In this report, Emmanuel Addeh contextualises the lingering confusion surrounding the tenure of the current leadership of the Niger Delta Development Commission
The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) appears to be a house in constant commotion, cataclysmic confusion and perpetual polemics. To be fair, the struggle to lead the interventionist agency or at least, have a bite of the regional pie is understandable. Those who have the rare opportunity to lead the body do not only control huge financial resources, but also with the positions, they are lucky to command some political power, which they often deploy in its fullness.
Aside governors of the states, where the NDDC operates namely, Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross Rivers, Imo, Abia and Ondo, the next most influential persons therefrom are arguably the holders of positions in the agency, originally set up to facilitate the rapid, even and sustainable development of the Niger Delta.
Little wonder, therefore, that many managing directors and chairmen of the organisation right from its first Chairman, Mr. Onyema Ogochukwu from Abia State, to a former MD, Mr. Timi Alaibe of Bayelsa State and even the current one, Nsima Ekere, selected from Akwa Ibom, have had their eyes firmly fixed on dethroning governors of their respective states. They are that powerful.
Set up 17 years ago, precisely in 2000 by the former President Olusegun Obasanjo government, the NDDC, headquartered in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, was a response by the Obasanjo administration to the many years of agitations by the oil-rich, but infrastructure-poor states, which felt abandoned, to have a better deal from the central government. But, it is also sadly debatable if successive boards of the body had been able to fulfill just one of its avowed missions, including ensuring a region that is â€œeconomically prosperous, socially stable, ecologically regenerative and politically peacefulâ€.
The intense politics within the NDDC is usually Machiavellian, with the end always justifying the means. The struggle to get a piece of the cake by the so-called stakeholders can be dirty and in extreme cases, deadly. The NDDC simply appears to be a cash cow, used in the main to win election, at least in the perception of the public, given the opaque manner the organisation is run.
So, it is within that context that the current confusion, purportedly created in part by the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government, represented by the office of the Secretary to the Federal Government on the one hand and â€˜outsidersâ€™ jostling to take over the running of the agency on the other can be properly situated.
How two contradictory letters purportedly emanated from the same office of government as exalted as that of the SGF remains befuddling, but the information in the public space (not rebutted by the government) is that while one of the memos signed by sacked SGF, Babachir Lawal, put the expiry date of the members of the board at December this year, the erstwhile acting SGF, Habiba Lawal, unilaterally sent another memo indicating that the board must exhaust a full term of four years.
It has also become a proxy war, with each group trying to throw the dirtiest mud on the other, using third parties.
On the one hand, the federal government and the board and maintain that no law has been broken by the continuation in office of the current board led by Senator Ndoma-Egba as chairman and Ekere as managing director.
Yet on the other, those opposed to the continuation of the board in office insist that by the law establishing it, the current board can only serve out the tenure of the last one, which was dissolved in 2016 by the federal government.
Each party to the dispute quotes parts of the NDDC Act to buttress its argument as to whether an illegality has been committed by the continuation in office of the current board or not. But it was Senator Emmanuel Paulker (Bayelsa Central), who first formally raised the alarm that there was a grand plan to surreptitiously extend the tenure of the Ndoma-Egba and Ekere-led board on the floor of the Senate.
In a motion entitled: â€œThe illegal extension of the tenure of the Board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC)â€ at plenary, Paulker argued that Section 4 of the Act states that the office of the Chairman shall rotate among member States of the Commission in alphabetical order. He noted that the chairmanship of the NDDC started with Abia State and had rotated in accordance with the Act up to Cross-River state now.
Quoting from the Act setting up the body the senator observed that â€œWhere a vacancy occurs in the membership board, it shall be filled by the appointment of a successor to hold office for the remainder of the term of his predecessor, so however, that the successor shall represent the same interest and shall be appointed by the President, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces subject to the confirmation of the Senate in consultation with the House of Representatives.â€
He noted that the Board headed by Senator Ndoma-Egba was appointed by the President, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces to replace the one headed by Senator Henshaw, maintaining that by section 5 (2) of the Act, the Board headed by Senator Egba (SAN), served out the remainder of the term of the board chaired by Senator Henshaw and would terminate in December 2017.
Paulker maintained that contrary to the clear provisions of Section 5 (2) of the NDDC Act, the tenure of the present board of the Commission had been illegally extended to four years by the immediate past Acting SGF, Lawal. The issue was thereafter referred to the NDDC Committee to take up the matter with the SGF for resolution after a debate at plenary.
However, in his response, the new SGF, Mr. Boss Mustapha, in a letter signed by a Permanent Secretary, Dayo Apata, titled: â€œRe: Clarification on the Tenure of the Governing Board of the NDDCâ€, concurred with his predecessor, Lawal, explaining that the Ndoma Egba-headed board was never a continuation of the dissolved one headed by Henshaw.
â€œSection 5(2) of the act refers to a situation where a vacancy occurs as a result of any of the provisions of section 5(1) of the act as opposed to when the entire board is dissolved. In this case, the previous board was dissolved and its tenure extinguished.
â€œDissolution of the board cannot be categorised as a vacancy under the act. Dissolution signifies total extinguishing of the board; it simply ceases to exist and there cannot be any remainder of any term which a successor is expected to completeâ€, he argued.
According to him, â€œThere has to be a fresh composition of the board for a fresh term of four years.â€
On the contrary, the sacked Lawalâ€™s November 1, 2016 appointment letter, with reference number SGF.55/S.2/C.3/IV/52, handed to Ekere said: â€œ…You are to serve out the remainder of the term of office of your predecessor, in line with section 5 (2) of the Act.â€ Therein lies the confusion.
With that memo, the tenure of the board is expected to be rounding off by now, but has by the second and somewhat contradictory letter â€˜extendedâ€™ it to 2020.
Despite the hullabaloo, members of the current board seem to have remained strategically mute, though from all indications, they have moved to clarify their positions through proxies. But what can be distilled from their side of the divide is that they appear to be holding firmly to section 3(1) of the NDDC Act.
â€œSubject to the provision of section 4 of this Act, a member of the Board, other than an ex-officio member shall hold office for a term of four years in the first instance and may be re-appointed for a further term of four years and no moreâ€, goes the section.
The back and forth argument, nonetheless, is whether the Ndoma-Egba-led board merely continued where that of Henshaw stopped like what obtained in the past, according to the sacked Lawalâ€™s letter, or whether it was a fresh mandate as written by the former acting SGF, Lawal and acceded to by Mustapha, who is currently occupying the position of SGF. What is clear is that the matter would not abate until thereâ€™s a definitive action on it which is seen to be fair to the major contenders.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives waded into the confusion and urged the Buhari-led executive to adhere strictly to the provisions of the NDDC Act, 2000, with respect to the tenure of the current board and called on its committee on NDDC to ensure compliance and brief the House within two weeks.
In a motion by Mr. Daniel Ofongo (PDP, Bayelsa), the lawmaker maintained that after the last Board of the NDDC was cut short, the letters of appointment of the new one required them to serve out the unexpired tenure of the board that was dissolved.
â€œThe pronouncement was in clear violation of section 5 (2) of the NDDC Act, 2000â€, he argued, insisting that if not properly handled, youth restiveness in the Niger Delta region could increase, noting that it would portend grave consequences on oil production and by extension the nationâ€™s revenue.
The seeming imbroglio has also attracted the influential Ijaw Youths Council (IYC) Worldwide, which warned against any attempt to â€˜extendâ€™ the tenure of the current board, saying the move was capable of causing fresh crisis in the region.
Secretary-General of IYC, Mr. Alfred Kemepado, who spoke in Yenagoa, urged President Muhammadu Buhari to prevail on persons pushing for the extension to drop the idea in the interest of peace and stability of the Niger Delta.
â€œThe Presidency is instigating crisis in the Niger Delta region. We are warning the SGF to tread carefully and desist from acts capable of causing crisis in the Niger Delta region. We saw the appointment letter and it was clearly stated that the current board was appointed to serve out the tenure of the administration it took over from. It was clear and lacked ambiguity.
â€œBy our calculation, the tenure of the current board has expired and they should vacate their offices for a fresh board to take over. Staying a day beyond their tenure is an act of corruption, which this administration is fighting againstâ€, he said.
The youth leader called on anti-corruption agencies in the country to wade in and investigate why there were conflicting statements from the presidency and the spending the board has undertaken since inauguration.
â€œWe are asking the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to begin investigation of this board, because we heard that they are spending a lot of money to ensure they sit tight in office. The presidency should graciously appoint a new board as stipulated in the laws and practice of NDDCâ€, he concluded.
Just to put it in proper context, the opposition voices from Bayelsa are the most vocal, because by the alphabetical rotation principle, somebody from the state is expected to take over if the current board leaves.
But in his defence of the Ndoma-Egba-led board, a Warri-based lawyer, Mr. Jesutega Onokpasa, has also faulted the claim by those calling for the removal of the current leadership of the NDDC. He argued that there was no indication in the Act setting up the NDDC that an entire board or even a new one would complete the tenure of a sacked one.
â€œThere was no substantive board in existence, when the members of the present board came on board, wherefore there are no sitting board members that they met on ground and joined, and therefore no board members whose tenure should expire in December 2017, whom they must then exit with,â€ he argued.
If the debate continues to rage, as it is not likely to subside soon, a judicial pronouncement on the matter if the courts are approached by the aggrieved party, it is believed, could resolve what for now looks like a very knotty issue.