SITUATING THE NSITF BOARD SAGA

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Chris Ngige

Monday comment1

 Frank Kokori did not qualify to chair the NSITF board, argues Brown Atupor 

The persecution of the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Senator Chris Ngige, over the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) choice of chairmanship has continued from known and unknown quarters.

A lot of misinformation being dished out by the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) under its president, Comrade Ayuba Wabba on the issue of the inauguration of the Board of the NSITF, has continued to generate public discourse. It would be recalled that NSITF was set up by the federal government via Decree No. 23, 1993 and embodied into the Law of the Federation as NSITF Act Cap N88, LFN 2004.

According to records, it was a product of the liquidation of the old National Provident Fund (NPF) and a take-off grant was made available by the government to kick-start it.

Also, most of the NPF Asset was sent to set up the Pension Commission, and the NSITF was given a new role of workers insurance in the old Workmen Compensation Act which was later amended and expanded to produce the Employer Compensation Act (ECA) 2010.

Its major role is the insurance of workers against accidents and paying benefits to them, their families or their organization for injuries, accident, invalidation and even death in the course of work, either when going to work, in the workplace or returning from work.

In the enabling law establishing the agency, the federal government in its wisdom decided to give it a tripartite coloration (government, labour, and employers) because of the industrial relations nature of the entity.

Consequently, the management and board as set out in Section 4 of the act should have a chairman who shall be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Minister of Labour, two persons each nominated by the Nigeria Employees Consultative Association (NECA) – then the only Employers’ Association, The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) (because they were the only Labour Federation then).

One representative each of Federal Ministry of Employment, Labour and Productivity (Supervising Ministry), the Central Bank of Nigeria (financial institution), three executive directors – federal government interest, one managing director – federal government interest. Section 5 (3) of the act also says that the members of the board shall be paid certain remuneration and allowances as the minister of labour may from time to time determine.

The act further in 7 (4) stipulates that the minister shall also make recommendations to the president on the appointment of the managing director or an executive director after consultations with the NLC and NECA.

From the onset, it is clear that the appointment of the chairman for the board of NSITF is a straightforward engagement by the minister recommending a fit and proper person to the president for the appointment. The same applies for the appointment of the MD and EDs because it is one where the ILO Principle on tripartite representation comes into play which in this situation does not permit any of the partners to dictate to another on who is to represent them in a meeting, consultations, negotiation or on any joint venture like the NSITF, provided the person nominated has no criminal record.

There were revelations that Comrade Wabba approached the minister some times in 2017 to inform him that he and other social partners, the then DG NECA, submitted an NSITF chairman nominee to the office of the vice president.

The minister it was discovered bluntly objected to the move and told him that it was strange for NLC or NECA to do so since it breached the law and was simply an erosion of the minister’s function to nominate a fit and proper person to the offices listed in the act.

More disclosures, according to the minister, showed that NECA DG at the time did not participate nor had any hand in the so-called nomination. The person nominated was the respected former NUPENG General Secretary, Comrade Frank Kokori.

Since the minister had insisted on due process of appointing NSITF chairman, he has continued to receive undue vilification from labour since it does not favour their choice of candidate.

In his scheming, Wabba at a time wrote a letter of congratulations to the president for appointing Comrade Kokori to chair the NSITF Board and copied the minister, and then later leaked the letter to the media even when the minister had not made any recommendation to the president. All these antics were aimed at blackmailing, sullying and railroading the minister and Mr. President into forced compliance.

Pitiably enough, Kokori himself went to Gani Fawehinmi Annual Lecture in January 2018 abusing, cursing and buffeting the  minister for delaying his inauguration as chairman, following his appointment in November 2017 and accusing the minister of trying to be in-charge of NSITF to award contracts and milk the juice in the place to favour his town people as recruits into the NSITF.  He threatened to call out NUPENG members to a “fight” and to declare “war” if after one month he was not sworn in.

In April 2018, he attended the NUPENG NEC-in-session meeting and reported “Minister Ngige” for trying to humiliate him. He reported the minister to the Senate Committee on Labour, Productivity, Employment and the House of Representatives counterpart with strongly worded petitions.

Expectedly, the minister attended to the queries by both House Committees, explaining the situation he met NSITF financially frustrated in November 2015 when he assumed responsibility and what the situation was and that nomination of Comrade Kokori was irregular, and of course, it was an executive responsibility that does not need a senate screening.

When the minister took over the Ministry on November 15, 2015, parastatals sent in their reports and “omitted” the fact that the last board of NSITF in collusion with some management staff in charge of finance and legal departments looted funds in the place. This grave “omission” was because the executive directors of the last board were still in charge up to end of December 2016.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) commenced criminal investigations into the financial affairs of the place from 2011 to 2016 for criminal conspiracy, abuse of office and diversion of public funds and money laundering, based on petitions received by the acting chairman of the EFCC against the chairman and members of the last board.

The anti-corruption body was able to establish through forensic financial investigations that a total of N62.4b could not be accounted for. The report concluded by revealing eight top NSITF officials of general managers cadre who operated private companies in which they are directors and signatories and which they also used in milking public funds from the NSITF.

After briefing the president on the damaging EFCC report, an administrative panel of enquiry on the finances of NSITF and ancillary matters was instituted. It was discovered also that over N5b was removed from the NSITF account in one day without a single voucher to trace the movement except for the forensic trail of the EFCC.

Also, during the locust years as revealed by the administrative panel, N28b could not be accounted for through any voucher. Yet this is a panel that the NLC leader is crying wolf over and even wrote to the president to stop!

Today, the administrative panel report is being implemented vigorously, the NSITF procurement process, financial records, plugging of leakages are receiving visible financial sanity. Today, workers’ salaries are promptly paid against what obtained in the past years.

Accumulated allowances such as housing, educational, clothing which were owed workers for years have been cleared, same with furniture and out of pocket expenses.  Workers stagnated on the same position for six years have been promoted to enhance productivity.

The Port Harcourt regional office and the three branch offices at Onne, Trans Amadi and PH were sealed in May 2018 by Rivers State Inland Revenue Services (RIRS) for non-remittance of standard taxes deducted during the ‘period of the locust’. Today, the regional office has been unsealed since November last year.

The minister in the exercise of the functions of his office and recommendations of the administrative panel of enquiry sought the help of the immediate past Commissioner for Insurance of NAICON and got a square peg to fill the square hole. That was how Mr Austin Enajemo-Isire, a chartered accountant and fellow, Chartered Institute of Insurance of Nigeria (CIIN), came in.

There is nothing against Kokori as a person. The evaluation is done for a neutral, fit and proper person with the required cognate experience who will chair a vigorous and active board for the financially ailing NSITF. Kokori did not fit in.

Chief Kokori has a rich knowledge of labour studies and administration and that is why the president magnanimously approved his appointment as Chairman of the Michael Imoudu National Institute of Labour Studies.

After the security clearance of the chairman and other nominees, an inauguration was arranged for them on April 18, 2019. This event was, however, aborted as the programme was disrupted by the invasion of the Minister’s Conference Room by the NLC and NUPENG members, with NLC president seizing the minister’s conference room, singing solidarity song in a lightening operation in which the staff of the ministry and minister’s office were manhandled and beaten up and the entire ministry was taken over by hoodlums protesting against the nomination of the chairman of board whom they insisted, should be Comrade Frank Kokori or nobody else.

Atupor wrote from Abuja