Senate, constituents in wild goose chase after regional development commissions
• ‘Senate should be courageous to endorse restructuring instead’
It’s been an admixture of rush and rash. And in what has now become a rush by every geo-political zone in the country to have its own development commission, bills seeking to establish South East Development Commission (SEDC), North Central Development Commission (NCDC), North West Development Commission and South West Development Commission recently scaled the second reading on the floor of the Senate. Predictably, the bills would also go through ‘considerations’ at the breakout committee level, get back to the floor for final reading, an eventual concurrence from the lower chamber and later presented to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent.
The SEDC has been canvassed as a would-be catalyst for the development of the commercial potential of the Southeast region. Besides helping to formulate policies and guidelines for the development of the region, its advocates believe that its establishment will help in tackling the region’s infrastructural deficit and engage the youth in productive ventures.
The commission would be charged with the responsibility of receiving and managing funds specially allocated by the Federal Government for the rehabilitation, reconstruction and reparation for lost houses and businesses of victims of the Nigerian civil war. The commission would also address any other environmental or developmental challenges confronting the zone.
Sponsor of the bill, Senator Stella Oduah said: “It will also tackle ecological and environmental problems that arise from the soil erosion problems and related environmental challenges in the South-east and advise the Federal Government and member states on the prevention and control of erosion and environmental challenges.”
The lawmaker added that the bill would not impose any financial burden on the Federal Government, as its operations will be funded by 15 per cent of federal allocation from member states. Oduah’s push for the bill and yearning for the commission got nudges from such other lawmakers as Rochas Okorocha, Obinna Ogba and Barau Jibrin. As with the SEDC, the North Central Development Commission (NCDC) is being coloured as the almighty formula that would bring succour to a region that has been devastated by banditry, kidnapping and killings.
Senator Abba Moro, in his argument, said that just like the North West and Northeast, the North Central, though rich in solid minerals, has been devastated and its economy crippled. After support from his ilk in Senators Sabi Abdullahi, Yakubu Oseni, Opeyemi Bamidele, and Ibrahim Oloriegbe, the bill was read the second time after a voice vote and then referred to the Senate Committee on Establishment and Public Service matters.
While initiating the quest for the South West Development Commission late last year, former governor of Ogun State, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, said the bill was conceptualised to bring to the fore the huge infrastructure deficit in the zone. He said the gap had denied the region the opportunity of reaching its full potential.
Amosun had said that the commission would engender the development of the entire South West, noting, however, that the quest was by no means a mere request for a similar institution from other regions to be located in the South West, but to drive infrastructure development with some special attention, especially as it would impact on the region.
The country already has two regional commissions — the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the North East Development Commission (NEDC). The Niger Delta Development Commission was established in 2000 to foster the physical and socio-economic development of Niger Delta region. Among other things, NDDC saw the light of day because there were obvious development gaps in the oil-producing region. Decades of the region’s neglect by the Federal Government occasioned by environmental pollution from oil exploration and exploitation by the oil companies, made a strong case for its establishment. The situation bred communal frustration that snowballed over time into armed militancy.
The North East Development Commission (NEDC), on the other hand, came into existence on October 25, 2017, when President Buhari assented to the bill. The commission was borne out of the need to rehabilitate states in the region, especially Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, the epicentre of the devastating Boko Haram insurgency.
The commission would receive and manage funds allocated by the Federal Government and international donor agencies for the resettlement, rehabilitation, integration and reconstruction of infrastructure and facilities of victims of insurgency as well as tackling the menace of poverty and environmental challenges of the area.
Its focal areas included schools, public facilities destroyed, blown up bridges and roads, many communities reduced to rubble, orphans and widows and the humanitarian crisis that has consigned over two million people to living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps strewn across the region. It is a grim situation for which governments at various levels, as well as organisations and well-meaning individuals have been seeking interventions, both locally and foreign, in terms of finance, materials and otherwise.
To get the NEDC to take off, about N10 billion was provided in the 2019 budget. This was followed by President Buhari’s inauguration of an 11-member governing board. Perhaps, a validation of the good intent of the Northeast development agenda had predated the moves on the homefront when the government in 2016 secured $575 million World Bank facility for the development project. It meant that funds for the construction, re-settlement and reintegration of the IDPs would not just be from FG’s coffers.
The recent obsession for development commissions since that of the Northeast scaled through has, however, been described by commentators as ill-conceived. While some views have it that the calls are buoyed by ill-motivated desires to duplicate commissions for frivolities and, at best, only to corner federal resources for self-aggrandisement, others posit that the new calls for commissions from four geo-political regions of the country are unjustified when juxtaposed with the Northeast and indeed the Niger Delta regions. This is as some views have it that there would never have been reasons for any commission if there had been no governance deficits across the country, whose remedy lay only in conscientious restructuring.
Responding to the rash of commissions’ calls recently, the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, stressed the need for national planning in order to address all development challenges in different parts of the country.
Lawan said: “Some states have comparative advantage over others and these are areas we should focus on in developing the country. I think every geopolitical zone has something to contribute. The Senate needs to do more on national planning. We should be working with the executive arm to insist national planning should be necessitated.”
For Jide Ojo, a public affairs analyst, the quest for development commissions by the geo-political zones also reflects the failure of the national development plan.
He said: “The attempt by the geo-political zones to have an interventionist agency like the NDDC is borne out the failure of our national development plan. And I saw this coming. If our national development plan were to be working, we have sufficient Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) to take care of the developmental needs of the entire country irrespective of the geopolitical zone. But because many of these MDAs have failed, each of the geo-political zones is looking at how to have an interventionist agency to be able to shore up the developmental needs of their zones. If the Ministry of Works were to be optimal in its performance and there were good roads across the country, why would we need an NDDC, NEDC or any other development commission for that matter? If the Ministry of Health were working optimally, why would we need another interventionist agency that will set up primary health care centres or general hospitals here and there?
“Secondly, what is the scorecard of even the existing interventionist agencies? I think the NEDC had its first budget in 2018. The NDDC has been in existence since year 2000. Nineteen years after, the scorecard is very abysmal. If you go to the nine states of Niger Delta today, can you say there is sufficient presence of governance in the areas despite the Amnesty Programme, Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, NDDC and the 13 per cent derivation fund?
“It is a very disingenuous way to approach development to believe that every zone must have its own development commission for it to develop. No, if you want to do regional government, let us dissolve the states into six geopolitical zones and thereby spark off competition among these regions. We cannot have MDAs, 36 states and then all these interventionist agencies, many of which are serving as conduit pipes for corruption. A serving senator from Delta State is alleged to be having 300 contracts with NDDC; 120 of those contracts were fully paid for but the man didn’t execute anything. So, for how long would we continue to have these drain pipes in the name of development commissions?”
Ojo described lust for commissions across the geo-political zones as undesirable, arguing in favour of the strengthening of existing MDAs financially, administratively and policy-wise so they could perform optimally.
And like Ojo observed, in spite of novelty of the NDDC, its operations since inception and recent developments portray it as a misadventure. Sometime last year, some leaders of the South-South, led by their governors, visited President Buhari to express their disappointment with the commission’s failure to deliver on its mandate. Evidently, the agency has been a conduit for looting the treasury, creating emergency billionaires among some indigenes who oversee its affairs and execute most of the contracts. Resultantly, today, the zone plays host to 1,796 NDDC abandoned projects. These misgivings, particularly the findings of a ministerial audit committee, informed President Buhari’s recent directive for a forensic audit of its finances from 2001 to date.
The 2016 ministerial technical audit committee on the contracts awarded by the Ministry of Niger Delta between 2009 and 2015 stated that most of the contracts awarded by the ministry in the oil-rich region have no impact on the people. It revealed that only N427 billion, representing 60 per cent out of N700 billion, budgeted for the ministry during the period was disbursed.
“Sadly, very insignificant numbers of projects have reached practical completion to provide the sense of belonging expected by Niger Deltans across board,” the committee said in the document. “About 80 per cent of the projects are either on-going, abandoned after payments, total abdication or refusal to deliver as in the case of Youth Capacity Building Programmes.”
It further stated: “In other words, between 2009 to 2015, about 60 per cent of contracts awarded were paid, but approximately 40 per cent of work was practically achieved.”
Juxtaposing its finding from the project sites against facts retrieved from available documents domiciled in the departments that supervised the projects, the committee observed that there was violation of contract award processes, and lamented: “The way billions of naira are mentioned in construction projects value in the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs has become so banal that very soon, it is believed that they are likely to escalate to trillions of naira, even though the values do not appear realistic vis-à-vis the value added to the region through such contracts.”
It said right from the cycle of procurement planning to contract award, inconsistencies were noticed in provisions of vital aspects of the Procurement Act. Prominent among other issues of violation, it stated, were indiscriminate award of contract by initiating and benefiting departments without the leading and guiding role of the procurement department.
For Yinka Odumakin, traces of the afflictions and wastefulness of the NDDC would not be in short supply in the North East Development Commission the day an audit is carried out. He noted that the failure of central planning in Nigeria is what has made demands for development commissions to become attractive. Odumakin said that all sections of Nigeria crave development which central planning and execution has denied them over the years. He submitted that in an age of self-determination, there is global awareness that development can only be engendered where locals are allowed to formulate and executive their plans for development. He further explained that development commissions without autonomy for the federating units is not the answer to fast-tracking development across country.
Odumakin said: “The unitary hold on Nigeria is suffused in corruption and whatever it sets up will always be a conduit pipe. Anything based on allocation of resources is bound to fail. The way to go is for Abuja to surrender control of resources across Nigeria to the federating units to tap and pay agreed taxes to run common affairs at the centre. We won’t need any fleecing anti-corruption agency running after selected thieves, as locals would hold leaders accountable when resources are locally generated. Communities who want thieves to run their lives would do so culturally and by choice. We will see competitive developments like we saw in the years of federalism.”
Chief Chekwas Okorie sees the contention from a fairly different prism. In his view, the various zones are not just fighting for more funds from the centre with the commission bills, but are also pushing for a form of political arrangement that would enable them develop at their own pace.
According to him, “This is an indirect way of the various zones saying that they need to develop at their own pace. Since restructuring is not coming, they are now seeing this issue of development commissions as an indirect way of getting some fund allocation from the government to develop their own areas whereas there would have been no need for all of these had the government listened to the clamour for restructuring. Restructuring would allow each state or each zone to formulate its own policies on how to develop at its own pace.”
Dr. Emmanuel Onah of Political Science Department, University of Lagos, believes that the struggle for the establishment of development commissions by the various zones is a mark of the insincerity of the country’s leaders about the quest for development. Onah’s position is that recent happenings at the Senate show insincerity in the quest for development because “you will think that there is something that led to a particular bill, for instance, the bill for the South East Development Commission bill. If there were something genuine that led to that, then I would have thought that people would address it before suddenly seeking to set up development commissions in other zones. It cannot be the same concern with other zones at the same time.”
“What I am saying in essence is that if there is a genuine problem in the Southeast, it cannot be the same situation in the Southwest, North Central or wherever because all these zones have their peculiar situations. So, it is not right that suddenly everybody wants to do the same thing when everybody is not supposed to have the same problem. But that is at the technical end of this issue. At the political end, you will now see that what is playing out is the kind of politics we play in the country – politics where nobody is really concerned with development but using the concern for development as an instrument for corruption.
“Everybody seems to be suddenly thinking that if there is a commission in the Southeast, the politicians and leaders in the zone are going to have an opportunity to have some money from contracts, appointments and all that, and that their own zones should not be left out. So, what they are fighting for is not really development for their zones; they are fighting for the opportunity for appointment, contracts and all that. So, development issue is not really the concern here; the concern is politics of corruption and aggrandizement.”
With the peculiarity of Nigeria, and as has been proven with the NDDC, creating additional development commissions may just amount to creating outposts for political actors to financially enrich themselves rather than develop their region or people. In fact, from what has been seen thus far, along with existing development commissions, the ones yet to come and which may come are mere shadow chasing. They may never take Nigeria or its component regions out of under-development.
Should the National Assembly therefore continue to find it difficult to push for restructuring, ostensibly because of self-interest, and should President Buhari also continue not to see the good in restructuring, then good governance in similitude of what obtained under regional governments of old would continue to elude the country and its various component parts. These phony development commissions, as has become evident, certainly do not qualify as alternatives. Instead of these wasteful development commissions, Senate should be courageous to start the process of restructuring the country, with the states as federating units as is the case in the United States from where Nigeria borrowed its federal constitution, but which she practices more in breach.
There can be no short cut to true development. It comes wherever good governance is practiced. It is either things are done properly for good results or nothing good happens from bad efforts. From all intent, whatever the proponents of the development commission bills seek to achieve, could be better achieved if good governance rings through all arms of government and facets of our national life, from council chairmen to the governors and the president.