By Ozioma Ubabukoh
Nigerians should brace for a nationwide strike as workers have bemoaned the Federal Government’s attitude over the N30bn fraud allegedly perpetuated by the last Board of the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund and have threatened to down tools soon.
According to labour unions in the country, the NSITF, set up to bring succour to the working class, has been looted over the years and it has not been able to fulfil the reason for its establishment.
Trouble started for a former Managing Director of the NSITF, Umar Abubakar, and his co-defendants, (some of who are former board members and current staff of the Fund), when a whistle-blower petitioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission accusing them of abusing their positions to divert public funds running into billions of naira.
Acting on the petition, EFCC operatives investigated the allegations and it was alleged that between 2012 and 2015, the accused received kickbacks in dollars while discharging their duties “and conspired to divert about N18bn, being contribution from the Federal Government as take-off grants and Employees Compensation Scheme for Ministries, Departments and Agencies.”
The EFCC said the money was diverted into personal accounts by an e-payment mandate. The offence is said to contravene Section 311 of the Penal Code cap 532 LFN (Abuja) 1990 and punishable under Section 312 of the same code.
The United Labour Congress called on the administrative panel of enquiry recently set up by the Ministry of Labour and Employment to conduct a thorough investigation into the alleged looting of the funds, and insisted that the government must bring the culprits to book “or risk a nationwide strike from all the labour unions in the country.”
In a telephone interview with our correspondent on Sunday, the General Secretary, ULC, Didi Adodo, said, “The ULC wishes to state categorically that we support this probe and any other action that the minister will take to sanitise the industry and make the NSITF to fulfil the aims and objectives of its existence.
“Hearing about the rot and the plundering that has taken place in that agency is enough for any right-thinking organisation and comrades to support a major probe that will not only unearth what has taken place, but to also bring the perpetrators to justice.”
The Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, in line with a presidential directive, had recently inaugurated all the boards of parastatals under the ministry except that of the NSITF due to the alleged fraud discovered in the agency.
The boards inaugurated by the minister are those of the National Productivity Centre, National Directorate of Employment, and Michael Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies.
President Muhammadu Buhari had in October 2017 constituted the Board of the NSITF with the former President of the Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, Chief Frank Kokori, as the chairman.
Giving reasons why the board was not inaugurated alongside others, Ngige said he had the consent of the President to stay action on the NSITF board pending the outcome of the administrative panel of enquiry set up by the ministry “to investigate the mindless looting of the agency.”
He urged members of the other boards inaugurated to be accountable in the discharge of their mandates to avoid a repeat of the rot in the NSITF.
Ngige said, “The operations of the various parastatals must strictly conform to financial regulations, especially Section 32 of the Procurement Act. The audited accounts of the parastatals must always be prepared and submitted to the relevant authorities as and when due.
“The NSITF, for example, is reeling from massive looting with no audited accounts for five years. A whooping sum of N5bn was unearthed by an audit panel of enquiry as having been taken out of the NSITF coffers with First Bank in a single day without vouchers.”
The minister added, “Worse still, the organisation maintained no cash book as required by financial regulations. This resulted in massive looting of funds by board members acting in concert with the management staff.
“When we say N5bn was taken in one day, that’s not the only amount missing. Over N30bn cannot be accounted for and the members of the past board participated actively in the looting.”
Adodo, however, said that members of the ULC hoped that after the probe, “the NSITF will be put in proper shape to deliver on its mandate.”
“We call on the government to do a detailed investigation about the fraud in the NSITF and Trustfund, as no stone should be left unturned. These two bodies have workers’ funds, their life savings and, in this era of the fight against corruption, there should be no sacred cow,” he added.
The ULC Deputy President, Igwe Achese, who shared Adodo’s views, demanded to know the roles that the representatives of labour and private sector on the board of the NSITF played in the alleged fraud.
He said, “The probe should be extended to the board members that served in the last tenure and they should be arrested by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and relevant security agencies for prosecution. We need to know the roles and actions of all the board members, including representatives of labour when the fraudulent activities took place, as they were supposed to represent workers’ interest.
“If the representatives of labour were involved, Nigerian workers should rise up against the board members for not protecting their hard-earned life savings.”
Members of the Nigeria Labour Congress represented the organised labour on the NSTIF board, but when our correspondent contacted some of them, they declined speaking on the matter.
One of them said, “You know those who represented us on the board. Why not reach out to them.”
Achese said that the board members from the organised labour did not do well in protecting the workers’ savings, “which led to the high magnitude of fraud and embezzlement.”
“Therefore, they should be made to face the wrath of the law,” he added.