Akpoebi Ebiagha argues that the appointment of Effiong Akwa as sole administrator of NDDC is in order

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By far, one of the most petrifying scenes of the year 2020 in Nigeria was the rather weird sight of the former Acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Professor Kemebradikumo Daniel Pondei slumping and passing out at a public hearing in one of the hearing rooms at the National Assembly. Prof. Pondei was being grilled by the legislators about serial allegations of fraud in the NDDC even under an interim administration that was supposedly put in place to clean up the mess left behind by past managers of the commission.

For many, the tragi-comedy that played out at that public hearing in the National Assembly aptly summed up what the NDDC had become under successive overseers of the affairs of the commission: on one hand, a joke and the other, a monumental tragedy for the long-suffering people of the Niger Delta. Perhaps but for the formative years of the commission, the NDDC has largely been underperforming and shortchanging the very sensitive Niger Delta region of the country.

The Niger Delta Development Commission (Establishment etc.) Act of 2000 (Part II) clearly spelt out the core functions and powers of the commission to include the following: “formulate policies and guidelines for the development of the Niger-Delta area; conceive, plan and implement, in accordance with set rules and regulations, projects and programmes for the sustainable development of tie Niger-Delta area in the field of transportation including roads, jetties and waterways, health, education, employment, industrialization, agriculture and fisheries, housing and urban development, water supply, electricity and telecommunications.

Cause the Niger-Delta area to be surveyed in order to ascertain measures which are necessary to promote its physical and socio- economic development; prepare master plans and schemes designed to promote the physical development of the Niger-Delta area and the estimates of the costs of implementing such master plans and schemes; implement all the measures approved for the development of the Niger- Delta area by the Federal Government and the member States of the Commission; identify factors inhibiting the development of the Niger-Delta area and assist the member States in the formulation and implementation of policies to ensure sound and efficient management of the resources of the Niger-Delta area; assess and report on any project being funded or carried out in the Niger-Delta area by oil and gas producing companies and any other company including non-governmental organisations and ensure that funds released for such projects are properly utilised; tackle ecological and environmental problems that arise from the exploration of oil mineral in the Niger-Delta area and advise the Federal Government and the member States on the prevention and control of oil spillages gas flaring and environmental pollution….”

Since the expiration of the tenure of its first Board, the NDDC has abysmally deviated from these core functions as succinctly enshrined in the Act establishing it. Progressively, the Commission became the playground for politicians, aspiring politicians and their acolytes. With their cohorts in the National Assembly, previous board members and management team at the NDDC became highly insensitive to the plight and aspiration of underdeveloped oil-bearing communities that dot the landscape and creeks of the Niger Delta. Instead of being a fulcrum for peace, safety and sustainable development in the states in the Niger Delta, the NDDC became a coven of sorts where very corrupt, shameless and obtuse politicians and technocrats brazenly and barefacedly channel the commonwealth of the people into their bustling bank accounts and then proceed to buy political and other socio-economic privileges.

One credit that should be given to the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is its dogged resolve, in spite of series of setbacks, to return the NDDC to its original mandate. Well-meaning stakeholders, including governors of the nine states in the Niger Delta region are in emphatic agreement that the first and best way to return the NDDC to relevance and fruitfulness is the forensic audit of the commission. Interestingly, President Muhammadu Buhari totally agrees hence his speedy approval for the forensic audit of the commission and further approved the halting of the inauguration of a new board that had been nominated and cleared by the Senate for the commission.

You do not need to be a chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), a partisan politician or even an admirer of President Buhari to agree that it makes no sense to inaugurate a new board for the NDDC at a time when the overwhelming sentiment in the region is for the government to rejig the commission for enhanced productivity, starting with a forensic audit. Given the political and social weight NDDC board members usually throw around, there is no way a thorough forensic audit can be achieved with a substantive board in place. Once the board is inaugurated, big-time contractors and their equally influential friends in the National Assembly and other powerful political corridors, who may have benefitted from the contracts being queried, would all too certainly derail the forensic audit. Like most stakeholders in the region have already said, let the commission be cleaned up, as much as possible, before a new board assumes office.

It has also been noticed that some entrenched interests have been threatening fire and brimstone over the recent appointment of an interim sole administrator for the NDDC. For one, these persons keep missing the point. Neither President Buhari nor the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio “pushed” out the last Interim Management Committee (IMC) led by Professor Pondei. If anything, both the President and Senator Akpabio fully supported the IMC to succeed even in the face of huge odds. However, like the President’s spokesman, Mr. Femi Adesina, said, the ousting of the Pondei-led Interim Management Committee became necessary as a result of a plethora of litigation against the IMC. The IMC was, in the true sense of the word, removed by the law court. Since nature abhors vacuum, the onus fell on President Buhari to appoint a seasoned accountant and administrator, Mr. Effiong Akwa as a sole administrator to run the affairs of the Niger Delta Development Commission. Effiong Akwa, who was the acting executive director, finance and administration in the ousted IMC, according to the Presidential spokesman, “is to assume headship (of the commission) till completion of the forensic audit.”

Justice A.R. Mohammed of the Federal High Court in Abuja had actually issued an order restraining the Professor Pondei-led IMC from running the affairs of the commission. Following the court ruling and sequel to the decision of the federal government to halt the inauguration of a substantive board for the NDDC till after the ordered forensic audit, it became imperative for the president to rely on precedent to appoint Mr. Akwa as the interim sole administrator of the NDDC.

Since its establishment, NDDC has at different times had its affairs presided over by acting, interim or sole administrators. Indeed, the first Executive Director of Finance and Administration of NDDC, Chief Timi Alaibe, following the resignation of the pioneer Managing Director, Engr Godwin Omene, and pending the appointment of another substantive Managing Director, acted as the Managing Director of the NDDC. When Senator Emmanuel Aguariavwodo was appointed and confirmed by the Senate as the substantive Managing Director, Timi Alaibe reverted to his role as the Executive Director, Finance and Administration. Again, Senator Aguariavwodo resigned his appointment to contest for the governorship of his home state, Delta and Chief Timi Alaibe again stepped in as Acting Managing Director, pending the appointment of a substantive Managing Director.

Prior to Buhari’s coming to power in 2015, in the absence of a board duly constituted in line with the NDDC Act, the most senior civil servant in the NDDC took over as Managing Director in acting capacity until a board was constituted.

In 2015, following the dissolution of the then board of the NDDC, Mrs. Ibim Semenitari was appointed as sole administrator from outside the commission. Similarly, an IMC was instituted for the NDDC led by Professor Nelson Brambaifa’s in February 2019. There was also the IMC led by Ms. Joi Nunieh and later the Professor Pondei led IMC in October 2019 and February 2020, respectively

The choice of Mr. Effiong Akwa by President Buhari follows this well laid out precedent. The appointment has been hailed by many within and outside the Niger Delta given Mr. Akwa’s pedigree as a chartered accountant and a Lawyer with a deep understanding of the work the Forensic Audit team should do at the NDDC. Incidentally, Mr Akwa joined the ousted NDDC interim management team as a replacement for Ibanga Etang, the then executive director of finance and administration, who unfortunately, died.

The good news is that the forensic audit of NDDC is now proceeding as envisaged by the federal government and the interim sole administrator, Mr. Effiong Akwa, has since his appointment returned relative peace to the commission. Quiet but speedily effective restructuring of the internal workings of the commission is on-going and profound results are being achieved.

Ebiagha, a Quantity Surveyor, wrote from Port Harcourt