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NDDC: Never too far away from scandals, controversies

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Never too far away from controversy, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) has, yet again been hit by a tectonic financial scandal leading to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) quizzing its top management officials, and the barring of some commercial banks from honouring cheques emanating from the agency.
 
The anti-graft agency actions stems from petitions bordering on alleged kickbacks, contract racketeering, abuse of entrusted power for private gains, nepotism, diversion of desperately needed funds for education, healthcare and others issues that have continued to stifle and worsen human and infrastructural deficits in the Niger Delta.  
  
For days recently, the EFCC quizzed the acting managing director of the agency, Prof Nelson Brambaifa, as well as its acting Director, Finance and Administration, Dr. Chris Amadi, acting Executive Director, Projects, Dr. Samuel Adjogbe, and others over controversial contract awards and subsequent payments.
 
A source in the commission disclosed to The Guardian that one of the controversial contracts for which the officials were quizzed was the over N2b contract awarded for the skills acquisition training of women in 27 senatorial districts of the nine oil-producing states. Amid this, in pursuant of Section 38 and 34 of the EFCC (Establishment) Act 2004, Sections 21 and 6 of the Money Laundering Prohibition Act 2011, the EFCC also instructed some commercial banks not to grant request for payments by the NDDC as monies were allegedly being diverted from the commission’s account.
 
The EFCC said preliminary investigation revealed that funds were being diverted from the NDDC’s account domiciled in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to commercial banks, even as The Guardian gathered that some board members and directors were under investigation for allegedly acquiring choice properties in Abuja and elsewhere in their names.Indeed, the ongoing investigation has further worsened the agency’s reputation, while many stakeholders believe that corruption is responsible for the poor quality of services delivery by the commission.
 
Several contractors, who spoke to The Guardian claim they paid bribe of not less than 10 percent of the total project cost (of each contract) to top NDDC officials and their proxies before their payments are processed. They stressed that once this happens, poor quality of service was inevitable.

Investigation by The Guardian further revealed that there exist a network of syndicate responsible for obtaining contracts from the commission, and selling them to subcontractors. This syndicate, which audaciously sell contracts close to the NDDC corporate headquarters along Aba Road, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, thrives because most contracts are won unfairly, with awards favoring friends or relatives of ruling political party chieftains and government officials.
 
An unsuspecting member of the syndicate had offered to sell some contracts to The Guardian. One of the jobs is NDDC/EDP/ INS PR/DT/17/ 396, which is for emergency repairs of failed and unmotorable sections of NEPA Cooperative/FUPRE Staff Quarters Road, along Ehwerhe Road, off Tension, Agbarho, Delta State.
   
The bill of engineering measurement and evaluation estimated that the job would cost N409, 287, 400.99. The second contract, NDDC/EDP/INS PR/DT/17/416 is for the construction/ emergency repairs of failed and unmotorable sections of Oil field Road and 3rd Marine Gate Road in Warri South Local Council, Delta State, valued at N266, 200, 000. 00.
 
Inside sources revealed that due to anomalies in the award of emergency contracts, the former minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Usani Uguru Usani, (the ministry supervises the NDDC) had to stop the award of emergency contracts. But immediately the last cabinet was dissolved, the management of the commission resumed the award of emergency road repair contracts, which it backdated.
 
Emergency road repair contacts, which are not subject to due process and their profit margin, in most cases, hovers between 40 and 50 percent, are sold to prospective contractors by syndicates at 10 percent the cost of the project. The prospective contractors then pay additional three percent to the middleman and 15 percent to officials of the commission as kickback.
 
Some contractors, who are owed payments for months and years, told The Guardian that officials of the commission were comfortable awarding emergency road repair contracts because of the high returns they expect to get.
 
The issue of corporate governance in the NDDC has been murky over the while, with some staff members complaining that the decision of the acting managing director to recruit two of his sons as his personal aides does not elicit trust from stakeholders. An aide to one of the board members said this act, in a conflict environment like the Niger Delta depicts the absence of moral fibre and rectitude in governance.
 
“The first and most terrible way to compromise your office is to employ your children. That their names are on the payroll and they have offices there is an absurdity. One of the managing director’s sons is the chief of staff, while the other is in charge of protocol and logistics. Now, how can this foster greater trust and accountability, particularly in a conflict environment like the Niger Delta,” he said.
 
It is worthy to point out that the NDDC has also become a honey pot for National Assembly members from the region. Apart from top politicians’ wives, chieftains of the ruling party benefitted immensely from the recent award of water hyacinth contracts.Reacting to the recent grilling of principal officers of the NDDC, the special adviser on media to the managing director, Nancy Stephens Ijaopo said there was nothing to fret about, as activities of her principal were open for public scrutiny. She also dismissed insinuation that Brambaifa-led NDDC was being tele-guided by extraneous forces

 
“It is routine for anti-graft agencies to ask questions and even probe the activities of public agencies in the greater interest of the public. What we find detestable is the attempt to force the office of the Acting MD into a needless media debate on the operations of any anti-graft agency. No one is in doubt as to the competence and patriotic ability of the anti-graft agencies to do what is right even as we also know that this task does not include media trials,” she said.
 
Understanding a little of NDDC’s history is vital to appreciating why corruption within the system, best depicted by shabbily executed projects littering the Niger Delta, has gradually eroded the trust that the ordinary Niger Deltan had in the commission.By the time former President Olusegun Obasanjo assumed office in May 1999, one salient issue he urgently sought to address was the pathetic situation of the Niger Delta question.
 
It would be recalled that after the execution of Ogoni human rights and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his kinsmen, by the military junta, a United Nations Secretary General mission to Nigeria recommended the establishment of an intervention agency to address infrastructural and human capacity deficit, as well as political and economic maginalisation of the oil rich Niger Delta, which later fueled discontent that eventually led to violent extremism in the form of militancy.
 
Obasanjo, having come to terms with the fact that people-centered infrastructure such as access to electricity, clean water sources, healthcare, education and roads, were key in addressing the developmental gap in the oil-rich Niger Delta, decided to establish the NDDC.
 
Since 2000 when the NDDC Act was passed into law, the Federal Government and oil companies have been channeling projects and resources into the region, which has generally failed to benefit their intended recipients. Instead, political actors whose proxies have controlled the affairs of NDDC since its inception have stripped the Niger Delta of resources meant for its development.
 
Former provisional president of the Movement for Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Prof. Ben Naanen said it was highly debatable whether the NDDC is living up to the expectations of the people of the Niger Delta.  He explained that there are people who still feel that the NDDC has failed, and fallen far short of expectations, while some insist that setting up the agency remains germane when it comes to Niger Delta development.  
 
“The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan Mission in 1996 to Nigeria, which was in response to the Ogoni situation, actually made a number of recommendations, including setting up a special interventionist agency for the development of oil-producing communities of Nigeria.  And so the setting up of the NDDC was partly in response to that recommendation by the mission, which was headed by a Togolese jurist at the time. So, expectations were quite high. Some of us expected that the NDDC was going to be a major organ of intervention in the development of the Niger Delta oil-producing communities. But I am not sure we still share that kind of optimism now.
 
“The impact has been quite limited so to say, especially in terms of the overall expectations. We didn’t expect that it was going to be magical, but we expected a focused development institution, which impact would be felt across the Niger Delta. Definitely, it has made some achievements as local roads have been built in communities and so on. But as I have said, the overall impact on poverty alleviation and environmental situation in the region and other things that it was mandated to accomplish has been limited. We expect those things to be done,” he said.
 
On the issue of contract racketeering through which hundreds of millions of naira have been siphoned from the NDDC, Naanen said the hijack of the intervention agency by local and national political actors remains a serious roadblock to instilling a culture of accountability and transparency in the NDDC.
 
“The capture of NDDC by the political elites lies with the political system itself. As long as the NDDC is seen as a cash cow for election and all kinds of political projects without accountability, it is going to be difficult to hold the NDDC accountable because the very people who would have been held accountable are the very people who are feeding fat on the agency. I think it is the people of the Niger Delta who have to demand accountability. Our representatives ought to live up to that expectation. The government should know that the people are watching, and something has to be done to clean the image of the NDDC. We cannot lose hope; pressure must be mounted on the system, and the people of the Niger Delta ought to speak out as not every Niger Deltan is running to the place to seek contract. As long as that contract mentality continues, it is going to be difficult to demand accountability. It is people’s power that can change the NDDC,” he said.
 
The Executive Director, We the Peoples, Ken Henshaw, who specialises in budget implementation in the Niger Delta, explained that people in communities where NDDC projects are sited refer to them as disposable projects because they are considered low quality jobs with short life span. According to him, roads constructed by the NDDC can be totally eroded by a single downpour because they are of very low quality and that is why residents call them disposable projects.
 
“Nothing else tells the story of the failure of NDDC than street light projects. I travelled to Akwa Ibom State two weeks and I went through Aba. You need to see the blue and white solar streetlight- almost every single one of them is on the floor. If you go towards Sani Abacha Road, they are all on the floor, but NDDC is still implementing the same streetlight project every day even when the ones that they mounted are not simply good,” he said.
 
“So the NDDC is a hotbed of corruption. It is cesspool of malfeasance. It is a terrible waste of money and an injustice to the people of the Niger Delta. Ask yourself what are people doing in front of NDDC office everyday? It is a supermarket run by a cartel where contracts are bought and traded.  There are people whose jobs it is to pull out contracts from their network within the NDDC and sell to a third, fourth, fifth or sixth party to the extent that when the job is done, the profit is so devalued that the contractor can just deliver anything and walk away.”
 
Henshaw noted that the challenges that necessitated the setting up of the NDDC could only be overcome when technocrats without political bias are saddled with the responsibility of managing the agency. He stressed that the journey towards sustainable development of a region with history that is littered with the bloodstains of activists will only begin if government stops using the NDDC as a settlement fiefdom of local and national politicians.
 
“All you see are a retinue of politicians or people who are connected to any ruling political party. Don’t forget that the NDDC is under the Presidency. When the Federal Government is making appointments in NDDC, the primary consideration is settlement. The primary consideration is never performance; the primary consideration is never the needs of the people of the Niger Delta, but always settlement,” he said.
 
An anti corruption expert, and Executive Director of African Network for Environment and Economic Justice, David Ugolor said information asymmetric between the NDDC and the people of the Niger Delta, who are ignorant of the amount of funds coming into the commission has created a huge problem, which is disadvantageous to the people who ought to hold NDDC accountable.
 
“It is easy to see NDDC roads with signboards, but unfortunately, the average Nigerian is ignorant. An institution like the NDDC is supposed to be an agent to the people who are the principal. The agency is supposed to provide public service to the people, but because the people are not aware, they see the shoddy roads that the NDDC has done as a favour, not a right. Consequently, NDDC staff and those who control the NDDC use it as a kind of manipulative tool thereby, creating a patron-client situation in the region. So, any community that is given a project sees it as a favour.”
 
For the former Publicity Secretary of the Ijaw National Congress, Victor Burubo, one major drawback of the NDDC since its inception has been politics. According to him, the NDDC structure created by the Obasanjo-led administration was not exclusively for the Niger Delta oil-producing states.
 
Consequently, “Restructuring is what we need. We in the Niger Delta are clamouring for restructuring. If there is restructuring, it will no longer be the duty of the Federal Government to set up intervention agencies for us. We will develop our land with our resources. If you are responsible for your resources, what do you need an intervention agency for? We need to restructure the country because there is enough to sustain every part of the country and to spare. The government has no idea of what the people want, its officials just stay in their air-conditioned offices and assume what they people need,” he added.
 
On his part, the Chancellor, International Society for Social Justice and Human Rights, (ISSJHR), Dr. Jackson Omenazu, regretted that successive leadership of the NDDC have jettisoned the regional master plan, which cost almost $10m, and which was supposed to be a guide for a structured development of the region. He noted that if the Federal Government had adhered to the master plan, the NDDC would have been able to bridge some of the gaps in the development of the Niger Delta.
 
He said it was time the Federal Government allowed the people of the Niger Delta to elect who would be chairman and managing director of the commission, pointing out that the experience of the last 18 years has been one where principal board members owe their political allegiance to the ruling party instead of the Niger Delta people.
 
Omenazu who observed that the Prof. Brambaifa-led management offers a glimpse of hope, urged Niger Delta governors, irrespective of their political affiliations to support the NDDC to enable it achieve its mandate.
 
“The developmental deficiency we are experiencing is because the NDDC is playing solo. For instance, if the NDDC wants to build a hospital in a local community and there is no motorable road leading to that community, the state and the council should be able to construct a road to such a community, while the NDDC establishes the hospital. Such synergy will expedite development in the Niger Delta. There should be no distinction between political parties and social development of the people,” he said.
 
The governors of Cross River and Rivers State, Ben Ayade and Nyesom Wike, have respectively decried the failure of the Federal Government to constitute the NDDC Governors Advisory Committee. Ayade recently explained that under the NDDC Act, the commission was supposed to have regular meetings with the various stakeholders, including governors that form part of the governing board.
 
“As I speak, I’m not aware of, nor have I received any official letter inviting me and my colleagues for a meeting. We are not interested in deciding who gets the job, but we would ask our works department to be part of supervision to ensure that quality is adhered to at all times,” he said.
 
Similarly, Wike said the NDDC Governors Advisory Committee has not be been put in place because five out of the six states in the region are controlled by governors from the Peoples Democratic Party. “The Federal Government has refused to constitute the Governors Board since 2015 because majority of South-South states are controlled by the PDP.  Nineteen years after its establishment, the NDDC is still constructing its headquarters. All the participating states have no mega projects; the NDDC was designed to help the Niger Delta grow, but that is not the situation on ground.  Can we justify the funds that have passed through the NDDC?” he questioned.
 
Stakeholders are, however, of the view that except there is a robust oversight and monitoring of the NDDC, hundreds of millions of naira meant for the development of the area would continue to be siphoned through bribes and fraudulent contracts awards.
 


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