Nigeria: What Is Wrong With NSITF?

opinion

What does NSITF do? Perhaps this is the first question that should cross the mind of right-thinking folks once again. With recurring controversies and the endless grapples over its structure by ministers, and with allegations of fraud dominating the news about this organisation, what exactly was it set up to achieve?

Perhaps because every year, the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) is one of those organisations where companies - mine inclusive - have to scramble to make payments in order to maintain full bonafides in the eyes of the law, news coming out of the organisation always jumps at me. For some reasons, my mind strayed to NSITF yesterday morning and my 'hi' chat with a friend there only came back with '5n' (for 'fine', perhaps). I didn't know that the place was already on some sort of fire. Later on in the day, I saw news that President Buhari had approved the summary suspension (they never come back as we well know) of the entire management team of the organisation. In fact, this time it looked like a clean sweep, more than ever! Bayo Somefun, the debonair managing director and RCCG pastor (therefore the vice president's protégé at least) was prominent. That is a takedown at a very high level. The other executive directors too, including young Jasper Azuatalam, who is reputedly close to President Buhari. All were taken out. In fact I started hearing names of deputy general managers! What could have happened this time? How come all of them fell short of the glory of the president?

Well, this is what we gleaned from the PREMIUM TIMES of July 3: "President Muhammadu Buhari has approved the immediate and indefinite suspension from Office of the Managing Director/Chief Executive of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF), Adebayo Somefun. The Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, in a statement by Charles Akpan of the Press and Public Relations in the ministry, 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 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.

Honestly, this latest crisis and the accompanying statement, is no less than a corporate massacre, to say the least, with all sorts of malignant statements and implications, for the management of a Nigerian institution that seems to have been properly constituted by a sitting president, serving concurrently! It is beyond bizarre. Usually, if indeed that place is an irredeemable cesspit of fraud under its current leadership, the president should be dignified to only target the top guy, while other smaller issues are being sorted out. I mean, why put a whole president's imprimatur and then speak about the suspension of DGMs!? Or is this just another of our diminutive minister's many wahalas? Who knows? We know the man's many ways. However, this very take down was specific. The sum of N3.4 billion is alleged to be missing - spent on non-executed trainings.

Why allegations of fraud all the time? It may mean that the controls are designed to be weak such that it doesn't matter who leads such an organisation, same/similar stories will make it out eventually. Is this all then about reforming systems, or just taking the people through a rigmarole?

Meanwhile, there has been a pushback. It's tough to know who to believe these days. In the Vanguard of July 4, the sitting management dismissed the minister (I would have said they dismissed the president since the statement suspending them from Ngige's office claims to have full presidential approval). Following is the statement from the management of the organisation, which has since been supported by at least the National Employment Consultative Assembly (NECA):

"The Management of NSITF read the press release published by some media outfits that the President has suspended the management of NSITF and announced same.

"We wish to state that President Muhammadu Buhari has not suspended the management of NSITF and did not make such announcement. The person mentioned in the media report is not a staff of the President. 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.

"We note 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 should suspend or sack any head of agency appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari.

"The memo stated that Ministers should follow procedures by going through the governing board of the agency that will now make recommendations to the SGF to act if there is need. We are sure that President Buhari will not be part of any illegality and lack of due process.

"Meanwhile, the management of NSITF is open to any form of investigation by the appropriate agency as there is nothing that the management will hide or is hiding.

"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 its duty as appointed by Mr President."

These are the few questions I intend to use as prism to consider the ongoing NSITF brouhaha:

1: What does NSITF do? Perhaps this is the first question that should cross the mind of right-thinking folks once again. With recurring controversies and the endless grapples over its structure by ministers, and with allegations of fraud dominating the news about this organisation, what exactly was it set up to achieve? The last time I asked them what they did with the contributions we made as companies, I was told they used the funds to compensate injured workers. I was surprised, as I didn't run a factory per se; yes, a few machines here and there. The density of manufacturing, for example, which may lead to a plethora of factory-related injuries and claims, is low in Nigeria. However, the ubiquity of the organisation, in showing up in the pockets of all local companies by government fiat, is remarkable. A visit to the NSITF website provided some clarification though, even though your landing page is a warning about unscrupulous people using the image of the MD for the usual Nigerian scam! These are reputational risks all over the place. On the website we get that "The NSITF is charged with the implementation of the Employees Compensation Act (2010) which enables compensation in the event of death, injury, disease or disability arising out of, or in the course of employment". I reckon that interested parties will have to drill in further to know which kind of people are really entitled to benefits from the Fund.

What do we do about such unstable legacy? I will suggest a long, hard look be taken at such an agency, in order to forcefully calibrate its essence and operations towards delivering to the people. There seems to be too much loose change clanging about in the place and it has always been so - even in the days it was run by labour leaders...

2: Why all the allegations of fraud? One of the more famous cases in NSITF over the years relates to Mrs Ngozi Olejeme, a powerful woman in the Jonathan era. Just this past week, the case reared its head again with the usual mish-mash of dozens of properties seized from Madam and her associates. It's all so nauseating that we are talking of similar accusations with the new team. Back to the question: Why allegations of fraud all the time? It may mean that the controls are designed to be weak such that it doesn't matter who leads such an organisation, same/similar stories will make it out eventually. Is this all then about reforming systems, or just taking the people through a rigmarole? For example, the accusation about spending N3.4 billion on non-executed trainings is time-worn in NSITF, especially. You'll wonder why something solid cannot be put in place to ensure that fictitious trainings don't keep making it into the accounts. Does the minister look away while these alleged frauds are going on, only to make a point later?

3: What do we do about such unstable legacy? I will suggest a long, hard look be taken at such an agency, in order to forcefully calibrate its essence and operations towards delivering to the people. There seems to be too much loose change clanging about in the place and it has always been so - even in the days it was run by labour leaders (perhaps it still is, and so we can see the underbelly of labour leadership in Nigeria through these scandals). If labour leaders cannot create standard organisations in which funds are tightly controlled in a way that reduces opportunities for temptation, who should? Who would? NSITF, in my view, has shown too much instability that ranks it as an organisation way ahead of most of its peers. Even if Ngige gets rid of the current set, or they fight their ways back, what is the assurance that in 20 years' time we will not be discussing similar stuff about the same organisation? With Ngige as minister supervising labour, NSITF has been a hotspot. This will be the second management team he will attempt to sweep away, even though this time, the details are just so granular it seems that only the junior staff will be running the place in a week. This should concern every contributor to the fund; every Nigerian citizen indeed. How come there is so much ministerial interference under Uncle Ngige? Is he not drawing attention to the fact that the fund is a mere slush fund? Pardon the pun.

4: Will NSITF continue collecting 'taxes' after all these? Big question. The deadpan nature with which organisations in Nigeria rip off the poor people year-in, year-out, and continue to set up 'effective' systems for collection of the same monies that they are certain will end up in controversial circumstances (to put it mildly), is my concern here. Should we say the people are docile? This goes far beyond NSITF. Can we interrogate the Nigerian mind through this? Imagine listening to the news and all you hear is how this and that billions have been embezzled by the people you trust to run your country with your little taxes. Imagine having to pay out of your hard earned naira to these same organisations, while Channels TV, AIT and others scroll the news of the scandal? The question is: What kind of patriot will you be? Or are you one of those merely waiting for their own opportunities for revenge against the commonwealth, after all many of those being mentioned in the revolving doors of these sagas were once on the other side, criticising government, with some swearing that if given the chance Nigeria will be transformed under them. It does seem likely that that will be the case, given what we now know.

'Tope Fasua, an economist, author, blogger, entrepreneur, and recent presidential candidate of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP)

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