• How politics and corruption stymied the intervention agency

BY EMEKA EJERE

It came like a bombshell last week when the acting managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Professor Kemebradikumo Pondei alleged that the agency’s 2019 budget was padded with about 500 non-existing projects. Prof. Pondei, who explained that a huge amount of money was appropriated for bogus projects, was reacting to allegations of corruption levelled against the commission’s interim management committee (IMC).

The crisis rocking the NDDC had taken a new twist early last month (May) when the National Assembly passed a resolution to investigate an allegation of N40 billion fraud against the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the commission.

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, Senator Godswill Akpabio, 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.

After debating a motion sponsored by the chairman of the Senate Committee on Navy, Senator Thompson Sekibo, the Senate passed a resolution to investigate the allegations on how the IMC spent N40 billion within three months. The ad-hoc committee, headed by Senator Olubunmi Adetunbi, was given a month to look into the financial transactions and report back to the Senate.

The Senate also directed its Committee on Niger Delta Affairs, headed by Senator Peter Nwaoboshi, to within one month investigate the appropriateness of the alleged arbitrary sack of the management staff of NDDC. Sekibo, in the motion entitled “Urgent need to investigate alleged financial recklessness in the Niger Delta Development Commission,” alleged that reports from the commission revealed financial recklessness which must be halted and investigated.

Indeed, since August last year when the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr Boss Mustapha, released a circular announcing the composition of a new NDDC board, it has been a tumultuous time in the Niger Delta region. This was consequent upon the sack of the immediate past IMC following allegations of corruption and irregularities in the day-to-day functioning of the NDDC.

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 to 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. Unfortunately, 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.”

It is on record that two employees of the NDDC who allegedly stole sensitive documents belonging to the commission were at arrested penultimate week by the police. Reports said the suspects were caught red-handed moving the documents out of the commission’s headquarters in Port Harcourt.

The bone of contention

It started with the alleged flawed manner in which the new board members were appointed, particularly Dr Pius Odubu from Edo State as chairman and Bernard Okumagba, from Delta State as managing director.

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.

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.

The NDDC Act clearly states that the office of the chairman shall rotate among member-states of the commission in alphabetical order. The immediate past chairman of the board is Senator Victor Idoma-Egba, hails from Cross River State. Adherence to the provisions of the Act means that Delta State was in line to produce the next chairman and not Edo State as it turned out to be.

On the position of a managing director, NDDC Act stipulates that occupants of the position must be indigenes of oil-producing areas, and the slot is to be taken sequentially, starting with member-states of the commission with the highest production quantum of oil.

Since Akwa Ibom State, which is presently the highest oil-producing state just vacated the position, and the position of the chairman ought to go to Delta State, which is the second-largest oil-producing, it follows that Rivers State ought to produce the next managing director being the third-largest producer of oil based on current data obtained from the Department of Petroleum Resources.

The governors of the region were equally not satisfied with the composition of the controversial NDDC board. Little wonder barely a few hours after the Presidency released names of the new board members, governors of the oil-producing states met in Abuja to denounce the composition.

Their disenchantment would result in a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari, where it was agreed that to redeem the image of the agency which was now suffering from a credibility crisis due to claims of widespread corruption, there should be a forensic audit of the NDDC dating back to its inception.

But irrespective of the uproar caused by the announcement of the board members, the President, in a letter dated October 18, 2019, which was addressed to the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, proceeded to submit the names of the nominees to the Senate for screening and confirmation “following the provision of Section 2(2)(a) of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Establishment Act 2000.

Amazingly, on the day the Senate began the screening of the new board member nominees, Senator Godswill Akpabio, Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs, which supervises the NDDC, announced the constitution of a three-man IMC headed by Dr Gbene Joi Nunieh, as acting managing director for the agency. Others are Dr Cairo Ojougboh, acting executive director, projects and Ibanga Bassey Etang (now late) as acting executive director, finance and administration.

The IMC was to serve for the next six months and oversee the forensic audit of the commission’s operations between 2001- 2019. This ignited a controversy over who should be in charge – the board or the management committee.

But Lawan, who was chagrined by Akpabio’s action, pronounced the IMC of the NDDC a nullity a few days after confirmation of the board. “With the completion of this process now (confirmation), I am sure that any other structure that exists now (in NDDC) is vitiated,” he said.

Amid the brewing crisis, the Senate, now apparently at loggerheads with the Presidency, said it would not allow the Nunieh-led committee to defend the 2019/2020 budget of the commission. In reaction to the Senate stance, Nunieh, who said that the NDDC Act was clear on the matter of the commission’s chairmanship, emphasised that after Cross River State, Delta State was supposed to produce the chairman of the NDDC board.

Her words: “If the Act says that after Cross River State, Delta State should produce the chairman, why would anyone say no? When governors of South-South states led by Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State (now former) visited President Muhammadu Buhari, he assured them that he would comply with the Act setting up the NDDC in taking decisions concerning the agency; he said that he would respect the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; he also directed that a forensic audit be carried out from 2001 to date, stating that it was only after the audit that he would decide what to do with the Commission.”

Since then, some of the stakeholders called for Akpabio’s removal, while others wanted the supervision of the NDDC to be removed from Niger Delta ministry. They felt that the minister, a former governor, was among those who could be affected by the forensic audit and saw his announcement of the management committee as suspicious.

But Akpabio alleged that those who are opposed to the forensic audit of the NDDC were behind the attacks and spurious allegations being made against him. He, however, vowed that instead of taking up issues with those behind the attacks, he would remain focused to deliver on the mandate given to him by President Muhammadu Buhari, “who ordered the forensic audit”

Akpabio described the attacks against him “as a case of corruption fighting back because they have not thought that a forensic audit of the accounts of the commission could ever be ordered.”

The Senate carried out its threat and refused to attend to the IMC members while considering the budget of the NDDC, saying it would rather deal with the board than the committee. But to further validate the IMC, Buhari dissolved the board, which was never inaugurated since the members were cleared by the Senate, saying it would be recomposed and inaugurated after the planned forensic audit.

Special adviser to the president on media and publicity, Mr Femi Adesina, in a statement, said, “The President has also directed that the Interim Management Team of the NDDC shall be in place till the forensic is completed and that the supervision of the commission shall remain under the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs.”

The ‘sins’ of Nunieh

BusinessHallmark learnt that since early January 2020 when Nunieh announced a contract verification exercise which requires contractors to go to the states where the contracts took place to go and register it and get it verified by an interim panel, hell seems to let loose.

According to insiders, those who probably believed the forensic audit would not start may be shocked the turn it was taking.

“Verifying a contract is being seen as setting the foundation of being found guilty, like one admitting and pleading guilty even before the charge is announced. Inside sources said many contractors held many nocturnal meetings where they resolved not to participate or at best to disrupt it”, a source said.

“Nunieh herself has been courting the tongue of the serpent. She gave verve to the forensic audit by always describing it as the only way to save the NDDC, a stand that many big politicians may not like. Politicians from both the ruling and opposition parties seem deeply enmeshed in contracts in the place and may not be ready for any serious scratch.

“It was she who revealed that one senator alone had over 300 contracts and that 120 were paid for without any scratch of work, thereby giving the world a preface of the book of forensic audit ahead. She also disclosed that one man was pocketing N1billion every month to help collect statutory funds from the oil companies mandated by the NDDC Act of 2000 to remit to the commission”.

When they (her detractors) could not stop her through the Senate, sources said, they deployed other methods. “The next was her email account that was hacked and used to solicit for payments for jobs especially for Ogoni women to be given employments. But she and her aides came out denouncing and denying the claims, saying her account was hacked and her identity stolen”, a senior journalist, Ignatius Chukwu, wrote.

According to him, insiders said had that not been dictated early enough and publicly denounced, detractors would have harvested enough evidence to supply to the security agencies and the presidency to show that the person sent to fight corruption at the NDDC was rather boosting it.

He writes further: “The major script came when a group opened a scandal saying Nunieh forged her certificate. This is a scandal that usually claims the head of the target.  The group, a civil society one named Niger Delta Anticorruption Coalition (NDAC) called on President Buhari to sack Nunieh. They did not call for investigation first. The group seemed to go to its core objective when it called on the president to order the immediate stoppage of the ‘Contract Verification Exercise.”

In its reaction, Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC) commended Buhari for looking into the concerns of Niger Delta people by terminating the NDDC board. It said there was no way the board would have stood the test of time given the several disputes over the legality of its composition.

IYC, in a statement by its president, Barrister Roland Pereotubo Oweilaemi, said “The board was illegally constituted because the enabling Act was not complied with. IYC and those agitating for the right thing to be done are vindicated. President Buhari should follow the law ‘stricto sensu’ when reconstituting the management board. He should not allow politicians to mislead him into doing their fraudulent biddings.

“The Interim Management Board, no doubt, is the rightful body constituted as it stands now. President Buhari has just done what is fair and just to the Niger Delta people, especially those agitating that the NDDC Act Establishment should be complied with.”

While congratulating the IMC members, IYC asked them to pay contractors who had completely executed their projects. It commended the IMC’s acting managing director for supervising projects to ascertain their completion before making payments to the contractors, maintaining that “that is the step some previous board failed to carry out.”

Also, the Centre for Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Crusade (CHURAC) described the suspension of the NDDC board as timely and in the public interest, describing the board as illegal.

Barrister Alaowei E. Cleric, CHURAC’s National President, said, “CHURAC and other well-meaning Nigerians challenged the legality of the President to appoint the chairman of the board from Edo State without following the rotational circle as provided by the NDDC Establishment Act, 2000.

“While we are not trying to preempt the courts of their findings, we are happy that Mr President has looked into the concerns of the Niger Delta people, especially as they relate to following due processes of the laws. We make bold to say that the now-disbanded board was illegally constituted by the President. The decision, therefore, to lay it off is in the right step in the right direction.

However, the Ijaw People’s Development Initiative (IPDI) maintained that apart from the dissolved board, the IMC should also be dissolved, insisting that its emergence was faulty.

Comrade Austin Ozobo, IPDI National President, maintained that both the board and the IMC were wrongly constituted without a due process.

Ozobo said: “We agitated for the dissolution of the two boards and not only the substantive board. The dissolution of the substantive board is a corrective measure taken to save the commission’s Establishment Act.

“You sent nominees to Senate for confirmation and they were confirmed as requested and at the point of inauguration you appointed another controversial interim board and now after screening and confirmation of the purported substantive board, you dissolve it. This is a sign of confusion, incompetence, poor governance and it means Buhari could not forecast and that decisions were taken arbitrarily for the gain of a few.

“In the same vein, the interim board was faulty, it was constituted by the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, and you know there is no provision in NDDC Establishment Act that empowered a minister to appoint or constitute the board of the commission.

But Senator Sekibo believes that the IMC, which was set up to co-ordinate forensic audit of financial transactions carried out by the dissolved board of the commission, is not any less guilty of financial recklessness.

“While President Buhari’s action of setting up an IMC and the forensic audit may have been conceived to forestall the financial recklessness of the commission and reposition it for fast-tracking of the development of the region, the IMC has been more bedevilled with the same financial misuse, misapplication, misappropriation or outright fraud in the management of the funds of the commission”, he alleged.

However, February 19, 20120, President Buhari approved the enlargement of the IMC replacing Barrister Nunieh with Professor Pondei, as acting managing director. The President also increased the members of the committee from three to five persons, including Dr Cairo Ojougboh, Ag. Executive director (Projects); late Mr Ibanga Bassey Etang, Ag. executive director (Finance and Administration); Mrs Caroline Nagbo (member); and Cecilia Bukola Akintomide, a former vice president with African Development Bank, (member).