Wale Odebiyi wonders why the Muhammadu Buhari regime has continued to ignore establishing the Niger Delta Development Commission in appointment of its statutory board
There was an item of news last week that is very significant in many ways for the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari and Nigerians in general because it reiterated the danger in the illegality going on currently at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). This piece of significant news came from the third anniversary lecture of Governor Rotimi Akeredolu’s administration in Ondo State and was delivered by the legal luminary Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) who spoke on ‘The Nigerian Federalism Imbroglio: A Pragmatic Approach.’ He said, “I am submitting that the management of the economy includes the appointment of personnel, the board members. It is so bad that some of the appointments have nothing to do with the law. For the NDDC, (the law says that) there shall be 19 members of the Board of NDDC. The Ninth Senate screened and when it was time for the President to inaugurate them he decided to jettison the Board and appointed an interim (management) committee. I am submitting here that there is no provision in the NDDC Act for an interim (management) committee.” This is indeed a wake-up call to the government.
The Federal Government has carried on like the laws which govern institutions do not matter and in doing so it has encouraged its high officials such as ministers to do the same, not minding the impact. To ignore the laws which govern national agencies is tantamount to a coup against the constitution and the laws of the country, the effect of which are not too far to imagine. In 2019 a little-known company by the name of PandID took the Nigerian government to court in the UK for the breach of a contract and won a staggering $9.6 billion, an amount that woke up Nigerians to the stupidity of our officials in ignoring the legal text that bind parties. Like a contractual document, an Act of parliament is a contract that spells out the nature and terms that guide the conduct of the affairs of an organisation for which the Act is made. This is what confronts the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) today.
The NDDC was established by an Act of the National Assembly in the year 2000 to address underdevelopment of the oil-bearing communities in the Niger Delta following years of neglect and agitation. Beginning from that time it was run by properly constituted Board of Directors until 2015 when President Buhari came into office.
In what has become a tradition for the current Federal Government, it ignored the law setting up the Commission and did not nominate a Board of Directors after dissolving the Board it met on assumption of office; rather, it appointed someone from outside the Commission as Acting Managing Director for almost one year. Of course, she did not go through the mandatory Senate screening and operated like a sole administrator and without a Board of Directors as provided for in the NDDC Act of 2000 (as amended). After a public outcry by Niger-Delta stakeholders that the Federal Government was breaching the Law, it then appointed a substantive Board in line with Section 2 Part 1 of the NDDC Act, which spells out the requirements for Board membership. The NDDC Act provides for the President to nominate a Chairman, Managing Director, two Executive Directors and one person who shall be an indigene of an oil producing area to represent each of the following member states, that is: Abia, Akwa-lbom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo, and Rivers states, and three persons to represent each of the non-oil mineral producing geo-political zones. Other members are: a representative of oil producing companies in the Niger- Delta nominated by the oil producing companies; one person to represent the Federal Ministry of Finance; and one person to represent Federal Ministry of Environment. By the provisions of the NDDC Act, they shall be appointed for a fixed term of four years in the first instance subject to the confirmation of the Senate. But the Buhari regime has followed this law only in the breach and this has led to agitations by community, rights and youth groups in the Niger Delta.
Following the outcry that greeted the disregard for the NDDC Act in 2016, President Buhari decided to constitute a substantive board in line with the provisions of the NDDC Act, That Board was screened and approved by the senate and was in office till 2018 when it was dissolved and then partially reconstituted. Then in August 2019, a few months after President Buhari was sworn in for a second term the president nominated a 16-man substantive Board of Directors and in line with the NDDC Act sent the list to the Senate for screening. The Senate screened and approved 15 of the nominees as members of the Board of Directors of the NDDC. The broad representation in the Board gave most stakeholders a feeling that the years of taking an ad-hoc approach to the NDDC, which was common in the first term, was being put aside. But the government surprised even itself when the Minister for Niger Delta, Senator Godswill Akpabio, plotted and got the president to approve an interim management committee for the NDDC to the chagrin of Nigerians.
So just when everyone thought the right thing was about to be done and a substantive board inaugurated for the NDDC, the same government permitted the appointment of a 3-man interim management committee for the commission. This is what has upset the people of the region and other Nigerians who wonder how a legally constituted Board should be put on hold for an interim management committee in glaring contravention of the law setting up the commission.
The argument the government makes for running the NDDC without a substantive board is spurious if not dubious. That there is a plan for a forensic audit is not a cogent reason for the law and due process to be ignored. The interim management committee is not the forensic auditor and there is no special value that the members of this committee bring to the table. A substantive Board constituted in line with NDDC Act can supervise the audit and also carry on its normal functions as the management Board, which is exactly what the illegal interim management committee is currently doing. So there is no basis for ignoring due process and governing the commission by an ad-hoc committee not known to the NDDC Act. As has been pointed out by Nigerians, the actions undertaken by this interim committee will be called to question in a court of law and all its decisions voided because of the illegality of the management in place. In summary, there is no point in ignoring the provisions of the NDDC Act and continuing with an illegal committee, except there is more than we are being told by the Niger Delta minister who seems to have made the NDDC his only mandate.
The Minister of Niger Delta continues to speak about the forensic audit as the only task of his interim management committee. However, in reality, this illegal interim management committee, is administering the current budget of the commission put at over N300 billion and is busy awarding contracts and posturing as a properly constituted management. No matter how it is constituted, since it is not in line with the NDDC Act, as the situation is currently, the commission is in grave danger and the impact can be far-reaching indeed. All the activities being undertaken by this illegal interim management committee such as the award of contracts can be challenged by any disaffected party because, as it is, the management has no legal standing before the law. I am sure President Buhari is conscious of his legacy and would not want decisions made under his watch to come under dire legal scrutiny that will cause Nigeria further embarrassment in the global community and huge financial penalties.
The point needs to be repeated that for every wrong decision of government every Nigerian suffers because very limited resources are diverted to paying liabilities if and when these actions are challenged in a court of law and the challenge succeeds. Law is a very simple science because it is based on the clear evidence of the written word. As the PandID (Process and Industrial Development) case shows, taking wrong decisions that are unlawful and can be challenged can damage not just the image of the whole country but cause heavy financial losses, which Nigeria cannot afford at this time. The federal government should do what is lawful and in line with due process and correct itself by inaugurating a substantive board for the NDDC.
*Odebiyi is based in Lagos