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Endless instability at NDDC as commission gets sole administrator

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Following sustained agitation and militancy in the Niger Delta region, which remained unabated even after the judicial murder of writer and environmental activist, Mr. Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 and after the inception of the current democratic dispensation five years later, President Olusegun Obasanjo, on June 5, 2000 inaugurated the first board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). Obasanjo appointed his senior special adviser on communication, Mr. Onyema Ugochukwu as the commission’s first executive chairman.

Only last week, 19 years after Ugochukwu, President Muhammadu Buhari was forced to appoint a sole administrator to head the commission on an interim basis. He is Mr. Effiong Okon Akwa, who was until his recent appointment the Acting Executive Director (Finance and Administration) of the commission. Countless litigations and counter-litigations and corruption of the current interim board were cited for the appointment as announced by
Mr. Femi Adeina, Buhari’s senior media adviser. Akwa’s appointment is coming on the heels of corruption allegations leveled against the aberrant Interim Management Committee (IMC) put in place last February, led by Prof. Kemebradikumo Daniel Pondei, who would act out the drama of fainting while being quizzed by lawmakers on grand corruption.

Pondei’s emergence as NDDC’s helmsman came shortly after the Acting Managing Director, Mrs. Joi Nunieh, was sacked in controversial circumstances by the Minister of the Niger Delta, Godswill Akpabio. But just as Nunieh’s board, Pondei’s also didn’t last, as billions of naira were allegedly spent on travels while the entire world was on lockdown due to coronavirus restrictions. When called to account for the missing monies, Pondei fell into a faint fit before lawmakers and is yet to say how his board blew N81.5bn.

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The primary objective of establishing the commission is to develop the oil-rich region with the provision of key infrastructure and educating and training the youth in the region to curb militancy and hostilities towards the oil companies operating in the region. But it would appear that the commission has been more in breach of its core mandate than actually delivery. From one chief executive to another, allegations of sleaze have always dogged the commission’s heels while the people of the region still suffer acute neglect.

While inaugurating Pondei’s board, Akpabio had a moment to articulate the frustration of the people of the Niger Delta in the commission’s continuing failure to live up to expectations since 2000, when it was set up.

According to Akpabio, “The story of NDDC in the last 19 years has not been rosy. The NDDC, we believe, could have achieved more. You have a stunted child who could have been a six-footer. We need to find out the reason why the child could not grow. Is it that the child is not given enough nourishment?

“And then the country is looking at the fact that a lot of money has gone into the NDDC but we could not see commensurate results… I will like to see the NDDC build specialist hospitals. I will like to see NDDC provide light to communities in darkness. I like to see the NDDC support industrialization and food sufficiency in the Niger Delta. These things are possible. It is a question of commitment.”

But many frowned at the appointment of Pondei’s board and what they referred to as his ‘illegal’ and ‘strange’ IMC to replace a proper board Buhari already appointed and which Senate had duly confirmed. Dr. Pius Odubu of Edo State and Mr. Bernard Okumagba of Delta State had been confirmed as chairman and managing director respectively before the idea of interim management committee propped up to thwart that move; Odubu’s board was never to be. Understandably, political wrangling within All Progressives Congress (APC) between the former party’s chairman, Mr. Adams Oshiomhole, and the governor of Edo State, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, scuttled Odubu’s board from being sworn in.

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The Senate took exception to the appointment of an IMC that is unknown to the laws setting up NDDC. Even the Presidency’s response that this was to give room for a forensic audit of the accounts of the commission did not assuage the anger of the lawmakers.

A former Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, put the issue succinctly, when he said; “We cannot be encouraging that kind of sabotage or undermining the powers of the National Assembly. We made a law here stating that there would be a board for the NDDC, and anything outside that, for me, amounts to sabotage. For any person to begin to set up an interim management board, I believe it is something that should not be acceptable to the National Assembly.”

As the issue of legality or otherwise of IMC raged, the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP) instituted a suit before a Federal High Court in Abuja, challenging the powers of the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, to constitute an interim management committee to run the affairs of the NDDC. Nunieh’s outspokenness and her desire to do things differently from the norm of rot that characterize operations of NDDC, some alleged, put her on warpath with Minister Akpabio, which consequently led to her sack.

Also at the time, as the Acting Managing Director of the commission, Nunieh had suspended the monthly payment of N1 billion to a consultant that collects money from International Oil Companies (IOCs) on behalf of the commission.

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According to her, “We have a consulting firm engaged as a collection agent. We have another company that also collects three per cent whenever money is paid by the IOCs. We don’t need a middleman to collect three per cent for us. The money should just be paid into NDDC accounts with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).”

Nunieh said political interference was to blame for the reason an individual would have 87 companies waiting for payment on her desk. She explained that the money being wasted on consultancy could put mono pumps in rural communities and buy books and set up primary health centres in the Niger Delta.

Corruption, it seems, has become part of the lifeblood of the commission and unarguably why the region still suffers. It became so bad that concerned groups had tasked President Buhari to suspend all forms of contract and procurement from being carried out by the commission. They also recommended that the commission should be moved back to the Presidency rather remaining at the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs.

In a petition, Social Development Integrated Centre – Social Action, Nigeria, Take Back Nigeria Movement, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, Centre for Social Studies and Development – WE THE PEOPLE), Delta State Anti-Corruption Network and others expressed shock at the systemic hijack and grand corruption in NDDC.

The petition read in part; “This rot in the NDDC is not a recent phenomenon, it rather dates way back to almost the commencement of the Commission. What started as/with bribery cum inducement to influence and get contracts, and to which authorities then paid a blind eye, quickly up-scaled and snowballed in both dimension and magnitude, to what we see today.

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“As has clearly emerged, all known and unknown means are contrived in the commission to, beat due process, by-pass regulating Laws and side-step checks and balances. It is thus very sadly to this end, therefore, that the humongous resources (which runs into trillions of naira), that have accrued to the region over time, through the commission, has systematically dissipated without any commensurate or even near-commensurate infrastructure or impact to ascribe to it.”

At the heart of the endless corporate instability in NDDC is the opaque manner the commission is being run. Politicization of the commission also counts as a major drawback, as politicians see the commission as a jackpot, since there is little or no accountability of the processes and procedures. Both as ‘job for the boys’ and financier of political contestations, NDDC has remained a giant with clay feet that is unable to meet the yearnings and aspirations of the people of the region, who continue to be at the receiving end of the activities of oil companies that continue to neglect their host communities in the provision of modern amenities.

With an equally aberrant sole administrator, Akwa, in place, who is an NDDC establishment man, what hope for the teeming people of the region? Would his reign be any different from that of Pondei and those behind him? Would the Niger Delta people, not short on optimism, wait on Akwa to do things differently this time around so the commission redeems itself from a narrative of corruption and perennial under-performance? Only time will tell.

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