Can Federal Lawmakers Make a Statement of Courage With the NDDC Probe?

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Segun James implore the National Assembly to display courage in the ongoing probe of the Niger Delta Development Commission and avoid reenactment of the ugly past in which federal lawmakers embark on investigation of profligacy only to be enmeshed in the same web

In Nigeria’s continuing drama of the absurd, particularly in governance, the latest gripping episode on which all eyes are focused is the sordid details of financial infractions at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), by the ongoing inquiry by federal lawmakers.

The NDDC-gate which has entrapped the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio on all sides has many elements of a blockbuster; pursuit of power, big money, sex and treachery. An amazed nation is enthralled by the mind boggling revelations coming out of the NDDC probe. Civil society groups in the long suffering region that had recently been clamouring for the disbandment of the Interim Management Committee, which runs the NDDC in place of a substantive Board previously approved by the Senate but held in abbeyance may feel justified that the ill they seek to correct all along has become an inescapable national discourse. There have been insistent calls for an interrogation of the motives behind Akpabio’s actions since he took charge of the NDDC.

Statements by a former Acting Managing Director of the NDDC, Ms Joi Nunieh corroborate what activists in the beleaguered region, which is home to much of Nigeria’s oil and gas wealth have been saying against Akpabio; that he came with a mission to cover the tracks of his financial shenanigans in the agency and perhaps further milk the country’s cash cow to death. Nunieh’s evidence are weighty. She is not an anonymous whistleblower. She is not a faceless petitioner. She is the former head of the agency with access to first hand information and incontrovertible facts, complete with names of persons, dates, figures and places. And she has been speaking under oath.

So, Nunieh has told the federal lawmakers and the world that one of Akpabio’s first actions was to call for files of certain companies that were linked to him. As a former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Akpabio had the privilege, at different times, to nominate Managing Director of the NDDC, Chairman of the NDDC Board and Executive directors. By asking for those files, he sought to bury any shred of information that may indict him. To achieve this, he ensured the transfer of top directors from the headquarters of the NDDC in Port Harcourt, Rivers State to less dignifying offices in the other states which constitute the nine Niger Delta states.
More than one year after he assumed office, Akpabio has done none of the major things he was grandstanding about on his first at work at the NDDC headquarters.

Akpabio said the story of NDDC in the last 19 years has not been rosy. The NDDC which was expected to change the development narrative of the Niger Delta region , according to the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, had become an automated teller machine (ATM) to politicians and few privileged individuals who have access to the men in power, while the ordinary people of the Niger Delta are left to bear the brunt of environmental degradation, poverty and underdevelopment. He promised to stem the tide of humongous sleaze that have been perpetrated in the interventionist agency over the years. What he conveniently kept away from from the people was his involvement in everything he mentioned right from when he became governor up to the period he served as a senator. His accusing fingers were indeed pointing at himself.

Akpabio cleverly conceived and sold the idea of a forensic audit of the Commission from 2001 to 2019 to President Muhammadu Buhari, but it was a decoy. He had no intention to carry out any forensic audit. Which explains his insistence to work with an IMC instead of the statutory Board. Another act that exposed his true intention is the refusal to appoint a world acclaimed audit firm.

From Nunieh’s account to the world, Akpabio had perfected a grand scheme to hoodwinked all stakeholders in the NDDC with the impression that a forensic audit was going on. Nunieh said it is lie. “I raised the issue of Forensic Audit that the President brought IMC so that we could superintend over the audit and that the issue he raised against me was that on national television I said that NFIU, EFCC, the DSS and the World Bank consultants must be part of that. I believe the President’s legacy for anti-corruption and I know Mr.
President, I have worked with him, I know that he is interested and he loves the people of the Niger Delta so I went there to make sure that the President is impressed. I said that this is the letter that the President wrote to the Senate for setting the IMC, just one line, he said that “I have directed that the forensic audit of the Commission be carried out which is being overseen by the constituted Interim Management team”. Akpabio insists that its not the Interim Management, that its him, that I should send the money for the audit to him, I said its like the Ministry of Health implementing a Federal Medical Centre, and that its criminal, I will not do it.”

She reasoned that an audit cannot be going on at the NDDC because the instrument used to secure it was defective. “Why do I say there is no forensic audit. I raised the issue of certificate of no objection, I am sure the Presidency is taking that very very seriously. Part of the insubordination was that I did not go to the FEC (Federal Executive Council) meeting, and I did not go because I did not want to contravene any provision of the Procurement Act. They keep saying that people are afraid of forensic audit. I am saying that there is no forensic audit going on at NDDC. The only documents that was presented and in Akpabio’s memo to Mr. President he said that I refused to carry out the verification exercise. All contractors and Nigerians will bear me witness that there was a verification exercise in all the states. Secondly the paper that they presented to the lead consultant was the document and the DSS report from the verification exercise that I did, that is the last thing that happened about forensic. There was an application to the BPP (Bureau of Public Procurement) and it is so embarrassing asking for a due process certificate of no objection for the award of the contract of the procurement of the lead consultant. Now the source of funding for that was from the 2020 Budget. Now that I am speaking to you today (July 13) the NDDC has no budget. I presented the 2019 budget which was passed and has lapsed. The 2020 budget has not even been discussed, has not even been passed. So the BPP gave a certificate of no objection for the procurement of the lead consultant who Akpabio brought and who he said could take control. Akpabio said that why he wanted that person and he didn’t want any NFIU, he didn’t want the World Bank consultants to come in. He said this at the meeting and he was rebuked by Mr. Sariki Abba.”

Part of what the audit seeks to unravel is how the NDDC its current debt profile of about N2 trillion and the liter of over 12,000 uncompleted and abandoned projects. Akpabio should know as Nunieh revealed how the Minister pressurised her to convert Dollars in the NDDC account and give it to him. He also asked for Hundreds of Millions of Naira in Christmas gifts. His girlfriend, she informed, supplies diesel to the NDDC headquarters which is the reason all attempts to connect the building to public power supply were frustrated by the Minister. Her refusal to do the minister’s bidding of course, drew Senator Akpabio’s ire. Her insistence to be kept out of any illegality allowed Akpabio to conveniently turn his back against her, while finding a way to circumvent due process.

Intervention of the National Assembly

Another side to the NDDC probe was enacted when the management of the commission last week walked out on federal lawmakers probing the commission, claiming that the chairman of the committee on Niger Delta is an interested party in the goings-on in the commission and that he was not in a position to be an unbiased arbiter in the crisis rocking the commission.

Rarely does it get much ironic than when the sinner calls another to repent when he has not repented of his own sins. Now the battle field has expanded beyond the initial boundaries.

But will the National Assembly do its duty this time given the monumental fraud allegedly committed by otherwise respected Nigerians? Would Senator Akpabio be left off the hook by his former colleagues in the legislature in the usual Nigerian style? Would he be asked to take a bow and leave? Should the Minister be suspended from office pending the outcome of the investigation as demanded by the major opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)? Since some members of the House of Representatives themselves are being named in the ensuing scandal? Should they recuse themselves? And would their colleagues be diligent enough to probe them?

These and other questions must be answered urgently before the trail of the missing monies grow cold.

The House of Representatives Committee on NDDC has summoned the Minister of Niger Delta Affair, Senator Godswill Akpabio, to respond to allegation of N81.5 billion irregular expenditure in NDDC.

The committee also summoned the acting Managing Director of NDDC, Prof. Kemebradikumo Pondei, and the Managing Director of AHR Global Service Ltd, among others. The resolution was reached at the ongoing investigative hearing on the alleged N40 billion irregular expenditure on Friday in Abuja.

The summon was sequel to the refusal of the officials to honour an earlier invitation to appear and respond to allegations of wrong doing.

The Chairman of the Committee, Olubumi Tunji-Ojo (APC-Ondo), ruled that they should appear unfailing on Monday, July 20 to answer questions. But in a surprise action the directors of the commission walked out on the panel saying that the chairman, specifically is an interested party in the probe of the commission and he should not be the judge in his own case. The action of the directors is telling and indictment on the credibility of the lawmakers.

This is not the first time that members of the Senate and the House of Representatives will embark on the investigation of profligacy only to be enmesh in the same web.

Flashback to Past Probes Ndudi Elumelu Panel

The drama surrounding the recommendations of the House of Representatives panel instituted to probe the power sector took a new twist as the review committee set up by the House rejected 84 of the 88 recommendations. The Committee was led by Godwin Ndudi Elumelu is fresh on the country’s collective memory.

In 2009, a former Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Power, Godwin Ndudi Elumelu, watched and almost shed tears as his colleagues on the floor of the House tore his report on the power sector to shreds.

A member of his committee had written a minority report indicting him and the then Dimeji Bankole-led 6th assembly did not waste time setting up an adhoc committee to review his findings.

The verdict of the review committee was a complete overhaul of Elumelu’s report. Out of 88 recommendations, the committee endorsed only four for implementation.

The Delta State-born former lawmaker, on a Channels Television programme, revealed how he painstakingly worked on the eight-volume report that could not sail through.

Asked whether the report was still intact, Elumelu said, “We didn’t dilute it and we were very blunt in all our recommendations because we got to the very root of the rot in the power sector.

“When we made our recommendations asking the EFCC to further investigate, many people followed us and most of them were very bitter at a point at the abandoned contract sites”.

He explained further: “Let me tell you the truth, in Nigeria, we must change. Buhari anchored his campaign on trust asking for change. The change is that we must do things in a normal way, we must deviate, we must leave that comfort zone and come back to the challenges that face us.

The report has since been flushed into the toilet.

The Femi Otedola/Lawan Faruk Imbroglio

In 2012, Oil marketer, Femi Otedola, in a spat with members of the House of Representatives, claimed that he paid $620,000 to a House member, Faruk Lawan to get his companies exonerated from the list of firms that abused government fuel subsidy. He dismissed the House’s decision to re-list the companies as “blackmail” aimed at extorting money from him.

“If people at my level who have worked hard to build their businesses can be blackmailed this way all in a bid to extort money from them, I pity people that are just starting out in business in this country,” Mr. Otedola said.

The businessman said he was pressured by Mr. Lawan to pay bribes to clear his companies, which he insists did no wrong. The payment turned out a trap after the billionaire organized with security agents to record Mr. Lawan receiving the money.

The scandal forced the House, which says it was not embarrassed and had no cause to be remorseful, to re-list Mr. Otedola’s companies amongst 13 other indicted firms.

The billionaire later accused the house of celebrating corruption, and said he did not believe Mr. Lawan acted alone in the episode.

“As far as I know, Lawan could not have been working alone in this extortionist plot. A tree does not make a forest,” he said. “Actions of today by the house is laughable, a mere celebration of corruption and a further indictment on their honorable member.”

Mr. Otedola claimed his companies were originally indicted after he refused to part with the amount Mr. Lawan asked for. When he eventually did, the lawmaker sought the approval of the House to clear the companies.

“He did this without even asking Zenon to produce a single document of the forex transaction. He clearly wanted to extort money for an offence I did not commit. That is why I went to report to the security agencies,” he said.

“If I had anything to hide I wouldn’t have gone to the agencies. There is an old adage that says “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones”.

Lawan later admitted that he did collect the bribe, as usual, his colleagues in the House did nothing to his case and he served till the end of his term as lawmaker. End of the story.

Now, the probe has moved to the NDDC. Today, Akpabio’s is crying that his political enemies are after him. Will he survive this? Clearly, Akpabio’s frequent boast that ‘more money can buy what money cannot’ buy may fail him this time again as it did when his seeming invincibility was routed in the 2019 National Assembly elections. Senator Chris Ekpenyong kicked Akpabio out in an uncommon victory in the Ikot Ekpene senatorial race. His bid retrieve the office failed at the tribunal. On appeal, he was give a noose to hang himself, as the court only allowed a fresh election in couple of polling units. Assuming Akpabio won voters from all voters, it would still not be enough to erase the margin of lead secured by Ekpenyong. It was a difficult choice, made easy by his appointment as a minister.

Nunieh as Akpabio’s Nemesis

Under normal cercumstances, a nasty power struggle between a minister and the manager of an agency under him would have ended with the manager being humbled; but in this case, it was the minister who has been battered and given a bloodied nose.

Well, the truth is, Ms. Joi Nunieh, the former acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), the intervention agency created by the federal government to engineer the rapid development of Niger Delta, the region whose natural resources – crude oil – has been the mainstay of the nation’s economy in the last 50 years; is no longer in her position and the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Mr. Godswill Akpabio is no longer in a position to order her about.

This fact may have been lost on the former Governor when he got into a spat with the woman. Like Williams Shakespeare wrote ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ Today the Minister is been scotched by the fire from the woman’s hell. She has been fighting red hot and smoking.

In the last couple of weeks, the news of how the NDDC has been mismanaged and financial improprieties by its managers have left Nigerians flabbergasted at the rot in the management of the national commonwealth by officials saddled with the duty the government.

It is true that the Niger Delta is the cash cow that sustains the nation’s economy. It is also true that unlike most oil producing areas the world over, the Niger Delta is the least developed in relationship with what it generates to the national coffers. It is in realization of this that the federal government set up the NDDC as an intervention agency to correct the anomaly and speed up the development process of the region.

Although not original, but certainly visionary. The plan by the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s led administration to develop the region was hinged on the unending militancy that disrupting oil exploration and exploitation activities. The idea was not only to help stabilize the polity but to ensure that the nation’s oil production go on undisrupted and prevent the country from falling into economic problem.

Ordinarily, the task has been daunting. Past efforts the carry out this task have not been too impressive. During the military era, the government of General Ibrahim Babangida set up the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) to do the job. It failed and was scrapped by Obasanjo who replaced it with the NDDC.

At NDDC, every year, successive administration of the commission claims to have unearthed cans of worms in the projects embarked upon by previous administrations. Yet the government seems to have left the commission to do its own things without any supervision. Such action breeds corruption; and the commission became the clearing room.

That was the situation until the federal government ordered a forensic audit of the finances and management of the commission, sanitize the system, inspect the workings in the commission and look at the projects that it has allegedly carried out in the almost 20 years of its existence.

The Can of Worms

When the former Managing Director, Joi Nunieh, appeared before the House of Representatives Panel via Zoom she opened a can of worms. A process she had started penultimate week in various press interviews.

Nunieh was scheduled to appear before the House of Representatives Panel investigating the NDDC on Thursday, but failed to appear due to the invasion of her residence in Port Harcourt by policemen as early as 4am.

Speaking under oath, through Zoom, the former NDDC Acting Managing Director accused the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, of pressuring her to employ people outside the Niger Delta. She said Akpabio told her to indict Senator Peter Nwaboshi as the owner of 98 companies working as contractors for the NDDC.

“Mr. Akpabio was angry that I did not promote the junior staff from Akwa Ibom. I am representing Rivers State. I cannot do double promotion for junior staff. On the issue of employment, he collected names from godfathers, and I said I will not be the one to give employment to people outside the Niger Delta, when our people have no jobs.”

If her outburst was a move calculated to embarrass the the Minister, it was a most effective move. She told the panel that “there is no forensic auditing taking place at the NDDC.”

The Committee heard Nunieh’s position at the continuation of its investigative hearing into the alleged missing N40 billion from NDDC funds.

She told the Committee that the procedure for carrying out a forensic audit of the commission was ignored even when President Muhamadu Buhari specifically wrote to state that money required for the process should be included in the commission’s budget.

She alleged that Akpabio insisted on supervising the forensic audit, saying, the President had written a letter to the National Assembly instituting the forensic audit and suspending the appointment of the Board and that he was appointing the Interim Management Committee to supervise the forensic audit.

She stressed that what she met was not exactly what should be going on, as the minister insisted on supervising the forensic audit.

Nunieh said: “I reminded him (Akpabio) and showed him a letter that the President had written. There’s no way that we can spend the money that’s in our budget. He requested in his memo to the President that money for the funding of the forensic audit be gotten from the service wide votes. President Buhari in his wisdom refused that request and in writing said that it should be put in the NDDC appropriation budget, making NDDC the procuring entity.

“After that argument, I now came up to say that everything that’s done will be in accordance with the Act; the first thing I did was to go through the procurement of the lead consultants.”

Nunieh added: “The lead consultant that everyone is talking about is not a forensic auditor. The role of the lead consultant is to gather all the forensic auditors, all the reports and put them together.

“In the case of the forensic auditor, I do not know if they have ever carried out a forensic audit.

Can I now stand before this committee to say that the lead consultant has been procured? My answer will be no. Remember, you cannot give any approval or procure any consultant without the appropriation made by the National Assembly. The 2020 budget hasn’t even been considered or discussed not to mention being passed.”

The former NDDC managing director, who served from October 29, 2019 to February 17, 2020, noted that “everyone in Nigeria had been deceived that the forensic audit is going on, but the forensic auditors have not even been procured.

“I want to say here that if Nigerians find out that the forensic audit is going on, every testimony and allegations that I have made should be canceled and disregarded. There’s no forensic audit going on. Secondly, can I say that the forensic auditors have been procured? My answer is no.”

Asked by the committee to explain the rationale behind the sum of N641 million used by the NDDC for media support for the forensic audit across the nine states of the Niger Delta, Nunieh said she knew nothing about it and that it did not happen during her tenure, adding that she only spent N8 billion throughout her tenure.

“Contracts were given out to some companies that were not registered; some got registered after they were given the contract. In some cases, contracts were pre-awarded before the designs were given. So, you find out that most of the projects were abandoned,” she said.

She recommended that the committee should get a list of certified forensic auditors in Nigeria from the Auditor General of the Federation in order to help in carrying out a proper forensic audit of the NDDC.

Nunieh said, “The audit is not just financial, it’s supposed to look through the personnel of the NDDC. When we are talking about billions of Naira being spent by the commission, it’s unbelievable that they don’t have up to 10 engineers. The staff audit is necessary.

“Mr. President should direct the immediate establishment of a national procurement council in NDDC; it should be the first thing even before we talk about a forensic audit. That could help Nigeria save so much money in terms of fraud and corruption.

“We didn’t have this problem from the records I saw when the NDDC was under the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. The NDDC, I will recommend, should be taken back to the office of the SGF.

“At the NDDC, I want to make it clear that when Akpabio saw I was not cooperating, he refused them to give me an official vehicle. I didn’t have an official vehicle. When I first came in, there were two bulletproof cars that I was using. I came to Abuja, a gentleman met me at the airport and said I’m one of your contractors, I’m the one that gave you the car that you are using, and I said so I’m using a contractor’s car and I’m supposed to supervise a forensic audit.

“I told Akpabio I thought the car I was using was from the commission. He said don’t worry; the man is a very good friend of mine. When I got back to Port Harcourt, I returned the car. The second car is still at the mechanic’s, but after what happened yesterday (Thursday), I asked them to go and collect it so they won’t say it’s because I wrecked the car.”

Nunieh also called on the National Assembly to intensify its oversight function, adding, “To Akpabio, he felt the President has delegated all the powers to him. He felt he also had the powers of the Board. There must be a reorientation for the ministers.”

This was coming from Nunieh’s hideout at the Government House in Port Harcourt. She had fled her home when unidentified policemen invaded the house at 4.00 am to arrest her. The men numbering over 40 in six van came without a warrant.

An alarmed Nunieh surprised at the move and fearing for her safety called on Governor Nyesom Wike to come to her aid. Smelling a photo-ops opportunity, Wike mobilized the press and headed straight to Nunieh’s house to engage the policemen and to “rescue” her from the savages bent on abducting her illegally.

If nothing, with the move, Governor Nyesom Wike has effectively dealt a vicious and deadly blow on the federal government that exposes the how ineffectual the security system in the country is.

Akpabio Seeks Legal Redress

Following the allegations, an alarmed Akpabio has threatened to take legal action against Nunieh, for allegedly defaming his character. This threat was contained in a statement titled, “Akpabio to sue Joy Nunieh for defamation, denies ‘false allegations’,” signed by his special assistant, Anietie Ekong, in Abuja, said the minister has already instructed his lawyers to seek legal redress.

Ekong described Joy’s allegations against his principal as tissues of lies noting that at no time did the minister make advances towards her.

The statement read in part, “The Honourable Minister’s initial attitude was to allow his lawyers and the judicial system vindicate him of the false allegations against him, but he is compelled to react to some of the wayward allegations levied against his person by Ms. Nunieh, especially the one bothering on sexual harassment.

“To start with, let it be known that there is no scintilla of truth in all the allegations peddled around by Ms. Nunieh. They are simply false.

“The Honourable Minister did not at any time, place or circumstance make any form of sexual advances to Ms. Nunieh, not even to put himself in a position or posture suggestive of sexual advances towards Ms. Nunieh, or any female staff of his Ministry or the NDDC.

PDP Demands Akpabio’s Suspension

Meanwhile, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has called for the immediate suspension of Akpabio by President Muhammadu Buhari following huge fraud allegations against him in the worsening corruption saga rocking the NDDC.

The party also asked the President to immediately disband the corruption-ridden IMC of the NDDC where officials have been fingered to engage in unbridled looting of funds meant for the development of the area under the Buhari administration.

The PDP in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan said with the unearthing of corruption, treasury looting, recklessness and manifest public unruliness of the NDDC’s management, the minister and the IMC have become a huge embarrassment, not only to the Buhari administration, but also to the Niger Delta region and the nation at large.

The party insisted that though President Buhari had ordered a “speedy and coordinated investigation” of the activities of the NDDC management, such an important probe would not yield any credible result as long as Akpabio and the indicted IMC were still in charge in the commission.

The PDP stated that the immediate suspension of the minister and members of the IMC was the only way to ensure that such individuals did not interfere with investigations or tamper with vital documents.

According to the PDP, “Our party also urges the IGP to provide adequate protection for Ms. Nunieh and other witnesses in the probe from the corrupt cabal in the NDDC, who have shown to be desperate to silence witnesses in order to cover their trails.”

QUOTE 1:

At the NDDC, I want to make it clear that when Akpabio saw I was not cooperating, he refused them to give me an official vehicle. I didn’t have an official vehicle. When I first came in, there were two bulletproof cars that I was using. I came to Abuja, a gentleman met me at the airport and said I’m one of your contractors, I’m the one that gave you the car that you are using, and I said so I’m using a contractor’s car and I’m supposed to supervise a forensic audit. I told Akpabio I thought the car I was using was from the commission. He said don’t worry; the man is a very good friend of mine.

QUOTE 2

This is not the first time that members of the Senate and the House of Representatives will embark on the investigation of profligacy only to be enmesh in the same web. In 2012, Oil marketer, Femi Otedola, in a spat with members of the House of Representatives, claimed that he paid $620,000 to a House member, Faruk Lawan to get his companies exonerated from the list of firms that abused government fuel subsidy. He dismissed the House’s decision to re-list the companies as “blackmail” aimed at extorting money from him. IIf people at my level who have worked hard to build their businesses can be blackmailed this way all in a bid to extort money from them, I pity people that are just starting out in business in this country,” Mr. Otedola said