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NSITF: Nigeria’s house of corruption on the march again

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BY EMEKA EJERE

There is palpable tension within the leadership of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF), ahead of the commencement of the investigation of alleged “misappropriation and other gross misconducts” leveled against the suspended management of the agency.

Impeccable source confided in BusinessHallmark that it will take an unlikely compromise of the Joint Board and Audit Investigative Panel set up by the federal government to probe procurement dealings of the agency from 2016 to 2020 for any of the officials meant to face the panel to escape indictment.

The minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, is not leaving any stone unturned in his resolve to change the narrative of the Fund, which is under the supervision of his ministry.  The minister had last week suspended the NSITF managing director, Adebayo Somefun and some members of his executive team with the approval of President Mohammadu Buhari, so they can face the panel. Consequently, Dr. Kelly Nwagha, has been appointed as the acting managing director of the agency.

Ngige is accusing the Somefun-led management of lavishing “N3.4bn on non-existent staff training split into about 196 different consultancy contracts in order to evade the Ministerial Tenders Board and Federal Executive Council approvals.” He also accuses the suspended management of financial infractions and procurement breaches.

But the embattled former management team has said all training, contracts and rehabilitation it carried out received the approvals of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment and the National Assembly.

In a statement in Abuja on Sunday (July 5), the team insisted that the training referred to by the minister was budgeted for in 2017, 2018 and 2019 appropriations for over 5,000 staff nationwide. It also explained that the Procurement Planning Committee meetings held for the procurement of goods, works and services to commence the procurement activities.

The statement read, “There was no contract splitting as claimed by the minister. The training referred to were budgeted for in the year 2017, 2018 and 2019 appropriations for over 5,000 staff nationwide, and Procurement Planning Committee Meetings were held for the procurement of goods, works and services to commence the procurement activities.

“All these details were included in the budget for these years, taken for budget defence in the supervising ministry, officially endorsed by the minister himself, approved and transmitted to the National Assembly for necessary approval during the budget defences for these years.”

The ex-management members also faulted the allegations that they carried out the construction of 14 zonal offices running into billions of naira without board or ministerial approval.

The statement added, “We hereby seek that due process be followed and the suspended staff should be allowed to return to their offices to prepare their defence to all allegations against them.”

“There are already reports that some of the documents needed to defend the allegations are being carted away from the office. Consequently, it would be appreciated if the minister would comply with the SGF Circular Ref No. SGF/OP/I.S.3/T/163 dated 19th May 2020.”

However, Ngige, in his response, directed the management team to tender their evidence before the panel set up to look into the financial and procurement breaches as well as gross misconduct in the NSITF for periods of 2016 to date.

“They should go to the panel and show all those things, and if they are correct, the panel will exonerate them,” the minister said.

Calling for overhaul

Some staff of the agency who spoke to BusinessHallmark on the condition of anonymity commended the minister for the bold step, saying unless the NSITF is rescued from the grip of a certain cabal that had allegedly held it to ransom for years, the agency will not make any headway while the rest of the staff will continue to suffer.

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It was gathered that members of the cabal have dominated the affairs of the agency in such a way that their selfish interest always supersedes whenever it clashes with the interest of the nation and the rest of the staff.

“There’s no place for federal character at NSITF”, an aggrieved staff told BusinessHallmark. “Also competence is sacrificed on the altar of tribalism and cronyism because where you come from and who you know is more important to decision makers than what you can do.

“All the branch managers in Lagos and Abuja, for instance, are long overdue for transfer but none of them is moving because they’re standing on the shoulders of powerful godfathers. They don’t want to go to ‘non lucrative’ places”.

Another source wondered the justification of the billions of naira said to have been spent on training, which he said, barely comes with just a paltry N10, 000 allowance.

“Which training are they even talking about, he queried? It is only N10, 000 they pay participants, who most times are owed for months. And they will write your name about seven times while you have attended just once or twice. Another person, who is in their good book, may have attended about four or five times.”

“Even the ones that are supposed to take place outside the country, what they do is list names of people who they claim have gone for overseas training only to pocket the funds without the knowledge of such people.”

The source further revealed that marginalization is more pronounced at the Lagos office where, he alleged, that a section of the country is given preferential treatment while others are treated as second-class citizens.

He said, “Lagos office is the worst. There’s no equity and fair play. Some people are victimized while others are pampered just because of where they come from or who they know. Some people can stay away from work at will without consequences while others dare not try it. Some people are forced into departments that do not help their career progression just to get them punished while others are placed in the departments of their choice.

“Millions are being squandered on unneeded furniture and official vehicles just to create room for embezzlement at the expense of staff welfare. I think what the minister is trying to do is to sanitise the agency while also rekindling the spirit of federal character.”

‘Without due process’

On Sunday (July 5), the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), challenged the suspension, saying the board of the NSITF did not make any recommendations to the Ministry of Labour and Employment on the allegations of financial infractions leveled against the Fund’s management.

The director-general of NECA, Dr. Timothy Olawale, in a statement, asked Dr. Ngige not to mislead the public, saying due process was not followed before the directors and workers of the NSITF were suspended. He, however, said that NECA was not against the investigation of the management of the fund.

Olawale said, “We wish to clarify that there was no deliberation at any time at the board on matters bordering on alleged financial infractions by the management. These issues were never brought up, referred to the board or tabled for consideration, not to talk of any correspondence from the board to the honourable minister for actions.

“The records are there for verification and members of the board including representatives of the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Central Bank of Nigeria on the board are also alive to verify the truth.”

Olawale noted that representatives of NECA on the board who were alleged by the minister to be complicit to financial infractions were currently a subject of litigation in the courts.

But the minister responded to NECA through the deputy director, Press and Public Relations, Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, Charles Akpan, insisting that the removal of the NSITF management followed due process because NSITF is a parastatal owned by the federal government. According to the statement, the minister acted in line with the Constitution, Public Service Rules and NSITF Act.

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The statement said: “Some of the infractions uncovered include N3.4 billion squandered 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 project was 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. This was done in 2019 by the MD and his three-man executive. Some of the projects are duplications and hence waste of funds, yet you are in the board supposedly supervising!”

“NECA leadership should have been more restrained and responsive to the mantra of this administration like their NLC counterparts as the NSITF is a federal government parastatal, operating within the realm of the Constitution, Public Service rules and the NSITF Act, which empowers the minister to recommend fit and proper person to Mr. President for appointment for the post of chairman, managing director and the three executive directors for the day to day management of the agency.”

On Tuesday (July 7), the House of Representatives waded into the matter, declaring the suspension of the NSITF management by the minister illegal and accusing him of committing various illegalities through his office. In a motion moved by Mr. Leke Abejide, which the lawmakers unanimously adopted, the House called for lifting of the suspension.

Too stiff to bend

But Dr. Ngige is not known for giving up easily whenever he believes he is on a right cause. He also does not have a history of leaving gaps in exercising his constitutional powers while in position of authorities.

The next day, the minister, in a response, threatened to sue the chairman of the House of Representatives on Finance, James Falake, over claims of inserting N2 billion projects in the NSITF 2020 budget.

Ngige, who accused Falake of either being “mischievous or ignorant of the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) Act or both”, alleged that he is abusing “parliamentary privilege” and also ignorant of the fact that ministers cannot pad budgets because the final products come from the National Assembly. He also expressed readiness of challenging the lawmaker in court.

“It is instructive to note that ministers do not award contracts and or sit in the Ministerial Tenders Board nor tenders board of parastatals, the minister explained in a statement. “Clearly, even the Ministry of Labour’s representatives on the NSITF main board are not part of the tenders’ board of that parastatal.

“So how, when and where did the minister sit in that board to choose, much less pad, the budget?

“It is, therefore, easy to attribute Faleke’s motion on the floor of the House on Tuesday to consummate parliamentary mischief or outright ignorance of the Bureau of Public Procurement Act or both.

In 2019, President Mohammadu Buhari had to rescind his earlier appointment of the NSITF board chairman just to satisfy the minister.  Buhari had appointed former chairman of National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas (NUPENG), Mr. Frank Kokori to chair the board of NSITF. But Ngige was not comfortable with Kokori’s appointment and consequently recommended Austin Enejamo-Isire to the president for approval to head the board.

Ngige said his decision to oppose Kokori’s appointment was in compliance with Section 4(a) of the NSITF Act, which he said prohibited the appointment of any person with interest in labour matters to chair the board.

Kokori and the NLC embarked on months of loggerheads with Ngige over the latter’s vehement refusal to swear in the former NUPENG to head the board of NSITF. The conflict climaxed when the NLC president, Ayuba Wabba, led protesters to picket the private residence of Ngige with two tankers deployed to block the entrance of his house.

However, the presidency condemned the action of the NLC, stating that efforts were being made at the time to reconcile both the minister and the leaders of NLC.

A statement by special adviser to the president on media and publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, noted that prevalent corruption in NSITF from 2012 – 2015 led to the mismanagement of N48 billion out of the total N62 billion contributions during the period. Adesina said that the face-off between NLC and Nigige over the appointment of the chairman of the board of NSITF necessitated explanations by the presidency.

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The statement read in part: “Following the disagreement between the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment and the leadership of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) over the appointment of the chairman of the board of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF), the Presidency wishes to clarify as follows:

“That the NSITF is a hundred per cent federal government of Nigeria owned insurance parastatal, under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, designed for the role of insuring workers (employees) in the public and private sectors. The organization is empowered by law to implement the Employee Compensation Act (ECA) 2010 with mandate to insure workers and pay them compensation for accidents, deaths and injuries in the course of work.

“The NSITF was bedevilled and riddled with corruption between 2012 – 2015, which resulted in a colossal loss and mismanagement of about N48 billion out of the total N62 billion contributions during the said period. These were contributions by the employers – viz government and the private sector for payment of compensation to workers and even to employers for loss of man-hours by their workers.

“This fraud has been investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the last chairman and some members of the former board and some officials of the NSITF are presently being prosecuted by the EFCC”.

Little wonder on Wednesday, July 1, 2020, Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja, ordered the interim forfeiture of 48 choice properties, spread across the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Bayelsa, Enugu, Edo and Delta states, allegedly belonging to the former chairman of NSITF, Mrs. Ngozi Olejeme.

According to a press release seen by BusinessHallmark, Mrs.s Olejeme, who was also the Treasurer of the Jonathan-Sambo Campaign Organisation in 2015 has been on the run since 2016 and was in September, 2017, declared wanted by the EFCC for criminal conspiracy, abuse of office, diversion of public funds and money laundering.

She was alleged to have, along with Umar Munir Abubakar, former managing director of NSITF, mismanaged and diverted over N69 billion, belonging to the federal government into their personal accounts through the award of spurious contracts to proxy companies.

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