UNTOLD STORY OF THE BOTCHED INAUGURATION OF NSITF BOARD

•Why ministry is uncomfortable with Kokori as board Chairman

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By Victor Young

Why, man, he doth  bestride the narrow world. Like a Colossus, and we petty men. Walk under his huge legs and peep about. To find ourselves dishonorable graves. (Williams Shakespeare in his epic drama; Julius Caesar)

The abortion of inauguration of the board of Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF, a week ago in the words of the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige’ “by thugs numbering hundreds and persons who clearly had no business with the inauguration”, led by Organised Labour can be described as the most progressive, popular and pragmatic action by “thugs” in recent times.

If the inauguration had gone on seamlessly, it would have been an insult, a shame and humiliation to the Labour movement.

Chris Ngige

After the late Labour leader number one, Chief Michael Imoudu, Chief Frank Ovie Kokori, former General-Secretary of Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, a well known pro-democracy activist and one of the leading lights of the struggle for the democracy Nigeria is enjoying today, is one of the few living Labour leaders that have remained an inspiration to younger generation of Labour movement.

It is not surprising that Labour leaders in the country referred to as “thugs” by Senator Ngige have risen against the attempt by the Minister, to humiliate the veteran Labour leader and renowned pro-democracy fighter.

Chief Kokori was incarcerated, lost almost everything including his life, but for the grace God, to the struggle for the actualisation of June 12 1993 Presidential election and enthronement of democracy in Nigeria.

Since the return of democracy in Nigeria in 1999, successive governments did not deem it necessary to honour him as political leaders never appreciated the contribution of Labour leaders to socio-economic and political development of the country.

Hence, it was well celebrated within the Labour movement and beyond when the All Progressives Congress, APC, Federal Government under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, in 2017, named members of NSITF’s Board with Chief Kokori as Chairman of the Board.

NSITF had since 2015 operated without a board following its dissolution by President Buhari, while the Ministry of Labour and Employment, superintended by Ngige, acted as de facto administrator.

Intrigues, scheming

But since the naming of Kokori as the Board Chairman, the Minister of Labour and Employment, for reasons best known to him, deliberately refused to inaugurate the board, giving one unconvincing reason after another.

Despite pressures by the National Chairman of APC,  organised labour and the umbrella body for employers in the country; Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association, NECA, among others, for Ngige to inaugurate the NSITF, but to no avail.

It is on record that Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUC, United Labour Congress of Nigeria, ULC,  Assoiciation 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 one point or the other, decried the absence of a board at the fund and its effect on social partners, calling on the Minister to inaugurate the board but the Minister remained adamant.

After unending intrigues and schemings, to the chagrin of many Nigerians especially Labour leaders among other stakeholders, the Minister on Wednesday, April 17,  announced the constitution of a new board of NSITF, replacing Kokori with Mr. Austin Enejamo-Isere, claiming President Buhari, had instead approved the appointment of Kokori as the Chairman of the Board of Michael Imoudu National Institute of Labour Studies, MINILS.

To pour hot pepper on a fresh wound, the Minister said his new board for NSITF would be inaugurated the next day, Thursday, April 18, by him at the Conference Room of the Minister of Labour and Employment, by 11 am.

The Minister had told the world among others, that the NSITF board would not be inaugurated until he finished cleansing the fund.

For about four years, he has remained the de facto administrator of NSITF, even when a board was named; he was not in a hurry to inaugurate the board. Why is he now in a hurry to inaugurate the board after President Buhari had given Ministers deadline to prepare their handover notes? This will be a topic for discussion another day.

Why Kokori was rejected

Investigation has revealed why the Minister does not trust the uncompromising veteran Labour leader to be chairman of NSITF board, but why someone else?

It was gathered that after Chief Kokori was named chairman of the board, the minister had one-on-one with Chief Kokori about pending issues that had to do with the finances of the funds, promotions, among others, to be sorted out.

The initial relationship between Kokori and Ngige was like father and son before  it went sour.

Sources at the fund claimed that Chief Kokori made some remarks at a function in memory of the late human rights crusader and lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi in 2018 which did not go down well with the Minister and other vested interests in the presidency.

According to one of the sources, from then, it was resolved that “Chief Kokori cannot be trusted to play ball. From then on, it became an ego issue.”

So, it was not surprising that several tactics, intrigues, maneuvering and delays were employed to frustrate the inauguration of the board until the Wednesday, April 17, bombshell by the Minister.

But the inauguration never held as intimidating and overwhelming presence of Labour leaders, should we say “thugs” from NLC, TUC, ULC, NUPENG, Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, PENGASSAN, among others, including Chief Kokori, jolted the Ministry.

Though it was clear that the Minister was in his office, for obvious reason, he could not come out of his office, but scared, shocked and confused ministry officials not knowing what to tell guests, members of the board among others, said the minister was not in the office.

Yet, his security details were all around.

In an attempt to save the situation, the ministry in a one paragraph statement signed by Rhoda Illiya, Head of Press on behalf of the Minister of Labour, announced that the inauguration was put off due to circumstances beyond its control.

It read, “Due to circumstances beyond our control, the inauguration of the Board of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF billed for today 18th April, 2019, has been cancelled. The inconvenience caused by this cancellation is most painful regretted.”

A statement that came out the Ministry later was enough proof that the so-called cleaning of NSITF before a new board would be inaugurated was just a spook screen as the Minister had all along been economical with the truth.

Minister’s outburst

Jolted by unexpected swarm of labour leaders at the planned inauguration and unable to anticipate what could happen if the inauguration went on as scheduled, the minister after earlier statement by the ministry, poured out his venom and inner mind with a statement that clearly buttress the Biblical saying that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.

The statement claimed “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 Hon.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.”

According to the statement, “the replacement of Comrade Frank Kokori with Mr. Austine Enajemo-Isere and his transfer to the Board of Micheal Imodu National Institute of Labour Studies, MINLS,  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 Hon. Minister.MThe violent gatecrashing and the illegal forceful seizure of the conference room of the Honorable Minister this morning by thugs numbering hundreds and persons who clearly had no business with the inauguration of the board is totally unacceptable. Government therefore takes serious exception to the dishonourable actions of the NLC leadership and Comrade. Frank Kokori as well as his cohorts and warn that the Ministry will not tolerate a repeat of hooliganism clearly unknown to ethos of civilized unionism.

“Comrade Kokori is expected to report at his new chairmanship posting by Mr. President at the Micheal 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 added by finally warning that “Government will not tolerate a situation where Labour Leaders challenge or vitiate the constitutional powers of the President over appointments.”

 Kokori speaks

Speaking at the venue of the botched inauguration, Chief Kokori said, “Today, I am very emotional and want to cry. I want to weep for this country. I am proud of you, my comrades. I have done my best for this country. When nobody raised his voice against the military I came out against the military to fight for freedom and democracy of Nigeria. I spent four good years in one of the worst prisons in the world, in Bama Prison and in solitary confinement. In 1997, I was declared a Prisoner of War by Pope John Paul. The same year, the Madibba, Nelson Mandela also declared me a notable world prisoner of conscience.

“I stood for this country and in all my years of service, there were temptations to take some of the biggest bribe. But I stood my ground for democracy and 20 years into the same democracy, Comrade Kokori is being oppressed by somebody like Ngige. What is the reason? The reason is because Frank Kokori is regarded as a man of integrity, a man of honour and a transparent Nigerian.

“This is a government that talks of integrity and you allowed a man like Ngige to humiliate me for two years after my appointment. Yesterday (Wednesday) they now said I should go to Micheal Imoudu. If they had given me Micheal Imoudu when I retired fro NUPENG, I should have accepted.  Why should I subject myself to trauma for two years and you promised that the appointment remains and congratulated me for more than five times. The President assured me during the last June 12 exercise that they will not do anything to my appointment.

“I feel Ngige is on his own, dropping the name of the President, not the President I know and who assured me that he will not change my name. I am thankful to the Nigeria labour movement and the great union called the National Union of Petroleum and Natural gas. I spent the whole of my youthful life to build this union as a fighting machine. I thank you all for your support and may God bless you all.”

It’s our money, says Wabba

Speaking, after the botched inauguration, NLC President, Wabba said, “It is our money, social security money and people wants to sit on it. This is just the beginning and any child that says his mother should not sleep, will not sleep. We are already on the ground and therefore not afraid of falling. We must engage this issue on the basis of truth so that the whole world will know the truth. It is our money and nobody can sit on it and therefore, if they want to do what is right, we are for what is right. But if they want to continue to manipulate the process, we will engage this issue till infinity.

“The board was supposed to be inaugurated today (April 18) but unfortunately, that is not to be. The same excuse that they have given in the last three and half years still came up. First, the fund we are talking about is workers money. It is money contributed by employers for the social security cover of their workers. It is because of that issue that NLC has two members and NECA has two members. Even the Ministry of labour has only one member on the board. We have been so passionate about this because of what has happened in the past and we must bring that to an end. That is why we say our eyes will be where our resources are.

“But for three and half years, many reasons have been used. The first was that the appointment was made by the Acting President and that he needed to revalidate it from the President which he did. The second reason was that there has been corruption in the place and that he needed to clean it up and we said there was no problem because we are against corruption.  After cleaning the place, he said he needed to implement the report and we said go ahead and do that. After implementing the report, he said he needed two weeks and at every opportunity, we have raised the issue that it is unfair for him to run the place like a sole administrator.

“It is our money and that is why he did not want to inaugurate the place. He has come up with many theories. Now that the President has asked him to inaugurate the place, he is nowhere to be found. Can he be afraid of his constituency? We are his constituency, workers, employers and government are his main constituency and all of us are here.

“He asked him, who is not here and he could not tell us. That is unfair and unjust and as workers, we will always demand for our right and this is our right. Accountability is what we stand for and we must demand for it. Whatever we do, we will brief our organs because it is our money. Wherever he wants to inaugurate this board, we will be there. But if he inaugurates it in secret, we will go to his house and protest and also protest to the Presidency because this is unfair and unjust. This is a government that believes in accountability and transparency.

“The law is very specific on this. In constituting the board, the law says that NLC shall be consulted and that has not taken place and we want to ensure that our funds are safe inview of what has happened in the recent past when people feasted on our money. We are also aware of what has happened that he does not want to inaugurate the Board. We are demanding for accountability and transparency. If he does go ahead to inaugurate the board in a secret place, it then means that he has something to hide which Nigerians needs to know. That is why we are here in large number. The stake of this economy is in NUPENG.

“If somebody that is declared prisoner of conscience by world renowned leaders is so appointed by the President, Ngige cannot not come here and change it or manipulate the process. We will continue this process and engagement because we cannot sleep on our right. We will continue to engage the process and ensure that the right thing is done.”

NUPENG takes decision today

Similarly, President of NUPENG, Prince Williams Akporeha, said, “Somebody is sitting down somewhere and turning the entire country around. This is an issue that NUPENG has decided to take on. We will be calling our National Executive Council meeting immediately after the holidays and any decision that the NEC takes, will be implemented to the later.  However, let me say that any attempt by the Minister to go behind and secretly inaugurate any board that does not have Comrade Frank Kokori as Chairman will be resisted by NUPENG and the entire Nigerian workers. We are in touch with the Presidency on this issue and our contact there informed us that the name of Comrade Kokori is still on their list as NSITF Chairman. So, where is this change coming from. That is why we are shocked today.”

In the history of the struggle for and return of Nigeria to democracy, Chief Ovie Kokori, occupies a very big space that his traducers, and opportunists who found themselves in the corridor of power, can never and will never occupy one tenth of the space.

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