After suffering many decades of neglect and being confined to the roles of hewers of firewood and fetchers of water for the rest of Nigeria, the people of the Niger Delta got a breather when the administration of then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, created the Ministry of the Niger Delta to handle the responsibility of rebuilding the region from the near ruins of oil exploration and production activities.
Considering the enormous work that needed to be done to compensate for the economic, social, infrastructural and human losses the people of the area had suffered over a long time, the government also set up the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) as an interventionist agency to help accelerate development of the region, especially in the area of infrastructure.
The ministry and the agency were expected to work independently of each other, but with the common goal of bringing development to a region that had for long suffered untold hardship and neglect by successive administrations from the time oil was struck in Oloibiri in 1959, in present Bayelsa State. This informed the decision to make NDDC an agency under the Presidency, free from ministerial control.
If NDDC has not performed optimally since its establishment, it is not because it was under the Presidency, nor could it have fared better if it was under the supervision of the Ministry of the Niger Delta. Rather, as revelations have emerged, the agency abandoned its mandate and, under different leaderships, became the minting machine for politicians who saw a convenient means through which to finance their governorship ambitions. Those who had no governorship ambitions equally saw a goldmine that guaranteed an endless source of stupendous wealth.
We are now hearing that one individual got paid the huge sum of one billion naira every month just to get oil companies to pay their statutory contributions to NDDC. It makes you wonder if the commission needs a consultant to periodically remind (or is it persuade?) oil companies to remit a certain percentage of their income, as required by law, into its coffers. A senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is also said to be single-handedly handling 300 contracts awarded (and perhaps fully paid for) by the commission.
Nigerians should be prepared for the stench that would emanate from the forensic audit President Muhammdu Buhari has promised to carry out in the agency since its establishment. It shouldn’t surprise anybody if an independent audit by a reputable firm ends up not leaving out any of the so-called big names in the Niger Delta region as having soiled their hands in the free-for-all that ensued in NDDC in the past 19 years or so.
After crying out against marginalisation for decades, the people of the Niger Delta region were given the opportunity to personally write their scripts and correct the years of wrongs meted out to them. They have been the ones running both the NDDC and Ministry of the Niger Delta. But what have been the results of their involvement in re-writing their own history? A litany of woes, corruption and mismanagement, with uncompleted projects littering the entire landscape, while a handful of corrupt beneficiaries continues to smile to the bank.
It is against the background of the need for an urgent repositioning of NDDC that the current power play instigated by Senator Godswill Akpabio, minister of the Niger Delta, should be of concern to all right thinking people of the region in particular and Nigeria in general. It should worry everybody that the minister is re-enacting his lust for power which is well known in his home state of Akwa Ibom on an agency that is in dire need of a new sense of direction.
At first, the minister got the Presidency to bring NDDC under his ministry in a scheme that defies explanation, considering that the law that set up the commission has yet to be amended to give him supervisory power over it. He proceeded to set up an interim management committee that is not known to the NDDC Act. This is to allow him run the commission from his office in Abuja through an illegal proxy.
The Senate should prove wrong now that it is early in the morning the belief by skeptics and political opponents that it is going to be an extension of the Executive arm in the current dispensation. It should put its foot down by insisting on operation of the NDDC Act that removes from any ministry any form of control of the commission. The upper chamber of the National Assembly must ensure the board of the NDDC that it has confirmed is allowed to function in the manner it is expected to do.
There is much work to be done, and the board needs the most conducive atmosphere to be able to carry out its mandate, without the distraction of an illegal management committee. With the level of disappointment that has trailed revelations of large-scale sleaze in NDDC over many years, only a focused and result-oriented board can restore public confidence in the commission as it faces the onerous task of building the Niger Delta region.
There is reason to believe that the incoming board has what it takes to heal the pains of the people of the Niger Delta who have watched helplessly as their living conditions deteriorate every day despite reports of huge sums that are purportedly being spent on their welfare.
Akpabio has a lot on his plate to keep him busy throughout his tenure, chief among which is the East-West Road that has remained a bottomless pit into which each successive government sinks money without result. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world, took five years to complete. But the East-West Road is now under the fourth administration after more than 16 years without any indication of when it would be completed. That should engage Akpabio’s attention, not NDDC.
––Ntia, a public affairs commentator, lives in Abuja.