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NASS, IMC square up in NDDC’s web of intrigues as region suffers

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Attempt by the National Assembly to unravel grotesque details of alleged N40 billion financial malfeasance in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) may suffer some snags following the abrupt demise of the agency’s Acting Executive Director, Finance and Administration, Ibanga Bassey Etang.

Etang, who would have been pivotal in proving clues for diagnostic financial scrutiny of all procurements and financial transactions of the commission in 2020 fiscal year and any other matters that are not in accordance with the provisions of the NDDC Establishment Act 2000, abruptly passed away barely a few days to the deadline for the submission of memoranda for the alleged N40 billion contract scam.

Though management and staff of NDDC had been stunned by the abrupt death of Etang in the early hours of Thursday, 28 May 2020, the public was more stunned when the management announced temporary shut down of NDDC headquarters in Port Harcourt for two weeks.

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With the sudden death of Etang still shrouded in mystery, Niger Delta Rights Advocates (NDRA) has described the shutdown of the commission as a ploy to divert attention from the probe of N40 billion allegedly spent in just three months by the current Interim Management Committee (IMC).

NDRA spokesperson, Darlington Nwauju, said the group was alarmed that after the IMC had brazenly accused the Chairmen of Senate and House of Representatives Committees on Niger Delta Affairs of corruptly inserting projects into the NDDC’s 2019 budget; and with just seven days to the expiration of the advertorials by the House of Representatives’ investigative committee calling for memoranda on the activities of NDDC, the commission was hurriedly shut down.

“We fear that shutting down the commission might, after all, not be in the overall public interest and may lead to underground manoeuvring to abort the impending probe,” Nwauju said and called on the National Assembly’s investigative committees not to be deterred by the antics of IMC, but forge ahead to unearth the missing N40 billion taxpayers’ money wasted in just 90 days under the supervision of Senator Godswill Akpabio as Minister for Niger Delta Affairs.

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He said posterity would never forgive the 9th Assembly if the accusations and counter-accusations flying around about the activities of NDDC were not comprehensively investigated and all those culpable named, shamed and prosecuted. But the commission’s Director of Corporate Affairs, Charles Odili, has dismissed the insinuations, insisting that the shutdown was purely precautionary as it was intended to sanitised and hygienically clean the commission.

A storm has been brewing between the National Assembly and the NDDC’s Interim Management Committee, led by Acting Managing Director, Professor Kemebradikumo Pondei, since the two respective committees on Niger Delta Affairs in the National Assembly launched an investigation into alleged fraud at the NDDC. The lawmakers are also probing alleged wrongful sack of management staff with the aim of allegedly concealing the fraudulent financial recklessness the IMC had committed.

Concerned that every financial malfeasance threatens the hope for the development of the Niger Delta region and her people’s aspiration for a better future, Senator George Sekibo, representing Rivers East in the Senate, had moved a motion on the “Urgent need to investigate alleged financial recklessness in the NDDC, alleged wrongful sacking of management staff without recourse to established civil service rules and practice with the aim of allegedly concealing the fraudulent financial recklessness they have committed.”

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Sekibo observed that while President Muhammadu Buhari’s intention to set up an IMC to oversee the forensic audit of the NDDC may have been to forestall the financial recklessness that has characterised the commission, the current IMC appears to have been more bedevilled with the same financial misuse, misapplication, misappropriation or outright fraud in the management of the funds of the commission.

“The IMC has inundated itself with undue gross misconducts in fraudulent contracts award without due recourse to due process and flagrant disobedience to the provisions of sections 19, 25, 41 and 42 of the Public Procurement Act, 2007,” Sen. Sekibo maintained. “Within the last three months, the commission has spent over N40 billion of the commission’s funds without recourse to established processes of funds disbursement which has opened up further suspicion among stakeholders of the Niger Delta region.”

Similarly, Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Niger Delta Affairs, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, has enjoined community development committees/councils across the Niger Delta region to send details of all emergency projects in their communities to the National Assembly to confirm that such jobs were being done

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But, while the National Assembly might appear poised to promote accountability and foist a culture of transparency in the interventionist agency, some stakeholders in the region are of the view that the probe would also put the spotlight on lawmakers who have used their privileged positions to contribute to the pillaging of public resources through the insertion of spurious projects which are usually awarded to their proxies in the NDDC budget. They say this would call into question parliamentary ethics. Political observers say the involvement of lawmakers in NDDC contracts has been blamed for parliamentary inaction to effectively carry out its oversight functions. While the constitutional role of parliamentarians to curb corruption, which worsened in the NDDC when the award of emergency contracts without recourse to budgetary provision was introduced from 2016 to date is not in dispute, some of the beneficiaries of these proceeds of contract corruption are said to be lawmakers in both chambers of the National Assembly.

Pondei has declared that the probe being trumpeted by the National Assembly was not for altruistic reason but an attempt by some members to arm-twist the IMC. According to him, the much-touted attempt to strengthen governance and accountability through enhanced parliamentary oversight was merely a deliberate ploy to distract the IMC from focusing on the forensic audit of the commission.

“We have faced so much pressure from some members of the National Assembly not to send certain files to forensic auditors,” Pondei disclosed. “We fear that this will compromise the integrity of the exercise and have refused to do their bidding. We have also faced pressure from some members of the National Assembly to pay for 132 jobs, which have no proof of execution. We have refused to pay out N6.4 billion for those jobs. We believe that an IMC set up as a cleansing structure cannot become part of the old story of rot.”

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The interim NDDC boss blamed 50 per cent of NDDC’s inability to deliver on its mandate on the stranglehold of the National Assembly members on the commission. He accused lawmakers of bastardising NDDC’s budget by inserting over 500 irrelevant projects in it and willfully delaying its passage until it was too late for it to be implemented. For instance, he said the 2019 budget was passed two months to the end of its implementation period. And based on procurement rules, there was not enough time to call for tender and execution of the jobs as the statutory period for advertising tenders is six weeks.

According to him, “The National Assembly members insert items we have no plans for. These items are then forced on the commission when it is not part of the master plan. Rather than be a major intervention agency, the commission is busy erecting street lights and drainages, something local governments should do.”

Pondei stated that before the joint committees on the Niger Delta Affairs agreed to harmonise the 2019 budget, the IMC was compelled to pay 20 contractors. According him, prior to the payment, all meetings to resolve the budget harmonisation process was botched by the lawmakers who refused to show up on the various scheduled meetings.

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“We were told to pay for some contracts,” he said. “That was relayed to us through the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on NDDC. We waited for the meeting but it did not take place because we had not paid. On March 17, 2020 we managed to pay some and on March 19, 2020 we paid the others. That was when approval was transmitted to us on March 20, 2020,”
 
“We understand that this had been the regular practice over the years. You have to accede to the requests of the National Assembly or you don’t have a budget. It was the lack of budget in 2016 and 2017 that led the past administrations in NDDC to device what is now called the emergency projects. That was the only way they could get some projects to be executed until it now became a very big burden.”

Pondei maintained that allegations of how N200 billion, N40 billion and N25 billion disappeared from NDDC’s coffers, which is domiciled with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) are spurious and unfounded. He stressed that the National Assembly does not want the Niger Delta transformed. Rather, some persons in both chambers want the NDDC to remain a place that generates monies for elections.

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“We cannot continue to use NDDC as a place to generate war chest for elections,” he stressed. “The real problems we are seeing now is because of the governorship election in Delta State, who controls the state in 2023 and who releases the money. That’s the basic truth.”

The President, Niger Delta Peace and Development Advocates, Kelvin Ebi Thomas, said it was obvious that the National Assembly was bent on blocking the IMC for fear that the ongoing forensic audit would expose the fraudulent contracts awarded their companies.

“We know that the reason why some members of the National Assembly and others outside are fighting against the forensic audit is that their fraudulent activities will definitely be exposed. They have resolved to blackmail the IMC in the eyes of the public so that the forensic audit will have no credibility”.

Also President, National Association of Nigerian Students, Danielson Akpan, has called on the National Assembly leadership to reign in its covetous members to concentrate on making laws that would uplift the living standards of the Niger Delta people rather than engage in smear campaign and mudslinging of the IMC and the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Akpabio.

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“We are frustrated that just when there appears a glimmer of hope that the commission would bring about sustainable development of the Niger Delta region, the National Assembly has constituted itself as a clog in the wheel of progress. When would development get to the creeks, the people, our siblings, students, poor, teachers, community? When would infrastructure be available for use by the residents of Niger Delta? We are tired of unending probes that only seek to arm-twist the management of the NDDC and probably make them to dish out more contracts to the lawmakers, which would end up not being executed but fully paid for as recently revealed”.

Meanwhile, in recognition that combating corruption and its corrosive effects on the development of the Niger Delta and the country has been a key fulcrum and goal of the President Buhari’s administration, the Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) has declared support for the leadership of the National Assembly on the decision to investigate NDDC. PANDEF’s National Chairman, Idongesit Nkanga, said the probes would help determine the validity or otherwise of the allegations of fraud, and save the people of the region from the anguish and ignominy.

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Nkanga said Niger Delta people are pained by the appalling state of infrastructure in the region, and the commission’s continuing failure to fast-track the region’s development. He said it was regrettable that NDDC has been characterized with non-performance, poor management, misapplication and misappropriation of resources, and reckless perversion of its set objectives.

“The commission has been snared in a web of intrigues and counter-intrigues since last year. Regrettably, it is the people of the region that suffer the bane of the debauchery and continued failure of the commission to deliver on its mandate. Critical stakeholders of the region are concerned over these developments at NDDC, and the president’s reported extension of the period of the Interim Management Committee to December 2020.”

PANDEF has urged the National Assembly to be mindful of persons with vested interests that may attempt to frustrate or compromise the investigation. It implored the lawmakers to be true patriots, and not accommodate partisan considerations in course of the investigation because the hope of the people of the Niger Delta region for an improved NDDC was at stake.

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