For so long, the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) has been foot-dragging on its statutory responsibility of providing social security protection and safety nets. But recent events surrounding the sordid cases of corruption within the fund have tended to portraying NSITF as a house of sleaze, and by extension, indicting the board members and management who in the first place ought to protect the fund. Paul Obi reports
From 1994 to 2014, when the NSITF Act was amended, Nigeria’s quest for a reliable social security net and compensation pool for employees in the private sector has been tardy and mostly inept. In short, the fund has not adequately addressed the core values for employees’ interest with regards to social security and employees’ compensation. At the core of this unimpressive performance had been NSITF’s slow-pace in providing employees’ compensation, where there have been clear-cut cases of injury or industrial harm.
Though, the fund has performed well in some areas, to many, not much can be said of NSITF as a protector of employees. Many had thought that the composition of the NSITF board after its transformation as enshrined in the NSITF Act, 2014 would assist in repositioning the body. Given that the NSITF board is made up of a tripartite committee, comprising appointees of the federal government, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the National Employers Consultative Association (NECA), the expectation was that check and balance, including efficient governance structure would be the bedrock in the running of the NSITF affairs.
Surprisingly, the expectation has fallen flat in the face of current allegations of rampant corruption in the NSITF.
In the report submitted to the Ministry of Labour and Employment, a whopping N62 billion was said to have been stolen from NSITF. It was observed that “the fund was operating with incomplete books of account. Several bank statements of the various bank accounts, cashbooks, etc were not submitted for audit examination and sighting. Financial statements (accounts) produced from such accounting system could not be reliable.”
Also, there were several transfers of funds in between bank accounts without authorisation and approvals. For instance, the sum of N15,737,757,697.91 was transferred from one account to another. Evidences to show the approvals and payment vouchers authorising the transfers were likewise not presented to the panel. The panel observed further that the sum of N2,990,184,262.77 was expended on computerisation and other related ICT equipment. Despite this expenditure, not much was achieved on computerisation of the fund, thereby defeating the purpose of the expenditure. Unlike in most instances where government is quick to shield cases of corruption involving government agencies, alleged corruption in NSITF has presented a unique case. This time, government is leading the charge to expose the cases of corruption.
In the forefront of that charge has been the Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige, who has been doing everything possible to uncover the deep corruption that held sway in the last 10 years. Ngige’s resolve to go the whole hog in fishing out those, who stole from NSITF is not far-fetched. Many of those involved in the alleged graft in the fund are members of the organised labour, who formed part of the tripartite NSITF board.
To make matter worse, the National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Adams Oshiomhole, was the board chairman when some of these cases of alleged corruption were perpetuated.
But immediately Oshiomhole took over as APC National Chairman, he had gone ahead to direct Ngige to inaugurate the NSITF board or face sanction from the party. A directive that did not go down well with the minister.
According to Ngige, Oshiomhole intrusion, forcefully demanding that the he constitute the NSITF board was primarily meant to bury the investigation and its subsequent outcomes. He explained that, being an interested party, Oshiomhole intention was to ensure that the new board, if inaugurated, will do everything to cover up established cases of corruption labelled against members of his constituency -the organised labour.
After receiving the letter from Oshiomhole (which many believed the APC National chairman crossed the line, as such directive to Ngige could only be issued by President Muhammadu Buhari to a member of his cabinet), Ngige wasted no time in sending back the missiles to the APC National Chairman. Responding to the letter, a miffed Ngige told Oshiomhole that “I am not oblivious of the fact that you are an interested party in the matter because having served as the chairman of the NSITF board before the last board and as a former Nigerian Labour Congress President, you will be interested in the tripartite colouration of the board being maintained more so as labour still remains your constituency.”
Another source in the ministry had told THISDAY that the basic reason for the demand to set up the board was to cover up the tracks linking the looting of about N62 billion from NSITF. According to the source, “some members in the former board that were nominated in the board were from labour and NECA, some of them are standing trial, so naturally, he will want the tripartite board to be constituted. The source added that the push to constitute the NSTIF board and downplay the investigation clearly indicates a hidden agenda. “Who are they shielding? Are they saying that the board is more important than fighting the corruption in NSITF? Why are they not talking about the corruption? Are they shielding some interest and some of them are from labour and NECA?,” the source asked.
However, some analysts and observers argued that it was better for Ngige to inaugurate the board so that operations of NSITF would not continue to be affected by the absence of the board. According to them, having the board in place would not affect the on-going investigation into the corruption allegation and more so, the fund could not afford to exist without a board in perpetuity because it was trying to avoid a cover-up.
The Politics at Play
The gall part of it is that, many see Ngige’s action as more political than an administrative step taken to correct an anomaly in NSITF. Close watchers of the event argued that the minister’s rationale for not inaugurating the NSITF was more of a political brinkmanship to get at Oshiomhole and top members of the organised labour. Although, the APC National Chairman had wanted to browbeat Ngige into submission, and as well as display the supremacy of the party, he, however, met a measured match in Ngige who was adamant to heed to his demands. It was therefore more of a political ding dong between Ngige on one hand and Oshiomhole and NLC on the other hand.
More so, since the beginning of the NSITF’s investigation and hostility between Ngige and Oshiomhole, the NLC had maintained sealed lips. Notwithstanding several allegations against its members in the NSITF scandal, the union has blatantly refused to speak on the matter. Several attempts by THISDAY to speak with NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, on the matter were not fruitful. Wabba also did not respond to calls and text messages put across to him on the matter.
Conversely, NSITF Managing Director, Adebayo Somefun, at a recent gathering in Abuja told journalists that even the fund was yet to grasp with the on-going investigation. Somefun stated that, “There are actions going on in the court on the matter and anti-graft agencies are also on the case. None of these actions have been concluded. All we know about the panel is what all Nigerians have been reading in the news mediums.” According to Somefun, what is paramount to NSITF management at the moment is how to restructure the procurement process in the award of contract in the agency. He said, this will go a long way to stem corruption in the fund.
Beyond such assurance, the current scandal has raised concerns over the running of the NSITF, as the crisis already appear to have damaged the reputation of the organisation. It is even doubtful if the crisis will fizzle out any time soon. And although, the NSITF crisis has snowballed into some political in-fighting between Ngige and Oshiomhole, the NLC and other stakeholders in the organised labour must also come out clean on what went wrong.
The danger of covering up the damning cases of corruption in NSITF is that many of the stakeholders would in future lack the moral authority to hold government to account. If the mess is not cleaned up, and quickly too, the potential of NSITF remaining a perpetual house of sleaze beckons amid a damaged reputation. That will be a dangerous route to take. The only option left is to purge NSITF of the already battered image and project it to the future. Only then, will the fund return to its glorious days.