NSIMA EKERE: To Make Meaningful Impact, NDDC Must Go Back to Its Core Mandate

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Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Nsima Ekere, in this interview, says for the commission to make any meaningful impact in the development of the Niger Delta region, it must go back to its core mandate and operate without political interference. He also speaks on the activities of the commission under his leadership and challenges confronting the intervention agency. Ernest Chinwo brings excerpts

You have been in office for about six months plus. What challenges did you meet and what achievements have you recorded so far?
The NDDC you all know and some of you have been in this commission much longer than I have been. I am not coming to tell you anything that you already don’t know. When we came in and we looked at what we found on ground. I mean without disparaging the efforts and contributions of past managements and board, we will first of all acknowledge their contributions in laying a solid foundation for the take-off of the NDDC. We also saw that a whole lot needs to be done. One of the things that stunned me and members of my team when we came in was the report of the Orosanya Panel that was set up to restructure the NDDC.

The second thing that struck us was the report of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms that had looked into the NDDC and with the view to re-structuring it and getting it set to do business and deliver efficiently. Now, the conclusion of that report as presented to us by Dr. Joe Abbah, was that when they studied NDDC, they found out that virtually everything that can possibly be wrong with an organization was wrong with the NDDC. So, based on that, we came up with a very ambitious and well-articulated reform programme that we tagged the 4-R strategy aimed at reforming the NDDC, restoring it back to its core mandate and getting it to deliver efficiently for the good of the Niger Delta people, the government and all the stakeholders in the region. And we said that we must first of all, reform the governance system, to put in place the right system to run the NDDC.

So, the process and system of running the NDDC must be properly reformed so that it can run efficiently and deliver efficiently.
We said we must restructure our balance sheet. The NDDC balance sheet is presently over-bloated. We have contingent liability in excess of N1.3 trillion. Therefore, there is the need to look at the resources of the commission, whatever the receivables that come on monthly and yearly basis is and then reform that balance sheet so that it can become more meaningful and achievable. One of the steps we have taken already and we have already done this, at the last management meeting, we approved the cancellation of over 600 projects that the NDDC already procured. We discovered that those projects, some of those contracts were either not properly procured, some of them were procured while the contractors had not gone to site and some of them were as late as 2001.

Surprisingly and sadly also, some of the contractors already have collected advance payments from the commission and yet zero work have been done on site. So, we terminated those contracts worth about N200 billion. That is the first phase of reforming of the balance sheet that we are doing.

The second phase is going to involve projects that are between zero and five per cent completion, because some of the contractors also have gone to site quite alright but they have achieved very negligible work compared to what they were originally contracted to do. If you look at the scope of work in their Bill of Engineering Measurement (BEM) estimate and see what they have achieved is very negligible. So, we are going to look at some of them. Some contractors have not been to site for upward of five, six, seven years and they have achieved so little. The next phase will be to look at those contracts and we will determine them as well. And then, we must restore the commission to its core mandate.

The NDDC was set up for the rapid, economic and integrated development of the Niger Delta region. So, we want to ensure that the projects that we do going forward, will be geared towards achieving what the core mandate of the commission was. In the past, you will see that some of our contracts and some of the projects we do were politically-motivated, some of them were done to satisfy one person or one interest or the other. And we are saying that this is not good enough.

We believe that if we have a master plan, if we have a design to achieve a certain milestone within a certain period, every year or every month we spent should be a fundamental step towards achieving what the certain milestone is. So, we looked at the master plan and of course, the master plan is about 10 years old already. It was supposed to have been accomplished within 15 years period but we have spent a little over 10 years already and not much have been achieved. We are supposed to go back to the NDDC master plan, to the Niger Delta Integrated Development Master plan.

One point that I will like to emphasize is that the Niger Delta Regional Development Master plan is not only an NDDC Master plan, it is a plan that articulates and clearly spells out the policies and programmes that are collectively executed by all the development centres; you have the Federal Government, you have the NDDC, you have Ministry of Niger Delta, the international oil companies, the state governments in the Niger Delta region, the local government councils as well. These are all independent centres of development.
The master plan is supposed to integrate the efforts of all of these development partners so that at the end of the day, we can achieve an integrated development for the entire region. So we want to get more stakeholder buy-in and engagement with all the state governors, the local government councils, international oil companies, even the international development agencies. You have the World Bank, you have the European Union, you have USAID and other partners that are helping to develop and work in the Niger Delta region. So, we must get the buy-in of everybody so that if we know that by 10 or by 5 years, this is what we will achieve and then all the people working in the area must work together, take projects that will jointly and ultimately result in achieving a certain set milestone for the region.
We want to go back to the core mandate; the days of struggling and competing with local government councils on who will buy chalk for the blackboard in schools must be over. We must bring that to an end. We must do less of the smaller projects, we want to do more of regional and bigger projects that will ultimately impact on the socioeconomic life and development of the entire region. So that is the second R. I have talked about re-structuring of the balance sheet, I have talked about restoring the commission back to its core mandate, I have talked about reforming our governance system; that we must reform the way we run NDDC.

We must agree on the procedures, the steps we must take on whatever we want to do as a commission. We will rely a little bit more on technology; we will employ IT because the world has advanced very drastically in the last couple of years. There are IT programmes, people that design IT programmes can make it achieve everything that you want to do. So, we want to employ a little bit more of technology in the way we work and the way we do our things so that it can help us to design and reform our governance system. Generally, we are also working on the staff; we work on the mind-set, the thinking of our staff so that everybody jointly agree and generally reaffirm our confidence and belief, to do what is right and proper at all times. We believe that if we follow this very ambitious reform agenda, we will be able to bring NDDC back on track for the rapid socioeconomic development of the Niger Delta. So that is what we met and that is what we intend doing to move forward.

It appears that there are contractors, who even before they are awarded contracts, have a mind-set that they are coming to defraud the NDDC and the region. What steps are you taking to ensure that such persons are punished?
First of all, I will like to acknowledge the effort of the last board and management of the NDDC, conscious of the fact that some contractors are so fixed in getting the money and running away. They came up with this policy of not making advance payments for projects, even though before now, all advance payments to contractors were backed by advance payment guarantee from banks but we found out that some people were still able to beat that system. So, they came up with the idea of not giving advance payments at all. It is good and then, it is bad.

We are determined to go after all the contractors who got money from the NDDC and abandoned their projects. We are not going after the contractors only, but we are going after the banks they issued the advance payment guarantee. We have already recovered about N60 million from the banks. We have a committee that we set up that is working on it to ensure that all NDDC funds that are in the hands of contractors and projects and have not been executed to match those funds that have been paid out, we will recover those monies and put them back in the system and then, prosecute the contractors involved. We are working with the Office of Mr. President on the prosecution of these defaulting contractors.

Is there a way NDDC projects can be linked to the economic prospects of the Niger Delta region?
By the time we update the master plan, we will then have an integrated development plan for the region, so that every project that is done would be within the master plan. That will almost drastically reduce and eliminate incidents of having duplication of projects. We have had cases in the past where state governments is doing one project, the NDDC is doing same project; we have had cases where the Ministry of Niger Delta is doing the same project, state government is doing the same project. In fact, we had one project where we had the state government involved had awarded that project to a different contractor and money had been paid to the contractor, NDDC awarded the contract of the same project to another contractor and money had been paid and the Ministry of Niger Delta awarded the same project and money was paid. That is because there is no coordination.

First of all, development agencies must partner together. The idea of competing between government agencies must be totally avoided. We must partner each other, we must engage each other; we must know what each person is doing so that the incidences of having the same project being done by different agencies of government must be totally eliminated.

What is happening to the overseas scholarship scheme of NDDC and why are some of your scholars abandoned?
Let me say that NDDC does not have the intention and will never abandon any of its scholars. When we came in, we discovered that there were a lot of discrepancies in the way the scholarship programme was being administered. These scholarships were for studies abroad but we found out that monies were paid to people who were still in Nigeria and we didn’t see why that should happen. In other cases, when people get admission in certain course, in certain university, they get approved for the NDDC scholarship and then, along the line, because it is a fixed amount that is paid to every scholar, they will go to another university for a different programme from what they got the scholarship for, just because maybe, the university is cheaper. They will go to another university and in our record here, you will see that the scholar is possibly in the University of Aberdeen and meanwhile, we are getting an invoice from a university in Canada or sometime a university in Ukraine from the same student.

Then, the course of study, NDDC has areas that it wants to concentrate on, that it wants to develop manpower and specialist personnel for, we discovered that some of them have gone for other courses different from what they were approved for. So, these are some of the issues that we discovered. Then, we set up a committee in-house, to look into all these issues and resolve all these discrepancies and they are trying to resolve them.

Within two weeks of setting up that committee, the first phase of disbursement was made for those people that have no issues whatsoever. So, we have made the first releases and they continue working. Just recently, we made another set of release, which over 80 of the scholars benefitted from them. What is remaining is just a very negligible number which we are still working on and we intend to resolve. I understand and sympathise very much with what the scholars are going through, for the genuine cases. That is why anytime we see a genuine case, not waiting to treat them in batches, we treat them immediately.

Okay, we understand what they are going through but we also seek their understanding because a lot of people have abused the scholarship scheme of NDDC. A lot of people have defrauded the government using this NDDC scholarship scheme. Because it is based on foreign currency, a lot of people want access to foreign currency so they pretend to be NDDC scholars when sometimes they are not. So, this is the problem we have had and this is why it has taken time and why some scholars didn’t get their money on time.

The assurance I want to give to all genuine NDDC scholars is that they will most definitely receive their due disbursement. It might take time but we regret the delay and the hardships they have been occasioned because of the delay. We are doing everything possible to ensure that we resolve these issues and get the funds to them as soon as possible.

Recently, we heard that the NDDC pulled out of its partnership with the Rivers State government in respect of the Mother and Child Hospital. What really transpired?
NDDC did not pull out of the partnership but rather, the Rivers State government, because, I mean as part of the programme they were trying put together for the 50th anniversary celebration of the creation of the state, did us a letter, which we are still looking into, informing us that they want to pull out of the project. We are still looking into the details to see a way we can resolve it. The Rivers State government is our host and we have a very robust and good relationship with them in the past. We are very intent on continuing with this very robust and good relationship with the Rivers State government and indeed all the state governments in the Niger Delta region. We will try the very best we can to reduce areas of conflict with our state governments. That we are committed to doing and we are working to resolve it.

You have just stated that you have a cordial relationship with the Rivers State government and the governments of the eight other states in the Niger Delta region, but just on July 13 this year at Bori Camp, during the operationalisation of the 6 Division of the Nigerian Army, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, which you attended, Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, said the state did not have a good relationship with the NDDC. What is responsible for the strained relationship and what is the way forward?
Our target in the current board and management of NDDC is to ensure that we have a very cordial relationship, with not just the Rivers State government, which is our host state government, but with other state governments in the Niger Delta region.
The major problem in the past was the disconnect between NDDC and the state governments in the projects being planned and executed in the respective states. I have had a meeting with His Excellency, Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State and he highlighted the key areas that he had concerns about, basically more of engagements.

We need to engage with the government of Rivers state and indeed the governments of all the Niger Delta states, because the projects that we want to do are in their states. They (governors of the nine states in the Niger Delta) must know about what we are doing. So that there will be no conflict and we do not have to duplicate projects in the states.
So, we are going to keep engaging more with the Rivers state government and all the governments in the region.
One thing that we have done differently, since we assumed office, is that we set up state budget committees. In drawing up budgets for the various states, we set up state budget committees that will sit down with their state governments and look at the development plan and agree on projects, based on the needs analysis that was done by our consultants. So that there will be no conflict with the state government and that there will be no duplication of projects. We must agree that these are the areas we want to focus on, because the state governments and NDDC, we do not have infinite funds. We have got to be able to agree. The little resources that we have, how will they be deployed? So that we have the greatest good for our people and for the region. That is the problem that we had, but we believe that with more engagements with the relevant stakeholders and the state governments, that these problems will be eliminated and the relationships, which we actually crave, will be very good, will be developed and will be better.

The National Assembly members took steps to amend the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Act. While the NDDC supports the amendment, State governors of the region appear opposed to the amendment. Why the opposing stands?
NDDC is committed to continuously improve the engagements that we have with the respective state governments in the Niger Delta region, to agree on the projects to do.
Generally, the needs of the Niger Delta region are well known. They are there for everybody and all the development points to see. If you engage more with the relevant stakeholders, areas of conflict will be eliminated. That is what we are committed to doing.

What is your reaction to the underfunding of NDDC, especially the refusal of the oil companies to properly support the commission, the disagreements on funds to be contributed to the Federal Government’s interventionist agency and huge funds still yet to be released to NDDC by the Federal Government, as its contribution to the commission?
It is true that there have been disagreements in the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, the Federal Ministry of Finance and NDDC over what should actually be paid to
NDDC, in accordance with the provisions of the NDDC Act.
We did a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari on this. Fortunately, Mr. President has directed that we (NDDC officials) should sit together with officials of the Federal Ministry of
Finance and the Federal Ministry of Budget and Planning, to set up a reconciliation committee that will reconcile exactly what has been paid, what is supposed to be paid and then when we know what is due us and what is outstanding, we will agree on a payment plan, based on the resources available to the Federal Government. Something acceptable between NDDC and the Federal Government. We believe that this is going to be resolved and then the Federal Government will make good its contributions to NDDC’s funds.

How much is the Federal Government owing NDDC?
From our records, we have something in the neighbourhood of about N1.7 trillion that is outstanding in favour of NDDC.
There is a reconciliation presently going on, as directed by President Buhari. At the end of the reconciliation, we intend that the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Budget Office will have one figure and NDDC will have the same figure. So that we know that it is exactly what it is and the Federal Government will work towards the payment.

Some contractors have been grumbling that every new board/management of NDDC comes and awards fresh contracts while abandoning old projects. What is your management doing about the payment plan for executed projects?
If you look at the framework of the present budget that we are doing, we have 60:40 split; 60 per cent for ongoing projects and 40 per cent for new projects. That is what we are doing. In view of the number of all ongoing projects, we cannot realistically take on all of them. We have set up a committee. We are looking at the projects that will deliver the greatest good to our communities and the region. Then, we will prioritise those projects that we can complete very quickly, that will give the highest impact for the people of the host communities and the region. Then, we will concentrate on those and we are advocating 40 per cent of our budget to continue with those projects. The rest will take care of overheads, staff and everything and new projects.
We are not going to go that much into brand-new projects, except the regional projects that will be deliberately targeted at creating an integrated regional economy. Those are mostly the new projects that we are going to start. Otherwise, the concentration will be working on the projects that are already on-going. So that we can deliver on them for the good of our people and the Niger Delta region.

What are you doing to engage idle youths in the Niger Delta region, especially those who beg for alms from visitors and staff of the NDDC at the gate of the commission’s headquarters?
Well, it is unfortunate that when we resumed, we found out that there were a group of young people who usually stay around the gate of NDDC. We understand that some of them have been there right from the inception of the NDDC. We also understand that some of them have even benefitted from training programmes that NDDC have had over the years. And after the programmes, they get the starter-packs but unfortunately, they sell them off and then, get back to the gate.
I had to find out from the staff of the commission. Is it that it is more profitable to remain at the gate than to be self-employed? But I think that this is one of the larger problems of the region. We need to educate the mind-set of our youths, of our people. We need to restructure their thinking so that they think more of sustainable economic activities other than just harassing people and receiving money from them. That attitude and that very unfortunate way of thinking is responsible for part of the problems we are having in the region and why most of the businesses that were here have moved out of the region.

So, we keep working with the youth. We are committed to developing a sustainable economic model that will get the youths engaged, get them employed in sustainable livelihoods. Most of the training programmes that the NDDC had done over the years and what we are going to do going forward will be geared and tailored towards ensuring that the beneficiaries are involved in meaningful sustainable economic livelihood activities. Going forward we will have several skill acquisition programmes in agriculture, in aquaculture, in welding. The idea is get our youths properly trained with the right skills that the oil and gas industry needs, be useful for themselves and be engaged in oil and gas companies and also provide the needed manpower that the oil and gas industry needs.

We also have several kinds of skill acquisition training. For instance, recently, we had training in catering, home management, food processing and other kinds of ventures. So, we are looking at an entire package, a new way of developing skills acquisition training, equipping them with the right skills that will make them useful to themselves and the society on a sustainable basis. Another thing we are thinking of doing is direct support to small and medium scale enterprises and we are going to work with development partners and institutions to achieve this over a long term.
Now, there is something we also discovered that we must deliberately do. Ordinarily, the Niger Delta region is one region in this country that does not ordinarily attract industrial activities. I mean the people that are here are here mainly to exploit hydrocarbons and natural products that God has given to us.

This is a region that has over nine months of rainfall in a year. Now, over 70 per cent of the core Niger Delta states are below sea level. The terrain is not very friendly; it is not very attractive because of cost of development. That is why Niger Delta is very difficult to build because of our terrain. We have a very peculiar terrain. It is a rain forest and we have infestations of mosquitoes, of all kinds of natural challenges that make the region a little less attractive for investment and industrialization. So, we must come up with a very well-articulated plan to attract businesses and attract investment to the Niger Delta region. That is the way we are thinking. We are articulating a programme right now, which we are working on with our consultants and we shall be able to unveil it in the next couple of months.

Apart from getting our youths busy, we want to ensure that over the medium and long terms, that the Niger Delta region can attract industries and other business activities that will sustain/grow our economy and improve/increase our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and generally lead to prosperity and wellbeing of our people.

What is NDDC specifically doing to employ the teeming qualified youths of the Niger Delta?
Agriculture has been and will always be one of the greatest ways of creating jobs and helping with the socio-economic wellbeing of an area. Apart from providing food and stopping importation of food, it will of course help to create jobs for the teeming youth population of the Niger Delta.
We had many agricultural programmes in the past. One of which is the rice mills that NDDC built about 10 years ago. A couple of weeks back, I had cause to go and have a look at the rice mills. We have two of them, one in Elele, Rivers State and a second one, which is in Akwa Ibom State.

The two rice mills were built and delivered about 10 years ago, but they do not have some of the facilities that will provide boilers. Nigerians eat parboiled rice. We do not eat coloured rice. We also need to install de-stoners and other support facilities that will help us to process the rice and get it to the condition that we are accustomed to.

We have decided to reactivate the two rice mills and to get them functional. We have decided to do it, using the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) approach. It is going to be a collaboration between NDDC and some private sector investors.
We want to concession the mills. We have already identified two investors. So that we can, at no cost to us (NDDC), because we are using what we already have on the ground as our contribution and then we get the private sector to raise funds and provide whatever additional facilities required, to get the rice mills functional.

More importantly, the rice out-growers’ scheme is the aspect we want to emphasise, because we want the investors to, apart from running the rice mills, provide the necessary seedlings and technical support to get people in the vicinity and other parts of the Niger Delta region to produce rice, the feedstock required for the rice mills to produce locally (in the Niger Delta), instead of bringing the paddy from the Northern part of Nigeria. Right now, it is only in the Northern part of the country that there is enough capacity.
We will start an out-growers’ scheme, which will help us to create jobs for thousands of Niger Delta people. We are already discussing that and I am sure that in a maximum of two weeks, we would have had tangible agreements for the investors to take off with the programme.
I want to assure the Niger Delta people and the Federal Government, latest before the end of this year, the two rice mills in the Niger Delta will be functional and we will eat rice from the mills.

Why are some NDDC projects not functional and what is the commission doing about them?
The major problem of government, after you provide infrastructure, is that the infrastructure provided is not well maintained. That is why it is important to keep having regular interactions and engagements with the host/beneficiary communities. So that the projects can be owned by the people of the host communities and then they will come up with the mechanism that can maintain the projects.
We are having the NDDC projects, we have made provision to rehabilitate a lot of the solar-powered electricity and water supply projects all over the Niger Delta region. We are presently talking with some contractors to rehabilitate these projects for the good of our people.