An editor with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) has been controversially suspended from office but says his suspension is because he used his position as a union leader to challenge ‘illegality’ by the NAN management.
Collins Yakubu-Hammer alleges his ordeal began on September 23, when he, alongside officials of three labour unions, challenged an ‘illegality’ they observed in the promotion examination the federal government-run agency organised for staff on August 26, 2021.
Mr Yakubu-Hammer, who has been controversially suspended by the NAN management, is the chairman of the NUJ, NAN chapel. He is also the acting chairman and secretary of NAN Joint Union, Abuja and a member of the FCT Executive Council of the NUJ.
The unions, in a joint release, which was forwarded to the NAN management, requested that the promotion granted to five staff, which they said did not follow due process, be reversed.
The unions in NAN include the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Radio, Television, Theatre Arts Workers Union of Nigeria (RATTAWU), Amalgamated Union of Public Corporation Civil Service Technical and Recreational Service Employees (AUPCTRE) and the Senior Staff Association of Statutory Corporation and Government Owned Companies (SSASCGOC).
In the statement which was received and acknowledged by NAN management on September 24, the unions alleged that five members of staff were “secretly smuggled into the venue to write (sit) the promotion examination against the public service rules.”
The staff were listed as Sola Kehinde, level 15, finance and accounts department, who was reportedly promoted to level 15 in 2018 and had spent three years in the position; Abiodun Akintokun, level 15, finance and accounts, now in NAN Bizcom, reportedly promoted to level 15 in 2018 and also had spent three years; Udoigbe Obadan, level 13, Marketing department, reportedly promoted to level 13 in 2019, had spent two years; Manbis Dajan, level 13, personnel department, reportedly promoted to level 13 in 2019, spent two years and Stephanie Oyovbaire, level 12, admin department, had reportedly spent one year in the position.
The unions alleged that the Head of Admin, Abdulhadi Khaliel, and the Director of Finance, Accounts, Oladele Ojo, “conspired to promote their ‘cronies’.”
The unions stated that by the provisions of Section 7, sub-sections B and C of the Public Service Rules 9PSR) and Part IV, sub-sections 10, 17, 18, 19 (iii) and 24 of the Public Service Guidelines for Appointments, Promotion and Discipline issued by the Federal Civil Service Commission, these staff were not due for promotion as they had not met the minimum requirements of time on previous level (four years).
The unions said they were equally astonished at their inclusion as they had not been listed on the “first and final list for promotion as approved by management.”
“During our inquiry in the Department of Establishment at the Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, we were informed that promotion based on ‘merit’ had been stopped many years ago due to lack of clarity and how some chief executives of departments and agencies were using it to promote their family members, cronies and loyalists and stagnating others who were more committed.
‘’…you may recall that at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, staff in editorial, technical and marketing departments in the Agency put their lives and that of their families on the line of duty. None of them was considered to write the promotion examination based on the so-called ‘merit’. This type of unlawful act on the outdated wings of ‘merit’ only portrays the Agency in a bad light,’’ the unions wrote, asking the management to “ensure the aforementioned staff were not promoted.”
They also threatened to write the Permanent Secretary of the information ministry; Chairman, Federal Civil Service Commission; Head, Federal Civil Service of the federation, and Secretary to the Government of the Federation if their demands were ignored.
The release was signed by Mr Yakubu-Hammer, Bukola Adewumi (Secretary, NUJ, NAN Chapel), Ahmed Saidu (Acting Chairman AUCPTRE), Uduak Oputa (Secretary, AUCPTER), Ayodeji Fadipe (Chairman, RATTAWU), Sakiru Isiaka (Secretary, RATTAWU), Ogechi James (President, SSASCGOC) and Efe Ekperuke (Secretary, SSASCGOC).
Promotions rammed through
Despite the opposition raised by the unions, the examinations were held, and the promotions of the officials were approved.
Mr Yakubu-Hammer, who had also sat the said examination, said within weeks, the other unions decreased their tempo of resistance after “subtle threats were issued to them by top management staff to desist from their opposition.” He said the other unions later stopped their campaign to overturn the alleged illegality.
But the NUJ leaders did not back down as they continued to call for the overturn of the promotion of the five officials.
Mr Yakubu-Hammer told PREMIUM TIMES that the first inkling he had that “he was being specifically targeted for his outspokenness in the matter by top management members” whom he identified as the Director of Finance Admin, Mr Ojo and the Head of Administration, Mr Khaliel, was when Ms Adewunmi, the NUJ chapter secretary, told him “she has been warned to be careful about how they were carrying out their campaign or she would suffer the consequences.”
“It was then I knew I was in for some rough and tough time,” Mr Yakubu Hammer said.
He did not have to wait long.
On November 15, Mr Yakubu-Hammer said, he recieved a transfer letter dated November 3 and signed by Manbis Dajan, assistant chief admin officer, instructing him to report to Pankshin District in Jos by November 10. Mr Yakubu-Hammer said Pankshin is an area that has witnessed heightening insecurity and banditry in recent years.
Mr Dajan is one of the officers who was allegedly controversially promoted.
Mr Yakubu-Hammer claimed the letter was handed over to him on November 15, five days after he was meant to report for duty at the new location.
“The transfer itself would not have been controversial, but there is a subsisting civil service policy that union leaders cannot be transferred from their places of work while still occupying their roles as union officers,’’ Mr Yakubu-Hammer said. “And looking at the circumstances surrounding the transfer, I knew I was being targeted because I had refused to allow the matter of the illegal promotions go. I was, perhaps, the only one still speaking against this. I was not ready to be silenced for speaking the truth.”
In 2013, the Head of Service had issued a directive, a copy of which PREMIUM TIMES obtained, that union leaders should not be moved from their locations until their tenures expire.
On the same November 15, Mr Yakubu-Hammer wrote to the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information, on the “impunity, worsening victimisation and abuse of rules concerning labour unions in the Agency,” asking her to intervene.
He alleged that since there was no board in place in the agency, “the management would always want to do things with impunity and get away with it.”
Mr Yakubu-Hammer did not report at his new transfer location as he said he was already on leave and had planned to challenge the directive “since it was done in bad faith.”
On November 9, the NAN-NUJ had written to the Chairman of the Nigeria Labour Congress, FCT chapter; the FCT Labour Office, Information ministry, seeking redress and warning of possible victimisation and transfer of other NUJ officers.
By November 22, when the controversy increased, the labour ministry intervened by holding a meeting with the NAN management team led by Messrs Ojo and Khaliel; the deputy head administration, Moses Uzoagba, and the NUJ NAN chapter officials led by Mr Yakubu-Hammer.
The ministry reportedly urged NAN to reverse the transfer until Mr Yakubu-Hammer’s tenure as union official was over.
The Controller, FCT Labour Office, Orugbala N.E, had also urged NAN to put the transfer on hold pending the return of the NAN MD, Mr Ponle, who was reportedly recuperating after medical surgery.
On Thursday, Clement Atokin, a deputy director in the labour ministry, who represented the labour ministry at the talks, did not respond to requests for comments on the controversy.
But the controller, FCT labour office, Ms Orugbala, in a short message to PREMIUM TIMES on Thursday, said her office is trying to resolve the matter. “The matter is ongoing. I am confident the issues will be resolved amicably. Thank you.’’
A month after the first letter, on December 2, Mr Yakubu-Hammer received a query signed by Iyeneomi Moses-Oleghe, another assistant chief admin officer, who asked him to explain within 24 hours why disciplinary measures should not be taken against him for his refusal to report in Jos.
On December 8, an embattled Mr Yakubu-Hammer wrote to the Managing Director explaining why he refused to report at the new location. Among other reasons cited, Mr Yakubu-Hammer said he was being victimised by Messrs Khaliel and Ojo for his opposition to the controversial promotions.
He also cited the resolutions made during the meeting held with the labour ministry and the NLC. The NAN officials had promised to soft-pedal on the ‘punitive’ measures, he wrote.
Besides, he wrote, he had received authorisation from his supervisor to start his annual leave from November 29, 2021, until January 8, 2022.
“While on annual leave, I decided to see a colleague in the office on December 7, only to be given a letter of query dated 2/12/2021,” Mr Yakubu-Hammer said in his response.
He said as of December 8, he had not been paid any transfer allowance, especially as “the understanding was that the transfer had been put on hold until the MD’s recovery and further deliberations between Mr Khaliel, NAN management and the labour ministry.”
“By and large, transferring a union official on 15/11/21, telling him to report on the 10/11/2021 and issuing a query on 2/12/2021 without any payment of transfer to the officer at the time of the query, while he is on annual leave is a gross violation against the provisions in the PSR and Labour Act and as such, disciplinary actions should not be taken against me,’’ Mr Yakubu-Hammer argued.
Meanwhile, the NUJ NAN chapter continued with its campaign to upturn the controversial promotions by taking it outside NAN.
On December 13, a series of letters were written by Mr Yakubu-Hammer and the secretary, Ms Adewunmi, to the Federal Civil Service Commission, Head of Civil Service and the SSG, calling their attention to the alleged illegality in the promotion exercise and also the alleged victimisation of the officers.
In the letter, the union again insisted that the “2021 promotion examination was characterised by unlawful conduct that disregarded the provisions in the PSR and other guidelines in which some staff members were not qualified to write were smuggled in to write the promotion examination.”
Mr Yakubu-Hammer insists that the members of the NAN NUJ chapter, known as Congress, who are over 500 in number, have approved all the actions taken so far on the matter.
‘Suspended before disciplinary committee meets’
On February 4, Mr Khaliel, on behalf of the management, issued a three-month suspension without pay to Mr Yakubu-Hammer for his refusal to proceed on transfer.
Mr Khaliel said the NLC leadership at the peace meeting “had directed the editor to comply with the transfer by February 1. His refusal contravenes Chapter 3, Section 3-030301-B, M and O of the Public Service Rules.”
The management, on February 10, also reached out to staff members via the agency’s WhatsApp platform, warning staff “not to have anything to do with Mr Yakubu-Hammer on an official basis.”
Controversially, the management, on the same February 10, six days after the suspension notice, set up a NAN Senior Staff Committee to look into the allegations against Mr Yakubu-Hammer. He was accused of “refusal to proceed on transfer, refusal to carry out lawful instruction from superior officers, insubordination and inciting people/organisation against management.”
He was asked to appear before the committee on February 17 at the NAN Jos Zonal Office by 10 a.m.
Mr Yakubu-Hammer responded to the invite by asking the management to lift the suspension before inviting him to defend himself against the allegations.
“Setting up of committee should come before a suspension. For example, in the case of gross misconduct against Mrs (name withheld) and a reporter, after they were issued queries, a disciplinary (committee was set up) in which as the NUJ chairman, I was a member,’’ he said in his response.
“It was the committee that recommended suspension. Therefore, suspending a staff(er) before setting up a committee is a gross violation of disciplinary practice in the Federal Civil Service.”
Three days after, the NAN NUJ chapter wrote to the Managing Director asking him to quash the transfer and query as it violated an agreement reached between NAN management and the unions never to victimise any union leader due to labour struggles. They also expressed sadness over his alleged refusal to wade into the crisis.
The letter signed by Ms Adewunmi said the transfer and suspension were done in bad faith and should be reversed “for the sake of industrial peace and harmony in the Agency.”
“The refusal of Mr Ojo and Khaliel to reverse the transfer as resolved at the meeting with the Controller, FCT Labour Office, is a gross violation of the agreement reached (at) that meeting,” the chapter said.
‘’The transfer and suspension is also a gross violation of the agreement reached between NAN management and the unions in the Agency on 27/7/2018. The management agreed never to victimise any union leader or member due to struggles in the Agency,’’ it added.
The labour and information ministers were also copied.
The 2018 agreement the NAN chapter of the NUJ referenced is a Memoranda of Understanding signed between the unions and NAN management on July 26, 2018, after similar conflicts. In it, both parties agreed that “there would be no victimisation of the staff as a result of dispute.”
On behalf of the labour minister, the Director, Trade Union Services and Industrial Relations, OU Akpan, responded on February 10 to Mr Yakubu-Hammer’s letter. She called for a reconciliatory meeting between the aggrieved parties for Tuesday, February 15 by 11 a.m. at the ministry’s premises to solve the “trade dispute brewing in NAN, therefore nip in the bud the looming crisis.”
While the NUJ chapter sent in their representatives, PREMIUM TIMES learnt that the NAN management did not send any.
The FCT NUJ had also intervened, urging NAN not to victimise the editor for calling out ‘illegality.’
In a letter sent to the NAN management and signed by its chairman, Emmanuel Ogbeche, and secretary, Ochiaka Ugwu, on February 16, the NUJ FCT Council said it was saddened that after its intervention in the matter on January 26, the NAN management “had resorted to intimidation and harassment (of Mr Yakubu-Hammer) which are at variance with civil service rules.’’
It also said NAN “had voiced its willingness to frustrate the efforts of the NLC to abide by the law.”
While asking for a meeting with the NAN management “in the next 48 hours to resolve the issues,” it asked it “to upturn the ill-tempered transfer of November 2021.”
Mr Ugwu told PREMIUM TIMES the union would be meeting with the NAN NUJ on Thursday to fashion out other ways to defend its member, whose rights it believed was being violated.
He also said there was a pending resolution between NUJ and NAN management at a meeting which also had in attendance Mr Ponle, where it was agreed that the status quo be maintained in the conflict.
He said NAN had violated the agreement. It was unfortunate that “instead of the management looking into the substance of what this young man is saying, they now resorted to intimidation and harassment. Before you know it, they now transferred him to Pankshin, which is unacceptable to us…”
Mr Ojo declined comments when reached. “Speak with the management of NAN. I am just an employee of the government,” he said in a terse SMS on Sunday.
Mr Khaliel, on Sunday, referred the reporter to the MD, Mr Ponle, whom he noted was in the best position “to clarify the matter.”
“Please come and see the MD. He will give you the full details of all the information you want,” he said.
Last week Wednesday, when the reporter visited the establishment in Abuja, Mr Ponle asked the reporter to see the deputy director, administration, Moses Uzoagba, who was initially hesitant to comment.
But on further prompting, he insisted that the transfer issued to Mr Yakubu-Hammer was not done to spite him but was a routine process the agency approves to build the leadership capacity of the staff.
He declined comments on Mr Yakubu-Hammer’s opposition to the controversial promotions cited as the source of his travails. “Mr Khaliel will speak better on that,” he offered.
‘It (transfer) is a purely administrative thing. Some other union members, for instance, someone from Owerri, a Treasurer of the NAN NUJ chapter there, were posted here (NAN headquarters Abuja). Also, someone (a chapel chairman) from one of the North-east states was posted here. So, it was purely an administrative issue,” he said, reacting to the controversial transfer.
He said, “from time to time, the Agency approves such transfers to enhance its operational capabilities and enhance the leadership potentials of the affected staff who would now be allowed to take up more prominent and promising’’ roles at their new places of posting.
“Besides, you are not supposed to stay at a particular place for a very long time, so the transfer that was done (in Mr Yakubu-Hammer’s case) is purely administrative.”
He also said no binding law says a union leader cannot be posted to other locations, especially as Mr Yakubu-Hammer is only acting as the chapter chairman of NAN, NUJ.
Prompted further, Mr Khaliel called back later on Wednesday promising to react to the other allegations before the end of the day. He has yet to do so as of the time of filing the report.
Appeal by Yakubu-Hammer
Meanwhile, Mr Yakubu-Hammer says his request is three-fold, apart from his insistence that the management takes another look at the controversial promotions that led to the conflict.
“I want the (NAN) management to withdraw the transfer letter issued to me, which was done in bad faith. Besides, as a union leader, there is a policy that I cannot be transferred until my tenure elapses,” he said. “In addition, I also want them to withdraw the query issued to me and the suspension letter, which was also issued in bad faith. They should also cease victimising union members simply for calling out illegality.”
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