•Senate challenges minister to name contract beneficiaries
•Acting managing director faints during questioning, claims N1.3bn spent as COVID-19 palliatives for staff
Deji Elumoye, Chuks Okocha, Adedayo Akinwale and Udora Orizu in Abuja
In a self-indicting testimony yesterday, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, told the House of Representatives Committee on NDDC probing allegations of mismanagement and illegal spending by the commission that the agency under his watch parceled several contracts for members of the National Assembly, contrary to the provisions of Code of Conduct for Public Officers.
Under the code enshrined in the 1999 Constitution as amended, it is an offence for public officers to put themselves in a situation where they could have a conflict of interest.
In a swift response, however, the Senate has challenged the minister to unveil the identities of the lawmakers who had been NDDC contractors.
The commission, which has been enmeshed in a crisis since the recriminations between Akpabio and Pondei’s predecessor, Ms. Joy Nunieh, is being probed over allegations that the NDDC Interim Management Committee (IMC) blew N81 billion in seven months.
Akpabio, while being grilled by the committee, accused members of the National Assembly of being the greatest beneficiaries of majority of the contracts awarded by NDDC.
There was a mild drama during the hearing yesterday as Pondei fainted while under questioning. The commission, in a reaction, said Pondei was not feeling well before his appearance before the committee.
Before he fainted, Pondei had said the commission spent N1.3 billion, and not N1.5 billion, which was earlier attributed to him, as COVID-19 palliative for members of staff.
Reacting to Pondei’s collapse, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) said it underscored the weight of corruption that has bedeviled the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led administration.
Akpabio, responding to a question from the lawmakers, said the commission should not be closed down because of the forensic audit ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari.
When asked to explain what he meant, he said: ”Just look at your chairman, (Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo), I have records to show that most of the NDDC contracts were given out to the National Assembly members. The two chairmen of both committees can explain to you.
“Who are even the greatest beneficiaries of the contracts? It’s you people at the National Assembly.”
But one of the lawmakers interrupted him saying: “Can I ask you a question? What is the benefit that the National Assembly is benefiting from NDDC?”
The minister responded: “I just told you that we have records to show that most of the contracts in NDDC are given out to members of the National Assembly but you don’t know about it, the two chairmen can explain to you. I was a member of the NDDC committee; so, I know about it.”
While Akpabio was trying to shed more light on his claims, he was stopped from speaking further by the Deputy Chairman of the committee, Hon. Thomas Ereyitomi, who raised a point of order.
The minister also accused the lawmakers of bullying him in the way they threw questions at him.
Ereyitomi, who presided over the hearing, asked the minister if the three major projects he had carried out had the approval of the Federal Executive Council (FEC).
Akpabio explained that the idea of the contract for the procurement of vehicles went through the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) and must have gone through due diligence before he presented it to FEC.
”So, when something has gone through the BPE, it’s my job to present it to FEC because they have their own criteria. Of the three contracts, two went through FEC. BPE approved two of them, one is the vehicle and as at the time these things were done, they are in 2019 budget, I think.”
The minister, who was interrupted while answering the question, said: “Mr. Chairman, the condition, where we are in now, does not require bullying, with due respect.”
But Ereyitomi dismissed Akpabio’s allegation of bullying, saying that he should answer the question directly.
When asked about his altercation with Nunieh, the minister said: ”The former managing director of the NDDC was relieved of her appointment when I received a letter from the then chief of staff (may his soul rest in peace) that she did not possess the requisite qualifications to be there.
”For instance, we have written twice to the National Youth Service Corps and twice they have insisted that she never served and that she does not have an NYSC certificate or an exception.”
He added that among other reasons, the former NDDC MD was sacked for insubordination.
Akpabio and Nunieh have engaged in a running battle, trading accusations over the management of NDDC.
In response to the minister’s allegations that she did not take part in NYSC and she was guilty of insubordination, Nunieh had accused Akpabio of harassment and trying to use her to carry out illegalities in the commission.
When asked if he had at anytime influenced the decisions of the managing director, the minister said: ”If in anyway I find out the MD is not going in the interest of Niger Delta, I would intervene.”
Akpabio also told the committee that the forensic audit ordered by the president was ongoing.
”We’ve concluded with the BPE for the forensic auditors; we divided them into 10 lots. Ernst & Young has been approved by the BPE, which we’ve presented to the Federal Executive Council, in addition to about eight other companies right now.”
On the allegations that 30 NDDC files were missing, and that he took them away.
”Most of the files were given to the executive director by the MD when the report of arson reached the police and the Commissioner of Police in River State had to personally visit the office. The files were taken to safe custody and handed over to the forensic auditors,” he added.
The minister also defended his membership of the presidential monitoring team on activities of NDDC, saying: ”If you know why NDDC is where it is today, you will know that it’s because of lack of proper monitoring and supervision. If the minister cannot ask the NDDC to bring its expenses for scrutiny, then it means that the minister can stay for four years and they spend over one trillion naira without his knowledge. This is why it’s important the minister should be appointed as the chairman of the presidential monitoring committee, so he can have access to the expenses of NDDC.”
After hours of grilling, Ereyitomi thanked the minister for his time, saying that the purpose of the committee was not to witch-hunt anyone but to provide an avenue for an interactive session and also an opportunity to hear the minister’s side of the story.
Consequently, the lawmaker moved a motion for adjournment. No specific date was given for the continuation of the hearing.
Earlier, protesters had stormed the main entrance of the National Assembly before the commencement of the probe.
The protesters were in two groups and armed with various placards.
While the group supporting the National Assembly’s probe is called Emerging Leaders Forum of Nigeria, the group backing the NDDC and Akpabio against the probe called itself Niger Delta Development Initiative (NDDI). Security personnel were able to separate the two groups to avoid a clash.
Senate Challenges Minister to Name Contract Beneficiaries
Reacting to Akpabio’s allegation, the Senate yesterday challenged him to name NDDC contractors among the National Assembly members.
Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Ajibola Basiru, told THISDAY that the allegation is general and urged the minister to list the legislators that benefitted from the contracts.
“The allegation is general. Let the minister be specific as to the contracts awarded and the names of the National Assembly members who got the so-called contracts. I am not aware of any such contract as a member of the National Assembly,” he added.
Drama as NDDC Boss Faints During House Hearing
However, before Akpabio was called by the lawmakers to testify, acting Managing Director of the commission, Prof Kemebradikumo Pondei, had collapsed on his seat as members of the House Committee on NDDC grilled him.
Pondei was rushed out of the venue of the investigative hearing but Akpabio stayed behind.
The committee had grilled Pondei for about 45 minutes before he fainted.
He told the lawmakers that the commission spent N1.3 billion, and not N1.5 billion, as COVID-19 palliative for the staff.
He stated that he must have said the commission spent N1.5 billion to ‘’take care’’ of themselves out of anger.
During an earlier appearance before the committee, Pondei had said the commission spent N1.5 billion for staff as COVID-19 relief funds.
He stated: “I must have said the ‘’take care’’ of ourselves in anger; it was not N1.5 billion; the figure is N1.32 billion. On the question where in the budget that I derive power to spend the money, I will provide that answer for you. I don’t want to lie under oath.”
Asked by the committee if it would be right to say that the commission did extra-budgetary expenses, Pondei said: “I will not say so, let me ask my EDP (Executive Director in charge of Projects) to explain, I think he has more facts concerning that. I will provide the answer. We will bring this to you, Mr. Chairman, it will be sent to your committee. I don’t have the budget here.”
When asked by the committee how much the commission has received since the interim committee was set up, Pondei explained that the commission was getting about N6.4 billion monthly, which he said stopped in June, totalling N72 billion since the interim committee was constituted.
He added that the commission had received some payments from oil companies, but it was little.
On whether the N641 million paid to Clear Point Communication was budgeted for in 2019, Pondei stated that the money was part of the N2.5 billion for the forensic audit in the 2019 budget.
He added: “In the budget, there was a proposal for N2.5 billion for the forensic audit, out of which N1.2 billion was approved and out of that, I think N318 million was approved for the lead forensic auditors and only a small percentage has been paid out before the budget expired on December 31st. The N641 million was paid to Clear Point for a variety of purposes all related to the forensic audit.
“There are 185 local government areas and each of them was budgeted for N3.46 million, allowances for coordinators in the local government area, training for the coordinators, setting up of information desk. These coordinators are for people to identify the sites of all the projects in the area.”
Asked by the committee why he and Mr. Cairo Ojugboh allegedly paid scholarship fund into their personal accounts, Pondei noted the money was presently being processed.
He, however, stated that the forensic audit was ongoing, noting that the NDDC doesn’t have control over the forensic audits, as his job is only to provide enabling environment and requisite documents.
It was at this stage Pondei slumped and was rushed out of the hearing.
However, the NDDC blamed poor health for Pondei’s fainting spell.
Director of Corporate Affairs of the commission, Mr. Charles Odili, in a statement in Abuja, said his health deteriorated during the hearing.
“The commission wishes to disclose that Prof. Pondei has been ill for the past two weeks. This morning, his condition deteriorated, and his doctors advised against attending the hearing.
“However, he ignored his doctors’ advice because of the realisation that his traducers will use his absence at the hearing to soil his name and reputation.
“He thought he could make it through the hearing and take care of his health later. As it turned out, his doctors were right. Prof, Pondei is in a stable condition at a clinic in Abuja,” the statement said.
Earlier, the committee Chairman, Hon. Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, had stepped aside as head of the investigating team, following an allegation by Pondei that he is an interested party.
Pondei had on Thursday walked out on the committee, and accused the committee chairman of corruption.
Pondei’s Collapse Underlines Weight of Corruption, Says PDP
Meanwhile, the PDP yesterday said the ‘dramatic collapse’ of Pondei further underscored the weight of corruption that has bedeviled the APC-led administration.
The PDP said it was obvious that he collapsed under the weight and shame of overwhelming collective guilt brought on him by the exposure of massive corruption being perpetrated by NDDC officials and APC leaders.
A statement by the National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, said it was revealing that Pondei could go no further in the face of scathing revelations of direct pillaging of resources meant for the development and welfare of the Niger Delta people, adding that Akpabio also stands accused.