By EMEKA EJERE
For an administration that has had fighting corruption as its cardinal agenda in the past five years, the escalating range of allegations against not a few of its principal operatives has now become more than embarrassing.
While some of the initial muck was being raked up in agencies like the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, the recent flurry of reports of corruption coming out of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, has poured even more mud on the administration’s visage.
Veteran NDDC watchers say that the latest NDDC corruption crisis was indeed somewhat inevitable given the nature and structure of the commission as well as the underlying politics of power and competition, first within a range of contending players in the region, and then within the even broader national landscape of poor governance and non-accountability that many says has simply not changed, notwithstanding the administration scoring itself very high marks in that regard.
One point that sticks out very quickly about this is the fact that though the Buhari administration has been in the saddle for all of five years and counting now, the stupendous harvest of management teams in the period under consideration belies the fact that it has indeed been either unable or somewhat unwilling to get a handle around the situation in the agency. Indeed, in one of those quite recent years, as many as four different persons sat on the CEO’s chair at its Port Harcourt headquarters.
More recently, though the Buhari administration had, through the Office of the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, ordered and commenced a forensic audit of the affairs of the agency, that exercise, which is supposed to have been up and running for several months now, has not recorded much progress, with some commentators even querying whether the exercise in itself is not just a dummy within whose frame ‘business as usual’ would continue to be conducted. As at last week, the word coming out of government quarters was that the probe was now set to move to the state offices of the commission.
Indeed, the fact that the audit is being conducted alongside the emplacement of an Interim management committee, IMC structure on the commission itself, which has also now come to be at the receiving end of bogus and unsubstantiated expenditure allegations does not help the administration’s case. The level of scepticism out there is incredulous and many Nigerians simply believe that nothing has changed.
Knowledgeable commentators say that indeed, not only has the IMC currently come to be part of the problem at the commission, its continued retention may itself not help in getting to both the bottom of the corruption crisis within the agency, interdicting those culpable and instituting the kind of reforms and overhaul that is required and demanded. It is a point that is also being adumbrated by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, which has itself made a case for the immediate removal from office of both the members of the IMC and the supervising Minister for Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio.
Back to the point about the IMC being anachronistic and unhelpful to any real fight against fraud at the NDDC, the first point made in this regard by commentators is that not only is its establishment a constitutional aberration, the fact that the IMC’s expenditure patterns within its short stay in office are also now being questioned points to the fact that it is not the messiah that is needed at the moment and going forward.
From figures now available in the public domain for example, as much as N81.5billion was expended by the commission in the first five months of the year. And upon a cursory examination of the figures coming out from the ongoing probe process, two things, among many others indeed, soon jump out. One, there is no record of payments made within this period for major roads, bridges and other statutory development projects and initiatives that had precipitated the establishment of the commission and which ordinarily then should have been the hub of its expenses. And two, for a sizeable part of the period under reference, there was a lockdown in the region and countrywide which had been occasioned by the outbreak of COVID 19. So where did the monies go? Where?
Emanating figures suggest that some of the sums in question were spent on Overseas travels – 85.6m; Maintenance – 220m; Legal services – 900m; Lassa fever response – N1.956b; Imprest – 790.9m; DTA – 486m; COVID 19 – 31.4b; Consultancy – 83m; Condolence – 122.9m and Community relations – 1.3billion.
A legacy of frivolous expenditure
When the clamour for the establishment of the NDDC was being made, it was predicated on very solid arguments. Oil had been discovered in the region in 1958 and revenues from its exploration and sale had over time come to constitute the hub of both Nigeria’s foreign exchange and overall revenue earnings. Sadly, however, there was little to show for it in terms of actual, measurable benefits to the region.
Indeed things came to a head when the agitation from the region requesting a redressing of this situation began to be quite loud-pitched. An attempt by the Babangida administration to address the situation led to the establishment of the Oil Minerals Producing Areas Development Commission, OMPADEC brought a bit of relief but issues of mismanagement were also rife and the fact that the people were still not seeing the dividends of the oil wealth encouraged the stirring of fresh founts of activism, including those associated with the writer and environmentalist, Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ijaw nation and the Kaiama Declaration.
With the return to civil rule in 1999, the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidency submitted a bill to the National Assembly for the creation of the NDDC. This was passed into law and the Commission took off in 2001 with Mr Timi Alaibe as pioneer Managing Director and Onyema Ugochukwu as Chairman of the Board.
Searching for definition
The first challenge of the new commission was that it began with the promise of lots of money expected to come from statutory 13 per cent revenue allocation but without a clear definition of where to put it. As has since come to be confirmed as a veritable Nigerian problem, budgetary provision without very tight and structured control and accountability systems in place is only an invitation to fiendish wolves that they should come in for the killing. It is a disaster waiting to happen.
Starting on this very wrong footing, it is therefore not surprising that after some two decades of operations and with talk of about a colossal N16 trillion disbursed to the commission within this period, it has only in the past few days began to take steps to move into its office complex. The NDDC was simply sucked into the controlling ideological systems of the ‘rent state,’ leaving the hapless and bewildered population of the region, arguably even worse off than they had been before the coming of the commission.
The NASS Connection
Also ominous is the fact that officials of the National Assembly and the NDDC have themselves been trading words over allegations of budget padding. In one such revelation, the acting Managing Director of the Commission alleged that the National Assembly had padded the 2019 NDDC budget with over 500 fake projects.
Only recently also, a former MD of NDDC appeared before the panel and accused Sen. Nwaoboshi, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Niger Delta of literally collecting N1billion monthly from the Commission.
Curiously, these were allegations that were being made after the National Assembly itself had put together a panel to investigate allegations of corruption by the NDDC. Still being awaited also is the forthcoming report of the forensic audit if and when it is eventually concluded.
But the prognosis out there is that the NDCC has indeed become a quite messy cesspool and a haven of frustration for the people of the region, the intended beneficiaries of the setting up of the commission. There are for example today, well over 321 abandoned NDDC projects littered all over Akwa Ibom State Nigeria. Of this number, rural roads top the chart with 121 abandoned roads, while there are 75 uncompleted classroom blocks, 69 rural water schemes and 43 mini-electrification projects all left unattended. It is a sordid mess.
While Nigerians are still trying to come to grips with the flurry of revelations, other sordid attitude issues are yet being spewed out, including one self-admission by the Commission’s head that they used N1.5bn ‘to take care of themselves’ as COVID-19 palliative. It has indeed become a lordly entitlement to be chosen to serve!
This particular misstatement emerged at the budget defence session of the Commission (NDDC) which was cut short last Tuesday following discrepancies in the commission’s report.
The Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the NDDC, led by the Managing Director, Daniel Pondei, had appeared before the National Assembly joint committee on Niger Delta Affairs to defend the commission’s 2019 budget performance and its fresh proposals for 2020.
It will be recalled that the Senate had in March, approved N346.3 billion as the 2019 budget for the commission, out of the N409 billion that had been proposed by President Muhammadu Buhari.
At the hearing, however, the panel led by Peter Nwaoboshi ( PDP Delta North), queried the IMC over an allegedly missing N143 billion.
Mr Pondei had in his presentation, stated that the commission had indeed received N305.5 billion as revenue in 2019 but that it had also gone on to expend N122 billion of that amount. This then would have left the commission with a closing balance of N183.2 billion.
Responding, the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on NDDC, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, faulted the report, averring that what had been submitted to the joint committee only revealed a balance of N40 billion.
“What you have here (expenditure) is N122 billion. From what you said, you received N305,570,683,529.87. If you received N305 billion and you spent N122 billion, what you are telling us now is that the available fund, available to the commission as we speak now will be N183,315,748,214.58.
“Would that be available to be brought forward? What I’m saying is just a simple basic accounting question. You said you generated N305 billion. It is just a yes or no question.”
After some exchange over the discrepancies in the figures, Mr Pondei requested to withdraw the 2019 budget details to address the noted discrepancies of N143 billion raised by the lawmaker with his team.
Indeed, a lot of controversies has emerged in several meetings held between the IMC and the lawmakers.
Things got to a head when the IMC chair not only walked out on the committee, fresh allegations also began to fly against the National Assembly Committee.
As the crisis rages on the real needs of the people of the region lie prostrate.
Within this vortex, all kinds of political shenanigans are going on.
Rising from its distant observer status role on Thursday, the South-South Governors Forum declared what it called its wholehearted support for a forensic audit of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari.
But that was only part of its reaction as it equally deplored the crisis rocking the commission while hoping that the audit would help put the commission ‘on a sound corporate governance footing and reposition it to better deliver on its mandate.’
In a statement by Chairman of the Forum and Governor of Delta, Senator (Dr) Ifeanyi Okowa, the governors also gave full backing to the ongoing investigation of the commission by the Senate.
“It behoves us to respect the Senate oversight function and allow it to discharge this responsibility in a fair, transparent and equitable manner.
The South-South Governors are desirous to see an NDDC that is fully alive and responsive to its mandate of accelerating infrastructural development of the Niger Delta region and enhancing the general living conditions of our people. Hence, we will not hesitate to give our unqualified support to any policy initiative that will make this a reality.
The Forum wishes to advise the combatants in the current crisis in the NDDC to refrain from utterances and actions that will breach the peace and security of the region,’’ the statement outlined.
It also vehemently condemned the attempted abduction last week of Ms Joi Nunieh, the immediate past Acting Managing Director of the Commission and requested that relevant security authorities investigate the unfortunate development.
‘As responsible public servants and leaders in the Niger Delta, we are mindful of the implications her attempted abduction could have on the peace and security of the region, which the current administration has laboured to sustain in the last five years.
“We do not want that to be truncated as it can have adverse consequences on the national economy. “We urge the feuding parties in the NDDC to conduct themselves in a civil, orderly and lawful manner for the good of the region and the progress of the country.
“Democracy is about the rule of law; we have the courts and the various democratic institutions to deal with any grievances people may have without resorting to underhanded tactics and methods to intimidate and hound others. “Finally, we wish to reiterate our stand that both the forensic audit and the Senate investigation should continue and be concluded with dispatch so that the NDDC can quickly return to its role of advancing and protecting the developmental aspirations our people.’’
At the weekend also, the House of Representative Committee which is investigating alleged misappropriation of funds in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) had summoned Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, to appear before it on Monday.
This followed upon the eventual appearance of the former Acting Managing Director of the NDDC, Joi Nunieh, on Friday.
Nunieh showed up before the committee via Zoom.
She had been scheduled to appear before the committee on Thursday.
On his part, Akpabio has already instructed his lawyer to commence legal actions against Nunieh over allegations she made against him.
Nunieh had accused the former Akwa Ibom State governor of sexual harassment, fraud, among other allegations.
Indeed in more recent days, weeks and months, the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC have been in the news for almost all but the right reasons.
It has been an unprecedented flurry of accusations and bickering that has pitched, among others, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, leaders of the Interim Management Committee at the Commission and senators from the region at the National Assembly against each other. Complementing this is a flurry of interventions from activists, leaders and elders from within and outside the region, including one by the very notable Chief Edwin Clark-led Pan Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF.
The challenges at the NDDC are quite unfortunate. And there is a sense also in which their resolution would indeed also signpost the commencement of the path to restoring several of the other problems that continue to plague Nigeria. This is because there is indeed a sense in which the NDDC and by extension the Niger Delta crisis somewhat approximates the crisis of the Nigerian nation, and their resolution, therefore, would also come to equally approximate the commencement of the resolution of Nigeria’s many troubles.
It is indeed to address some of these challenges in part that continuing administrations in the country have been pressured into giving tokenistic concessions to the people of the Niger Delta and other oil-producing states, including presently, the establishment of the NDDC.
However, there is always a problem with an incomplete deal and that is principally then what is being played out at the NDDC where despite the establishment of the commission for two decades now, the critical absence of bottom-up ownership structures has thus ensured that successive bands of predators have muscled their way into the places of control at the commission and made away with whatever spoils they can lay their hands on.
Indeed, all things considered, the plain and unequivocal truth is that there is a need to do something about the state of affairs and indeed the image of the NDDC today. It is simply put neither palatable nor ennobling.
Enmeshed in a huge litany of tales of woe, underperformance and sleaze over the years, it is clear that the Commission would benefit from an urgent overhaul at the moment. And nothing should be spared in achieving this.
Analysts say that while not discounting the work presently being carried out at the moment, including the Presidency-sanctioned forensic audit of the books and state of affairs at the commission, the best way to restore normalcy and vision to the NDDC would be for the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration to immediately proceed with the process of composition of a full and proper board, as well as the appointment of substantive management for the commission. According to them, this position is based on the irrefutable logic that interim and caretaker structures in themselves have fewer control systems to help put them in check. And as the reason, the single, most urgent and crying need of the commission is simply and the entrenchment of more, greater and countervailing systems and structures that promote and engender the unblemished and unimpeachable dominance of the atmosphere and practice of maximum accountability.
To restate, the first problem of the NDDC is systemic accountability. And the clear and proper process towards achieving this lies in the empanelling of adequate systems of transparency and accountability that would ensure that no one does anything at the commission without passing through strict censure and control.
And to further deepen the process of instituting greater bottom-up ownership and control of the commission, the Presidency and the National Assembly should commence the process of calling for public inputs from stakeholders in the region towards the process of reviewing and amending the NDDC Act to institutionalize greater bottom-up popular ownership of the Commission and thus guarantee its latent developmental aspirations.
It is therefore important that the Buhari administration rises to the challenge and ensure that sanity and peace are restored to the agency now and going forward.