Joseph Atobisi: Cleaning the Augean stable in NSITF

Lately, the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) has been in the news, but for the wrong reasons. Under the provision of NSITF Act of 1993, all employees 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 were 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.

Under the Employees Compensation Act (2010), the mandate of NSITF includes to provide for an open and fair system of guaranteed and adequate compensation for all employees or their defendants for any death, injury, disease or disability arising out of employment, to provide rehabilitation to employees with work disability as much as possible and to establish and maintain a solvent compensation fund managed in the interest of employees and employers.

Painfully, in recent years, the worthy objectives for establishing NSITF are now being eroded by the activities of those entrusted to manage the fund. Most Nigerians now perceive the conduct of administrators of the fund as a case of “a dog eating the bone hanged on its neck.”

In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that the fund has become a cesspool of corruption. In almost half a decade now, Nigerians have been bamboozled by frequent reports of looting coming out of NSITF.

In 2018, an Administrative Panel of Enquiry headed by Ishaya Awotu uncovered how NSITF allegedly misappropriated N6.2 billion through irregular allowances totaling N5.7 billion paid to staff and management.

While presenting its report to the Supervising Minister, Senator (Dr) Chris Ngige, the Honourable Minister of Labour and Employment, the chairman of the panel, Awotu said, “These allowances were paid without the approval of the National Salary, Incomes and Wages Commission. Some of these allowances were management staff allowance, staff education allowances, DSTV subscription allowance and dressing allowance. The others were generator and motor vehicle fueling allowances, which were not provided for in the condition of service of the fund.”

The panel further observed that between 2013 and 2017, the internal audit department of NSITF did not audit the cash books of the various bank accounts of the headquarters in violation of Section 1701 of the Financial Regulations. The Awotu panel further discovered that there were several transfer of funds, estimated at over N15 billion, from one bank account to another without authorization and approval. Over N2.9 billion was said to have been spent of computerization and other ICT related equipment, yet not much was achieved on computerization, defeating the purpose of the expenditure. Indeed, the discoveries of the panel appeared endless.

Similarly, on July 1 this year, the Federal High Court Abuja in Abuja granted an order of interim forfeiture in relation to 46 properties, including houses and parcels of land, suspected to be owned by former Chairperson, Board of NSITF, Mrs. Ngozi Juliet Olejeme. The order was granted by Justice Taiwo Taiwo while ruling on a motion exparte brought by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in suit no. FHC/ABJ/CS/538/2020. The properties listed in the suit were located in Abuja, Bayelsa and Delta States. In a supporting affidavit, the anti-corruption agency claimed that Olejeme acquired the said property with public funds she allegedly diverted while serving in NSITF between 2009 and 2015.

Most recently, another can of worm was opened in NSITF, following the suspension of Managing Director of NSITF, Adebayo Somefun, the three Executive Directors and some senior management staff by President Muhammadu Buhari who came to office in May 2015 on the mantra of “war against corruption.” Charles Akpan, the Director of Press and Public Relations in the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, announced the suspension in a statement he released to the media on July 2. The affected Executive Directors were Jasper Ikedi Azuatalam (Executive Director, Finance and Investment), Mrs. Olukemi Nelson (Executive Director Operations), Alhaji Tijani Darazo Suliaman (Executive Director, Administration).

The suspended senior management staff were Mr. Olusegun Olumide Bashorun (General Manager Administration/Human Resources/Maintenance), Mr. Lawan Tahir (General Manager, Finance), and Mr. Chris Esedebe (General Manager, Claims and Compensation). Others are: Mr. Olodotun A. Adegbite (Deputy General Manager, Investment and Treasury Management), Mr. Emmanuel Enyinnaya Sike (Deputy General Manager, Finance and Accounts), Mrs. Olutoyin O. Arokoyo (Deputy General Manager/Acting Head, Legal), Ms. Dorathy Zajeme Tukura (Deputy General Manager, Administration), Mrs. Victoria Ayantuga (Assistant General Manager, Internal Audit). The ministry explained that the suspension of the officers arose from alleged “preliminarily established prima facie infractions on the extant Financial Regulations and Procurement Act, and other acts of gross misconduct.”

Some of the alleged 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 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 Managing Director and his three-man executive. Some of the projects are duplications and hence waste of funds.

Regardless, the affected suspended management staff claimed that they were not suspended by the President, saying that they only received a letter from the Minister of Labour and Employment that he was doing procurement audit on NSITF on the basis of which he suspended the management.

They alleged that the Minister’s action violated President Buhari’s directive through the Secretary to the Government of the Federation that stated clearly that no minister should suspend or sack any head of agency appointed by the President, adding that they were sure that President Buhari will not be part of any illegality and lack of due process.Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA) through its Director-General, Timothy Olawale, aligned itself with the suspended management.

But, the Labour Ministry insisted that due process was followed strictly in the suspension of the top management of the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) over issues of N3.4 billion corruption following concerns raised in some quarters. A statement by the Ministry explained that the NSITF Act empowers the Minister to recommend fit and proper persons to the President for appointment for the post of chairman, Managing Director and three Executive Directors to manage the day to day affairs of the agency.

The statement reaffirmed that the suspension of the management became imperative after preliminary investigation on allegations of corruption against the NSITF top officials, established prima facie infractions on the extant financial regulations and procurement Act and other acts of gross misconduct. According to the spokesman of the ministry, “NECA does not have the full facts nor do they know that the Secretary to Government of the Federation, SGF, conveyed the Presidential approval to the Hon. Minister of Labour and Employment for full implementation.”

He added that “If a Minister observes there are financial breaches earlier reported and gross misconduct he does not need to go back to a Board that has been complaining to the same Minister.”

“We hope that NECA does not expect the Minister to fold his hands like his predecessor who watched helplessly when the last Board Chair in cahoot with the two NECA representatives, MD and officials looted N48 billion from the Fund and are being tried as of date by the EFCC

“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,” the Ministry said.

The ministry recalled that these breaches in question started since 2016 to 2019 and were not limited to 2018/2019 as NECA claimed, adding that “whilst the Ministry does not intend to go into a media altercation with a Social partner, NECA, the DG does well to emulate the NLC who liaised with the Ministry to be adequately briefed and were satisfied after the briefing, more so when they had also received brief from their person on the Board.” The Ministry regretted that Olawale as representative of NECA on the Board sat there when the suspended MD of NSITF and some members of his Executive lavished N3.4 billion 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, approvals.

Meanwhile, the Board of NSITF has undertaken to investigate the activities of the suspended Managing Director, three Executive Directors and eight other senior management staff. This was disclosed by Chairman of NSITF Management Board, Mr. Austin Enajemo-Isire in a statement dated July 5, 2020. Contrary to the claim of the management and NECA, Isire confirmed that the approval for suspension of the staff had been conveyed to the labour minister in a correspondence referenced SGF 47/511/T/99 of June 30, 2020. He assured that the MD and others involved would have opportunity to clear themselves of any wrongdoing with the probe panel being set up. On July 16, the Honourable Minister inaugurated an investigative panel headed by Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel to probe the allegations against the suspended MD and others.

In the light of the foregoing, it is the candid view of this writer that the suspended management staff should submit to a thorough investigation of their activities the period they presided over the affairs of NSITF. In fact, they need to be reminded that President Muhammadu Buhari has zero tolerance for corruption, which had earned him an award from the African Union as “Anti-corruption champion.”

It is regrettable that the suspended management who ought to have been preparing their defense before the panel by now are busy making baseless and unfounded allegations against the Minister. How could Kemi Nelson claim that the Minister inserted N1.2 billion projects and five SUVs in the budget 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? Or is she nursing the wound of her suspension? Or is this Kemi not the same person who insiders say, goes home with N10 million yearly as housing and collects N9.8 million as estacode for 28 days leave?

Our findings further show that the Minister had on May 19, 2020 written the Managing Director of NSITF, Bayo Somefun in respect of 20 percent reduction of the budget of the agency in line with the decision of Federal Executive Council. It was gathered that the letter directed that trimming down of the budget of the fund should focus on non critical capital expenditure, especially those classified as administrative capital expenditure, such as computer software acquisition, purchase of computers, scanners, photocopiers, shredders, purchase of buses, trucks, vans, motor vehicles, motorcycles, purchase/construction/provision of official residential buildings, furniture fittings, empowerment, training and capacity building. The suspended MD was said to have acknowledged the letter with a reply the next day, May 2020 but went ahead to disregard the directive. According to insiders, he used his cohorts in the NSITF management team, especially Kemi Nelson and Jasper Azutalam to knock it down at the board. It is therefore preposterous that the minister who insisted that the budget of the fund, especially relating to the purchase of vehicles be scaled down or removed, is the same person being accused of inserting SUVs in the budget.

Coming to the claim bordering on commission and revenue consultants , it was gathered that one of the earliest decisions the Minister took when he came on board in 2015, was to ban revenue consultants, directing that the staff strength of the agency was enough for such revenue drive. However, the tripartite alliance of Bayo Somefun, Kemi Nelson, Jasper Azutalam along with other cohorts threw this directive overboard in 2018 and restored the old system, fronting numerous agents who ripped off the agency of humongous sums as commissions. Quoting an online media, “One of the major problems in the agency is that the suspended MD and the Executive Directors are bonded in what looks like an evil pact to ensure that the agency is run down with their weird management style, neck deep in duplicity and fraud.

On the proprietary of the suspension, it is a well known fact that the President who appoints can also discipline by either suspension or outright removal. Secondly, suspending and giving you right of defence or fair hearing at a Board led neutral panel as in this case is fundamental because when you are not guilty, all rights are restored without blemish.

Finally, I cannot conclude this piece without a word or two for supporters of the suspended staff, such as NECA and Hon. James Faleke of the House of Representatives and their agents in the media. They should know that Nigerians are not deceived by their primordially motivated attacks and baseless allegations against Senator Chris Ngige. It is public knowledge that Dr Ngige has exhibited a patriotic zeal in his supervision of NSITF to ensure the safety of the retirement benefits of the workers. Quite despicable and loathsome is their resort to blackmail and lies and attempts to destroy the hard earned reputation of the Honourable Minister. A saying goes that “a clear conscience fears no accusation.” Rather than orchestrate attacks on Ngige, NECA, Faleke and their ilk should advise their suspended associates/constituents in NSITF to appear before the investigative panel and defend themselves.

Joseph Atobisi wrote from Abuja.

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