ON Thursday, July 16, 2020, Dr Chris Ngige, the Minister of Labour and Employment, represented by the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, William Alo, inaugurated a Presidential Joint Board and Audit Investigation Panel to probe alleged financial infractions levelled against the Managing Director/Chief Executive of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF), Adebayo Somefun, three directors and other senior management staff of the organisation.
Dr Ngige had, through a press release signed by the Ministry’s spokesperson, Mr Charles Akpan, on July 2, 2020, announced the immediate and indefinite suspension of these officers for allegedly squandering N3.4 billion on “non-existent” staff training that he said were split into about 196 different consultancy contracts in order to evade Ministerial Tenders Board and Federal Executive Council approvals.
The Audit Investigation Panel is chaired by Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel, the National Treasurer of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) who represents the NLC at the NSITF Governing Board. Comrade Khaleel, who is the President of Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), is the Chairman of the Audit Committee of the NSITF Board.
Other members of the Audit Investigation Panel, which has three weeks within which to work and submit its report, include Dr Ifeoma Ayanwutaku – Director, Occupational Safety and Health in the Ministry; Umma Dutse – Director, Human Resources at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN); Mr B. Omogo – Director, Organisation Design and Development, Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation; Muhammed Katun – Director, Monitoring Department, Office of the Accountant General of the Federation; Nicolas Mtemave – Director of Audit, Office of the Auditor General Office; Dr Onwusoro Maduka – Director, Procurement, Ministry of Labour; and Mrs E. Ogriki – Director, Human Resources, National Productivity Centre, who serves as the Secretary to the Panel.
While the allegation of corruption remains a fundamental issue in the suspension, there are questions begging for answers from either the Minister or the Presidency since the Minister’s action on July 2.
The first question is why would Dr Ngige suspend the top management of the NSITF barely a month after the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) in a directive which sought to restrain cabinet ministers from arbitrary removal of heads of agencies and parastatals they supervise?
Although the minister belatedly came out when he was reminded about this directive to say that due process was followed in the suspension, the immediate response by the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA) that the suspension violated the disciplinary procedures approved by the President remains very persuasive and more believable.
NECA’s response, which came in a letter to Minister Ngige, signed by its Director General, Dr Timothy Olawale, essentially drew the minister’s attention to the presidential procedures released by the SGF.
The fundamental point made by Dr Olawale with regard to the directive is that it is meant to restrain Ministers to channel their grievances, when and where they exist through the governing boards of agencies which are empowered to make recommendations to the SGF to act if there is the need.
It is in this context that Dr Olawale in the said letter stated that NECA was “…caught unawares and surprised at the purported suspension from office of the top management and Executive Committee of the Fund…”
The second fundamental, but disturbing question, which needed to be objectively answered, is how does Dr Ngige expect those being probed, and indeed the general public, to believe or expect a panel that he constituted, as he is obviously an interested party, to unravel “financial infractions” that he alone, without the Governing Board, is alleging?
For a fair and just investigative process to occur, what is needed is more than an investigative panel whose members were, as it is, handpicked by the Minister. A panel that should do this job ought to be independently constituted if the needed audit/investigation is to be accomplished and before which the Minister himself will be a candidate of investigation; in the context of the reported response or position of the suspended top managers of the Fund. Even without the suspended officers expressing an independent and open investigation, the circumstance of unending investigations always being called by the minister is a basis for reasonable suspicion that he is much more than an uninterested participant in whatever that is going on at the NSITF.
There are therefore reasons beyond the immediate call by the Minister which calls for a judicious investigative approach. Dr Ngige has clearly become so self-righteous and overzealous in his interventions in the affairs of the NSITF posing as if he is the only person keen on its organisational welfare and integrity.
Not long ago, he cleverly unseated a former Acting Managing Director of the Fund, Mr Ismail Agaka and a few others after which Dr Ngige set up an Administrative Panel of inquiry to investigate the management of the Fund in 2018.
The panellists were the Minister’s candidates from the ministry. Following the work of the panel, allegations were rife that the Minister influenced the recall some staff back into the Fund and rewarded them as soon as they showed sufficient remorse and readiness to kowtow to his whims to have a firmer grip on the management of the Fund.
Questions to which Dr Ngige must naturally provide answers as regards this panel are: “What were the recommendations of that panel and how were they implemented? What became of the implementation committee, which was headed by a former Permanent Secretary of the ministry?”
Though the report was submitted to Dr Ngige on July 18, 2018, it has not been sighted by anyone but himself, while the Presidency has kept mum. Of course, it doesn’t bother him that the workers suspended before that probe still remain on suspension two years after, without being charged or relieved of their positions, while those alleged to be willing tools in the hands of the Minister have not only been restored but rewarded.
Yes, there had been the reported recovery of some stolen funds. But curiously enough, as he embarks on another investigation, the question of what has happened to the N62,358,401,927.80 that Dr Ngige continues to merrily flaunt in the media has never been asked and he also has failed to explain what has happened to this huge sum. This is why an independent investigative panel is of high essence at this point and not another self-motivated investigation that which is set to be a tool in his hands to boast of!
Furthermore, it is clear now that Dr Ngige is in full battle mood with NECA for daring to challenge him. The Minister has reportedly barred the Acting President of NECA, Taiwo Adebiyi, from future board meetings of the NSITF. Ngige’s reason is that Adebiyi, who is the Chairman of the NSITF Board’s Finance Committee, has not been screened and cleared by appropriate security agencies to sit on the Board which he was statutorily nominated to by his organisation. And Dr Ngige is remembering this only now when NECA is challenging his creeping authoritarianism.
The minister has not only barred Adebiyi, he also threatened that Adebiyi’s “further participation in activities of the NSITF board will be viewed as a case of impersonation” that will be “treated with appropriate sanctions.” If the Minister can threaten the representative of a statutory member of the board of the NSITF, in the manner that he has done, then what the fate of employees who may stand on his way to achieving his goal can better be imagined.
While the Austin Enajemo-Isire-led Board of the NSITF may not have any issues with the NECA Acting President who is the Chairman of the Finance Committee of the Board, as indicated by his participation since he reportedly came as a replacement of NECA’s late President; Enajemo-isire or the entire Board may not be in any hurry or mood to resist Ngige’s orders if they are to reflect on how he dealt with Comrade Frank Kokori, who as an appointee of President Buhari to chair the Board of the NSITF, was rejected by the Minister and heavens did not fall.
When NLC protested and got entangled with him, Ngige did not bulge and instead effectively repelled workers who went protesting to his residence with his hired goons. Perhaps, as a result of this, the NLC are not too keen and this time around has quickly fallen in line.
That Minister Ngige does not brook any opposition, contrary or independent opinion is no longer in doubt. The mystery however is that regardless of this open manifestation of the Minister’s seeming intolerance of independent-mindedness and his inclination to tyranny and disobedience to presidential directives, the President has remained indifferent, thereby allowing the NSITF, one of the principal pillars of social security in the country that ought to be too strategic to be toyed with by any individual, in obeisance to the personal whims of individuals.
The most important step that Mr President must take, and if possible, at the prompting of the newly re-energised Nigeria Labour Congress, which just got boosted by its reconciliation with critical unions, is to constitute an independent investigative panel to carry out a forensic audit of NSITF. Members of the panel whose sittings must be public should be men and women of unimpeachable integrity drawn from the trade unions, the judiciary, academia and professional accounting bodies, among others. Anything less will be waste of time, efforts and public resources.