Less than five months to the end of the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, one of his ministers has failed to inaugurate the board of an agency under his supervision.
Chris Ngige, the minister of labour’s refusal to inaugurate the 11-member board of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) has rendered the agency powerless.
The board membership was constituted by the Vice-President/ Yemi Osinbajo, in October 2017 in his capacity as Acting President.
The membership includes a former General Secretary of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas workers (NUPENG), Frank Kokori as Chairman; Deputy President of the NLC, Peter Adeyemi; Treasurer of Congress, Khaleel Ibrahim; Larry Etta and Timothy Olawale as representatives of Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA).
Others are representative of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the managing director and three executive directors of NSITF and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, Ibikun Odusote, who represents the ministry on the board.
Statutorily, ministers are empowered to inaugurate boards of agencies under their control.
However, Mr Ngige has failed to inaugurate the NSITF board 15 months after it was constituted and about five months to the expiration of the current administration.
Since the board was constituted in 2017, Mr Ngige has been engaged in a game of excuses on why the board could not be inaugurated.
The minister, at different times starting in February 2018, had promised to inaugurate the board but failed to do so.
That February, the minister set up an administrative panel of inquiry to look into the financial state of the NSITF “to purge it of all negative trails inflicted on it by its last board and management”.
Constituting the panel tactically helped Mr Ngige abide with a directive by President Buhari that all ministers should inaugurate boards of various parastatal under their supervision.
The directive was issued in a circular, dated February 26, 2018, signed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha.
The panel was given six weeks to report after which it was expected the board would be inaugurated.
Yet, the board was not inaugurated after the panel submitted its report in June.
The development got the attention of the chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Adams Oshiomole, who wrote Mr Ngige in July 2018 requesting he inaugurate all board members appointed under his ministry.
In a response letter, however, Mr Ngige promised to inaugurate the board of the NSITF before the end of July.
The minister said the delay was caused by an investigation he ordered into an alleged N40 billion corruption scandal by the former board.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which also investigated the matter, had concluded its probe over a year ago and charged indicted officers to court.
Battle Of Wits
Not satisfied with the response, Mr Oshiomole publicly threatened the minister same July.
“If the minister refuses, we will suspend him from the party,” Mr Oshiomole had said.
“For me it is the height of mischief for any minister, you cannot purport to be an honourable minister and you act dishonourably. Nobody is greater than the party,” Mr Oshiomole added.
To douse the tension, President Buhari called for a meeting of the parties involved. There he approved three weeks for an implementation panel to finish its work, after which the inauguration should take place.
The meeting ended peacefully, with all parties agreeing to the stipulated time-frame.
However, by the end of July, instead of inaugurating the board, Mr Ngige set up another committee headed by Mrs Odusote, to implement the report of the Administrative Panel of Enquiry.
The minister gave this committee two weeks to finish its work promising to inaugurate the board once this was done.
Again, he did not keep to his promise.
The three weeks elapsed in the middle of August 2018 as the implementation committee was inaugurated on July 26, 2018.
Surprisingly, no date or venue has been chosen for the inauguration even as at the time of filing this report.
Meanwhile, the situation has fuelled tension among members of the board and other stakeholders.
Some of them who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES said the development could cripple the agency if not hastily rescued.
While narrating his efforts at bringing the board to life, the chairman, Mr Kokori, said he suspects some insiders are afraid of “the big wand the board may wave once inaugurated”.
“I suspect that they don’t want somebody of high integrity so sit down there to correct what is happening. Maybe my name is what is frightening some people inside, people who benefit from the rot.”
He traced the genesis of his effort at ensuring inauguration to the time Mr Osinbajo constituted the board.
“With the minister himself since October last year (2017), we’ve met many times, that’s physical meetings. He would say they are investigating and this issue has even been finalised by the EFCC. So, what is he still probing, I don’t know?
“It’s very important that the board be inaugurated because the board is the heart of the NSITF. Anything that has to be approved must pass through the board. So, the management for now is just stagnant, they can’t do much. There is no guide for them now. There is no accountability.”
He prayed the board be inaugurated to allow him and other members carry out their mission of sanitising the agency.
“Even my people in Delta State are very unhappy. At times they will say they want to demonstrate and I will calm them down telling them the minister said this, the minister said that. My people are not happy at all.”
Similarly, the National President of the Association of Senior Staff of Bank, Insurance and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI), Oyinkan Olasanoye, weighed in saying the development would worsen corruption cases in the agency.
“It has not made the agency to be effective. One of the reasons the minister gave was that there have been some fraud but if we have a board in place, that has representative of the minister and there was fraud, is it now that there is no board that there will not be fraud?
“The minister is the only person who could say why it has not been inaugurated. For us, we have said all, we have communicated, we have asked questions yet, nothing is done,” she told PREMIUM TIMES in a phone interview.
Frustrated by the development, the National Executive Council of the Nigeria Labour Congress, in October 2018 mandated the leadership of the union “to take all necessary actions” to force Mr Ngige to inaugurate the NSITF board.
In a communique issued by its president, Ayuba Wabba, at the end of the meeting, the union also resolved to demand report of the EFCC investigation into the alleged fraud in the agency.
When Mr Ngige was first contacted in November 2018, he referred PREMIUM TIMES’ inquiry to his media aide, Nwachukwu Obidiwe.
Mr Obidiwe had then told this reporter that the board would be inaugurated ‘soon.’ Two months later, the promise has not been kept.
On Thursday, January 10, Mr Obidiwe said the non-appearace of nominees from the NLC nominees for screening “remains the only barrier for inauguration”.
“The minister has done his own part,” he said. “You are aware that the board is a tripartite board. The membership of the board has been sent for security clearance in October 2018. As I speak to you today, the nominees from the Nigeria Labour Congress have not presented themselves for documentation and security screening.
“Those nominated by the government and NECA have all done so. The matter have been brought to the attention of NLC. It’s only when they do it that the board will be inaugurated,” he said.
He promised that the board would be inaugurated once “Peter Adeyemi and Khaleel Ibrahim show up for screening”.
“Sure (it would be inaugurated after their screening), the minister has kept saying it. He has done his own part. Immediately they do it, nothing else is left.”
But the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress described the minister’s claims as false.
In a telephone interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Wabba said none of the two NLC nominees were contacted.
“That is false. They have never been invited for the screening,” he said.
“I have raised the issue with him (minister), he said a security screening was going on. I gave him their names and contacts, till now, none of them have been invited for the screening.
“We wrote several times and raised some issues about the delay but it’s not true that we are delaying the process. I can say authoritatively that they have not been invited.
“If they were not available, I ought to be informed because they represent an institution. I can state authoritatively that if they are waiting for our nominees, their documents are with them,” he said.
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