The suspension of the head of a government agency by a minister has once again brought to fore the inconsistencies in the Buhari administration’s policies and implementation.
On Thursday, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, approved the immediate and indefinite suspension of the Managing Director/Chief Executive of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF), Adebayo Somefun, from office, effective July 2.
This comes over a month after the Secretary to the Government of the Federation’s (SGF) restrained cabinet ministers from removing heads of agencies and parastatals they supervise.
The SGF in the circular outlined what he said was the process approved by President Muhammadu Buhari for removing or punishing agency heads accused of wrongdoing.
While his Thursday action is contrary to that directive, Mr Ngige said President Muhammadu Buhari approved his announcement.
PREMIUM TIMES exclusively reported how the Buhari administration restrained cabinet ministers from directly removing heads of agencies and parastatals they supervise.
In his circular dated May 19, the SGF, Boss Mustapha, conveyed the “concern” of the government about the tendency by some ministers to arbitrarily remove chief executive officers of agencies and its impact on stability and service delivery.
The SGF said the circular was dispatched to all ministers and several other senior officials, including the head of service, the president’s chief of staff, military chiefs, the central bank governor, and permanent secretaries, among others.
According to the new procedure, when serious misconduct is reported against a chief executive, the supervising minister through the permanent secretary is to refer the matter to the governing board of the affected agency in line with its enabling law and chapters three and 16 of the Public Service Rules on discipline and government parastatals.
The board will then issue the affected official a query and subsequently advise the minister of its findings and recommendations. But whether the board is itself the source of the allegation of misconduct against the chief executive or the chief executive is the chairman of the board, the minister, on the advice of the permanent secretary, still has to ensure a query is issued, requesting an explanation from the accused official.
“The Minister after due consideration of the submission from the Board shall, on the advice of the Permanent Secretary, forward the ministry’s position along with the recommendations of the Board and explanation of the Chief Executive Officer to the Secretary to Government of the Federation for processing to Mr President, for a decision,” the circular states.
Upon receipt of the submission from the minister by the SGF, the procedure then establishes another layer of probe, requiring the SGF to “without delay, cause an independent investigation and advise Mr President on the appropriate course of action, including interdiction or suspension in accordance with the principles guiding Sections 030405 and 030406 of the Public Service Rules, pending the outcome of the independent investigation.”
Based on the outcome of the independent investigation, “it shall be the responsibility of the SGF to further advise Mr President on the next course of action,” the circular states.
Mr Mustapha said this “procedure shall serve as a mandatory guide and all ministers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and any other Public Officer in a similar supervisory role are enjoined to strictly abide by its content.”
Before the SGF’s directive, many ministers had exercised their ‘powers’ to discipline heads of agencies, commissions or departments they supervise, including suspending and dismissing them from office.
For example, in January, the power minister, Sale Mamman, removed Damilola Ogunbiyi and Marilyn Amobi, respectively the chief executives of the Rural Electrification Agency and the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading Company.
President Buhari later reversed the minister’s action.
The power minister on May 19, the same day the SGF sent his circular, sacked the Managing Director of the Transmission Company of Nigeria, Usman Mohammed, and replaced him with Sule Abdulaziz, in an acting capacity.
Mr Mamman also said his action was approved by Mr Buhari.
The sack of Mr Mohammed, however, resulted in a fight between the SGF of the federation, Boss Mustapha and the power minister.
Deficiencies In SGF’s Directive
Although the May 19 SGF’s circular protects heads of agencies from their supervising ministers’ arbitrariness, it may have created a hurdle of red-tapism that may delay – or even prevent – sanction for abuses.
Also, ministerial threats of sanctions in the event of no performance, like the one issued by communications and digital economy minister, Isa Pantami, to agencies under his ministry inAugust 2019, may no longer yield any effect if the ministers obey the SGF directives.
However, it appears some ministers are not ready to comply with the SGF’s directive, something reflected in Mr Ngige’s action.
In a statement by his aide, on Thursday, Mr Ngige said President Buhari has approved the immediate and indefinite suspension of Mr Somefun.
Mr Ngige, in a statement by Charles Akpan, named other officers suspended to include Jasper Ikedi-Azuatalam, Executive Director (ED), Finance and Investment, and Olukemi Nelson, ED, Operations.
Also suspended are Tijani Darazo Sulaiman, ED, Administration; Olusegun Olumide-Bashorun, General Manager, Administration/Human Resources/Maintenance; and Lawan Tahir, General Manager, Finance.
Others asked to go are Chris Esedebe, General Manager, Claims and Compensation; Olodotun Adegbite, Deputy General Manager, Investment and Treasury Management; and Emmanuel Enyinnaya-Sike, Deputy General Manager, Finance and Accounts.
The statement also named Olutoyin Arokoyo, Deputy General Manager/Acting Head, Legal; Dorathy Zajeme-Tukura, Deputy General Manager, Administration, and Victoria Ayantuga, Assistant General Manager, Internal Audit.
The minister said their suspension from office arose from the “preliminarily established prima facie infractions on the extant Financial Regulations and Procurement Act, and other acts of gross misconduct”.
“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 said.
Mr Ngige directed Kelly Nwagha, General Manager. Health, Safety and Environment Department, to assume the position of Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, being the most senior General Manager in the organisation.
In a statement sent PREMIUM TIMES Thursday night, Mr Somefun said Mr Buhari has not suspended the management of NSITF and did not make such an announcement.
“The person mentioned in the media report is not a staff of the Presidency. For clarity, we need to mention that we received a letter from the Hon Minister of Labour and Employment Sen Chris Ngige stating that he is doing a procurement audit on NSITF and that Management is suspended,” he said.
Mr Somefun also reiterated that the minister’s action is against President Buhari’s directive through the Secretary to the Government of the Federation that stated clearly that no minister has the powers to suspend or sack any head of agency appointed by the president without following due process.
“We are sure that President Buhari will not be part of any illegality and lack of due process. We have been in receipt of several letters by the minister and several petitions written against NSITF by the Minister of Labour Sen Chris Ngige and we will make all communications available to the public and relevant authorities. The Management of NSITF is still discharging their duty as appointed by Mr President,” he said.
The NSTIF has been under scrutiny since last year when the House of Representatives directed its Committee on Labour, Employment and Productivity to investigate its activities in relation to the expenditure of ₦2.3 billion by its management.
SGF and Labour reacts
Speaking with PREMIUM TIMES Friday morning, the spokesperson of the SGF, Willie Bassey, said he saw the reports and “the reports showed it was approved by the presidency.”
He promised to call back on the stance of the SGF. He was yet to do so at the time of this report.
Also, the spokesperson of the labour ministry, Charles Akpan, did not return calls nor reply to text messages sent to him.