The lingering crisis rocking the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) is yet to abate despite recent intervention and pleas by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Simon Lalong, Daily Trust reports.
Findings reveal that a fresh controversy ensued in the agency following the stoppage of the salaries of some members of staff, including a management staff in the establishment by the Managing Director of the Fund, Mrs Maureen Allagoa.
Daily Trust had reported how the agency got embroiled in internal wranglings, which forced the new minister, Lalong, to set up a 5-man panel to investigate the root causes of disputations in the agency.
While inaugurating the probe panel chaired by the Director of Finance and Accounts in the ministry, Isaac Okehie, on October 5, Lalong, asked the panel to probe alleged irregularities in different contract awards to the tune of N1.8bn; self-payment of N47m gratuities to the MD while still in office; non-release of promotions; irregular-cum-secret employments, among other issues in the agency.
“The government recognises the important role played by the NSITF in the social security of workers and would, therefore, address all the challenges that militate against the optimal performance of the organisation.
“I urge you to carry out this assignment dispassionately and fairly, as well as withstand any attempt to intimidate, harass or influence you,” he said.
Panel deepens probe
Shortly after, members of the panel swung into action by inviting different parties involved with a view to finding a lasting solution to the decade-long crises in the agency.
In an interview with Daily Trust, the chairman of the panel, Okehie, described issues in NSITF as “enormous”, saying the probe had been extended to all the six geo-political zones in the country where the fund has its regional and branch offices.
According to him, because of how enormous the issues in the fund are, the two weeks earlier given to the committee would not be enough, hence, it requested two more months from the minister.
Okehie disclosed that an interim report has been submitted to the minister, adding the main report would be submitted after two the months.
“We have submitted an interim report to the minister. The problem at NSITF is enormous. We even worked through the night during the weekend.
“We heard from the management, and we had to hear from the union too, calling them individually, both the MD, the GMs, it wasn’t easy. At least, we interacted with over 15 persons,” Okehie told our correspondent.
This newspaper had earlier exclusively reported how the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) invited some top officials of the NSITF for questioning over the gratuity payment to the tune of N47m to Allagoa.
A letter dated 14th September 2023, with reference number ICPC/SSD/TB/197/2023 and directed to the managing director of the fund, also invited the Head of Administration Department, Head of Finance and Investment Department as well as Head of Audit and Inspectorate Department.
It also directed the top officials to bring along “personal and secret files of Mrs Maureen Allagoa (all volumes as General Manager, Executive Director and Director-General/CEO, maintained by the fund)” as well as records of gratuity payment made to retired staff of the fund from 2019 to date.
Several weeks later, the ICPC was yet to make the findings of its probe public, nor has it commented on the development.
Several phone calls to the spokesperson of the commission, Mrs Azuka Ogugua, on Monday to get an update on their involvement, were unanswered and she was yet to reply to a text message sent to her mobile phone.
It, was, however, learnt that although Allagoa had refunded the N47m gratuity.
MD halts payment of salaries to staff
Staff members of the agency, who spoke to Daily Trust anonymously because of fear of victimisation, described the stoppage of their salaries for over two months as “insensitive, wickedness and power-drunk attitude”.
The workers argued that the MD of the agency, in line with the Act that established it, does not have “unilateral authority” to order the stoppage of staff salaries particularly that of the management staff without the input of the board.
“We have rules guiding the operation of this establishment. The MD/CEO cannot just wake up and order the stoppage of any worker’s salary without recourse to the board especially that of the management staff”, one of the members of staff said.
Another member of staff also said the MD’s order was that of personal vendetta against those whom she perceived to be her enemies who stood against the payment of the N47m gratuity.
But the MD, while confirming the stoppage, justified her decision, saying the due processes were followed before the stoppage of some members of staff’s salaries.
In an interview with Daily Trust, Allagoa insisted that since there is no board in place, she’s empowered by the law to order the stoppage of some workers’ salaries, particularly those who might have absconded from their duty posts.
We have cases whereby some staff, for whatever reasons, sometimes don’t come to work and they just collect salaries.
“When these issues are reported through the HR department, which is headed by the ED administration, it has to be looked into. There are times when people are sick, and they are expected to follow the provisions of our staff conditions of service as per reporting sickness.
“Of course, our staff also know that after 48 hours, they are supposed to come with a medical report. Also, as a policy in NSITF, after days, if there is no communication from any staff as per their whereabouts, it is on the supervisor – be it the branch manager or regional manager – to report it immediately to the head office. It is our policy.
“There are also cases, like I mentioned earlier, whereby staff won’t come to work. Some cases like that were reported to the HR if I recall, where some middle-level staff were reported to the HR, it turned out that some of them had even left NSITF without resigning.
“In such cases, our policy is that you stop salaries. Apart from the middle-level officials, we also have a general manager that fell into that category.”
Multi-million naira digital platform approved by FEC marred by glitches
In June 2022, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved the digitisation of the services of the NSITF to be known as e-NSITF. The decision, according to the then Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, was in line with the government’s policy on ease of doing business.
Ngige further justified the decision saying such development would curb excessive revenue leakages in the fund.
But after one year since the platform was launched, checks by Daily Trust showed that the e-NSITF had been abandoned—one of the issues that had compounded present controversies in the fund and is being investigated by the Lalong’s probe panel.
The MD of the NSITF, confirmed that the digital platform was currently experiencing “glitches”, adding that a committee had been set up to resolve the grey areas and get the platform back on track.
Allagoa explained, “Contrary to some people’s opinions, it has not been abandoned. What has happened is that, the company that was supposed to operationalise the process encountered some glitches in the operation of the platform.
“That’s why we set up a committee headed by the ED operations to ensure that those glitches or grey areas are addressed so that we can get back on track. For me, it has not been abandoned, we’re trying to sort out the glitches.”
“In fact, we were so excited to know that the NSITF is now moving with the times because it makes our work so seamless. It will also correct errors when you look at data,” Allagoa said.
Commenting on the abandonment of the e-platform, the probe panel chairman, Isaac Okehie, said they were yet to ascertain whether the multi-million naira digital platform was working or not.
“We need to go to the whole zone and see its workability because we are getting different opinions. Some people are saying it is working while some say it is not working, especially the hardware aspect, and we need an ICT expert who will go with us to all the zones.
“After that, we will now come and harmonise the report,” he said.