Usani: We are Trying to Reposition Niger Delta Ministry for Accountability

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Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Pastor Usani Uguru Usani, recently spoke with journalists on the activities of his ministry. Bassey Inyang was there: Excerpts:

On his first task in the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs.

Putting things in proper perspective became our first responsibility, which, so far, is beginning to take shape. It was just a situation before where people thought that the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs was a platform for collecting and sharing, and then incessant agitations that would suggest further sharing. There can be no better way to describe that. And that was why we had more than N420 billion disbursed in the ministry and the rate of project completion was just 12 per cent; so much of waste. The ministry, as it is, has a very congested echelon of personnel.

As a ministry that does not earn revenue, we have a minimum of 14 or 15 directors and deputy directors above that number, and assistant directors yet above the number of deputy directors. It was just nothing other than the conception that we had ascribed to ourselves of violent agitations or settlement at the detriment of the intentions of the setting up of the ministry. This was what I met. On the numerous abandoned projects initiated by the ministry. What we are trying to do is to reward contractors who have been diligent.

Those who have shown due diligence in execution will be encouraged by being mobilised further to return to site, and those who are in liability against their resource mobilisation will be requested or advised to return to site until they get to the levels of project execution that is commensurate with what they have gained financially. The nature of the ministry and the mandate suggests that there is no limitation in terms of its sub-sectorial social, economic and political engagements pertaining to the region. This means, obviously, it is like an institution that is managing a regional economy about a quarter of the country. So, it is such a serious thing. But we have not appreciated what it is because we have attempted to look at it from the perspective that it is just militancy or persuasion or what I would call negotiation, whereas it is not really so. So, of the much we have seen in all the sectors, of course, we are also involved in establishing some agro-processing plants here and there for cassava and palm produce. Out of all these we met on ground, not one was ever finished.

They kept becoming on-going and new contracts kept being awarded. Added to the on-going lot, we continued having different phases of on-going projects, which is what we are trying to check. If we get the ones such that the budgetary provisions can accommodate, we will finish those ones and hand over while the other mega ones are still on-going. I think it is a better way to deliver, especially on the principle of zero budgeting of the current administration. On the current state of the East-West road project.

Maybe, you also need a good understanding of the history of the East-West Road. It was first awarded in 2006. So, today it is one decade of a project that is not complete, yet it has so much social and economic importance to the region. It is awarded in sections 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. All the other sections are in progress of work except section 5, being the one linking Akwa Ibom State from Oron to Calabar in Cross River State. Several segments of the East-West Road are at various stages of execution, but obviously not at the same level.

But section 5 has not started at all. Why it was never started, I don’t know; but, maybe, on account of lack of funding. But one thing I know is that the section 5, which is still, in my view, at the level of award, has been encumbered with certain procedural considerations. When the contract was awarded, it was awarded in US dollars. Even labour at local level was denominated in dollars, which means to buy sand and chips were in dollars. And the earlier design made suggested the complex bridge to link Oron and Calabar. The award carried only first phase of the contract with a partial commencement of the second phase. And that means, if it had started or even if it had been completed, you will never know when the second phase would be awarded. Besides, one discovers that the nature of the design was going to affect the social conditions of the two communities, Calabar and Oron, because the end route in Calabar was going to empty at the roundabout at Watt Market.

So, if you imagine traffic coming from Edo State; and sometimes people are traveling from Lagos to Cross River to empty in the city centre, it means some days people would not even move from one point for hours and by my conception of transportation planning and management, it was a great defect. It was done without even considering the fact of having to pass through Egerton, where you begin to negotiate compensation, which could take one or two years before people will agree to quit their locations, and so on. So, we held a confab inviting Akwa Ibom and Cross River State governments and community leaders in both states, and former technical consultants, who designed the road; and other consultants to run commentaries on their designs. At the end of it, we put together all our ministry engineers and engineers from the Ministry of Works in both states to go and work out alternatives which they did, and eventually all of them agreed. By the new agreed design, the road is coming out at Adiabo and it would pass through some communities in Odukpani, including Creek Town, which is longer in distance, but lesser in cost.

But, to suggest that we would go ahead and implement that contract denominated in US dollars would mean that at the unstable exchange rate, the contract would be open-ended. So, at any given time, Nigerians would not know the naira equivalent spent on the contract, which is why I felt we must do a thorough thing once and for all because as it were, if they started or even if they were going to start on that condition, it would mean that until the end of the contract, nobody would ever know how much the project is worth financially. Thank God we have got alternative designs. We have also got the contractor who signed in to do the job. We invited him to come and see the reality, and quote according to what this component design entails. That is the state at which we are.

We them invited the contractors because we do not want anybody to insinuate that it is because we want to change contractors for ulterior motives that we are disagreeing with the first things they did. But, if they fail to do that, we must be more interested in the welfare of our people and the economy of our country than patronising people just on the basis of being contractors. So, we hope that we get the response very soon. We are getting the president also to give his view on that. Once that is done, we would go ahead to the next phase of signing a proper contract.

For me there has been no contract on that matter because I don’t see how a sovereign nation with its own monetary and fiscal policies will be denominating its contract awards in foreign currency when all the components are locally sourced, including labour. For me that is fraud. On the achievements of the ministry in the last one year. Our achievements in the ministry, such as trying to shape the ministry and giving a new value orientation to the people, are quite important. When we said we were going to carry out a technical audit of all the projects it was vehemently resisted by all those you can guess to be concerned. But, with determination, we did. And it has shown that we have been unfair to ourselves in terms of the resource application and the outcomes.

Because of the peculiar circumstances in the region, we find that the average period for completion of a project is five years, in spite of the nature of the project, and we have only 12 per cent project completion rate, then you have eight per cent impact. Of course, in all these analyses we applied standard global performance indices, and you see that the only project that has been competed has been by us within the one year. Whereas, in the past there was a façade of attempts to commission projects that were not completed, at all. To Nigerians it may look meaningless, but without a good foundation there cannot be an established structure.

Like I said, the other works that are physical are continuing. We are applying our funds to them. But we have within the period done something. The action plan of the ministry is being revisited, and reviewed. We have also, in collaboration with the UNDP, done a baseline survey and we have got their report, which was presented for ratification. When it is ratified, it therefore means it will be ready for submission at any level for us to secure assistance. Again, the process of our procurement or anything to be done in the ministry is getting a new lease, and of course, you will expect that with all these we are trying to initiate, our regime would remain unpopular as long as we are doing what we are trying to do.

The reason is because those who do not want accountability don’t see anything good. Theirs is that, this is not how it is done. But, I believe that by the time we finish, they will be happier because they will have more money to share. On the ministry’s contribution in addressing issues of violent agitations in the Niger Delta. Our attempts at intelligence and advise on security in the region has been paying off reasonably. To address the issue of insecurity and violence in the region, one needs to ask the first question; what is their reason? In the past when I was not involved, I couldn’t have known what the reason was.

But, I have always been a crusader of the fact that the rate of disuse of the environment in the region demands specific, peculiar, special attention. However, beyond that point, I am also aware that not much attention, since the time of oil exploitation, has been given to the region. But we thank God that within the last one decade government started to look in that direction. In which case, our rational action should have been to wait and see how government progresses with us, not just this administration. But instead, to find unprovoked violence is what evoked curiosity in our minds to ask, why? And our findings to this question suggest more sinister motives than just lack of development in the region.

I would appreciate it much more if people came to me and say they would shut down the ministry until abc is provided for them. I will sympathise with that type of situation. On the agitators’ calls on the Buhari administration to fix the development problems in the Niger Delta. Even those who are saying the president is not doing well enough, in their hearts, know that they are not telling the truth. In spite of the UNEP report on Ogoni clean-up, who has ever initiated such action if not this president? And in spite of the fact that the amnesty programme was supposed to terminate in December 2015, did this administration not extend it, which is still on-going. It is one of the major programmes the president has even attempted to give express approval for money to be drawn from special accounts to fund.

So, by what means should anyone suggest that the administration of the president in particular is not fair to the Niger Delta region? By my special access to what is going on, a lot of what goes on is about 2019. They are determined that this administration must fail. They must not be allowed to have money to function so that they will be voted out in 2019. And the sponsors are big. If they hear this they will want to crucify me, but I own it up because I know. I am not speculating.