Ekere: NDDC is Not a Cash Cow

0

Former Deputy Governor, Akwa Ibom State and Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Niger Delta Development Commission, Mr. Nsima Ekere, recently spoke with journalists on the reform agenda of his administration at the commission. Shola Oyeyipo presents the excerpts:

How has it been overseeing affairs at the NDDC?
It’s been very challenging, very engaging, but also very interesting. It is well intentioned by government to help the region deal with some of the effects of exploitation of hydrocarbon. So, it is a very good platform that could adequately address the challenges of development of the Niger Delta. And it has actually been doing that. Could it have done more? Probably! The greatest challenge I would say we have been facing is the overtrading that the NDDC has been involved in. Before we came in, the balance sheet of the commission was over-bloated. It is so huge.

Our reform agenda when we came on board were called the four Rs. To restructure the balance sheet of NDDC, because they were so huge and part of that is to reduce the number of new commitments – new liabilities we create. That is why we dedicated 70 per cent of our budget to ongoing projects so that we can try and complete them, and only 30 per cent is for overheads and new projects. And that is deliberate, because there is no point creating new liabilities for the commission when probably there is no money.
The second R, talking about the reform agenda that we came with, is to restructure the governance system of NDDC. We want NNDC to be known as an organisation that respects laws, respects government policies and follow due process in whatever we do. Before now, virtually anything could happen in NDDC. That is why we said we must improve the governance system and bring in technology to run things there.

The third plank of the reform agenda was to restore the commission back to its core mandate and get NDDC to concentrate on ticket projects that will lead to regional integration, build a regional economy, and stop competing with local governments. That is why for the first time, you will see that we have started doing projects in collaboration with state governments.
Some weeks back, we were in Ondo State where we flagged off the construction of a 51km road from Araromi side to Lagos. It is in collaboration with the state government. We also have collaboration with Edo State. We have collaboration with shell to do the Oria-Nembe road. It’s a new way of thinking in the NDDC.

The fourth is to generally rededicate ourselves to what is good at all time. To let everybody rededicate ourselves to doing things right for the good of the commission and the region. I am pleased we have gotten some positive results.
Are we where we want to be? I will say no. It’s still work in progress. A lot of work still has to be done. My prayers are that subsequent administrations in NDDC will see the need to continue with the reforms anytime that we leave.

What will you say are the major challenges at NDDC?
The greatest challenge to us as a management, I will say is the attitude of the people. There is this sense of entitlement. They have been spoilt for so long, so they are used to getting things done in a particular way and getting certain kinds of gratifications. Right now, they may not get what they are used to getting. So, the attitude is one of the greatest problems that we have faced and we are hoping we will keep working on their attitude.

Do you usually interact with the people on the kinds of projects you site in specific places?
We decided to adopt the bottom-up approach in project conceptualisation. We gather all kinds of representations from the communities. They write letters demanding projects, but we made up our minds that we must work in collaboration with the state governments. Before now, we had a situation where there were lots of conflicts with the state governments. You’re doing a road here and the state is also doing a road in the same place, you’re doing a water project, you will discover the chairman local government is also trying to do a borehole in the same place.

So, what we did was, we set up States Project Committees for the nine states of the region. They also serve as the budget committees. So, the state representatives on the board of NDDC chair that committee. We tell them, go to your state, engage with the state government and agree from all of the requests coming in from different communities, on which projects NDDC should take on board.
That is how we get the projects that we input into our budget and send to the National Assembly. So, we don’t just sit down at the head office and choose projects. Of course, I can’t say there wouldn’t be political interference in terms of project locations. Some inputs from the political class came in, particularly from the National Assembly, because when you send in budget, the budget belongs to the National Assembly. Whatever they return to you is the budget. And so, some of the projects you see there are not the projects we suggested.

Isn’t funding also part of your challenges?
It is a very huge challenge. I have a friend, who was MD of NDDC sometime ago, when he took over, he met a balance of N130bn. That was what he used to start work. When we came, we met about N2bn. Meanwhile, the salary bill of NDDC in a month is over N800m. So, by the time we paid the first salary the thing dropped and we couldn’t really do anything but we have been working with the oil companies to get their contribution to the NDDC fund and also the federal government contribution too has been coming in. There is a huge deficit in terms of what we get and what we are supposed to get from the federal government cumulatively. Over the years, we have a deficit of almost N1.8trn debt that the federal government owes the NDDC from inception till date.

How do you hope to retrieve the funds?
We have engaged the federal government. We wrote to the president. Fortunately, we got the sympathy of the president. He directed that the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Budget and Planning should sit down with NDDC, do reconciliation, agree on the exact amount that the shortfall has become cumulatively over the years and then agree on an acceptable payment plan so that the money can be paid to us.
Unfortunately, I will say we are not getting the kind of support we expected from the Ministry of Finance, because till date, we are on it but we haven’t agreed on anything yet, let me tell you the truth. We are hoping and putting pressure on them to try. Most of the funding we have used was from the oil companies. Most of them are paying. Of course, there are still some that are outstanding. But the Senate and House of Representatives have been outstanding in helping us retrieve the money.

There is this feeling that NDDC is doing more in infrastructure development than it is doing in poverty reduction. How do you react to that?
Let me say I share the concern you raised. We believe it is good to build infrastructure, but it is very necessary to build human capital as well. NDDC, over the years, has done a lot of capacity training; specialised training, skills and acquisition trainings in different areas. The last time we graduated some people that we trained on home finishing skills, I think that brought the total to almost 23,100 the number of people we trained in different skills.

We trained people on welding, catering, agriculture and all kinds of skills. But when I came I discovered that one of the challenges that we had was that there were these boys that usually stayed at the gate of the NDDC and some of them had been there for 15 years and they were still there. We discovered that even some of them had been beneficiaries of some of the training that NDDC had done over the years. I believe that we must look for sustainable development model that would keep our people permanently involved and engaged for a sustainable period of time.

We set up N5billion export oriented agricultural scheme. The idea is to help farmers in the region in their agricultural value chain and it is targeted specifically at export from shipping, fishing and even cassava. We will help people depending on various states and areas that have comparative advantages at certain products.

Secondly, we are also partnering Small and Medium Scale Enterprise Development Agencies of Nigeria (SMEDAN) in setting up an enterprise hub. SMEDAN has what they call Industrial Development Centres (IDCs) all over the country. It was set up in the 70s and then we discovered that in the Niger Delta region, they have about five or six IDCs that are not functioning.
So, in partnership with SMEDAN that specialises in helping small and medium scales enterprises to come up, we are setting up now the pilot scheme in Akwa Ibom State, in partnership with a private sector organisation, the first enterprise hub for new businesses and start-ups.

The advantage and the difference between this and the normal training is that in normal training, you just train people and at the end, give them starter packs and tell them to go. But with the hub, the people that you trained are empowered and you actually keep them within the hub, so that you can mentor them and supervise them and make sure that the businesses stand and do very well.
It is only after the businesses stand two, three, four years that you see that they are standing and employing people and the guys have really mastered it that you can now gradually take them out of the hub centres to the outer world. I am very passionate and enthusiastic that this particular hub will help the region.

Has it taken off yet?
We signed the MoU in November with SMEDAN and the private sector people and then in February, we signed the agreement with them for the hub to take off.

Is it true that the NDDC doesn’t pay contractors upfront?
Yes. I inherited that policy and I decided to keep it. Not to pay mobilisation to any contractor. We pay on milestone. As contractors work and raise Interim Payment Certificate (IPC), that is when we pay them.
This policy of actually stopping advanced payment has helped to sanitise our projects. So, you don’t have contractors collecting government money and abandoning sites. I appreciate the fact that some genuine contractors are put in tight corner but this helped us first of all to ensure that we are dealing with credible contractors.

There is a perception by some people that the NDDC is a cash cow. Since when you took over, what have you brought in to change that perception?
Let me give you a scenario of the NDCC. On monthly basis, from the federation account, we get about over N5billion and by the time we pay salaries and send money to state offices for overheads generally; salaries alone is about N800million and by the time you pay the state offices and impress to the various directorates and so on and so forth, you have about N3billion plus and you have conservatively about N1trillion as debt.

So, how can it be a cash cow when every month you are thinking of how to cut some fingers and add and pay contractors? Seriously, that is what it is. So, it is a wrong perception. Being the Managing Director of NDDC is a very tough and difficult job. You can’t sleep, because of this kind of perceptions you have. Everybody is expecting money. The boys in the region are expecting money; the elders are expecting money; the traditional rulers are expecting money.

How do you get this money and give to everybody? How do you satisfy them? It is a wrong perception. And I will charge the media to help us change this perception. NDDC is definitely not a cash cow. It doesn’t even have the capacity to be a cash cow in the current scenario. We are not generating any income.
We cannot be a cash cow. And then because we are now committed to doing things properly, following the law, policies and due process in all that we do, you will see that to collect N1 from NDDC, you will sweat; you will go through about 50 stages to be able to take money out of NDDC.

There are reports that the relationship between Akwa Ibom State government and the NDDC is not smooth and the perception is that you are using your office to do good things to your state, probably with the hope that you want to contest for governorship. Is that correct?
For a very long time, Akwa Ibom has been the number one oil producing state. If you look at the information from NNPC and DPR, you will see it has topped the chart in terms of percentage of oil production.

That automatically means Akwa-Ibom should also have the highest number of projects from the NDDC.
Before we came on board, that wasn’t the situation and so we give to Akwa-Ibom its due share of projects, because of its contribution to the national economy. It is unfortunate that people are looking at it from political view, which is making some people feel threatened, because we are bringing projects to Akwa-Ibom State.

But I think every responsible indigene should appreciate whatever contribution NDDC brings to Akwa-Ibom State. It’s not about politics; it’s not about APC or PDP; it’s about the Akwa-Ibom people. We have tried to make this known at every forum. Unfortunately, of the nine state governments in the Niger Delta region it is only Akwa-Ibom State that has refused NDDC to pay it courtesy call.

Are you likely to join the governorship race in the state?
It is too early to say. For now, I am working in NDDC. I am concentrating on working in NDDC. When election time comes, election matters will be considered on their merits. But for now, my work is NDDC.