Damian Nwikinaka, a rights activist, argues that the only thing that can return sanity to the Niger Delta Development Commission is for President Muhammadu Buhari to insist that the agency be run by its established governing laws
The current drama that has enveloped the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is needless. It has come about because the current administration has treated the Niger Delta Region as a conquered people to be disregarded and treated without dignity. So, the law governing the NDDC has to be set aside to accommodate an illegal contraption such as the Interim Management Committee, and to do this, spools of tales of misdemeanors must be spun to paint a picture of a people against themselves. Yet, all the President needed to do to address whatever defects there are in the NDDC is to order a forensic audit, like it did in the NNPC, while keeping the Governing Board in place in line with the law. No other section of this country has been treated in such a manner where an external audit of a development agency becomes a basis for setting aside the law setting up the institution, which provides for a Governing Board to ensure fairness and inclusion across the region.
Institutions such as the NNPC, NPA and others are audited regularly, even forensic audits, but no drama attends them. Their Governing Laws were not set aside. Their Governing Boards were not put on hold. There were no orchestrated media campaigns. The North East Development Commission is operating in line with its Governing Act but the NDDC Governing Act must be set aside for an illegal interim management committee to operate! It is even more laughable that the only reason for putting up this IMC and robbing the Niger Delta people of the full breadth of Board representation of the nine constituent states in line with the NDDC Act is an external audit. Excuses have never come cheaper!
The NDDC was set up in 2000 directly under the Presidency to push the development of the oil producing Niger Delta, following years of neglect. The transfer of the NDDC to the Niger Delta Ministry under the current Minister Senator Godswill Akpabio last year is what has created more problems, with the minister insisting on running it like his own personal fiefdom. Desirous of controlling the management directly, he subsequently manipulated to have the Board put on hold, while he appoints and shuffles the IMC at will, with the strange argument of supervising the forensic audit.
An external audit is a regular activity in most organisations and they do not come at the expense of the law and due process. Again, on the NDDC, this is one of those knee-jerk actions of the Muhammadu Buhari administration that can’t be understood. How does the setting aside of the law of an agency guarantee a process that leads to transparency and positive outcomes? In any sane society the disregard for the law governing an institution raises red flags for the integrity of that institution and every action taken during that period. Put differently, what message does the disregard for the law send?
Over the last six months since President Buhari approved the appointment of the IMC in willful disregard for the NDDC Act, there has been an attempt to justify the illegality on two main planks, the first being the powers of the president to appoint anyone to an office, even if in breach of the law setting up that office; and the second reason is the corruption at the NDDC, which necessitates breaking the law setting up the Commission.
On the first reason, some have argued that the president has almost limitless powers to appoint whomsoever he desires to head a federal agency even when that agency has a clearly defined law governing its operation. This position is, sadly, a throwback to the period of military rule when the Nigerian Constitution was suspended and the military junta could virtually carry on as it pleased. Nothing in a democratic regime gives the President the powers to abrogate the laws governing a federal institution. In fact, the deliberate, willful, disregard for the law is a violation of the president’s oath of office, which states, among others, “that as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I will discharge my duties to the best of my ability, faithfully and in accordance with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the law.” We do not want a throwback to the period of military rule where might is right, even as an affront to the law and due process.
The second excuse that the IMC is necessary to supervise the audit is even more tenuous. An external audit is a regular activity that does not demand the putting on hold of a board. It is not even healthy, as those who understand governance systems would confirm, to have a sitting management, whether statutory or interim, supervise the external audit. In fact, no external auditor worth its salt would subscribe to that kind of arrangement. What then is the basis for not having the NDDC Governing Board in place, especially if that board is nouveau, in which case its operation is not being audited? If it is not ignorance, the motive can only be sinister. It may be, perhaps, to have the external forensic auditors deliver a compromised report especially as the appointors of the IMC and the auditors have been named as godfathers of some of the managements being audited!
While he was Governor of Akwa Ibom State between 2007 and 2015, Akpabio nominated a Chairman, Managing Director, Executive Director and State Representatives for the NDDC, who practically ran the Commission as his proxies. Whistleblowers have named companies linked to Akpabio that received NDDC contracts running into several billions of naira while he was Akwa Ibom State Governor but did not execute them. Those managements and companies are also supposed to be the subject of the forensic audit but the minister is shielding them using the IMC and his handpicked auditor. To use the words of Darlington Nwauju, the spokesman of the Niger Delta Rights Advocates, in a statement by the group: “Our fears are daily heightened that leaving the NDDC in the hands of an unpatriotic and gluttonous cabal will spell doom for the collective development aspiration of the peoples of the Niger Delta.”
Today, Niger Deltans feel like they are being taken for a ride by the current administration. Even the National Assembly, which the people should look up to, has failed to assert itself and defend the Law. The result is the restlessness and agitations that we have seen in recent times. In comparison, the North East Development Commission is quietly operating under the Presidency without the drama that has been whipped up at the NDDC. No parallel can be more grievous, that while the NDDC is stymied in State-aggravated confusion, the NEDC is operating without drama. In this, the people of the Niger Delta continue to suffer the physical underdevelopment of our region. The way out is for President Muhammadu Buhari to follow the NDDC Act in constituting its management. Not this drama of an ad hoc IMC.
It should be clear to everyone that no ad hoc arrangement, like the IMC, can pacify the people of the region, since it is in opposition to the established law, which is the NDDC Act of 2000, as amended. That Act takes into cognisance the broad diversity of our region and our peculiar needs, and provides for a Governing Board and other structures to guarantee representation in the NDDC management. Section 2 Part 2 of 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. The Act has no provision for an interim management committee!
In August 2019, a few months after he was sworn in for a second term, President Buhari nominated 16 members for a substantive Governing Board in line with the NDDC Act and 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 tendency to taking an ad-hoc approach to the NDDC, which was common in his first term, was being put aside. Just when everyone thought the right thing was about to be done and a substantive board inaugurated for the NDDC, the Interim Management Committee was announced. And, with it, has come the subsequent drama of corruption allegations, staff victimisation, nepotism, ministerial interference, questionable deaths, paid writers distorting the issues on ground, resignations, and the unconventional experience of an agency of government threatening an arm of government performing its legitimate functions as provided for in the Nigerian Constitution!
These illegalities and inconsistencies in the way and manner the NDDC is managed are what have produced the media bedlam on the Commission
Going forward, for the NDDC to find its bearing, the Federal Government should critically examine the situation on ground in the light of the current realities and make adjustments as follows:
1. The IMC has to be sacked because it is illegal as it is not provided for in the NDDC Law. It serves no functional purpose in the administration of the NDDC as it is not necessary for the forensic audit and should be disbanded.
2. The NDDC Governing Board, which is provided for in line with the law, should be put in place immediately to run the affairs of the Commission.
3. The allegations of corruption and abuse of office, which have been made against the IMC, must be investigated by the National Assembly in line with its Constitutional mandate of oversight as provided for in Section 88 of the Nigerian Constitution. The National Assembly should probe these allegations made against the IMC and Akpabio, and recover all funds spent without proper appropriation and in negation of extant rules of financial propriety.
4. The Federal Government should appoint an internationally reputable audit firm to handle the forensic audit, just as the NNPC audit was done by Price Waterhouse a few years back while the legitimate board and management was still in place. The board and management of the NNPC were not set aside for an IMC in order to do the audit.