PHILIP NYAM reports on how the House of Representatives picked holes in the recent suspension of some top management staff of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF)
Allegations of corruption at the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) have become a recurrent decimal like that of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). A few weeks ago, a court ordered the temporary forfeiture of over 40 assets belonging to a former chairman of the NSITF, Mrs. Ngozi Olejeme for alleged corruption.
But as the dust was yet to settle, a more disturbing news broke out a week after as President Muhammadu Buhari reportedly approved the indefinite suspension of the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF), Mr. Adebayo Somefun and three executive directors of the agency over corruption allegations.
Also suspended were some other top management staff of the agency. The press statement also mentioned Mrs. Olutoyin Arokoyo, Deputy General Manager/ Acting Head, Legal; Ms. Dorathy Zajeme-Tukura, Deputy General Manager, Administration and Mrs. Victoria Ayantuga, Assistant General Manager, Internal Audit as part of the management team that was suspended.
The minister disclosed that the suspension of these officials became imperative after the preliminary investigation established prima facie infractions on the extant Financial Regulations and Procurement Act as well as other acts of gross misconduct.
According to the statement, ‘’during the period of their suspension, the officers will face a Joint Board and Audit Investigative Panel that had been set up to look into the financial and procurement breaches, as well as gross misconduct in the NSITF from 2016 to date. “The gross misconduct has invariably put the contributions of stakeholders in a perilous state.
The affected officers have also been directed to hand over to the most senior officers in their respective departments.” The statement also quoted the minister, Dr. Chris Ngige, as directing the most senior General Manager, Dr. Kelly Nwagha, to take over as the Acting Managing Director/Chief Executive with effect from Monday, July 6.
The Labour minister also charged the Chairman of the Board, Mr. Austin Enajemo Isire, to ensure that the investigative panel commenced work as soon Justifying the decision to suspend the top management of the NSITF, the minister said they were involved in embezzlement of public funds to the tune of N3.4 billion.
Ngige, who disclosed through a statement signed by Charles Akpan, the Deputy Director, Press and Publicity at the Ministry of Labour and Employment, said that preliminary investigations had shown that the suspended members of management of NSTIF were involved in various financial infractions. He disclosed that the ministry uncovered a scam of about N3.4 billion spent 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.
The statement read in part: “Nonexistent staff training totalling N2.3 billion was documented and paid while N1.1 billion is awaiting payment without any job done, all totalling 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 duplication and hence waste of funds, yet you are in the Board supposedly supervising.” It added that “due process was followed” by the federal government in arriving at the suspension order. It also insisted that the minister acted in line with the Constitution, Public Service Rules and NSITF Act.
Reacting to reservations made by the NECA on the suspension, the ministry’s spokesperson insisted that NECA did not have the full facts of the matter and was not aware that the Secretary to Government of the Federation conveyed the presidential approval to the Minister of Labour and Employment for full implementation.
He also noted that the breaches in question started since 2016 to 2019 and were not limited to 2018/2019 as NECA claimed. He said: “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 Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) counterparts as the NSITF is a Federal Government Parastatal operating within the realm of the Constitution, Public Service rules.”
He added that the NSITF Act has empowered the minister to recommend qualified persons to the President on appointments of chairman and some other management positions. He, however, noted that ‘the President on the recommendation of the minister also has powers to discipline, suspend or even remove totally, depending on the circumstances of each situation.”
Despite the explanations by the minister, the House of RRepresentatives, apparently, not satisfied with the process, waded into the suspension of the top management and consequently constituted an ad hoc committee chaired by Hon. Mariam Onuoha to investigate the matter.
The decision of the House followed the adoption of a motion sponsored by Hon. Leke Abejide on alleged incessant and arbitrary breach of the presidential directive on the suspension of top management of the NSITF and other government agencies by the Minister of Labour.
Leading debate on the motion, Abejide stated that the directive by the minister was done without the approval of the president in whose pleasure the engagement and such disengagement should rest.
He stated that the suspension of the affected management staff is “illegal” and should be reversed forthwith. Abejide expressed concern at the manner in which a federal minister could “unlawfully take upon himself such illegal status and carry out functions in that form.”
He consequently called for the constitution of an ad-hoc committee to fully investigate the circumstances. Supporting the motion, Hon. James Faleke expressed worry about how the Minister of Labour and Employment “who is supposed to mediate between employers and their employees would rather act like a dictator to the detriment to the good image of the president.”
He wondered why the minister would not follow due process in carrying out such orders explaining that such procedures should have come through the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) as recommended by the board of the organisation.
Faleke stated that part of the grouse was that the minister single-handedly inserted an expenditure of over N2 billion into the budget of the NSITF. He said: “This is just one of several breaches of the law the Minister of Labour has been known to embark on. These breaches with visible proof are gross violations of laid down laws of the land.”
Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, in his contribution stated that the allegations are very weighty and the have grave consequences. Also speaking, Hon. Sada Soli stated that he had the opportunity of chairing a committee to investigate the Labour minister in the past and “it is obvious that the sacking of the management staff is a ploy by the minister to ensure he gets rid of perceived threats to his ambition.”
Soli argued that the actions of the minister are in gross contravention of Sections 6,7 and 8 of the Act setting up NSITF. He called on the House to thoroughly investigate the matter so that justice can be seen to be done.
The motion was unanimously passed. How the House would carry out this investigation remains to be seen because the NSITF has been allegedly entangled in corruption for a long time and the interests are said to be entrenched, but analysts are of the view that this investigation will be revealing and most exciting.