President Buhari should swear in the substantive board of the agency in line with the law, writes Damian Nwikinaka
The current drama that has enveloped the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is needless. In the last few weeks, Nigerians have been treated to a putrid feast of sleaze, financial recklessness and mismanagement at public hearings by committees of the National Assembly investigating the interim management committee, which is promoted by Niger Delta Minister Chief Godswill Akpabio.
It was not surprising to Nigerians that the Senate Ad hoc Committee made far-reaching recommendations, which were adopted by the Senate at plenary on Thursday July 23.
Even from the public hearing where the Acting MD Prof Keme Pondei and Acting Executive Director Projects Dr. Cairo Ojugboh admitted to paying themselves millions of naira as Covid-19 pandemic bonuses to the public, unveiling of breaches of the nation’s procurement laws by Akpabio and the IMC, the facts that informed the conclusion of the Senate resolutions were clear for anyone to see.
Among others, the Senate resolved: that the IMC be disbanded and made to refund the sum of N4.923 billion; that the substantive Governing Board of the NDDC be sworn in to manage the commission in line with the provisions of the law; that the NDDC be moved back to the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) in the Presidency for proper supervision; that the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation supervise the forensic audit to “guarantee independence, credibility, transparency and professionalism in the output of the exercise,” and that “the President with advice from the Auditor General should appoint a renowned, internationally recognised forensic auditor to carry out the exercise.”
In all, it was a comprehensive look at the recent problems of the NDDC, with further resolutions for the Presidency and the new board to tweak the governance mechanisms of the commission to prevent the recurrence of a situation where its executive will be paying billions of naira to themselves in special bonuses, simply because, as Prof Pondei so arrogantly stated under oath, “We used it to take care of ourselves. We are NDDC, we need to take care of ourselves too.”
If anything, Akpabio revealed himself as inordinately interested in micromanaging the NDDC for which he prefers to have a personally handpicked IMC, rather than the Governing Board as stipulated in the NDDC Act. He interferes in the day-to-day decision-making of the NDDC, including directing them on which contractors to pay. For instance, the immediate past Acting MD Ms Joi Nunieh told the Senate Committee that Akpabio made demands on her to speed up payments to some contractors, not minding due process and laid-down financial regulations.
Akpabio fraudulently procured certificates of no-objection from the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) for the award of two contracts, the first for a lead forensic consultant at N318 million, and the second for the purchase of 62 cars for N1.599 billion. According to the BPP, Akpabio assured them that the contracts had budgetary provision, following which Akpabio presented memos and obtained approval for these contracts at the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings of February 12 and June 10, 2020, respectively. However, the NDDC had no budgetary provision for these items as required by the law at the time Akpabio presented these memos to the FEC. Akpabio deceived the President and FEC to approve the contracts thereby making the President and FEC to commit an illegality. If every minister starts to subvert BPP and FEC in this manner, the country will implode from the large-scale looting that will ensue. It is horrendous that breaches of the law will be happening at the highest levels of government! The government of the day cannot act like it is okay for a member of the cabinet to lead the FEC to commit criminal breaches of the law. President Buhari must therefore take decisive steps to restore the credibility of his government.
Since the Senate recommendations, Niger Deltans have been waiting for the president to act, with many now believing that President Muhammadu Buhari is aloof because he has no commitment to the region. Despite all the promises of a commitment, the evidence is that the Buhari administration seems indifferent not only to the corruption by Akpabio and his men, but to the way the NDDC is run in flagrant disregard of its Establishment Act. And this is creating a perception problem the administration will do well to consider.
Even if they don’t voice it, for political expediency, many Niger Delta leaders feel the administration treats the Niger Delta region as a conquered people to be disregarded and treated without dignity. Else, why would the law governing the NDDC be set aside to accommodate an illegal contraption such as the IMC?
Niger Delta activist Comrade Joe Evah rightly observes that the president “should disband the IMC because that is the root of this confusion at the commission. From what we have been seeing and hearing from the IMC at the National Assembly, those of us who said the board should be inaugurated while the EFCC investigates the NDDC have been vindicated.” He also makes the point, which is overwhelmingly supported by law and Niger Deltans, that, the board should be inaugurated, while the forensic audit is supervised by an independent body, say the EFCC or the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation.
The current drama is the fault of persons in the Presidency who connived with Akpabio to deceive the president to breach the NDDC law by putting the board on hold to accommodate an illegality, the IMC. All the president needed to do to address whatever defects there are in the NDDC, as has been the case with all MDAs, was to order a forensic audit and appoint an independent forensic auditor like it did in the NNPC, while keeping the Governing Board in place in line with the law. Niger Deltans believe that the disregard for the NDDC Act indicates the president’s disregard for the region because the whole drama steals valuable time and resources away from development intervention by the commission to needless war in the media. 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 accountability, due process, fairness and inclusion across the region.
In comparison, the North East Development Commission is quietly operating with a duly constituted Governing Board 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.
It should be clear to everyone that no Ad hoc arrangement, like the IMC or a sole administrator, which Buhari first applied for 11 months between 2015 and 2016, 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 the region and its peculiar needs, and provides for a governing board and other structures to guarantee accountability, due process and equitable representation in the NDDC.
Section 2 Part 2 of the NDDC Act provides for a governing board made up of a chairman, managing director, two executive directors and one person who shall be indigenes 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. But, 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.
After nine months in office, the NDDC under the IMC has only produced more corruption, breach of public procurement laws, staff victimisation, nepotism, and ministerial interference, as the National Assembly investigations have clearly concluded. President Buhari can reset the clock at the NDDC by taking a look at the Senate resolutions and doing the needful. The Niger Delta people lay the golden eggs that feed Nigeria, they deserve to be better treated.
–Nwikinaka wrote from Port Harcourt, Rivers State.