Echoes of NDDC’s Contract Sleaze

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The two chambers of the National Assembly have distanced themselves from the contract awards allegation levelled against some federal lawmakers by the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, but the controversy is far from being over, report Deji Elumoye and Udora Orizu

The drama surrounding the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) took another dimension penultimate week as the ongoing probe by the House of Representatives Committee on NDDC, over alleged mismanagement and illegal spending by NDDC, especially the N81.5 billion the Commission spent in six months, shifted from investigative hearing to which of the federal lawmakers benefitted from NDDC contracts.

Both the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, and the federal lawmakers whom he pointed fingers at have all denied having any involvement in contract padding or receiving contracts from the NDDC. So, is Akpabio deflecting the issue at hand, by claiming lawmakers were beneficiaries of NDDC contracts or is there an atom of truth in his claims?

It all started on July 20, when the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs while being grilled by the lawmakers at the investigative hearing, told the House of Representatives Committee on NDDC 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.

In a swift response, however, the Senate and the House of Representatives challenged the Minister to unveil the identities of the lawmakers, who had been given NDDC contracts.

In his response to the House’s ultimatum, the Minister on July 23 wrote to the House through the Clerk. The letter, read by the Speaker, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila at the plenary, was submitted to him soon after he disclosed that the House would be taking legal action against the minister for perjury and civil defamation.

From the content of the letter, it appeared that Akpabio recanted his earlier assertions and apologised to the lawmakers.

The letter read in part: ‘’I hereby respond as follows, the investigating committee refused or neglected to give me the opportunity to explain the reference to ‘most NDDC contracts awarded since 2001 from the records allegedly to members of the national assembly was done without the knowledge of the alleged beneficiaries’. However, the two chairmen of the committees in both chambers have adequate knowledge.

‘’I never referred to members of the ninth National Assembly as beneficiaries of NDDC contracts as NDDC is yet to fully implement any NDDC budget since the commencement of the ninth National Assembly. In fact, the 2019 budget, passed in February, and harmonised on the 5th of March, 2020 was received by the commission in the middle of April 2020, when the same was designated to expire on 31st May 2020.

‘’However, it is pertinent to point out that the clerk forwarded a letter dated 20th of March without attaching the budget details, this anomaly was brought to the attention of the senate investigating purported financial recklessness by the management of the commission in July 2020.

‘’It has always been known that the two chairmen of the committees on NDDC in both exhibit unusual influence to the exclusion of committee members and even the management of the NDDC appropriate funds projects after passing of line items at plenary.

‘’May I assure Mr. Speaker that as a former minority leader of the 8th Senate of Federal Republic of Nigeria, I shall forever promote the ideals of the National Assembly as an institution hence I will not make the attached documents public since I obtained it from the lead forensic auditors in confidence.

“Permit me to explain that any reference to 50 or 60 per cent during the investigative hearing was in answer to a question by a member of the Committee as to whether or not a medical director could act as executive director to projects within the confines of NDDC Act 2000.

‘’I answered in the affirmative, pointing out that the greatest project in the world today is COVID-19 pandemic which is medical in nature. Furthermore I am made to understand that 50 to 60 per cent of NDDC yearly budgets are medical in nature. Therefore it is fitting for a medical doctor to act as executive director of projects in those trying times.

‘’Please accept Sir the assurance of my esteem regards and do pass my explanation to my colleagues in the 9th Assembly who probably misunderstood my assertions.”

However, it was learnt penultimate Sunday that Akpabio’s annexure to the letter included a list detailing the names and NDDC jobs given to the lawmakers.

Fighting Back, Akpabio released a bulky document with a three-page covering letter entitled: “Some Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Contracts Allegedly Given to some Members of the National Assembly – Senate and House of Representatives.’’

The National Youth Council of Nigeria which presented the document to the media in Abuja expressed disappointment that the House Speaker refused to disclose the list of federal lawmakers, who benefitted from the contracts awarded by the (NDDC).

According to the document, Akpabio listed Nwaoboshi’s name against 53 projects, which included, Emergency Repairs of Asue Street, Owa Phase 2, Emergency Repairs of ldumuogbe Road via Ojemaye, Emergency Repairs of Otolokpo College Road, Otololkpo, and Emergency Repairs of Police lshu Ani Ukwu Road, Issele Uku.

They also included Emergency Repairs of old Sapele Agbor Road, Obiaruku, Emergency Repairs of Ehwerhe Obada Road Agbarho Road, Emergency Repairs of Hon. Ifeanyi Eboigbe Street Boji Boji Owa/Goodwill Street, Owa Alero, and Emergency Repairs of Ahiama Okwu to Obuocha Okwu among others.

Other lawmakers that Akpabio listed projects against are, Senator Mathew Urhoghide (6), James Manager (6), Sam Anyanwu (19), and others simply identified as Ondo and Edo reps.

Addressing journalists, the President of the Council, Solomon Adodo said, ‘’Mr Speaker did not do us justice when he did not disclose to the National Assembly that the list of the beneficiaries he demanded had been disclosed and attached to the letter sent to him.

“Gbajabiamila’s decision to cover up his colleagues is unfair to the fight against corruption, quest for transparency, and to the commonwealth of our nation. It is a clear case of organised crime to have individuals, who benefitted from illegality now rising to probe the fact that their illegality is being exposed.’’

The Council said they were firmly in support of the forensic audit instituted by the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, because it had exposed those who had benefitted in the corruption that had festered in the NDDC.

In separate reactions last Monday, the Chairman of Senate Committee on Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Peter Nwaoboshi and his predecessor, Senator James Manager, said they did not take any contract from NDDC between 2017 and 2019 as claimed by the Minister.

Nwaoboshi, while reacting to Akpabio’s allegation that he was awarded contracts for 53 NDDC projects, challenged the minister to send the list to anti-graft and other security agencies if he can substantiate the allegation.

“The unsubstantiated allegation is in line with Mr. Akpabio’s well-known agenda to continuously blackmail me so as to keep diverting public attention away from the serious mismanagement of the NDDC by the Interim Management Committee (IMC) under his supervision and under the guise of a phantom forensic audit that has no operating timeline,” he added.

He advised the Minister and members of the IMC to explain to Nigerians how they spent N81.5 billion within five months.

The IMC spending, Nwaoboshi stated, included 12 questionable expenditures namely: “refreshment/logistic for project verification paid to IMC and staff in the sum of N58.5 million; expenses paid to IMC for 2019 and 2020 budget defence, respectively at the National Assembly totalling N370.1 million; out of which N l43 million is for 2020 budget that is yet to be defended or approved by the National Assembly; reckless expenses paid to IMC and staff to commission only one road, Ogbia-Nembe road for N50.5 million, an amount that is enough to construct a fresh one kilometre road.

“Conflict resolution in Delta State in the sum of N148 million, when there was no conflict known to me or my other colleagues in the National Assembly representing Delta State that was resolved by NDDC; reckless payment of COVID-19 relief to IMC and staff in the sum of N1.5 billion with the IMC members getting N10 million each and expenses incurred by IMC during a courtesy visit to River State Governor in the sum of N41.9 million.”

He listed other IMC spending to include expenses incurred by IMC and staff in not-too-young-to-run programme for N46.6 million; expenses for sponsorship campaign against electoral violence paid to IMC and staff in the sum of N43 million; staff medical checkup in the sum of N4.9 billion; welfare package to Niger Delta youths for N270 million paid to IMC and staff. He, however, added that the youths have denied receiving any welfare payment.

Nwaoboshi also listed payment to Clear Point Consultancy on rebuttal of media attack against the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, in the sum of N39.4 million, describing the payment as incredible and unbelievable expenditure that is currently fueling the media blitz and misinformation by Akpabio and the IMC using Nigerian’s taxpayers funds and payment of N51.8 million monthly allowances to the MD IMC and N18 million monthly for each member of the IMC.

He added that, “The above revelations are just a tip of the mind-boggling and reckless payments running into billions of naira paid by the IMC members to themselves and expended with the approval of Akpabio on mundane and useless projects that have no developmental impact on the life and livelihood of the Niger Delta people as envisioned by the founding fathers of the NDDC.

“Mr. Akpabio and his IMC should apologise to the Niger Delta people in particular and Nigerians in general for this grand wastage arising from their crass incompetence. As a realist, I am confident that a day will come when Mr. Akpabio and his IMC will have a date with the law,” Nwaoboshi said.

Manager, on his part, also denied benefitting from NDDC contracts during and after his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Niger Delta Affairs. The senator, in a statement, said his tenure as chairman of the committee ended in 2015.

“Ever since then I have never visited NDDC headquarters in Port Harcourt or any of its branches. That NDDC never awarded any contract to any company owned by me. That I do not know of any company owned by me that has ever gone into bidding for government jobs anywhere in the world. (This may come to many as a surprise but that is the gospel truth). Those who are alleging to defame me must be aware of the consequences.

“That in the interest of the gullible innocent public, the authors led by the said Dr. Cairo Ojougboh or any other person should provide among other things, the following: ‘detailed description of the said jobs; names of companies; payments already made and to whom; job performance; and the Directors as they appear in the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC),” he said.

Chairman of the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions, Senator Ayo Akinyelure, also described the allegation by Akpabio, that some federal lawmakers received contracts from the NDDC, as unfounded and sheer blackmail.

Akinyelure, whose committee was penultimate week saddled by the Senate to probe the alleged involvement of some senators in NDDC contracts, told reporters that most of the contracts alleged to have been taken by the listed federal legislators at different times, were constituency projects appropriated for them in the national budget without them collecting a dime to execute them as lawmakers.

According to him, the submission by Akpabio was cheap blackmail, which was not tenable anywhere in Nigeria.

He said, “Senators are representatives of the people in the legislature and we have the power of appropriation. Projects allocated to us are put in the various ministries and agencies of government where they can be fully executed.

“Those of us from the Niger Delta region can lobby for some of the projects to be put in their various constituencies. That does not mean that the money for their execution was given to senators. We don’t touch money here but influence projects to be executed in our constituencies. When that is done, the executive arm of government will advertise for contractors to bid for them, and award them, following due process.”

Also, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Ajibola Basiru, said the current National Assembly was not involved in the NDDC contract scandal. The clarification, he explained, clearly negated the erroneous impression created about involvement of the majority of present National Assembly members in the contract scam.

Rebutting the allegations also, is Senator Sam Anyawu, who represented Imo East senatorial district in the Eighth Senate from 2015 to 2019 said last Tuesday that he had put his lawyers on notice to approach a court of law and seek redress over what he described as “defamation of character.”

He said Akpabio who wrongly accused him must prove beyond doubts that he siphoned funds earmarked for execution of contracts.

Rising in his own defence, Hon Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo described Akpabio’s allegation as spurious and diversionary. He insisted that the allegation made by NDDC was a ploy to divert the attention of Nigerians from the real issue, which has to do with the mismanagement of NDDC resources by the Interim Management Committee (IMC) from January to date.

The House Committee Chairman on NDDC denied padding the budget and even challenged the IMC to provide evidence to back the claims.

“He didn’t say I padded the budget; what he wrote in his letter that was read which I heard was that the Executive Director in charge of Projects told him that I said they should pay for 19 old contracts before we could pass their 2019 budget. That is what he said, not that I padded the budget, they are two different things.

“I have never made such request and I have challenged them to bring evidence that I told them to do that. These are just spurious allegations as usual. And again, thankfully, he did not say the contracts are my contracts; he said 19 old contracts; that is, they are existing contracts, not new contracts.

‘’Even though there is nothing criminal in saying go and pay your debtors, after all, I’m not asking them to pay me. But I did not even say so and I have challenged them since last week Thursday publicly that they should go and bring evidence.”

The House, on its part, has issued a press statement via its spokesperson, Hon Benjamin Kalu, saying Akpabio’s letter to the Speaker exonerates the Ninth House but fails to meet the ultimatum. The House insisted that the Minister is invited to publish the list as instructed.

The House said in a coordinated and calculated attempt to distract Nigerians from the on-going investigation, the Minister and the leadership of the IMC raised spurious allegations against members of the National Assembly. While describing the allegations as spurious, it cautioned the Minister to desist from spinning tales and is invited to go public as instructed.

The House added that the directive to press charges against the Minister has not been lifted by the House as the leadership is busy considering the weight of the minister’s letter and if it does not clear the doubt and wrong perception, it would be sent to the court for clearance as the Speaker stated.