NDDC mired in cesspit of sleaze
Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) has been mired in a series of damaging financial scandals bordering on alleged misappropriation of public funds to the tune of N81.5 billion by the commission’s Interim Management Committee (IMC). The IMC took charge a few months ago after a board appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari, led by one Mr. Bernard Okumagba, was not allowed to take office. This was supposedly so that a forensic audit could be carried out on the finances of the commission.
The National Assembly has been investigating alleged financial recklessness by the intervention agency, based on a flurry of petitions by civil society groups. Ample evidence now proves that political interference in the affairs of the commission and lack of diligent oversight by previous federal legislators have provided the catalyst for the sleaze that characterise the commission over the years.
In the last year alone, the battle for the control of the NDDC intensified. The commission has had four acting managing directors but without a governing board. Amidst this battle, the commission has also come under intense financial scrutiny by stakeholders, who have assiduously inundated the National Assembly with petitions and calls to investigate it.
While yielding to immense pressure from civil society groups, the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives, in a bid to ensure transparency and accountability of public funds, in May set up ad-hoc committees to investigate the “financial recklessness” of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the commission.
Shortly after the National Assembly set up the committees to probe NDDC, the management of the commission declared that the exercise was merely intended to make a mockery of the forensic audit ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari by lawmakers who had padded up NDDC’s 2019 budget with over 500 projects. This scathing revelation aimed to scare the lawmakers from investigating the commission failed to achieve its result.
But, amidst the controversy of financial malfeasance that besets the NDDC, the National Assembly last week commenced the investigation of alleged misappropriation of over N81.5 billion between October 2019 and May 2020.
Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, while declaring open the investigation, said the essence of the probe was to ensure prudent utilisation of public funds by Ministries, Departments and Agencies of Government (MDAs). He stressed that financial recklessness was not an attribute that anyone could afford, whether rich or poor.
“It is even worse with the poor, or for the organisation or a country with limited resources,” he charged. “This is the reason we have always highlighted the need for prudence in the application of public resources. The NDDC is an important statutory agency that is supposed to improve a lot of Niger Delta communities. It is therefore unacceptable to hear about inappropriate use of resources or outright financial recklessness.”
Lawan stressed that allegations of misappropriation of public funds to the tune of N80 billion by the Interim Management Committee of NDDC was too weighty, hence the decision by the National Assembly to mandate its ad hoc committees to authenticate the veracity of deluge of petitions bordering on corruption in the NDDC.
“This Senate is a responsive Senate,” he continued, “and it was partly the reason we made up this all-important committee in our sitting on Tuesday, 5 May 2020 to investigate the ‘Alleged Financial Recklessness at the NDDC.’ I am happy the ad-hoc committee has made excellent progress by requesting and receiving vital information from identified stakeholders.
“This public hearing should further help the committee get more information, to enable it to come to a pleasant conclusion on the facts on the ground, before reporting back to the Senate.”
Chairman of the Senate ad-hoc committee, Senator Olubunmi Adetumbi, explained that the National Assembly probe’s main focus was on all financially related allegations, mismanagement and misappropriation and the breach of the extant procurement processes as enshrined in the public procurement Act 2007 by the management of the commission. Adetumbi, in a bid to highlight the level of financial recklessness in the NDDC, gave the breakdown of how N3.14 billion was expended by the management of the commission on COVID-19 palliatives.
He explained that from the financial statements or documents forwarded to the committee by the IMC, as regards expenditure carried out between October 29, 2019, and May 31, 2020, monies expended on COVID-19 pandemic relief was mind-boggling.
“Out of the total expenditure of N81.495 billion spent by both the IMC, led by Mrs. Joi Gbene Nunieh, as Managing Director between October 29, 2019, and February 18, 2020, and the current IMC, led by Professor Kemebradikumo Pondei between February 19, 2020, and May 31, 2020, N3.14billiion was spent on COVID-19 pandemic as relief funds.
“Highly disturbing is the fact that based on the records of payment of such funds, a whopping N10 million was given to a single staff while two other staffers collected N7 million each. Other payments as reliefs against the pandemic are N3 million given to each of 148 other staffers, N1.5 million each to 157 other categories of staffers, N1 million each to 497 others and N600,000 each to the last category of 464 other staffers.
“Also included in the COVID-19 pandemic relief largesse, as clearly stated in your submitted financial documents, is N475 million given to the police high command for purchase of face masks and hand sanitisers for men and officers across the nine states in the Niger Delta Region.”
Adetumbi stated that the IMC headed by Ms. Nunieh, who was appointed in October 2019 and sacked in February, 2020, spent N22.5 billion out of the N81.5 billion being investigated. Whereas, the incumbent IMC, headed by Pondei, expended between February 19, 2020, and May 31, 2020, N59.1 billion. The NDDC was said to have spent N1.3 billion on community relations; condolences, N122 million; consultancy, N83.8 million; COVID-19 intervention, N3.14 billion; Duty Tour Allowance (DTA) N486 million; Imprest N790.9 million; Lassa fever, N1.956 billion; legal fees, N906 million; logistics, N61 million; maintenance, N61 million, and medicals, N2.6 billion.”
Pondei explained that the commission expended N1.5 billion as COVID-19 relief on NDDC staff. While portion of the COVID-19 palliative was given to various youth groups in the Niger Delta to help cushion the effect of the pandemic on them so as to avoid violence. Five million was given to youths, five million for women and five million for people living with disabilities in each senatorial district.
Pondei narrated that the IMC he heads met a huge debt on assumption of office and had to start clearing some of it. According to him, the former IMC left unpaid hotels and electricity bills of about N26 million.
According to Pondei, “If anyone has any evidence that I collected even one per cent from any contractor, let him present it and I will resign instantly. We need to be very careful in making spurious allegations that can distract the NDDC.”
On his part, NDDC’s Acting Executive Director, Projects, Mr. Cairo Ojougboh, dismissed the allegation that the IMC, which has not introduced any new projects, had misappropriated funds as alleged by those antagonistic of the current management. He explained that out of the N3 trillion debt owed by the commission, the sum of N156.98 billion had been processed for payment.
Ojougboh disclosed that some lawmakers have their fingerprints on 1,000 out of the 2,900 sleaze-prune emergency contracts.
“The budget(s) of the NNDC from 2001 till date have always been hijacked by the two chairmen of the committees – the chairman in the House and the chairman in the Senate,” he alleged. “Not one kobo has been misused since the coming of the IMC. We want to beg the National Assembly that they should allow the people of the Niger Delta to grow. Since the inauguration of the IMC, we have not known peace. It has been one false allegation after another.”
Niger Delta Affairs Minister, Godswill Akpabio, who subsequently appeared before the investigative committee, corroborated Ojougboh’s claims that no new contract had been awarded in the commission since he became minister, except the contract for COVID-19 palliatives.
Akpabio argued that the sole reason why there had been so many hues and cry about NDDC’s alleged financial malfeasance was because of President Buhari’s approval for the ongoing forensic audit. He maintained that the forensic audit of NDDC remains the most pragmatic way to redress the rot that has plagued the commission since inception.
“That is why he has the courage to order for a forensic audit of the NDDC from 2001,” Akpabio stated. “We must commend that. Because of his family members and political cronies were going to the NDDC, as happened in the past, to go and collect money and phoney contracts that were never executed, there is no way he would have ordered for a forensic audit.
“So, mine is to make sure that I carry out the instructions of the president and clean the system and then set up a management structure. So I like what is happening here, and I just want to tell you: please, don’t believe in sensational journalism and then somebody will come and say ‘Akpabio under probe for N40 billion.’ Which Akpabio? If I see N40 billion, won’t I faint?”
But Nunieh claimed that between October 29, 2019, and May 31, 2020, only N8 billion was spent by IMC under her leadership contrary to the N22.5 billion stated by the Senate committee.
Nunieh, who accused Akpabio of scheming her out of the NDDC because she did not yield to his desire to have unfettered access to the coffers on the commission, explained that on the assumption of duty, the minister had instructed her to change the dollars in the NDDC account to naira, but she was scared to do that.
“He said I should remove all the other directors that refuse to take his instructions during the time of Mrs. Akwagaga, that is the predecessor before I came.
“So, he came also with a draft letter that I should write and put it on my letterhead implicating Senator Nwaoboshi of collecting contracts in NDDC. I told him that I will not; that I am a lawyer and that whoever alleges must prove the fact that Senator Nwaoboshi is giving us trouble. Akpabio never signed any document. He will always refuse to sign but will tell you to go and commit the fraud. For instance, he told me to go and raise a memo and give an emergency contract for flood victims.”
Nunieh also alleged that the minister had exerted pressure on her to take an oath of allegiance. To buttress her claim, she said the minister had repeated she swore to an oath during a reconciliation meeting at the Villa in the house of Mr. Seriki Abba, a Special Assistant to the President on Domestics Matters.
In his reaction, Akpabio explained why Nunieh was sacked, saying a civil society group had petitioned his ministry that there was no record that she participated in the mandatory one year National Youth Service Corps scheme in Kwara State as she claimed. According to him, after a thorough investigation to ascertain the veracity of the petition, which turned out to be true, she was relieved of her appointment in order, not to embarrassment government.
He further described Nunieh as a disgruntled and temperamental person, whose character flaw could best be attested to by her four previous husbands. But considering Akpabio’s assertion a denigration of her person, Nunieh also resorted to more vicious mudslinging by claiming she had once slapped the minister for sexually harassing her in his guesthouse at Apo, Abuja.
“Why did he not tell Nigerians that I slapped him in his guesthouse at Apo?” she alleged. “I am the only woman that slapped Akpabio. He thought he could come upon me. He tried to harass me sexually. I slapped him. He tried to come to me. I am an Ogoni woman and nobody jokes with us. I showed Akpabio that Rivers women do not tolerate nonsense.”
She further continued: “I am accusing him of sexual harassment. Akpabio is most interested in my love life. Did he want to be my seventh husband? That’s why Akpabio told the world that I am temperamental. You know why Akpabio will tell the world that I am temperamental? Because of that incident that I slapped him.”
There have been mixed reactions in the Niger Delta regarding the National Assembly investigating the financial transactions of NDDC in the last eight months. Joining the fray, the Rivers State Government has cautioned that those investigating the activities of NDDC should ensure no harm befalls Ms. Nunieh. It stated further that it has viewed with concern the recent developments at NDDC in which the name of Nunieh has been dragged in the mud.
Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communications, Mr. Paulinus Nsirim said the state government was concerned about the unfolding situation in NDDC and efforts must be made to ensure Nunieh does not suffer any harm.
“We wish to state categorically that the Rivers State Government will never support any action that will prevent or jeopardize the laudable intentions of His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari to positively reposition the NDDC and fulfil the yearnings and aspirations of the people of the Niger Delta.
“However, we wish to state that while we are not interested in identifying with the present unfolding drama in the NDDC, we will not, however, fail to protect our daughter from actual harm or perceived danger.”
Nsirim explained that the state owes itself as a duty to protect her citizens from danger no matter their political affiliation and it would not fold its hands and watch anyone harm her or indeed any Rivers citizen.
“We advise those involved in the present altercations in NDDC to thread with caution in their actions and utterances.”
A former director in Rivers State Ministry of Information and Communications, Mr. Blessing Wikina said the entire drama playing out in NDDC was scripted, acted, and produced from the beneficiaries of NDDC’s loot to achieve the aim of diverting attention from an unending list of uncompleted projects over the years.
“The drama now has Akpabio and Nunieh as the protagonists on location, without props, make-ups, and characters,” Wikina said. “Rather than show us project sites, communities, or scenes of achievements, we are now made to watch nakedness and irresponsibility. What’s in a slap? What’s four husbands? What’s taking oaths and abuses got to do with flowing billions of naira meant for communities spread from Cameron borders up to Okitipupa and Igbokoda in Ondo State?”
He further continued: “Where is the Niger Delta Regional Masterplan drafted by Timi Alaibe? It’s an insult to our being that the achievements of NDDC aren’t the theme of the drama currently showing on air. East-West Road is still a far cry from completion. Coastal Road linking all the Niger Delta states is mere wishful expectations. You can’t drive to Calabar either. Yet our political leaders are now backstage, producing, directing, and controlling our life, for their 2023 interests. That’s what this drama is about. I can’t be amused or excited, or impressed.”
A group, Niger Delta Rights Advocacy’s (NDRA) spokesperson, Darlington Nwauju, said they were appalled at the revelations from the Senator Adetumbi-led Senate ad-hoc committee investigating NDDC’s IMC activities. Nwauju stated that NDDC’s IMC gleeful claims in the documents submitted under oath, that it spent N85.6 million on overseas travel to the United Kingdom for the graduation ceremony in the month of May 2020, when every part of the globe was under lockdown was shocking.
“We believe strongly that the much-trumpeted forensic audit ordered by President Buhari, with very good intentions, will end up re-enacting another ‘Ibrahim Magu’ episode in the Niger Delta as the hunter will certainly turn out the hunted.”
Meanwhile, the Ijaw Youth Council said it had keenly watched the recent happenings in NDDC, particularly as it concerned a series of conflicts between the NDDC leadership and the National Assembly. Chairman IYC Western Zone and Secretary IYC National Transition Implementation Committee, Frank Akiefa, lamented that this was coming at a time when the management of the NDDC has been visibly effective.
According to him, “This is coming at a time when the looting of years past is finally being exposed. The current head of the Interim Management Committee; Professor Keme Pondei is a respected Ijaw son and his safety and well-being is of importance to us. We will in no way tolerate the bullying of any Ijaw son. We call on the leadership of the National Assembly and the few politicians bullying the NDDC and its supervising minister to refrain from such.”
Meanwhile, a coalition of youth and women’s groups in the Niger Delta region has called on the National Assembly to allow the Interim Management Committee to focus on developing the region. The groups, led by the President of the Association of Non-Violent Peace Ambassadors, Mr. Otolo Emmanuel, during a protest at NDDC headquarters in Port Harcourt, accused those running away from the forensic probe of trying to destabilise the commission.
Emmanuel said the groups, on behalf of the Association of Concerned Niger Delta Youths, Niger Delta Stakeholders Forum and Association of Women for Unity in Nigeria, staged the protest in solidarity with the Interim Management Committee of the NDDC, headed by Pondei.
According to Emmanuel, “We are here to demonstrate our support for Prof. Pondei on account of the good work he is doing at the commission. We insist that he should be allowed to carry out the forensic audit and anyone found wanting should face the full wrath of the law.
“We call on the National Assembly to stop impeding the development of the Niger Delta region, because all the allegations that are going on do not benefit us. All we want is development, which is being frustrated.”
Similarly, the president of Association of Women for Unity in Nigeria, Mrs. Mary Chijioke, said the group was not happy with the crisis rocking NDDC, accusing some powers-that-be of sowing seeds of discord in the region. She lamented that NDDC had been destabilised in the last one year.
According to her, the crisis rocking the commission had been responsible for the appointment of four acting managing directors in one year. Chijioke warned those she said were causing confusion in the Niger Delta region to leave NDDC alone.
On his part, president of the Joint National Association of Persons Living with Disabilities, Mr. Simon Bidei, said Niger Delta would be better without distractions that hinder development.
“We want Mr. President to know that we stand by Prof. Prodei,” he said. “He has proven to be good and we want him to provide the necessary environment for the forensic audit.”
Another youth leader, Mr. Kingsley Maduka said Niger Delta stakeholders were worried by the numerous allegations, which he said were mainly sponsored by some members of the National Assembly.
He stated: “We say no to those putting clogs in the wheel of our development, especially those that are notorious for padding budgets.”
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