NDDC conundrum: More questions than answers
“It is shocking that after the FEC, the highest ruling body in the country, had awarded a contract for the same project in 2021 at the sum of $11.7 billion for the construction of same Mega railway spanning through the length and breadth of the Niger Delta, that anyone would be signing an MoU on behalf of the NDDC and the Federal Government of Nigeria for the same project in 2023 without due process” – Lauretta Onochie (Chairman of the NDDC governing board).
As with running the lives of individuals, there is always a difference between motive and method in conducting the affairs of public and private organisations. The facilitating factors that come into play; to oil the engine of growth and drive such dreams to the light of day are predicated on vision, character, commitment and of course, accountability.
Whenever one or more of such catalysts are lacking, the process is derailed, leading of course, to preventable pains of those who are supposed to benefit from it all. And that precisely is what has played out with the noble objectives of the Niger-Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
It would be recalled that the Niger-Delta Development Commission (Establishment etc) Act 2000 Act No 6 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria came as an Act to provide for the repeal of the Oil, Mineral Producing Areas Commission Decree 1998. Among other things, it was meant to establish a new Commission with a re-organised management and administrative structure for more effectiveness.
Furthermore, it was meant for the use of the sums received from the allocation of the Federation Account for tackling ecological problems which arise from the exploration of oil minerals in the Niger-Delta area and for connected purposes. That came into effect on12th day of July 2000.
Unfortunately, the noble aims and objectives of its coming into effect under the then President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo had over the years got de-branded with the issues of corruption, incompetence and gross mismanagement of its resources, leaving the long-suffering people of oil-rich Niger-Delta region of the country holding the short end of the stick. Terribly bad, you might say!
But it even got worse when it had no Board to effectively run its affairs for six odd years! By law it was supposed to be under the presidency. The change in the narrative however, came when former governor of Akwa-Ibom state, Godswill Akpabio became the Minister of the Niger-Delta. It was he who appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari to place the NDDC under the Ministry of the Niger-Delta. Ever since, it has been mired in one steamy scandal, controversy, or the other. That was what necessitated the setting up of a forensic audit by the president to take a deeper look into the conduct of its financial transactions.
Interestingly, that opened up the can of worms with the alleged discovery of monumental corruption as 320 illegal accounts-both local and international- were traced to the Ministry by the forensic audit. That was in 2021 when the Report was submitted to Mr President. Ordinarily, oil companies operating in Nigeria are supposed to pay three per cent of their running costs to the NDDC but going by the allegations of corruption, Buhari ordered that such sums should be collected by the EFCC. Further reports revealed that within that period it collected a whopping N710 billion on behalf of NDDC!
But with the allegations of crass corruption in the corridors of NDDC, amply proven with empirical evidence from the EFCC, Buhari was compelled, in his characteristic manner of openness, transparency and probity to come up with the appointment of someone of proven integrity; someone with a proud pedigree of discipline; who attaches little value to material things. There comes Lauretta Onochie on whose behalf the president wrote to the Senate for confirmation back in November 2022.
Having worked with the President for seven good years, which provided him with the opportunity to study her true persona, he knew that she was going to toe the path of honour and honesty. And that she did when during the first meeting of the NDDC Board it was mutually agreed that financial transactions must be approved by her person, as the Chairman for accountability and transparency.
In addition, such financial transactions were to be communicated to the CBN, the Accountant General’s Office and of course, the Minister of Finance. But the Minister of the Niger Delta, Dr Samuel Ogbuku was vehemently against that significant decision.
Furthermore, he wrote a letter to counter the decision insisting that the status quo should remain. That audacious attempt to shake the NDDC table triggered some burning questions. Is it true, as alleged, that the humongous sum of N50 million is always paid for trips made by the trio of the Minister of the Niger Delta, the Director of Finance and Projects for assignments carried out outside Port Harcourt? Yet, that was not all to it.
Why would contractors be paid huge sums from the public purse without the knowledge of the NDDC Board but with payments approved by the head of the former interim management? Why were the Board Members from Abia and Bayelsa states left out of such payments? And why are the NDDC Board members not given official vehicles? There was certainly more to it all than met the eye!
In fact, the last straw that broke the camel’s back in the cat-and-mouse game between the Minister of the Niger Delta and the Onochie-led Board of the NDDC came to the fore when the former went ahead to host the PPP Summit recently held at Eko Hotel in Lagos state without the approval of the latter!
Worse still, it went on to sign an MoU with an American company, Atlanta Global Resources Inc., which according to Onochie has no requisite experience in any form of construction, not to talk about railway construction! Onochie stated that the company in question is a management export consulting firm without known directors!
Describing the MoU as illegal she quoted that: “(a) By the act establishing the NDDC (Act No 6, of 2000), it is the Chairman of the board that is solely vested with the power to sign MoUs with any organisation. She added Part II of the NDDC Act, Section 8, sub sections (a) and (e), among other provisions,.
Subsequently, all these shenanigans have dovetailed into the call by her traducers for Onochie’s removal from office. And that is all because she is firmly standing on her ground, insisting that she does not want the smelly Augean stable to remain in its mess!
Indeed, she reminds one of the late DG of NAFDAC, Prof. Dora Akunyili who epitomised diligence to duty, discipline and strict adherence to the dictates of the law. Characteristic of her resolute stand, she wants things done within the ambit of the law, no matter whose ox is gored!
Unfortunately, the face-off has led to a situation whereby not much has been achieved by the NDDC in the past six months. So, while the elephants fight it is the hapless and long-suffering Niger-Deltans that continue to stew in the quagmire of preventable pains and poverty.
The clarion call that has come up by concerned Niger Deltans for President Buhari to do the needful, even in his last days in office. They are urging him to amend the Act such that the NDDC Board has an Executive Chairman, similar to what OMPADEC had in place before it was dissolved. With that, the incoming government will have an enabling legal environment to facilitate a holistic development of the oil-rich Niger Delta, so that the goose that lays the golden egg is effectively taken good care of.