Muhammadu Buhari

Ebi Arogbofa argues the urgent need to kick out the Interim Management Committee

At the just ended retreat for his ministers at which they reviewed their first-year performances, President Muhammadu Buhari was upbeat that his administration has shown probity and accountability in the manner it has tackled the problem of corruption. To a partisan watcher of the president, he may have got accolades but not to a dispassionate Nigerian who has witnessed the massive erosion of credibility under the president, especially on the issues of public trust.

Examples abound that Nigerians are not swayed by the self-adulation of the president who seems fixated on his own self-assessment against the reality of corruption in agencies under his watch. Nowhere is this better seen than at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) where an interim management committee appointed by his administration to midwife the forensic audit of the commission has been indicted for corruption, financial recklessness and mismanagement by the Nigerian Senate after an open and transparent investigation where Nigerians were treated to an arrogant display of corrupt entitlement by the directors of the IMC led by its Acting Managing Director, Professor Kemebradikumo Pondei and Acting Executive Director projects, Dr Cairo Ojougboh.

While Prof. Pondei told a shocked nation and the international community at the Senate Committee Public Hearing that, among others, the IMC shared out the sum of N1.3 billion among staff, including himself, as bonuses for the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Ojougboh in various newspaper interviews, not only justified this curious expenditure but said it was standard practice under the Buhari administration.

Meanwhile, between February and May when the expanded IMC under the leadership of Pondei was appointed, the IMC members paid themselves N302 million as tour duty allowances at a time much of the country, including the NDDC office, was locked down on account of the Covid-19 pandemic!

So far, the investigations conducted by the Senate and House of Representatives have laid out fraudulent and questionable payments of N81.5 billion by the IMC under the supervision of the Niger Delta Minister Chief Godswill Akpabio. This is a clear looting of the resources of the NDDC and the Senate which concluded its investigations in July, was unequivocal when it resolved unanimously that the IMC members must refund N4. 923 billion that was criminally spent and be prosecuted for fraud. The Senate resolution also addressed the illegality of the IMC, which it said should be disbanded and the Governing Board inaugurated, to allow for the proper functioning of the governance structure at the commission. The resolution also touched on the forensic audit of the NDDC and other items with recommendations to guide the proper administration of the commission and the audit.

The Senate Committee report showed that in the space of eight months, between October 2019 and May 2020, as gleaned from the NDDC account statements, the IMC approved and disbursed the following: N1.12 billion for publicity, N1.3 billion for community relations, and N475 million, which the IMC said was used to buy hand sanitizer and face masks for the police. In his testimony, the Acting Managing Director Prof Pondei said the IMC paid themselves and staff a Covid-19 ‘palliative allowance’ of N1.3 billion despite receiving their normal salaries and allowances! In addition Pondei takes home N51 million monthly as allowances, while Ojougboh takes home an additional N18 million monthly as allowances. Ojougboh told The Vanguard recently that the N51 million Pondei collects monthly is to feed 100 policemen attached to him!

Despite the investigations and uproar that greeted the questionable manner it went about disbursing the N81.5 billion between February 2019 and May 2020, the IMC is not done with dubious expenditures.

At a press conference on Monday, September 7, 2020, Mr Kolawole Johnson of the anti-corruption group, Act for Positive Transformation Initiative (ACTI) detailed fresh illegal and unbudgeted expenditures by the IMC in the last two months since the close of the Senate investigation that showed crass impunity and disregard for laid-down financial rules and regulations and for the constitution. Johnson, who is the NGO’s Director of Research, Strategy and Programmes, in a statement headed ‘Stop the Looting in NDDC, Freeze Commission’s Accounts Now’, said the IMC has been moving funds out of the NDDC accounts through fraudulent and non-existent contracts, despite the absence of an approved 2020 budget. According to the group, the commission has gone ahead to squander additional N9bn in the last one month in fraudulent and fictitious payments.

Johnson details the illegal and fraudulent payments to include “reckless spending of N5.8bn on fraudulent emergency desilting on 29th July, 2020, alone when the nation was on holidays. They were so much in a hurry that they moved out the same amount purportedly for different locations and different scopes of job. i.e Emergency clearing and desilting of Ipinle Ajenrela creek, Igbokoda (lot 3) –N634,761,500.00, Emergency clearing and desilting of Akaibiri creek, Yenagoa – N634,761,500.00; Emergency clearing and desilting of Ilar Creek, Igbokoda (lot 2) – N634,761,500.00, Emergency clearing and desilting of Temetan Creek, Igbokoda (Lot 1) – N634,761,500.00. Others include: Emergency clearing and desilting of blocked canal from Ilaje High School Naval Base fishing Terminal, Igbokoda (Lot1) – N634,761,500.00, Emergency clearing and desilting of Yewa Creek, Okitipupa (Lot1) – N634,761,500.00, Emergency clearing and desilting of Ipinle Koforawe Creek, Igbokoda (lot 2) –N634,761,500.00. The last on the roll on that same day: urgent clear desilting of blocked sections of Ibelebiri waterways, Ogbia (lot 2) – N739,071,500.00.”

It is outrageous that “Despite the outcry against the ‘N1.3bn palliative to take care of themselves,’ the commission abused the nation further by paying self another N340 million for “emergency intervention against the spread of Coronavirus among commission’s workforce” on 8th August.” The NGO rightly demands that, “Every staff or appointee of the commission that received the money into their private accounts should be made to refund.” A senior director in the commission, who was recently led to the bank to refund his share of the scholarship fund surreptitiously looted, also received N25 Million into his private account from the above emergency covid-19 largesse. Many other fraudulent payments were made in the month of August under review. The monumental fraud ongoing in the commission is being supervised by the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio.

It is interesting that the NGO, which blew the whistle that led to the National Assembly investigations between May and July this year, said the details of all the companies that served as conduit for these payments are readily available. This is in addition to reckless mismanagement at the NDDC where the IMC has been secretly employing staff, including assistant directors without following civil service rules and guidelines.

The IMC is clearly following a pattern. In its 121-page report, which was adopted as a resolution of the Senate on July 23, 2020, the Senate Committee found that the IMC 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 purportedly 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 fictitiously unexecuted contract. The IMC failed to provide a single name of 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 NDDC IMC probe has revealed malfeasance on a scale never imagined before. Buhari’s inaction so far cannot be for want of evidence, which are amply provided by the Senate report and resolutions, and revelations by whistle-blowing anti-corruption civil society organisations such as ACTI.

Prof Keme Pondei and his IMC colleagues should not remain in office a day longer. We cannot afford delayed action by the president, which gives these officials that have abused public trust more time to commit further infractions, when there are already established indictment for fraud, corruption, self-enrichment, financial recklessness, abuse of due process and mismanagement against them. It is the evidence that sits the president’s logic of having done enough in the fight against corruption on its head.

Arogbofa is the Director of Research and Communication at Transparency and Accountability Advancement Group