By Victor Young
WHEN the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, on Monday, May 13, 2019, inaugurated the Board of Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF, with Mr. Austin Enejamo-Isire, as chairman instead of veteran unionist and pro-democracy fighter, Chief Frank Kokori, little did he know that he had just stirred the hornet’s nest. Indeed, the minister’s action was immediately greeted by a storm of controversy that appears to be escalating by the day.
It would be recalled that Kokori was originally named chairman of the board by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in September 2017, in his capacity as the Acting President, when President Muhammadu Buhari was away in the United Kingdom on medical trip. With the issue in the front burner of public discourse, many have canvassed different motives behind the alleged plot, scheme and maneuovre to ensure that Chief Kokori was never sworn-in as NSITF board chairman.
Those in a position to know have traced the root of the unfolding controversy to when President Buhari returned from his medical trip. Senator Ngige was said to have sought and got his approval for Chief Kokori to be sworn-in as chairman of NSITF board. But in a baffling twist of events, President Buhari was to approve the appointment of another person recommended by the Minister of Labour a year after he allegedly gave approval for the appointment of Kokori. The question is: What was the president told about Kokori?
NLC writes Presidency
What about the claim by the President of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Ayuba Wabba, that the Minister of Labour had expressed reservations over the choice of the former General Secretary of Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG? Some observers are of the opinion that actions and events which later culminated into the replacement of the veteran Labour leader seemed to have given credence to Wabba’s allegations.
Also cited in this regard is the minister’s failure to inaugurate the NSITF board after the naming of Kokori as its chairman. This was in spite of pressures from the National Chairman of All Progressives Congress, APC, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, organised labour and the umbrella body for employers in the country, Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association, NECA, among others.
It is on record that the NLC, Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUC, United Labour Congress of Nigeria, ULC, Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions, ASSBIFI; Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG and Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria, ASCSN, at different times decried the absence of a board and its effect on social partners.
The NLC was reported to have severally written to the Presidency and even the minister on the need to inaugurate the board. According to reports, the first letter on December 15, 2017, was addressed to the Secretary to the Government of Federation, SGF, three months after Kokori was appointed chairman. The NLC in the letter titled: “Non-swearing in of Board of NSITF and other Matters”, was said to have, among others, drawn attention of the SGF to the continuous non-inauguration of the NSITF Board three months after the Federal Government had appointed the chairman of the Board.
In between, the minister besides congratulating Kokori for his appointment, was said to have met with the pro-democracy activist for not less than four times to discuss the issues relating to the fund and his inauguration as chairman. The minister in his defence for not inaugurating the board said he was cleaning up the corruption in the place. He alleged that the previous administration looted the fund and it would be improper to inaugurate a new board without first cleaning up the mess.
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Consequently, Ngige constituted a nine-member administrative panel of enquiry into NSITF finances, the same finances the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, had investigated and charged about six persons to court over the mismanagement of the funds of the agency. The administrative panel turned in its report in July 2018, alleging that about N62 billion was looted by the former board.
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Nothing was heard about the panel report, or inauguration of the NSIFT board till Wednesday, April 17, 2019 when the minister announced the constitution of a new board of NSITF, replacing Kokori with Mr. Austin Enejamo-Isere. He equally informed that President Buhari has instead approved the appointment of Kokori as chairman of the Board of Michael Imoudu National Institute of Labour Studies, MINILS.
However, organised Labour rejected the announcement and stormed the venue of the planned inauguration slated for April 18, 2019, which stalled the inauguration. It was a development the minister did not take lightly as he described Labour’s action as an invasion by thugs.
A statement by Rhoda Illiya, Head of Press on behalf of the minister, informed that “the inauguration of the board of NSITF scheduled for today, April 18, 2019 was postponed because of security breach occasioned by the siege on the Conference Room of the Minister of Labour and Employment, venue of the inauguration by violent thugs imported by the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Ayuba Wabba and Comrade Frank Kokori.”
It contended that “the postponement was to avoid the degeneration of the situation, where thugs were already manhandling some officers of the Ministry and policemen attached to the office of the minister.” The statement added: “The replacement of Comrade Frank Kokori with Mr. Austine Enajemo-Isere and his transfer to the Board of Michael Imoudu National Institute of Labour Studies, MINILS, Ilorin, a diploma awarding institution in Labour Relations as chairman, followed due process and the necessary presidential approval.
“The approval for this exercise was given by the appropriate approving authority, which is the President, and duly communicated to the Ministry of Labour and Employment. This is also in line with the Act establishing the NSITF which confers such powers on the President on the recommendation of the minister.
“Comrade Kokori is expected to report at his new chairmanship posting by Mr. President at the Michael Imodu National Institute of Labour Studies, Ilorin, Kwara State where his experience is more relevant as the President has also appointed Mr. Austin Enejamo-Isere, an insurance executive and seasoned banker, chartered accountant, fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountant of Nigeria, senior member of Chartered Institute of Insurance,CIIN, as well as Chartered Institute of Taxation to bring his wealth of experience as the Chairman of the NSITF.”The statement warned that: “Government will not tolerate a situation where Labour Leaders challenge or vitiate the constitutional powers of the President over appointments.”
‘Kokori’s too rigid’
After this, the disagreement between Labour and the minister degenerated that at a briefing on May 7, president of NLC, Ayuba Wabba, revealed that he had a meeting with the minister, where Ngige expressed dissatisfaction with the choice of Frank Kokori as chairman of the Fund’s board, alleging that the minister had confessed to some Labour leaders that his major problem with the appointment of Chief Kokori was that the veteran unionist was too rigid for his liking.
He threatened that labour would picket the minister anywhere they saw him, saying: “Since President Muhammadu Buhari approved the reconstitution of the Board of the NSITF, I recalled meeting with you (Ngige) on four different occasions on this matter. At our first meeting, you expressed dissatisfaction with the choice of Comrade Frank Kokori as the board chairman of NSITF. I remember vividly that I reminded you of Frank Kokori’s track record of capacity and integrity and thus his suitability to head the NSITF board, especially given the scandals that trailed past NSITF boards and given the fact that Frank Kokori is perceived as being rigid and honest.
“Dr. Ngige confessed to some of us that his major problem with the appointment of Chief Kokori is that he is too rigid for his liking. We want to reiterate that it is only very rigid and incorruptible people like Chief Kokori that we want to superintend over our money in NSITF.”
Responding through his Special Assistant on Media, Nwachukwu Obidiwe, the minister, however, said that he never nominated Chief Kokori as chairman of the NSITF, saying: “However, an appropriate recommendation has been made by the minister in conformity with the NSITF Act and in fairness to the spirit of the labour tripartism. A chartered accountant, senior fellow of the Institute of Insurance of Nigeria and fellow of the Institute of Taxation of Nigeria, Austin Isire, has been nominated and approved by the president as the chairman of the board of the NSITF.
“A neutral person, for the avoidance of doubt, is one who is neither pro-labour unions which Kokori is, nor Nigeria Employers Consultative Association, NECA, an umbrella body representing private sector manufacturers nor a member of the government.” The statement added that: “…The minister of labour and employment can neither be intimidated by blackmail nor by hooliganism. Certainly, Sen. Ngige cannot be derailed from carrying out his legitimate duties as directed by the President by unionism.”
The relationship between the organised Labour worsened on May 8, when Wabba-led other labour to picket the private residence of the minister in Asokoro, Abuja, where suspected thugs attacked the labour leaders leading to the hospitalisation of nine labour leaders at the National Hospital.
However, on Sunday, May 12, the Presidency through the Special Adviser to President Buhari on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, said among others, that: “The appointment of the chairman of this board, NSITF, which is in consonance with Section 4(a) of the NSITF Act CAP N88 of 2004 was also approved by Mr. President since July 23, 2018 on the recommendation of the minister.
The statement also informed that: “Comrade Frank Kokori, our respected veteran labour leader, has Mr President’s immense respect and has also been appointed on the recommendation of the Minister of Labour and Employment to chair the board of Michael Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies, MINILS, a diploma awarding labour institution”.
This put paid to any hope of Chief Kokori being sworn-in as chairman of NSITF board. Nevertheless, there are several issues that are begging for clarification over the replacement of Chief Kokori as NSITF board. To start with, did Ngige refuse to inaugurate Kokori because, he did not nominate the veteran unionist as NSITF board chairman, or because he did not like his honesty, transparency and rigidity of Chief Kokori? If Kokori was appointed chairman of NSITF board by President Buhari instead of Vice President Osinbajo, would the minister have refused to inaugurate him for about two years after the appointment?
Is it true that some powerful cabal in the presidency, working with one of the leaders of APC faction in Delta State, who is said to be a major contractor to the NDDC and a leading figure in the June 12, 1993 struggle, schemed out Chief Kokori as chairman of the board? Is it true that close to N2 billion was spent to stop Kokori from becoming NSITF board chairman? Will Nigerians ever know the real reasons why Chief Kokori was dropped as chairman of the board? Why did it take the minister or the Presidency so long to come out clean over Chief Kokori’s appointment? When did the Presidency realise that Kokori should no longer be the chairman of the board? Is Kokori a victim of a powerful cabal in the presidency that does not accept any action taken by the Vice President whenever he acts as President? There are many questions left unanswered. Unfortunately, the answers may never be provided.