Waiting for Impending Opening of NDDC’s Pandora’s Box

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the recent order by President Muhammadu Buhari for a forensic audit of the operations of the Niger Delta Development Commission may lead to revelation of problems that were not known to exist before

It is exactly two months today since the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio assumed office. Things have happened in quick succession following the new posting of the former Governor of Akwa Ibom State. While Nigerians expected supervisors in the different ministries to settle down to work, legal practitioner, Festus Keyamo, who was assigned to serve under Akpabio, as Minister of State, was redeployed to the Ministry of Labour and Employment, while Senator Tayo Alasoadura, previously Minister of State for Labour replaced him.

The redeployment which came about one month after the ministers were sworn in was rumoured to be the result of sweltering feud between Akpabio and Keyamo, but both men denied any misunderstanding between them. Another pointer suggested that the Presidency was trying to correct a seeming error that was capitalized on by the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and other critics mocking the appointment of both men into the same ministry. Keyamo, it was said, had prosecuted Akpabio when he served as counsel to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) investigating the former governor of Akwa Ibom State. While the veracity of this assumption cannot be ascertained, what is not in doubt is that Akpabio who is apparently in love with total power to direct or determine the outcome of happenings was going to have a tough time working with Keyamo who is equally a hard nut to crack. Though both men are lawyers, Keyamo stands higher on the rung of the professional ladder. However, Akpabio has recorded greater political mileage, having served as a governor and a senator. Definitely, the imminent conflict between the two men was a matter of time, therefore, the Presidency, having noted the importance of the work that needs to be done in the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, moved in quickly to evade any calamity that may embarrass the government of President Muhammadu Buhari.

Nevertheless, those who fingered Akpabio as having a hand in Keyamo’s redeployment continued to hold him responsible for masterminding the transfer of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) from the direct control of Mr. President to the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs. Akpabio was quoted to have written a request to have the NDDC transferred to him the day after he was officially sworn in as a minister. In less than three weeks, the Presidency communicated approval through the office of the Chief of Staff to the President, Mr. Abba Kyari.

Akpabio’s appointment to the Niger Delta Ministry comes as a comfort to many in his home state, Akwa Ibom, where the former Managing Director of the NDDC, Mr. Nsima Ekere hailed from. Ekere came under a barrage of criticism from his kinsmen for abandoning what many believe was a high profile employment to contest the governorship of the state on the ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC), a bid that he lost. For the major part of Ekere’s tenure, he was in direct confrontation with the leadership of Akwa Ibom State government over choice of place to execute NDDC projects. The government of Governor Udom Emmanuel had at different times, accused the NDDC of not observing the normal courtesy of seeking cooperation of a governor in the different states. In one instance, Emmanuel said the right way to go was to have the commission seek the approval of governors in the Niger Delta states before it embarked on development projects. He said, “The NDDC does not own even a piece of land. It is the governors that are in-charge of land. NDDC should not enter any of the nine states to do any project without permission from the governors.”

In a situation that the Governor of Akwa Ibom State and the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, who is an Akwa Ibomite and incidentally, the immediate past governor of the state dislike each other intensely, ‘politicization’ of NDDC projects, particularly in Akwa Ibom State is expected to continue. Though Emmanuel has expressed a willingness to “Actually come together…. The state government, federal government agencies joining together to actually make sure we impact on the lives of people,” evidence of acceptance of this olive branch is yet to be seen. The Akwa Ibom governor has alluded to the fact that it is possible to make improvement in the living condition of the people of the Niger Delta top of the mind. “When it is time for politics we will play politics. When it’s time for development, let’s develop and impact on the lives of our people and leave some of these things that we are doing,” he said.

Curiously, Akpabio has made a move which has drawn the ire of many groups in the Niger Delta when he reportedly suspended employment exercise in the NDDC with immediate effect.

According to the minister’s Chief Press Secretary, Anietie EkongThe commission’s payroll should not accommodate any new employee and should revert to the status quo as at August 31, 2019.”

A recent development that may preoccupy the attention of Akpabio is the forensic audit of the operations of the NDDC from 2001 to 2019 ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari. According to reports, the President was worried that evidence of development in the South-south region was not commensurate with the huge resources allotted to the agency since inception. The period under probe covers past administrations including President Olusegun Obasanjo, President Umaru Yar’Adua and President Goodluck Jonathan. The major concern is whether Buhari has the courage to make public what he is likely to find, including underhand activities at the NDDC involving persons very close to him, during his first tenure.

Across the nine states covered by the NDDC, there have been protests at different times, particularly by youths, drawing the attention of the authorities to various abandoned projects. At a convergence of former militants, one of their leaders, General Ebi, appealed to Buhari to order immediate probe of the NDDC by anti-graft agencies. The nine states under the Niger Delta include Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, Edo, Abia, Imo and Ondo

For a long time, the NDDC has been a cesspool of corruption. And it is now obvious that the President, whose avowed task is to fight corruption has turned the searchlight on the NDDC. He said, “With the amount of money that the Federal Government has religiously allocated to the NDDC, we will like to see the results on the ground; those that are responsible for that have to explain certain issues. The projects said to have been done must be verifiable. You just cannot say you spent so much billions and when the place is visited, one cannot see the structures that have been done. The consultants must also prove that they are competent.”

Apart from allocations from the Federal Government, the International Oil Companies (IOCs), operating in Nigeria have made major monetary contribution to the NDDC. For instance, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) and partners said it remitted about USD2 billion (about N720 billion) to the NDDC in 16 years, between 2002 and 2018.

SPDC’s General Manager, External Relations, Igo Weli, said the money was released to NDDC as part of the company’s contribution towards development of the Niger Delta. Weli said that besides the remittance to NDDC the company had made huge contributions on both human and infrastructure development in its host Niger Delta communities.

The hint at the forensic report which has been ordered by the President was first issued by Akpabio at a meeting with top management of the NDDC. The minister vowed to conduct a forensic audit and analysis of the money that came into the commission and how it was spent all these years. Going back in time, Akpabio said, “Since the time of OMPADEC, you started a building; unfortunately, 20 years after, you have not been able to complete it. You should also have a little bit of sober reflection. It is a meeting to appraise where we are today, where we ought to be and where we are going. You have before you a representative of Mr. President who is very poised and determined to work with you to redirect the NDDC. The creation of NDDC was strategic, it was a child of necessity. I believe that the NDDC has not performed well. There are a lot of complaints all over, even from the youths of Niger Delta. We talk about the NDDC as if it is a cash cow. But I think that in terms of debt and what you pile up, you are owing over N2 trillion. We will stop you from paying N200 million to N300 million a year as rent on the headquarters you are staying. You should be ashamed of paying the state government over N200 million to N300 million a year when you could have completed where you are and move in. How come we don’t have legacy projects to show in the Niger Delta? With strong collaboration between the Ministry and Niger Delta, I see a brighter future.

The discovery of huge sleaze transactions in the NDDC under the management of Nsima Ekere, particularly the issue of the payment of rent on commission’s headquarters building in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, was said to have made Akpabio very angry.

In a presentation to the joint session of the National Assembly, President Muhammadu Buhari made a budget estimate of N10.33 trillion for the year 2020. In it, N80.88 billion was allocated to NDDC, which is now supervised by the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. The 2019 allocation to the NDDC was N71.20billion. Under the Buhari administration, the budget of the NDDC has witnessed marked increase, every year. In 2018, the budget of the commission stood at N61 billion. This is a demonstration of Buhari’s understanding that development of infrastructure in the Niger Delta region demands more resources because of its peculiar terrain.

At the beginning of the year, the Federal Government dissolved the board of the NDDC. Its reconstitution about eight months after met with resistance from governors of Niger Delta states who rejected the board nominees of the NDDC appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari. The governors, under Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State said the process did not reflect effective governance mechanism.

The NDDC was established by former President Olusegun Obasanjo on June 5, 2000. Its major assignment includes developing an oil rich Niger Delta region and addressing the yearnings and agitations of the people who do not feel the impact of government through the years.

The late President Umaru Yar’adua responded to the continued clamour for improvement of living condition in the Niger Delta with the creation of a Niger Delta ministry. However, large portions of the region remains undeveloped, with poor or non-existent, even as the people become more impoverished.

QUICK FACTS:

*The NDDC was established by former President Olusegun Obasanjo on June 5, 2000

*Its major assignment includes developing an oil rich Niger Delta region and addressing the yearnings and agitations of the people who do not feel the impact of government through the years

* The late President Umaru Yar’adua responded to the continued clamour for improvement of living condition in the Niger Delta with the creation of a Niger Delta ministry

*The nine states under the Niger Delta include Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, Edo, Abia, Imo and Ondo

* For a long time, the NDDC has been a cesspool of corruption. And it is now obvious that the President, whose avowed task is to fight corruption has turned the searchlight on the NDDC

* Apart from allocations from the Federal Government, the International Oil Companies (IOCs), operating in Nigeria have made major monetary contribution to the NDDC. For instance, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) and partners said it remitted about USD2 billion (about N720 billion) to the NDDC in 16 years, between 2002 and 2018

*In the 2020 budget, N80.88 billion was allocated to NDDC, which is now supervised by the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. The 2019 allocation to the NDDC was N71.20billion. Under the Buhari administration, the budget of the NDDC has witnessed marked increase, every year. In 2018, the budget of the commission stood at N61 billion

*President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered a forensic audit of the operations of the NDDC from 2001 to 2019. According to reports, the President was worried that evidence of development in the South-south region was not commensurate with the huge resources allotted to the agency since inception