President Buhari should do what is right by sacking the Pondei-led IMC, writes Damian Nwikinaka
Nigerians are amazed that several days after incontrovertible revelations and confessions by the Interim Management Committee regarding large-scale fraud, extra-budgetary expenditure, abuse of procurement laws and mismanagement of the Niger Delta Development Commission, President Muhammadu Buhari is yet to act. The Senate in particular did a thorough investigation. It set up an independent adhoc committee comprising senators outside the membership of the Senate Committee on Niger Delta. The Adhoc Committee was headed by Senator Olubunmi Adetunmbi of Ekiti State.
The Committee carried out extensive investigation of the allegations of malfeasance against the IMC. It got the Commission’s account statement with the Central Bank of Nigeria, received presentations from the CBN, Office of the Accountant General of the Federation, Office of the Auditor General of the Federation, the Bureau for Public Procurement and other relevant government agencies, as well as confessional statements, both oral and written from the IMC members, showing how the IMC blew N81.5 billion in just a couple of months on fictitious contracts, frivolities, and in breach of extant financial and public procurement laws.
Indeed, Nigerians are eagerly awaiting the action of Mr. President on the worrisome on-going contract scams, financial recklessness, corruption, abuse of office and mismanagement being perpetrated at the NDDC. President Buhari cannot continue to act like humongous corruption has become the synonym for his government. When he was asked recently what he thought of the ongoing revelations of corruption at the EFCC and NDDC, the president said that some of his appointees have abused trust by misusing their offices for their self-aggrandisement. Yet he is delaying action and emboldening the Niger Delta Minister, Chief Godswill Akpabio, and the IMC to continue the pillage of the NDDC, as was clearly exposed during the National Assembly investigations as part of their oversight duty.
In the 121-page report, which was adopted as a resolution of the Senate, the Senate Committee found that the IMC, which is headed by Prof Daniel Keme Pondei as Acting Managing Director, made withdrawals in the name of contracts that could not be verified. These fictitious contract payments ran into billions of naira. It therefore recommended that the IMC should refund the sum of N4.923 billion to the Federation Account. Among the payments made, the Senate discovered that the Pondei-led IMC on April 15, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown paid out N1.96 billion purportedly for the procurement of Lassa fever Personal Protection kits for the 185 LGAs of the NDDC states. Yet, the IMC, which said rather strangely that it used staff of the NDDC to distribute them, could not produce evidence of delivery of these kits to any of the 185 LGAs. Everything spoke to the fact that this was a fictitious unexecuted contract, which was used to steal and launder money from the NDDC. The IMC failed to provide a single name of at least one recipient out of the 185 LGAs to whom the kits were purportedly handed over. It was self-evident that the fictitious contract, which was paid for by the IMC on April 15, 2020, was a conduit to steal the said N1.96 billion.
The Senate resolved that the IMC should refund the sum of N1.96 billion under the “Refund of Extra Budgetary Expenditure” along with the following: One, N85.7 million, purportedly paid for overseas travel to IMC members during the Covid-19 lockdown. Two, N105.5 million, purportedly paid for non-existent scholarship grants. Three, N164.2 million, purportedly paid to the NDDC Staff Union members for a journey to Italy, during the Covid-19 lockdown. Four, N1.12 billion, purportedly paid for public communication activities during the Covid-19 lockdown for which the IMC failed to provide evidence of places where the campaigns took place. Five, N1.49 billion, purportedly paid for Covid-19 relief materials which was not procured.
The IMC could not also explain how the sum of N143.55m was paid by them to five staff of PRS/MIS Department of the NDDC as “Advance for the 2020 budget Participatory Conference” which was supposed to hold during the lockdown and which it could not prove actually took place. It seemed that the Pondei-led IMC was on a corruption binge as no excuse was deemed too ridiculous to pay out money from the NDDC account.
As the NDDC account statement showed, the IMC paid out N1.3bn for community relations, N122.9m on condolences, N83m on consultancy, N3.14bn on COVID-19, N486m duty travel allowance, N790.9m as imprest, N1.956bn on Lassa fever, N900m on legal service, N220m on maintenance, N85.6m on foreign travels, N1.121bn on public projects communication, N744m on security, N8.8bn on staffing-related payment and N248m on stakeholders’ engagement. Also, the IMC ridiculously claimed that it paid out hundreds of millions of naira to youths and chiefs (in all 185 LGAs) to identify project sites whilst giving evidence before the House of Representatives Committee. The Senate Committee found this to be another fraudulent payment made by the IMC because the NDDC has a database of all projects awarded since its establishment in 2000. The expenditures were so embarrassing that the Auditor-General of the Federation said at the public hearing that there must be punitive measures to discourage public office holders from unlawful conduct.
The acting managing director Prof. Pondei brought shame and unimaginable drama to the National Assembly public hearings. Watched on live TV by millions in Nigeria and across the world as he was being questioned about several shocking expenditures running into billions of naira to which he could not provide answers, Pondei promptly ‘fainted’ to escape further questions. It was the first time in Nigeria’s national history where the Chief Executive Officer/Chief Accounting Officer of a Ministry, Department or Agency (MDA) would play a fainting script to dodge oversight over his official duties. It was indeed a very shameful episode and Nigerians all over the world are still being confronted daily and trolled with images of Pondei’s fainting drama. Nigerians saw clearly the farce of a presentation made by Pondei and the Acting Executive Director Projects, Dr Cairo Ojougboh, at the committee hearings where N81.5bn was found to have been spent recklessly by the IMC in just a couple of months.
Looking at Pondei’s incoherent mumbo-jumbo on these contracts and other similar statements he and the IMC made during the National Assembly investigations, including the shameful dramatic fainting incident at the public hearing of the House of Representatives Committee, it is sad that such a man and his colleagues are still left to preside over the NDDC.
Beside the financial recklessness and mismanagement, was the very criminal act of the Niger Delta Minister Chief Godswill Akpabio fraudulently procuring certificates of no-objection from the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) for the award of two contracts, the first for a lead consultant at N318m, and the second for the purchase of 62 cars for N1.599bn.
According to the Bureau for Public Procurement (BPP), Akpabio assured them that the contracts had budgetary provision, following which he presented memos and obtained approvals 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. In effect, Akpabio deceived the President and FEC to approve the contracts, thereby making the president and FEC to commit an illegality!
After nine months of the IMC in office, the Minister of Niger Delta Godswill Akpabio and the IMC he brought to run the NDDC have instituted a criminal enterprise that wantonly breaches the public procurement laws, grants and pays for fictitious contracts, award themselves ridiculous bonuses, and manage the NDDC like their private estate, as the National Assembly investigations have exposed.
The Senate committee report on the financial recklessness of the IMC presented a detailed account of what has been going on at the NDDC in the last nine months that it has been managed by the IMC. It also made recommendations on what needs to be done. That report was adopted unanimously by the Senate at plenary on July 23.
The Senate resolution recommended that the IMC be disbanded and made to refund the sum of N4.923bn; that the substantive Governing Board of the NDDC be sworn in to manage the commission in line with the NDDC Act; 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.”
President Buhari cannot afford to ignore the detailed Senate report and resolutions on the IMC, if he is really serious about his anti-corruption agenda. The president’s failure to act promptly and decisively since the exposures seemed to have emboldened the IMC to continue their criminal activities at the NDDC, by backdating contract offer letters and making illegal payments.
A fresh petition dated August 5, 2020, and addressed to the president from the whistleblowing non-governmental anti corruption group, Act for Positive Transformation Initiative, shows that the IMC had gone ahead to make frivolous payments of over N24bn in the period from June 1 to August 5, 2020, without an approved budget in place. Signed by Kolawole Johnson, its Director of Research, the whistleblowing NGO provides names of companies and individuals paid, including the splitting of contracts, the award of fictitious contracts and the abuse of due process. For instance, on the day the IMC appeared before the Senate Committee, it paid out a cumulative sum of N3 billion to a contractor using five different companies.
The greed of the IMC team is also not abating as the MD, Prof Pondei, paid himself the sum of N51.6m in illegal imprest on the 19th of June and paid himself the same amount again on 8 July, totaling 103m imprest in less than three weeks. Same goes for Dr Cairo Ojougboh, who collected N36m within the same period. This is aside the N10m they each receive, monthly, for hosting visitors.
In Johnson’s letter to President Buhari, the group says: “The present Interim Management Committee is not only averse to the development of the region and its people; they, in addition, disobey and deceive you at will, flout your instructions, embarrass the nation, disregard laws and due process and above all, corrupt. They have become the poster card for corruption, lawlessness and financial recklessness in your administration.”
It is horrendous that such barefaced stealing will go on without the surgical intervention of the president. Is Mr President now comfortable with corruption under the IMC or is his anti-corruption posture simply a joke as Akpabio and the IMC are making it out?
For a president that came into office on a strong anti-corruption agenda, this falls way off the mark. Nigerians are alarmed by the inaction of the president and are losing faith in his leadership. President Buhari cannot continue to act like all is well at the NDDC under the IMC. He should take a decision on these issues that have been critically examined and highlighted in the Senate report and the Senate resolutions. These resolutions reflect the wishes and desires of the Niger Delta people, and Nigerians generally, on the way forward for the NDDC.
President Buhari should restore accountability at the commission by dissolving the IMC, implement the other resolutions of the Senate and direct the anti-corruption agencies to prosecute all persons indicted.
Nwikinaka is the Director of Information and Strategy of Transparency and Accountability Advancement Group