NSITF: NLC accuses Buhari’s minister of lying to Nigerians

NLC-President-Mr
The President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Ayuba Wabba. [Photo credit: Pulse.ng]

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has accused the labour minister, Chris Ngige, of falsehood in his narration of what transpired on the day the governing board of a government agency, was to be inaugurated.

Mr Ngige, in a statement by a spokesperson of the labour ministry, had accused the NLC of importing “thugs” to the inauguration of the board of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF).

PREMIUM TIMES reported how the labour minister refused to inaugurate the board of the NSITF for about two years since the board was named by then acting President Yemi Osinbajo.

Mr Osinbajo had approved the board members, including retired labour leader, Frank Kokori, as the board chairman.

But when the labour minister earlier in April finally announced the planned inauguration of the board, it left out Mr Kokori’s name.

This angered labour leaders who mobilised themselves to the venue of the inauguration. They accused Mr Ngige of plotting to replace Mr Kokori, a former leader of the oil workers union, NUPENG. The labour leaders said they would not allow Mr Ngige to inaugurate anyone else as chairman of the board.

As at then, neither Mr Ngige nor the labour ministry had announced that Mr Kokori was to be replaced.

However, the planned inauguration, witnessed by PREMIUM TIMES and other journalists, could not proceed as Mr Ngige did not show up.

At the event, Mr Kokori, who was jailed by the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha for leading a workers’ protest, wept. He accused Mr Ngige of humiliating him despite his past sacrifices for Nigeria.

It was later on that day that the labour ministry released its controversial statement accusing the labour leaders of importing “violent thugs.” It also said Mr Kokori had been replaced as board chairman-nominee of the NSITF.

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“Government, therefore, takes serious exception to the dishonourable actions of the NLC leadership and Mr Frank Kokori as well as his cohorts,” the labour ministry said.

In its reaction on Sunday afternoon, the NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, expressed his anger at the labour ministry’s statement.

“Ngige’s outburst and resort to gutter language is certainly an expression of his desperation to turn the NSITF into his personal estate,” Mr Wabba said.

The labour insisted that Mr Ngige should inaugurate the board of the NSITF with Mr Kokori as its chairman.

“Going forward, the dropping of the name of Mr President notwithstanding, we expect Minister Ngige to inaugurate the Board of NSITF under the chairmanship of Chief Frank Ovie Kokori before the 2019 May Day,” he wrote.

Read the full statement of the NLC president below.

NGIGE AND THE TRUTH ABOUT NSITF BOARD INAUGURATION

The attention of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has been drawn to a Press Statement signed by Rhoda Iliya, Assistant Director, Press, on behalf of Dr. Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour and Employment, in which the President of the Congress was alleged to have imported “violent thugs”, to disrupt the inauguration of the board of NSITF, which was to have taken place on April 18, 2019.

The statement, which was filled with many unbelievable barefaced lies and uncouth language, alleged, among other things, that the inauguration had to be postponed “…to avoid the degeneration of the situation where thugs were already manhandling some officers of the ministry and policemen attached to the office of the minister”.

Continuing, the Minister’s statement asserted that “the violent gate crashing and the illegal forceful seizure of the conference room of the Honourable Minister by thugs numbering hundreds and persons who clearly had no business with the inauguration of the board is totally unacceptable. Government therefore take [sic] serious exceptions to the dishonourable actions of the NLC leadership and Chief Frank Kokori as well as his cohorts and warn that the Ministry will not tolerate a repeat of hooliganism clearly unknown to ethos of civilised unionism”.

We are left dumbfounded at the depth Minister Ngige is prepared to go in lying to the nation and the world to cover his doomed plan to hoodwink Nigerians on his elaborate intrigue spanning three years to prevent the inauguration of the Board of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF).

The antics of Minister Ngige and his propensity for unabated obfuscation will not distract us from doing our duty in defending and protecting the rights and interests of our members, as these remain the basic raison d’etre for our existence as a Labour Movement.

To set the record straight, on 18th April, 2019, the Congress President, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, alongside Comrade William Akporeha, President of NUPENG, led other leaders of the Labour Movement to the venue of the inauguration ceremony and waited patiently for well over two hours for the commencement of the event. There were dozens of journalists from various national media houses in the hall to cover the event. The DSS also had its operatives on the ground as well as the police. The fact that there was not even a single reported incident of breakdown of law and order, or the arrest of any person for unruly behaviour is a categorical attestation to the peaceful and calm manner in which all those who came for the occasion conducted themselves.

Secondly, the fact that the NLC have statutorily two members in the NSITF Board, which, by law, it is obligated to nominate means that the NLC President and all the other workers who turned up for the long overdue inauguration had every business to be there.

We are therefore shocked with the deployment of derogatory and confrontational words by Minister Ngige. As social partners, we naturally expect the Ministry of Labour and Employment, and any of its ministers or staff, to relate with organised labour guided by utmost dignity. Any Minister of Labour who thinks organised labour is subordinate to him or her or the Ministry is clearly living in an illusion.

Ngige’s outburst and resort to gutter language is certainly an expression of his desperation to turn the NSITF into his personal estate; an effort which he sees the NLC or organised labour truncating. This drama has been on since the constitution of the Board of the NSITF under the Chairmanship of Chief Frank Ovie Kokori.

Background of the Current Crisis of Non-inauguration of NSITF

Upon his appointment, one of the first actions that Dr Ngige took as Minister of Labour and Employment was to direct the NSITF to submit four nominees of the NSITF to serve on the Board of Trustfund Pensions, which the agency had 40% stake. The four nominees included the then Acting Managing Director, a senior management staff of NSITF and two aides to the Minister from the Ministry of Labour and Employment.

Following this, the National Pension Commission (PENCOM), whose statutory responsibility it is to approve nominees to serve on the Board of all Pension Fund Administrators (PFAs), in its wisdom and discretion, approved only two of the four nominees. The approved nominees were those from NSITF, while it turned down the Minister’s aides from the Ministry of Labour and Employment.

When the Federal Government eventually appointed the substantive Managing Director along with three Executive Directors of NSITF, the new Executive Management of the agency wrote to PENCOM to withdraw the two earlier management staff that PENCOM had approved to serve on the board of the PFA to pave the way to replace them with themselves.

Because the NLC has substantial stake in both the Trustfund Pensions and NSITF, on December, 15, 2017, we wrote to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), entitled; “Non-Swearing in of Board of NSITF and other Matters”. The Congress’ letter drew attention of the SGF to the continuous non-inauguration of the NSITF Board three months after the Federal Government had appointed the Chairman of the Board. The letter, which was signed by the Congress President went on to among other things state that: “the law establishing the NSITF stipulates that the President (and Commander-in-Chief) will appoint the executive management of the fund in consultative with the NLC and the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA).

When the current administration appointed the Managing Director and the three Executive Directors for the NSITF, without consultation with the social partners – NLC and NECA – as stipulated in the law, we protested. This is more so because the funds of the NSITF are workers contributions and marching contributions by employers in the private sector”.

The NLC’s letter expressed dismay on the delay of the inauguration of the Board after its constitution by the Federal Government. This, he said is “preventing NLC and NECA from participating in the governance processes in the place”, as well as “creating problems in the operations of the Trustfund Pensions, a PFA, which NLC and NECA along with NSITF have shares in”.

Our letter concluded by urging the SGF to intervene by directing the immediate inauguration of the NSITF. It also urged the SGF to halt the move by the NSITF establishment (directed by Ngige) to force through the process of appointment of new directors of NSITF to Trustfund Pensions until a fully constituted Board is effectively in place.

We thought the issues in the NSITF would be laid to rest when the Secretary to the Government of the Federation directed MDAs and the supervising ministers to inaugurate all boards latest by March 9th 2018.

The Minister of Labour and Employment disregarded this directive with respect to NSITF Board, claiming that he wanted to clean up corruption in the place. However, we saw through this as nothing but a plot to perpetuate his sole ‘administratorship’ as supervising minister of the agency. This is because the EFCC had conducted investigations and already began persecution of alleged culprits in the mismanagement of the funds of the agency.

In order to further consolidate his grip on the NSITF, Ngige constituted a 9-member administrative panel of enquiry into NSITF finances, and forced the organisation to release N18 million to do a probe that the EFCC had already done, to the point he took over as minister.

Disillusioned by the minister’s intrigue and designs to prolong his stranglehold on the NSITF, we again wrote; this time directly to Mr President on 20th March 2018, and asserted that “the decision of the Honourable Minister a couple of weeks back to constitute an administrative panel to investigate the period (2015-to-date), which he has been the sole approving authority is for us just a trick to delay the inauguration of the Kokori-led Board. We also do not have any faith in an-house administrative panel chaired by the Director of Finance of the Labour Ministry, as in the absence of a Board, the Minister had maintained sole oversight and approving authority over the agency”.

Perhaps, unknown to the Presidency, the Minister had within this period that he was the sole manager of NSITF, recruited hundreds of people, majority of whom are from his community. He has also been in the habit of forcing the approval of hundreds of millions of Naira for dubious induction trainings, procurement and monetisation of jeeps for himself and the Minister of State in the Ministry, among other spurious expenditure.

To further illustrate Minister Ngige’s intrigues to sustain his sole administration of NSITF, he continues to manufacture every imaginable excuse on why the Board is not inaugurated, despite the above background we have illustrated dating back to 2017. For instance, in a letter dated March 15, 2019 to the NLC President, he asserted thus: “Please be informed that the screening by the DSS of your members who are nominees to the Board is the only matter hindering the inauguration of the Board to date”. And yet when we forwarded the replacement for one of our nominees to the DSS for screening, the same Minister directed the ministry’s Acting Permanent Secretary, Mr Ajibola Ibrahim, to ask us to withdraw the nomination from DSS and route it through his office, obviously to further delay the process. This correspondence was dated 22nd March 2019, when the Minister knows that his tenure as Minister of Labour and Employment will effectively end on May 29, 2019.

Recently, Dr Ngige again lied on Channel Television Live Programme that we made a recommendation for someone to be chairman of the Board. This is falsehood of the highest order! Chief Frank Kokori got his nomination to Chair the Board of NSITF as a chieftain of the ruling party in Delta State and on his own right as a distinguished and forthright elder statesman. Understandably, we believe that Minister Ngige is against Kokori as Chairman of NSITF Board because of his well-known trademark personality as a transparent, fearless but virtuous person.

Conclusion

As can be seen from the reference above, and as a responsible working-class organisation that values the tenets of social dialogue and tripartism, we had pursued this issue tenaciously for the last three years with relevant authorities without externalising it, despite all our frustrations. Our experience as an organisation has shown that it pays to maintain cordiality and good rapport with other social partners, especially the Ministry of Labour which by the nature of our institution, we have to necessarily relate with on a day-to-day basis. The Minister had obviously misread this as weakness.

Calling the top most hierarchy of NLC “thugs” and “hooligans” is to say the least most irresponsible. It is worst (and most disrespectful) calling one of our most revered veterans a “thug” and “hooligan”. Without the painstaking sacrifice of our movement, led by the Kokoris of the world, there would be no democracy under which an Ngige would aspire to be a governor of a state, a senator of the Federal Republic, or the minister that he is.

Going forward, the dropping of the name of Mr President notwithstanding, we expect Minister Ngige to inaugurate the Board of NSITF under the chairmanship of Chief Frank Ovie Kokori before the 2019 May Day.

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