Ibim Semenitari: Amaechi Never Asked Me to Give Him NDDC Money

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•       FG underpaid NDDC by N800 billion while oil companies fail to remit their three per cent contribution

Her calm mien belies her intellectual restiveness. Mrs. Ibim Semenitari was appointed the Acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission in December 2015 and has worked to turn around the behemoth she agreed was into rent-seeking like all agencies of government. She speaks with Ahamefula Ogbu on how she has turned things around in the NDDC,while debunking allegations that she was appointed to raise funds from the commission for elections among other issues

What did you meet at NDDC when you assumed duty?
I am really weary of trying to do a post-mortem but I would just say that by the time we came, there was a lot of lull in activities; we met a bit of dormancy both in the workforce as well as on our project sites – the reasons I might not know immediately but basically we met a bit of a lull. There was also some opaqueness in the way affairs were run and I say that advisedly because we had for instance between directorates, there wasn’t communication so you found out that project directorates that ought to know what others were doing, you found some sort of opaqueness where people couldn’t really say what was going on and so people failed to take ownership or responsibility of actions or inactions in the organisation. It was that kind of situation where one felt that things ought to have been done slightly differently, whether in terms of accountability, transparency or service delivery.

Were you alarmed or concerned about the situation you met on ground?
In some cases I was alarmed; in all cases I was concerned.

What have you put in place to make a difference from what you met?
The first thing that we tried to do was that we opened up our processes  so that the flow from directorates to MD and back is open so that everyone  along the chain can explain the process. Therefore, if for instance, we are  making payment for a contract, everyone  along the payment chain can say we are  paying X,Y,Z contractor for X, Y, Z reason. So we tried to open up the processes to  reduce the turnaround time for transfer of documents, I inherited a  backlog of files, some as far back as 2013, 2014. I tried to clear my desk and I can say  the maximum time for turnaround for files that move out of the MD’s office is between 24 hours to a maximum of one week; I use one week very  cautiously because we hardly have that. It is really 24 to 72 hours except where I am out of town that files might linger for a week.

We know that when changes like that happen in an entrenched organisation that resistance follows. What resistance did you face trying to turn things around?
You would face resistance, probably still face resistance but what makes an astute manager and good administrator is being able to surmount those challenges and to be able to overcome the resistance. When people are not used to a particular way of doing things, they will react. Sometimes even protest and sometimes even try to be  cogs in the wheel of progress. The idea is to remove the cog when you find it and continue to do the work you have to do. Ultimately, people will realise that there will only be one captain in a ship and so they find that if you are determined about what you want to do you will do it.

Have you received any threat in the course of doing your work because in the NDDC, threat is handed out easily?
(Laughs) Yes; I mean people will threaten but you see, if you know that your conscience is clear and that you are doing what you are doing for the good of the communities that you serve, then just do it and trust that God Almighty will protect you. Yes, people have threatened; people have even tried to make good their threats in different ways but ultimately, God will protect and defend you if you are doing the right thing.

Have you at any point feared for your life arising from those threats?
Yes, but in all of the work I have done all my life I have always had reasons to feel afraid for my life, whether it was as an investigative reporter or as commissioner for information. I remember my kids were cracking a joke and said ‘well our mother always has a way of attracting  danger to herself because we thought it was just because  you were an investigative reporter but how do you try to get killed being a commissioner, I mean Mommy, who tries to get killed being commissioner? We can understand you as a reporter that people are after you but you are in government and people are still trying to kill you.’ As a commissioner in Rivers State, I had bullets whizzing past my ear because I dared go to campaign in my own community. I don’t know what threat to life would be greater than live bullets whizzing past your ears.

Has your husband been as concerned as trying to pull you out of the job?
(Laughs) Severally in his life he has tried to pull me out of the job. I think that he has also come to understand that we do what we do because we have to serve and we both understand that. My parents are always frantic, they are always worried; they are very concerned and I think I have caused them so much sleepless nights; but again, they have learnt that except the Lord keeps a city, a watchman watches in vain. You can only protect yourself so much; you have to learn every day that you really cannot defend yourself.
The NDDC  Act provides for a certain percentage of revenue to the federal government  coming to the commission; is the federal government giving that constitutionally mandated figure?
Honestly, since 2000 when the NDDC Act came into place till today, the federal government hasn’t met its statutory obligations fully to the commission and we have complained about it. I mentioned it to the Senate and House of Representatives. I have even written to the Minister of Finance to ask for her gracious permission to be part of FAAC (Federal Allocation Accounts Committee) because that used to be the practice under OMPADEC. The commission has never  received full funding as it ought to, not from any  of our stakeholders and sometimes it is always  important to put that out because people think the NDDC has money, but  really doesn’t.

Is the federal government willing to pay the backlog or is it being made mandatory to accept what is given?
The truth is that we have just started engaging. This government is new and in terms of the funds, the backlog is over N800 billion. The government really needs to have that but our point is if government accedes and even pays a part of it, that will be good. Previous governments decided not to pay. I recall that in the past administration several representations were made to His Excellency, Mr. President at that time but unfortunately he didn’t pay before he left office.

Oil companies operating within the region are supposed to pay three per cent of their budgets to the NDDC, are they fulfilling that?
No they are not but again, thanks to the Senate Committee on Niger Delta and the House Committee on NDDC. They got all of us to a meeting and we are reconciling figures now.

Since it is something constitutionally enshrined, are you getting the federal government to apply sanctions on the defaulting stakeholders?
Honestly, here is my take, if we can get them to give us the money, we don’t need the sanctions. We just want the money. There is so much work to do in the region that all we need is the money. Sanctioning them without getting the money would not help us; what will help us is that they give us our money and we will continue to engage to request that because their bringing out the money helps the region but they really have to be a bit more committed to paying up but many of them are simply not committed to that.

Can you put a figure to what the oil companies in the region owe the Commission?
Honestly, I can’t tell. It is a huge backlog and there is reconciliation happening between them and our directorate of finance and supplies. Some of them have consistently avoided the meetings; they will go to the House of Reps or Senate and say we are not meeting with them. When we invite them for a meeting they won’t show up. This is the truth of the matter.

There is this notion that NDDC is doing more of political patronage than development of the region. From the files you have treated, how true is that?
I will be very frank, there was quite a bit of rent-seeking at the NDDC. I used the word rent-collection rather than political patronage because that is what we ended up with in our country, not just NDDC, it is across government agencies; Nigerians love to collect money and not work; it is beyond political patronage and the files show that.

What kind of cooperation are you receiving from governors of NDDC states?
Let me say that I have visited  seven out of the nine governors; I have visited the nine states but I had interactions with seven out of the nine and I would say that  for some of them they are deeply committed, some of them mouth commitment but on the whole it would  be nice to get stronger collaboration.

When you were appointed acting MD of NDDC there was an allegation that it was a move by the APC to get funds to sponsor elections. Is that correct?
I heard such and I still hear it, I found it interesting but my first reaction is that it takes a thief to know a thief so you got to have used the NDDC to sponsor elections before you imagine that everyone appointed into that position is going to use it to sponsor an election. If that was the reason why did President, Muhammadu Buhari urge me to complete projects I meet on the ground as much as possible? Don’t forget that I took over in December 2015, by that time we were close to the end of the budget year and so if you check you will find that I have not awarded any contract so far because I need to have an operational budget. I came into NDDC when there was no money, so are you saying that if I am there and an APC person has a contract I should not pay him because if I pay him I will be accused of paying him so he can use the money to sponsor elections?
The funny thing about this is that the counterfactual of what you said is that I have been accused of paying PDP contractors only and I certainly I am not a member of the PDP.

Are you under pressure to bring out money for political purposes?
Fortunately, I have a boss who is President Muhammadu Buhari and he hasn’t put me under any pressure to bring out money. The next person and who in terms of my reporting line is the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. I haven’t received any directives from him either. Now everyone knows that Amaechi used to be my principal and is in many  ways my friend, mentor, my political leader and he has never asked me to give him money or to bring out money for him. If these three  persons haven’t asked me then I can deal with any other pressure that comes.

How much does NDDC owe contractors and how much do contractors owe the commission in outstanding projects?
I wish I was in the office I would have shown you because when we took over, the figure was between N400 and N450 billion and we have paid a lot of that but I think we would still be owing a little over  N300 to N350 billion. I mean we have not paid up to N100 billion since I came. We haven’t even received N100 billion so we wouldn’t have paid that but I would like to be able to give you those  figures exactly in the second quarter when we have  our reports you will see in clear terms what we have spent on contractor payments but in the first quarter I believe that total payments we made was N14 billion and out of that, N9 billion went to contractors.

So how much do contractors owe the Commission in uncompleted jobs?
To be honest with you, we just had a meeting recently and we were talking about the need to do proper data collection along these lines, whatever figures I give to you now will be inaccurate. One of the biggest challenges I met when I came  on board was inaccurate data. We are trying to reconcile that so that we can have records  we would not doubt.

Would you recommend the probing of past boards of the commission to get records straight?
Rather than probing, I think a good audit of the commission would not be a bad idea. Basically, an audit is not about probing, it helps you to look at your records and see what has transpired. We are trying to do some of that, trying to get a few things done right but I think that the Auditor General had done a bit of our audit in the past but we have done our audit of 2014. 2015 audit is completed and the auditor has submitted and I am going to look at what he has raised. Just because government might need to look at a few things and straighten out processes, audit is a good thing.

Do you have a development model for the NDDC or do you think the Niger Delta Master Plan will do?
For me there can’t be a better model; we need to work with the regional master plan, that was such a tremendous work that people did. They put in so much effort and it cost us so much money. I think the safest and most sensible thing to do is to take the master plan and implement it and that is what we are trying to do.

How do you juggle office and family?
My kids are all men and women. They hardly have time for me. I am really a mother hen and I like to be with my kids. I may not spend as much time with them but we talk as often as we can. In terms of family life, I think I am lucky. My children have grown up understanding that they have a busy mom; have busy parents. They love us and like the fact that we spend quality time. They talk to me and they are very open, they understand my work and I share my work with them when I have a problem I tell them as long as it is not what will stress them a lot. Basically, they share my work with me, we discuss it within the realm of appropriateness because there are some aspects of the work that are confidential. Outside that, they have an idea of what mommy is doing.
My husband is as well quite interested in the work I do. We have a silent pact which we had from when we got married which is a 24-year-old pact not to interfere in each other’s work. We had that pact because when we were getting married, I was an investigative reporter and for his safety I couldn’t disclose stories I was working on.

How did you meet him?
I was doing a story and I had gone to the Nigerian Stock Exchange. My Editor, Mrs. Louisa Ayonote, had asked me to do a story on albinism and stigma they face. So I asked her where I was going to get enough albinos to talk to for the story and she directed me to Broad street and I went to Broad street and I was going to stock exchange and there was one coming out so I had an interview with that one and I was looking for others  and when I got  tired and famished and needed something to  eat,  I went to Mr. Biggs on Marina to eat and there was this man who wasn’t looking well carrying a briefcase coming out and he bumped into me and I said to him ‘sorry sir’ but why didn’t you look where you were going? He apologised and said ‘Very sorry my name is Henry’ and I told him my name and he said ‘oh, are you related to so-so person?’ And I said yes. Then I found out he was a Rivers man; he asked me do you know so so person and I said yea and he said that is my mom  and I said okay, good for you, I didn’t know he has a son I only know the daughter.
He said here is my card, would you visit me and I said I’m sorry I’m too busy, you just bumped into me and you are asking me to visit you. He said okay sorry and I went to eat my food and we didn’t see again till a year after that. I went to the bank where he works to see a friend of mine and as I was going in, the same person and I think he was always rushing or something. He saw me and said ah, Ibim again, and you didn’t come to visit me and I said but I told you that I was busy. He asked what I was doing there and I told him who I came to see and he said okay, let me go help you find him. He came back and said that he was not around and I said okay tell him that I came.
Then the third time I was going to do a story on activities of forex dealers and the whole matter of drugs in Balogun area. So I was doing the story with Effiong Nyong who was my colleague then, by that time Newswatch had started Eko magazine and we were on that story on Lagos Island. As we were going we met Henry. I didn’t know that he and Effiong were schoolmates in the University of Lagos and I thought I was gossiping to a friend and that was my undoing. Effiong gave him my address and every information. I came home one Sunday and saw a note on my door and I said ah ah, how did this man find my address? It was later I found out that the culprit was Effiong.

How did he propose?
Did we even have a formal proposal? He dropped a card at my door that he came by to see me and that  he would come back Sunday as there was a very important thing to discuss. So next Sunday he came and my house was full, meeting of Rotaract club of Iju. He said he come another time.
He came back the following Sunday and this time  I was going out and he gave  me a ride and unfortunately the person I went to look for was not at home and he said he would wait and I said you cannot wait and he said he would. I went to my meeting and by the time I got there it had ended  and he said I had taken  you everywhere so I have to show you my house and I asked; show me your house for what? Honestly, I didn’t ask you to wait and later I said okay o. He was showing the way to his house this bus stop and that and I was like why is he giving me all these directions. I am not interested. To cut a long story short, we got to his house and he said this is the place and he said to me that “the reason I came to see you is that I believe God said you will be my wife and I bluntly said, “Don’t go there, don’t try that line with me, it doesn’t work.’
Anyway, I said I will think about it, we never quite had a traditional courtship because I then jokingly told him that I will tell my father and if he approved I would marry him. He said okay let us go to Port Harcourt so you can ask your father and I said ah ah, is that how it happens? He was basically a very determined person and quite frankly I’m not sure how he got me to say  yes and before I knew it, he had met my dad; we didn’t  court, we didn’t date. I would say we started dating after marriage.

What childhood experience is indelible in your mind?
When my father beat me very well when I was four or five. My father never flogged me, he never touches me but that was the first time and only time he flogged me. I think it was the only time.

What was your offence, were you truant or heady?
Nooo. We used to have a lot of people living in our house and someone we were living  with annoyed me and because I was angry I marched the person’s food and my father was livid with rage, he flogged me and made me eat the food.

What kind of parents would you describe your dad and mom as?
Very firm; very loving parents.

Were you closer to your dad or mom?
Hard to say. Sometimes I share things with my dad and sometimes I share with my mom. People think I am closer to one than the other but in my case it is pretty hard to say. There are confidences I share with my dad and some with my mom.

What has been your hardest experience in NDDC?
I don’t want to use harsh word because what came to my lips was harsh. Just navigating land mines, I will just leave it at that; a lot of booby traps set, by interesting people.

By staff or confidants?
Just leave it at that; maybe a mix of everything.

You are in a precarious situation in Rivers. How do you deal with the political side of the state?
I don’t know what political side, I mean  I am a member of the APC, my political leader is Rt. Hon. Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi; again that  is not a matter of contention  as everybody knows where I stand very clearly. However, I am acting managing director of NDDC, if there is a job to be done I get it done; if I need to  interface with Rivers State government to deliver development to the state I will do so because governance and politics  are two different things and two different divides. The fact that I will need it to interface with the state government to deliver development does not remove the fact that I am a member of the APC and would not in any way stop me from what I have to do politically.
The important thing is that you do what is right and you can defend your action.

How would you react to the allegation that NDDC is not working positively for President Buhari, a reason that militant activities are on the rise again?
That is not true, that is factually incorrect. The NDDC under President Buhari has actually done more to drive development in the region and I say that without fearing any contradictions. We are ready to commission Ogbia-Nembe road which was given impetus under Buhari. We drove it and for some time it had been stalled and we have driven it aggressively. In terms of engagement with agitators, those who have contract with NDDC cannot say they have not been paid. We inherited backlog of scholarship payments from 2014 which we cleared under Buhari and the score sheet of what we have done is there. You now have a commission that is directly impacting on communities.
I do not think that the reason for the militancy is because people are not interfacing. I think it will be simplifying a serious matter by defining it by those terms. I think anybody that is active in the region will know that the matter is far-reaching not to trivialise it in this manner and politicise  a serious issue. I keep telling people that the problem is not a PDP or APC denominated; so we need to sit down and get our acts together and get the solution. The ex-agitators themselves look over their shoulders, nobody knows who will be bombed next. It is not as simple as people want to make it look.

Did you see your appointment coming?
No

So when it was announced did you feel overwhelmed?
I was shocked. I was actually in Abonema when the former governor and now Minister for Transportation asked me to come to Abuja. This was in the thick of our issue at the court. I rushed into Abuja and that was the period we would come back for rerun poll and I went to Abuja quite frankly not expecting the appointment or I hadn’t gone looking for appointment though yes I could have been given one but I did not in the life of  me know anything was coming. I went and he didn’t tell me anything, he just said he wanted me to stay in Abuja and I said okay. Then he said some announcement was coming and if I had heard anything and I said no. Shortly after Garba Shehu called me that someone wanted to reach me and gave me the person’s number to call. I did and got to the SGF’s office and I get a letter naming me Acting Managing Director.

What was the feeling when you got the letter?
It was overwhelming, I would be honest. I was overwhelmed and I think I must have shed a tear or two. First it was an enormous trust from the President. I would like to think or I know I must have been nominated; no one would have nominated me but the former governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi. That was very trusting of him to think it was okay and I think it was very  trusting of President Buhari because the whole Niger Delta is important to him so to trust me enough is too serious for me to trivialise or betray that trust. Mr. President took a huge risk with one of the most sensitive organs in his administration because it was a case where the MD of NDDC will literarily be his eyes because many of the states here are not in the hands of the APC. It was very humbling and very overwhelming.

Did it cross your mind to reject the appointment?
The answer is no. I didn’t think of rejecting it. Though I think I was not looking for an appointment, I have been at the fore front of agitation for the Niger Delta region. I have been in the trenches for this cause, I have trekked miles for this cause. I have fought on all sides. I have insisted that Shell and other IOCs should be a bit more responsible so I have insisted that people should be accountable to this region.

How are you playing the Okrika politics in Rivers?
Is there anything to play? APC is doing what we can do. Politics to me is delivering what you can to the people, it might mean something else for other but for me politics is delivering what I can for the people of Okrika.