Twenty years on, one of the questions that people of the Niger Delta, and Nigerians in general, must answer for themselves today is whether the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) has brought real development, or is capable of bringing real development, to the oil producing states of Nigeria. The other question is whether development commissions generally, especially as they are now turning into a new industry for replicating the functions of existing Institutions of State in Nigeria, represent a step forward for any nation in the 21st Century. In answering these questions, we must make a distinction between money being budgeted and sent to the NDDC and evidence of sustainable economic and other interventions by the commission over the last two decades. And this is not just about the NDDC. The Diaspora Commission, despite its impressive strides and media visibility, boils down to a subtle vote-of-no-confidence on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To create, fund and manage a full blown commission for a job that belongs to a unit of the foreign affairs department of any modern state today is simple proof that we are creating unmanageable administrative apparatus in a world that is driven by miniaturisation and compacting of the state.
Going back to the NDDC and related matters, that commission has the highest number of abandoned projects in the country. Besides the federal government, it is also the most indebted of all institutions of state today. Except in one or two isolated cases, when some people at the helm tried to make some real difference, the NDDC has remained a metaphor for sleaze, patronage and titanic elite battles for unscrutinised plunder. It has also probably not been a positive influence on youth development in the Niger Delta, as its ‘settlement’ of restive youths would seem to outweigh its positive interventions in the area of economic empowerment. We say nothing about the humongous figures that are retired and bundled off by the elite under the nebulous umbrella called youth empowerment. It has remained the epicentre of great battles, the bulk of which has nothing to do with the long term welfare of the people.
That is why its mandate has remained substantially unfulfilled. The dream that led to its creation has remained a delusion and the struggle to retain it has remained the business of the political elite who are benefitting from it. No one seems interested in doing a costs/benefits analysis, to ascertain the wisdom of retaining such a drainpipe that has no real value. It waddles about year after year, ostensibly ‘developing’ the oil producing states, whereas much of what it does in reality is pay staff salaries and ensure the sustenance of the frightening takings of a leadership elite from all over the federation that has held it hostage. So, to dare suggest that such a hapless cash cow that is being used by the elite to plunder the state in the name of the people be scrapped is to draw the ire of vested interests. That is why, despite the burgeoning scandal in the organisation today, scrapping it and having the monies going to the states is not one of the options on the cards. One can understand the objection that the states themselves are performing miserably on all fronts. But the advantage of scrapping the plethora of commissions will be the reduction of “thieving points” for the elite.
But the more likely thing is that the federal government will create more of such commissions, instead. Sections of the elite that are not holding substantive positions in government can then also be settled by such appointments. Already there is the North East Development Commission. Others are in the offing, as the clamour to get at least a tooth into the Nigerian cherry, outside the strictures of official public administration, grows in crescendo. And it is working. The South-east, North-west and other regional commissions are being rehearsed in the maternity section and labour rooms of the National Assembly. And when we now have all these commissions, then what? There will still be the federal government, federal ministries, state and local governments, wards and councils. There will still be federal and state budgets, worked out into details of what should be spent on various aspects of our national life. So, why balkanise the state and waste public funds so mercilessly?
What we see, looking ahead, is the fact that new commissions will expand the avenues for patronage. They will also ‘democratize’ opportunities for the questionable exercise of political discretion. All this will be happening below the radar of rigorous state scrutiny. So, we are likely to have more commissions, instead of less. And that is because we are saddled with a leadership class that mistakes the existence of institutions and the passing of laws and budgets for leadership and service delivery. If that were not the case, someone would have sat down to take a detailed inventory of the uselessness of the over 500 government parastatals in the land. Hardly is there any parliamentarian, governor, or head of a government agency who does not use a bullet-proof SUV. Check the cost of one such vehicle. Then multiply it by, say one thousand. Add a pilot vehicle, a security vehicle, a bus for the press crew, among others. Then consider that new ones are bought every three to four years. Now add the security personnel and other appurtenances. What do you have? What do most of these people, individually and collectively, deliver to the Nigerian citizen to warrant the runaway expenses?
It is time for us to sit down and ascertain whether we must remain locusts, or turn into farmers who are attentive to the global weather. The readings out there are telling us that this is the season to shrink expenses, expand value-yielding engagements and generally be guided to adopt sustainable templates for our continued existence as a nation. But we are not looking in that direction at all. That is why the takings of our lawmakers are still what they are, at both federal and state levels. That is why our governors, across all political parties, are still clinging to the public robbery called security votes. That is why the federal government is still unrelenting in its desperate acquisition of a rash of loans, the bulk of which will not go into any investment, or development project. It is all for consumption and nothing more. That is also why we have our current pump price for petrol, amidst global indices suggesting that we should be buying petrol at less than half of its current pump price in Nigeria.
Remember that the reign of the late Gen. Sani Abacha as Head of State saw an upward review of the pump price of petroleum products. The government said it would put the accruals into very important national development projects. So, it set up the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund (PTF). But the PTF was, first and foremost, a vote of no confidence on the existing institutions of state, since it was venturing into their statutory functions. The other point is that all PTF budgeting and spending were in areas covered by existing ministries, departments and Agencies. This created the problems of accountability, of cohesion in government policy and developmental efforts; as the PTF operated without recourse to measures already put in place, following the budgets and projects of the various ministries and agencies.
Thus came PTF roads, PTF drugs and what not; all at peculiar costs. Worse still, the consumption tax that provided the PTF resource was sourced mostly from the South, while over 75% of the projects executed with it were in the North. By the time the military was ready to hand over to the civilians in 1999, the Trust Fund had drawn much distrust. It had neither brought development, bridged the shortcomings of the agencies it tried to bail out, nor risen above board in many respects. But those benefiting from it had become even more determined to ensure that the incoming civilian regime of Obasanjo retained it. Thus, the media was approached, including some of us on The Guardian Newspapers Editorial Board, to drive a ‘media consultancy’ that would push a strong campaign, to arm-twist the then President-elect into not scrapping the PTF after being sworn in.
But I refused to get involved; and gave my reasons. A media consultancy must be accompanied by an overriding sense of social responsibility. This means that the person who has the capacity to influence public opinion, or public policy, has a higher duty to his conscience and the greater public good. Given that the PTF was all about procurements, supplies and constructions, and also given that it was set up in the expectation that the weak institutions of state should recover and take up their statutory functions, I argued then that the incoming civilian president should be given the chance to revive the Nigerian state, instead of being saddled with an extra institutional contraption that will create an unwieldy administrative structure and also undermine accountability by being almost a parallel government. And so, I rested my case. I recall that my comments drew some derisive laughter from a senior journalist at the time – not from The Guardian stable. When I saw proof in the media that the ‘consultancy’ must have caught on, with several write ups giving very elaborate reasons why the incoming Obasanjo Presidency should retain the PTF, for “doing a damn good job,” I made my own intervention in The Guardian titled: “Obasanjo, Remember the PTF.” In it I argued that one of Obasanjo’s first duties as president should be to scrap the PTF and strengthen the statutory institutions of state, for effective service delivery.
Twenty-one years later, my view is that the NDDC, the Niger Delta Ministry and similar establishments should be scrapped. Change the revenue allocation formula, stop choking Nigeria and let actual leaders take responsibility.