Former acting managing director of the interim management committee (IMC) of NDDC, Barrister Joy Nunieh and Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio

By EMEKA EJERE

These are not the best of times for the minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, as more revelations from the ongoing investigation of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), by the Senate are giving him cause to lose sleep.

On Friday, a former acting managing director of the interim management committee (IMC) of NDDC, Barrister Joy Nunieh, alleged that during her brief tenure at the commission, Mr Akpabio repeatedly pressured her to take “an oath of secrecy” that was meant to keep her from exposing fraud at the commission.

Nunieh, who made her claim in an interview with journalists shortly after appearing before the Senate ad-hoc committee investigating NDDC, said she would have been jailed if she had succumbed to Mr Akpabio’s ‘oath of secrecy’.

The former NDDC boss said she feared that she would be jailed for five years if, under Mr Akpabio’s oath, she committed infraction on the Public Procurement Act and was not able to speak out, while he (Akpabio) would be going about as a free man.

She claimed that it was after her refusal to take the oath that Mr Akpabio started plotting her removal. She, however, did not provide any evidence to support her claims against the minister.

“He told me to take an oath. Though he denied that, he told me three times. We had a reconciliation at the Villa in the office of Sarki Abba, the S.A. to the President on Domestics,” she said.

“He said he was going to remove me and then he started the campaign of calumny against me…,”

After a period of relative lull in tensions, there has recently come to be a spike in the cries of marginalization by leaders and stakeholders from the very sensitive region.

Business Hallmark checks indicate that two factors principally account for this situation. The first is the state of angst that has been triggered by the revelation that despite the fact of the region providing the bulk of the nation’s crude oil; it scarcely accounts for any significant personnel numbers within the top brass of the oil sector monopoly, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). And second, there is the very untidy game of musical chairs that has been going on in the running of the region’s interventionist agency, the NDDC.

When you now add the question of allegations of corruption regarding the affairs of the agency then you will see that indeed, there is every need to seriously address the developing issues on that front. This is more so when it has come to be interwoven with the administration’s flagship agenda of tackling corruption and growing criticism over the continuing prevalence, if not spike in the incidence of corruption even while the Buhari administration yet holds the reins of power.

Indeed, with the fact that the rot has seemingly now become a norm in the system – with players from the two principal political parties now seen as being in the same boat – the widespread belief is that any move to the contrary would almost always be met with stiff resistance. This is in addition to the fact that given our process and structure of political selection, it would invariably be one allegedly corrupt official of the present era that would then be the one pursuing another allegedly corrupt official of the previous era.

Perhaps, this is the greatest crisis of confidence that Senator Akpabio is now enmeshed in even as he tries to carry out the President’s mandate on the need to sanitise the NDDC.

A couple of weeks ago, the acting managing director of NDDC, Prof. Kemebradikumo Pondei, alleged that the agency’s 2019 budget was padded with about 500 non-existing projects. Pondei, who explained that a huge amount of money was appropriated for bogus projects, was reacting to allegations of corruption leveled against the IMC, which is supervising a forensic audit of the activities of the commission.

Events had taken a new twist early May when the National Assembly passed a resolution to investigate an allegation of N40 billion fraud against the IMC. While the Senate raised a seven-member ad-hoc committee to look into the allegation, the House of Representatives summoned the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs and the IMC to explain to the House the plan of the commission to ameliorate the effect of the present economic situation on the region.

But Senator Akpabio has maintained that the N40 billion fraud probe launched by the Senate is a fight-back by those who are hard pressed by the forensic audit of the operations of the NDDC from 2001 to 2019 ordered by President Mohammadu Buhari.

The president had argued that only a probe of the finances of the agency can explain a huge gap between projects on the ground in the region and the humongous amount that has so far been disbursed. Akpabio is not leaving any stone unturned in his bid to ensure that the audit is carried out to the latter.

However, the minister is not unmindful of the moral burden the latest allegations by Nunieh will place on him if not well clarified. While featuring on Arise TV on Friday night, Akpabio, who clarified major controversies surrounding the NDDC before, during and after his appointment as minister, absolved himself of allegations of corruption leveled against him.

He said, “When I was appointed the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, I prayed to God. I asked God to give me the ability to take insults that will come my way. At the same time, I asked God to give me the wisdom to turn around the Niger Delta.

“Of course, I expected all these things coming my way. If you place a seed, that seed must first die before it germinates. The NDDC must go through this process before it stands. We must give kudos to the president.”

The establishment of NDDC was part of the recommendations of a United Nations’ Secretary General mission to Nigeria after the execution of Ogoni human rights and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his kinsmen by the Abacha military junta. The interventionist agency was created in 2000 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, in replacement of the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) to address the dire developmental needs of the Niger Delta, as well as oil-producing states.

The commission was put in place to facilitate the rapid, even and sustainable development of the Niger Delta into an economically viable, socially stable, ecologically regenerative and a politically peaceful region. However, findings show that instead of bringing development to the region, the NDDC has become notorious for creating a few billionaires through the award of bogus and phoney contracts that are never meant to be completed.

Evidence abounds that political actors whose proxies have controlled the affairs of the agency since inception have stripped the Niger Delta of resources meant for its development. In her about 20 years of existence, NDDC, an agency that awards contracts for capital projects, does not have a home. It operates from a rented eight-floor building on 167, Aba Road, Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Its landlord is the Rivers state government. It has parted with huge rent annually on the imposing property.

Akpabio had vowed that the forensic audit would be done by reputable firms in line with international best practices, without fear or favour. Initially, the audit was being spearheaded by a three-member IMC headed by Barr. Nunieh. The members of the committee, which was appointed on October 29, 2019, were Mr. Ibanga Bassey Etang (now late) the acting executive director, Finance and Administration (EDFA), and Dr. Cairo Ojougboh, the acting executive director, Projects (EDP).

However, on February 19, 2020, President Buhari approved the enlargement of the IMC replacing Nunieh with Prof. Pondei, as acting managing director. The President also increased the members of the committee from three to five persons, including Dr. Cairo Ojougboh, acting executive director (Projects); Mr Ibanga Bassey Etang, acting executive director (Finance and Administration); Mrs Caroline Nagbo (member); and Cecilia Bukola Akintomide, a former vice president with African Development Bank, (member).

Pondei who is leading the President’s forensic audit revealed: “We discovered that after NDDC forwarded its budget to the national assembly committees on NDDC, what was sent back to the commission was no longer recognizable.”

“The 2019 budget was classically over padded, with almost 500 new projects inserted into it when it was sent back to us. We found out the budget appropriation was done in such a way that meaningful projects were allocated very little sums of money.

“It is unfortunate that the 2019 budget will expire on May 31 without any project executed in the region. It was passed two months to the end of its implementation period.”

Contracts verification and shocking revelations

A 50-member contracts’ verification committee, chaired by Dr. Ojougboh, rounded off its assignment on February 7 with shocking revelations. With the submission of the report of the contracts’ verification committee, two new committees for contract documentation and project assessment were also put in place on February 6, as a follow-up to the work of members of the committee on the verification of contracts.

Ojougboh stated that NDDC would have been “grounded to a stop, killed and buried, if not for the ordering of the forensic audit”.

The acting EDP of NDDC said: “The verification exercise intended to establish the true position of the emergency regime between 2016 and 2019 in the commission. It is now common knowledge that some of the awards were not only spurious but criminal, as records available to us show that most of the awards were not backed by budget, have no bills of engineering measurement or drawings and were just open cheque for contractors and their collaborators to fill in at the nearest banks.

“A situation where contracts that did not qualify for emergencies were fraudulently awarded for over one trillion naira, in less than three years, amounts to not only stealing from the pulpit but stealing the entire pulpit.”

He said the NDDC would not only offer a lasting solution to the social, economic and environmental problems of the Niger Delta, by conceiving and implementing plans aimed at developing the infrastructure and human capacity building but also to complement the efforts of the nine state governments and other developmental agencies in the region.

Ojougboh said: “While successive leaderships of NDDC may have done their best, today, the general conclusion of most stakeholders in the region is that NDDC has not delivered on its mandate, at best a lack-lustre performance, with very little to show for the humongous resources that have accrued to it over the past 19 years.

“Stories of pervasive corruption, flagrant abuse of due process, abandoned projects, poor quality project delivery, etc., at the NDDC, have adorned our media space over the years.

“In an effort to stem this unfortunate tide, governors of the nine states of the region, a couple of months ago, visited President Buhari to not only lay bare their perception of the commission since its inception but to also as members of the Advisory Council of the NDDC, offer useful advice on the way forward to the President. The result of the historic visit is the ordering of a forensic audit of the activities of the NDDC from inception to date by the President.”

NDDC’s acting EDP also thanked President Buhari, on behalf of the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, and the entire Niger Delta citizenry, for the prompt actions and the initiatives.

On her part, the then acting managing director, Nunieh revealed that during the verification of contracts, it was discovered that some award letters were found to be fake; some of the companies were not registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC); some firms were registered after they had been given contracts.

She said: “The just-concluded verification exercise has been an eye-opener for us. We owe Nigerians, especially Mr. President, a duty to give full details of what came out of the contracts’ verification. The report will show Nigerians that we are truly determined to refocus NDDC to properly develop the Niger Delta region.

“A lot has been revealed as a result of the verification exercise. Some contract award letters were found to be fake and some of the companies were not registered. Some were registered after they had been given the contracts.

“Some of the companies do not have the requirements prescribed in the Public Procurement Act to handle such projects. We also found that some individuals have 50 to 100 different award letters under different names.

“Only a few executives of the companies showed up for the verification exercise. Contractors and consultants that failed to show up for the verification exercise should not expect the commission to visit their sites for project assessment.”

Nunieh also on February 7 inaugurated the two new committees for contract documentation and project assessment, as a follow up to the work of the contracts’ verification committee.

She disclosed that the contract documentation committee, headed by NDDC’s Director, Planning Research and Statistics/Management Information Systems, Dr. Linus Ogbalubi, would authenticate all the documents submitted by contractors and consultants, while the project assessment committee, headed by the commission’s Director, Project Monitoring and Supervision, Dr. Emmanuel Audu-Ohwavborua, would visit the various sites to verify contractors’ claims.

Nunieh said: “The contractors that executed their contracts well have nothing to fear, as they deserve to be paid. I want to reiterate that not all contractors are fraudulent. There are contractors who did well, but it is a pity everyone is getting agitated. I have not given anyone a contract; I have not collected one naira from any contractor with the promise of payment.

“We will do the right thing in the interest of all the communities. While visiting the project sites, we will work with the Community Development Committees (CDCs) of the various communities and the villagers will be there to testify that the roads and other projects are well done.

“Please, do not bother to pay any money to members of the committee. Do not induce them in any way during the course of the exercise and any member of the committee that asks for money should be reported to the police.

“The entire process of assessment is free. No one is allowed to take money from any contractor to facilitate their coming to carry out the assessment. If you try to induce members, they may not visit your site.”

Accusing the accuser

Among other claims on Friday, the former MD said “Nobody makes any payment in NDDC without Godswill Akpabio’s approval. When we first came, on the day of the inauguration, he said to me in the car, ‘Madam MD, if you don’t do what I say, the same pen with which I used to sign your paper is the same pen I’ll use to remove you.

Nunieh who was relieved of her appointment over alleged confrontation with the minister, said: “For instance, he told me to raise a memo to fraudulently award emergency contracts for flood victims in the Niger Delta. I would have been jailed if I had succumbed to Akpabio’s ‘oath of secrecy.”

But in his response, Akpabio, who debunked the allegation, advised the former acting managing director “to go to the hospital; see a doctor; get some injection and relax.”

Asked whether Nunieh was sick, he said: “I am not saying anything is wrong with her. But something is wrong with her temperament. You do not need to ask me. But you ask about four other husbands she married.

“She was not relieved of her appointment because of corruption. But she was relieved of her appointment because of insubordination. My ministry that supervised her wrote seven letters to her. She never responded. And then she said she was bigger than the Minister of Niger Delta.

Similar scenario had played out in June when a document released by the Senate claimed that Akpabio had himself inserted N500 million worth of projects into the 2017 budget of the NDDC.

The chairman of the Senate panel on NDDC, Peter Nwaoboshi (PDP/Delta state) had accused Akpabio of pushing in numerous projects into the NDDC budget while he was a senator, but the minister had denied the accusation. The release of the document was believed to be a move to validate Nwaoboshi’s claims.

Akpabio, who was serving in the Senate as the minority leader then, said in a letter addressed to the chairman, Senate Committee on Niger Delta that the projects he requested for inclusion in the NDDC budget were for the Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District which he represented.

The same position was maintained by his media aide, Anietie Ekong, when he told Premium Times that there was “nothing extraordinary” about the document.

“In fact, it would have been a dereliction of duty if Senator Akpabio did not try to influence projects to his constituency”, Ekong said. “It was part of his legislative duties as the Senate minority leader to attract projects to his constituency. I don’t know what the hue is about.”