 15, 2018. He then said the board of NSITF would not be inaugurated until the committee submitted its report.

The Minister had on the 15th while inaugurating the panel said the panel had six weeks to complete its assignment.

Dr. Ngige also announced a 30-day suspension of some of the General Managers of the Fund to pave way for the investigation.

Then the National Chairman of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC), Adams Oshiomhole entered the fray on July 11, 2018.

As a former board chair of NSITF himself, Oshiomhole was not to be an onlooker in a matter he knows so much about.

He obviously was out to put his labour sagacity and his privileged position as the APC chair to railroad Ngige into inaugurating the board.

But Ngige was not be cowed by an ex-labour leader.

So, on July 17, 2018, Ngige wrote his own ‘love letter’ to Oshiomhole. 

In the letter dated July 17, 2018 with a reference number: No. ML.HMO/LAB/126/III/208 and addressed to Oshiomhole, Ngige explained that contrary to insinuations, non-inauguration of the board was not a deliberate act.

The Minister mentioned alleged involvement of some members of former board of NSITF in major issues of corruption involving about N48b, which is made up of Federal Government and employers’ contributions to the Employees’ Compensation Fund, plus some non-remitted PAYE taxes, as some of the reasons the board was not inaugurated alongside that of the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), whom is the chairman, National Productivity Centre and Michael Imoudu Institute for Labour Studies (MINILS), Ilorin, on March 8, 2018.

He sated that he instituted an administrative and Financial Panel of Enquiry with a Presidential approval as a follow-up to the criminal investigations by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and another investigation by the House of Representatives Committee on Labour and Employment probe in March 2018, which is still on-going.

In responding to the text of a letter written to Ngige by Oshiomhole dated July 11, 2018, with reference number: APC/NHDQ/GEN-S/28/018/003, Ngige was quick to remind Oshiomhole that dabbling into audit reports is not within the purview of a political party chairman.

Also, Ngige observed that he was unable to accede to Oshiomhole’s ‘directive’ to inaugurate the board within one week as contained in a letter written by Oshiomhole on the 11th July 2018 with APC/NHDQ/GEN-S/28/018/003 as reference number. 

Ngige added: “I am sorry that I will be unable to accede to your ‘directives’ to inaugurate all the Boards within one (1) week as the Ministry had already inaugurated the aforementioned three (3) Boards but will in this case of the NSITF adhere to the ‘work plan’ on the NSITF as approved by Mr. President who is the Head of the Government of the Federation. Based on this, be assured that the Board of NSITF will be constituted very soon, at most, before the end of July 2018.”

However, he assured Oshiomhole that the board would be inaugurated in order to assist the implementation Committee that would be established by him to effect the various policy recommendations that are aimed at sanitizing the Agency and strengthening the very weak internal audit system of the Fund.

July 2018 came and went, there was no inauguration of the board.

Recognising that the silence of President Buhari on the matter was not ‘golden’ Oshiomhole in a veiled manner chastised Buhari, saying, “and if the President condones disrespect for his office, I will not condone disrespect to the party. And when we expel the minister we will prevail on the President that he can’t keep in his cabinet people who have neither respect for his own decisions nor have respect for the party without which they would not have been ministers. There are no independent candidate in our system, nobody, I emphasis no minister is above the party and they have taken undue advantage of the President’s fatherly disposition.”

Whether Oshiomhole now knows what many Nigerians do not know by joining the President to keep quiet since July 2018 is a matter for conjecture.

Haven’t watched Oshiomhole fail, it was now time for the lawmakers to try their luck.

There came the turn of the majestic entry of the ‘Honourables’.

It was the House of Representatives that mandated its committee on labour, employment and productivity to conduct an investigation into the non-inauguration board.

The House also expressed worries that the non-inauguration of the board had led to perpetration of employment racketeering by senior government officials as the management of the Fund is inundated by requests for employment of senior managers by the ministry of labour and employment high ranking officials. 

The lawmakers also argued that the non-inauguration of the Board had thrown the Fund into a state of confusion, which is threatening the delivery of its mandate to its publics.

Like Oshiomhole, the lawmakers failed to ensure the inauguration.

As a precursor to the grand entry of labour centre, the Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI) first entered the stage.

The National President of the union, Oyinkansola Olasanoye, said the inauguration of the board would enable the Fund deliver on its mandate.

She expressed the readiness of the union to work with relevant stakeholders and high government official to continue appealing to the Minister to inaugurate the board.

She hinted that the union had already sent a letter to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha on the need to halt recruitment of additional 350 senior managers into the Fund by the Minister at a time the Fund is facing financial difficulty and in no urgent need for fresh staffers.

That again failed.

THEN suddenly, a truce was found when the Minister sent invitation letters around that the board would be constituted. If this initially sent cool breeze around, such soothing feeling began to fizzle away when those that got the invitation realised that of the chairman was vacant on the letter.

Pronto, Kokori, donned his signature all white dress, typical costume of the Niger Delta, in company of Wabba and President of NUPENG, William Akporeha, were all at the venue of the inauguration one hour ahead of the 11am time.

There was no sight of the Minister of Labour and Employment.

It was a few hours after Kokori and co had departed the ministry that an insurance guru and consummate Lawyer, Austin Enajemo-Isire was unveiled as the new chair.

It was official – Frank Kokori had been supplanted.

In the wisdom of the Minister, Kokori is better suited for MINILS, where his knowledge of industrial relations is much more needed.

Expectedly, labour cried fowl.

Kokori was proposed to replace Benue-born Haman Hembe who resigned from office to contest a seat in the House of Representatives, which he eventually lost.

Kokori blames Ngige for his travails.

His words: “Today, I am very emotional and want to cry. I want to weep for this country. I am proud of you, my comrades. I have done my best for this country. When nobody raised their voice against the military, I came out against the military to fight for freedom and democracy of Nigeria. I stood my ground for democracy and 20 years into the same democracy, Comrade Kokori is being oppressed by somebody like Ngige. What is the reason? The reason is because Frank Kokori is regarded as a man of integrity, a man of honour and a transparent Nigerian. This is a government that talks of integrity and you allowed a man like Ngige to humiliate me for two years after my appointment.”

But Ngige absolved himself of any wrongdoing, saying the change was effected by President Buhari.

He said: “The approval for this exercise was given by the appropriate approving authority, which is the President and duly communicated to the Ministry of Labour and Employment. This is also in line with the Act establishing the NSITF, which confers such powers on the President on the recommendation of the Minister.”

He took a strong exemption to Kokori and Wabba who gate-crashed at the inauguration venue, saying, “the violent gate crashing and the illegal forceful seizure of the conference room of the Minister this morning by thugs numbering hundreds and persons who clearly had no business with the inauguration of the board is totally unacceptable.

Government therefore takes serious exception to the dishonourable actions of the NLC leadership and Comrade Frank Kokori.”

Ngige said government would not tolerate a repeat of hooliganism clearly unknown to ethos of civilized unionism.

Unknown to Ngige, he will soon be the first Minister in the history of Nigeria whose private residence would be picketed.

During the protest, a group alleged to be thugs attacked workers with sticks and stones, and chased away the protesting workers away from the private resident of the minster.

Wabba described the attack on workers as barbaric.

His words: “The act today is barbaric, where maximum force have been use upon workers and live bullets used on them.

“Whereas workers went with bare hands, the thugs were carrying weapons and arms. And as I talk to you, we have four people in the hospital apart from those that were injured by bullets.”

To a former President Trade Union Congress (TUC), Peter Esele, the presidency should make a formal pronouncement on the matter. He submitted that the silence of the President has helped stoke the fire of discontentment in both camps.

His words: “The President announced the names of those who were to be board members. Once the President had made that announcement, it has to be constituted. It is within the prerogative of the Minister of Labour to inaugurate the board. It is not within his right to now go ahead not to inaugurate and then change the chairman of the board. If the President no longer wants Kokori to be the chairman, there are processes that ought to have been followed. Either the President would inform the Minister of Labour that Kokori would no longer be the chairman, and this is whom he is nominating, or the Minister writes to the President intimating him on why he thinks Kokori should not be the chairman of the board. On the overall, it is the President who determines who goes on the board. It is not the responsibility of the Minister. What I expect the President to do is to admit that he is the one changing Kokori via a letter. As it is now, it is the Presidency that is stoking the fire of discord.”

He explained that the hullabaloo that occasioned the inauguration of the board may have been caused by the approach adopted by the Minister. 

”The way the Minister has approached this matter appears to be that the Minister is hell-bent on appointing someone that will dance to his tune. What government is forgetting is that majority of the money that is contributed into the pool that NSITF is managing is meant for workers.

Government must know that nobody protects the interests of workers than labour unions. So, that is why labour movement is feeling the way they are feeling, he added.

While urging the Minister to allow NSITF execute its mandate without interference, Esele argued that the mandates given to a Minister of labour is critical to the wellbeing of the working class.

His argument: “I don’t understand why labour did not smell the rat on time that Minister was not ready to inaugurate the board. That is very clear. People see the NSITF as the ‘ beautiful bride’ of the Ministry of labour.

Have we heard of problem in other parastatal in the ministry especially in the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) where the Minister is the statutory board chairman? The Minister would be judged by what the NDE is doing; where is the chairman in terms created employment opportunities? What has the Minister done about the inspectorate division of the ministry that is in a state of near comatose? We all know what is happening in most factories across the country.

Is the Minister interested in what workers are going through in their places of work? I will judge the Minister of labour on two basic areas, which are inspectorate division that overseas what happens in the factories and how many jobs are created or how many jobs he is able to save.

The Minister should get busy with how the various policies of government affect employees and employers and how conducive the environment to business is and be the liaison officer between the tripartite group.

That is the duty of a Labour Minister and not to dabble into what goes on in the NSITF. We have the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), ICPC, courts that are saddled with the responsibilities to examine infractions. It is not the duty of the Minister to begin conducting administrative panels up and down whose recommendations are unending and unimplementable.

What is the result of the administrative panel he set up where millions of Naira was spent? Who will examine that? What about alleged employment racket that took place there? Who is going to probe his activities as the Sole Administrator of the place?”

Esele submitted that if the Minister indeed obtained the approval of the President to reassign Kokori to Ilorin, he should make such letter available in order to douse the tension.

”If the Minister has an approval from the President authorising the change of Kokori, why would the Minister not make that letter available to labour or to the public? What I discovered in Nigeria is that people get appointed into an office and then they turn the office into their personal fiefdom.

If I were the Minister, I will make the letter public. That would put an end to this problem. Why would the letter not be made available to Kokori? Why two appointment letters for one position? When such position is made known, then Kokori has a choice to make, either to reject the new offer or accept it. The person that will resolve this problem at the end of the day is the President himself,” Esele said.

… And the President has spoken, albeit quietly.

THE President has offered the Aso Rock sanctuary to Ngige where the inauguration of the new board would take place tomorrow Monday.

With bullets getting involved, it does appear that the Minister’s determination to ensure there is no bloodletting has found favour in the sight of Aso Rock managers, as the most secured event centre in the country has come to the rescue.

The inauguration will now take place in the Rock tomorrow Monday, 13 May 2019.

After the inauguration tomorrow, labour would no longer be in doubt about whether Ngige had the authority of the President doing all that he did.

Will Kokori proceed to Ilorin? Will he decline and preserve his title of ‘Prisoner of democracy’ bestowed on him by the late South African President, Nelson Mandela? The choice is obviously his.

Statutorily, the NSITF board members are drawn from labour (two representatives), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA) that has two representatives, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, who represents the ministry (though supplanted by a director in the ministry), the three Executive Directors of the Fund and the Managing Director/Chief Executive of the Fund.


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