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NDDC stuck in intriguing limbo

By Kelvin Ebiri (South-South Bureau Chief)
01 March 2020   |   8:20 am
The absence of a substantive board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the incessant change of its management team by President Muhammadu Buhari is fuelling scepticism about his much-touted commitment to the development of oil-producing states.

The absence of a substantive board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the incessant change of its management team by President Muhammadu Buhari is fuelling scepticism about his much-touted commitment to the development of oil-producing states.

Presently, there is serious uncertainty over the development of the Niger Delta region due to Buhari’s appointment of five management teams for the NDDC between February 2019 and February 2020. In sum, the future and development of the Niger Delta are perceived by many as being in jeopardy due to the delay in appointing a substantive board for the commission.

In the last one year, Obong Nsima Ekere, Prof. Nelson Brambaifa, Dr. Akwagaga Enyia, Dr. Joi Nunieh, and now Prof. Kemebradikumo Pondei, have been appointed either managing or acting managing directors of the NDDC, which was established to progressively create a pathway that would lead to the development and improvement in the quality of life of the people of oil-producing states.

Unfortunately, the facility has gradually become a breeding ground for cronyism, political egocentrism, ruthless power play, all at the expense of development. The abrupt ousting of Dr. Enyia and Dr. Nunieh respectively, as acting managing directors of the outfit has been blamed on the seeming unrestrained, coercive powers of the Minister of Niger Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, who supervises the Commission, and has been accused of having a thinly veiled personal interest in the affairs of the commission.

It would be recalled that the Niger Delta Civil Society Coalition (NDCSC) had blamed Enyia’s sack on her refusal to approve N30b Naira for de-silting contracts, and another unspecified amount for the forensic audit. The Guardian gathered that her decision not to give the approvals was to avert the kind of outrage that followed the payment of N1.9b for water hyacinth contracts, which was hijacked by politicians from the region. As a result of this, a frosty relationship was said to have ensued between Akpabio and Enyia, which ultimately culminated in her removal for what was termed insubordination.

A new management committee led by Nunieh, with Dr. Cairo Ojougboh as acting executive director, projects, and Ibanga Bassey Etang as the acting executive director, finance and administration, was inaugurated by the minister. This happened while the Senate was screening the former Edo State Deputy Governor, Pius Odubu as Chairman of the NDDC Board; Delta State’s Bernard Okumagba, as Managing Director; and Maxwell Okoh from Bayelsa State as Executive Director Finance and Administration; among others.

A seeming face-off between the Senate and the Presidency later cropped up after lawmakers, who had confirmed nominees of the NDDC board vowed not to recognise, nor allow the Nunieh-led management team to defend the Commission’s budget. Irrespective of the Senate’s stance then, both Akpabio and Nunieh managed to forge ahead.

But sources disclosed to The Guardian that before the nomination of Nunieh, who is a close associate of the wife of the President, Aisha Buhari, some All Progressives Congress (APC) leaders in the South-South had met and decided to break the Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi’s grip on the NDDC, having been responsible for the nomination of key positions in the Commission.

This strategic team had penciled Nunieh down as the Rivers State Commissioner on the board of the NDDC. While they were waiting for the fruition of their plan, Niger Delta governors visited President Buhari and demanded the forensic audit of the NDDC. At this point, Nunieh was quick to deploy her social advantage of being close to the President to clinch the position of acting managing director of the NDDC.

Since he was not instrumental to her emergence, Akpabio was said to have played along with Nunieh. But it was alleged that the minister had on an occasion instructed her to disburse funds to some contractors, but she declined.One of her aides disclosed that she had insisted on the competition of project verification exercise, initiated by her team to ensure that the contracts were done according to specification.

Because of her assertiveness reports said, the relationship between her and the minister soon became frosty. Perhaps sensing that deploying his coercive power may be counterproductive, Akpabio, who anxiously waited for where she would slip for him to wield the big stick, suddenly, had his way when a civil society group demanded Nunieh be relieved of her position on the premise that she may not have participated in the one-year mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) for Nigerian graduates.

The Executive Director of Niger Delta Anti-corruption Coalition (NDAC), Boniface Akpoebi, who wanted President Buhari to stop the contract verification exercise embarked upon by Nunieh, accused her of forging her NYSC certificate. The group was said to have officially petitioned the minister that since she did not present her NYSC certificate, it was presumed that she did not serve and therefore has no basis to be in public service.

But the convener of the Coalition of Civil Societies for Good Governance and Change Initiative, Okpokwu Ogenyi, said the allegation that Nunieh did not serve was instigated by those who mindlessly looted the resources of the Niger Delta region, which she was trying to recover.

“And their failure to corruptly influence her to bow to dubious deals, or soft-pedal has raised a clan of enemies angling for her removal from office. It explains why months after she was screened and assumed office, no one raised the issue of fake NYSC discharge certificate until she inaugurated a verification committee,” he said.

MEANWHILE, a source at the NDDC said the strain in Nunieh’s relationship with Akpabio also rubbed off on her working relation with the acting executive director, projects, and the acting executive director, finance and administration, who are alleged protegees of the minister.

“She was not working as a team with Ojougboh and Etang. While the duo strongly cherished their relationship with Akpabio, she was on the other side. At some point, even official documents were leaving the office into privileged hands, and she was initially suspecting that they were going out through her aides and other staff of the Commission. She even issued a memo that any staff that was caught giving out an official memo would be dealt with accordingly. It was later that she suspected that the memos were probably leaking through Ojougboh and Etang, the reason she queried both. That was probably where matters got to a head,” he said.

Another sore point between the minister and the former acting managing director was the choice of the Messrs Olumuyiwa Bashiru and Co., by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) as the lead consultant for the forensic audit of the NDDC.It would be recalled that before Nunieh’s ouster, she was alleged to have stayed away from a tripartite meeting called by Akpabio, between the ministry, the NDDC, and the lead consultant.Sources said her absence from the meeting might not be unconnected to the choice of the lead consultant.

Meanwhile, Jake Riley & Co, the firm, which she recommended for the forensic audit was rejected by the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP), because it did not possess the necessary credentials, according to the NDDC Director of Corporate Affairs, Charles Odili.Be that as it may, the abrupt removal of Nunieh paved way for Prof. Pondei to emerge as the new head of the NDDC. Pondei is alleged to be Akpabio’s classmate at the Federal Government College, Port Harcourt.

Akpabio’s media aide, Anietie Ekong, told The Guardian that it was not true that his boss had exerted undue pressure on Nunieh to make certain payments for which she allegedly declined.

According to him, the minister had openly declared that he has never done any job with the intervention agency.“You know when things happen like this, people are bound to say things. The Minister was not putting pressure on her to make any payment. The minister has said before that he has never done any contract in the NDDC. All those are afterthoughts aimed at giving the minister a bad name just to hang him. There was nothing like that,” he said.
Ekong said that after the FEC approved a coordinating forensic auditor, the minister called a tripartite meeting, which was attended by the two executive directors, but she stayed away.

According to him, this act may not have gone down well with the FEC; headed by the President who appointed her.“This thing was done in collaboration with the Bureau for Public Enterprise (BPE). So, you don’t just wake up one morning and pick the lead forensic auditor; there are processes, and the final process was the decision by the FEC. So, if a decision is taken at that level, and you as the head of an agency failed to abide by that decision, I think it is an act of insubordination, which means that she would not have cooperated with the forensic auditor to achieve the desired result. And you know that President Buhari is very passionate about carrying out the forensic audit of the NDDC so that things can be set aright in the NDDC so that it can also move forward,” he added.

But, concerned that the future and the development of the Niger Delta was in jeopardy due to undue delay in the appointment of a substantive board for the Commission, stakeholders in the region, are beginning to question President Buhari’s sincerity towards the development of the Niger Delta. They are also insisting that there must be a sense of urgency in resolving the NDDC crisis to save the Commission from predatory politicians, who have hijacked it.

The Executive Director, We the People, Ken Henshaw, noted that there was no way anyone could talk about development in the Niger Delta under the prevailing uncertainty and circumstances. He noted that the action of the President in failing to constitute the NDDC board is akin to an opportunity for underdevelopment.

According to him, the President was by implication, aiding the beleaguered NDDC to be indebted to the tune of over N2t to fail in its development objectives.

“The way President Buhari has destabilised the leadership of the Commission, and his uncertainty in appointing its leaders is a clear manifestation of his lack of commitment to the development of the region. It also shows that the NDDC is being treated as a cash cow for a political settlement. Like we have always said, the NDDC in the mind of the Presidency, is not an institution to develop the Niger Delta region, but, to foster a patronage system,” he said.

Henshaw, who said that it was funny that the head of the Commission, who was overseeing the verification of contracts purportedly awarded by the NDDC could be removed unceremoniously, added that the incessant removal of managing directors of the Commission, which has often thrown it into disarray shows unseriousness on the part of government.

“Between Brambaifa and Pondei, no serious development has happened in the Niger Delta region. In reality, in the last one year, no development has happened in the Niger Delta from the NDDC. All they have been doing is changing the baton of leadership. This is not a way to develop a region. If the President takes the NDDC seriously, he will not treat it with this level of disregard for leadership tenure,” he said.

The executive director said his cynicism about President Buhari’s commitment to the development of the Niger Delta has been reinforced by his handing over the NDDC to a minister, and the incapacitation of the Strategic Development Work Plan for the region.

“I have my doubts about the commitment of the President to the development of the Niger Delta region. It is not just about the NDDC, it is also about the Strategic Development Work Plan for the Niger Delta. The realisation of that document was embedded in the office of the Vice President. But somebody in the Presidency sacked all the aides of the Vice President who were responsible for the realisation of the Strategic Development Work Plan for the Niger Delta. The President’s actions towards the Niger Delta have not really indicated a commitment towards the development of the region,” he stressed.

Executive Director of the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ), David Ugolor, said intrigues surrounding the forensic audit for which the President has insisted must be concluded before a new NDDC board was appointed, was aimed at addressing the whole fundamental problem of NDDC.

“Corruption is a very powerful tool to deceive the people, so that is why government claims to be fighting corruption when in actual fact it is taking the people’s attention from the real issues. All the forensic investigation, the way it is going, is just an attempt to not address the fundamental issues,” he said.

Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC) President, Eric Omare, agrees that the crisis of leadership, which has placed the NDDC in limbo, has been sustained by the infighting among key political players in the Niger Delta.

He alleged that President Buhari and members of his kitchen cabinet were not interested in what happens in the region, but were trying to satisfy one of the contending groups against the other.

“They brought in Joi Nunieh to satisfy a particular section, and now they have brought Prof. Pondei to satisfy another section. At the end of the day, it is the Niger Delta that is suffering the effect of all these things that they are doing. On the contrary, the organisation that occupies a similar position, the North East Development Commission has a stable leadership, and nobody is hearing what it is doing. From time to time, the Presidency and the National Assembly give directive on what should be done to develop the North East and to address the humanitarian crisis in that region, but in the Niger Delta, in the name of forensic audit and repositioning the NDDC, we have had five leadership changes in one year,” he said. Omare argued that the Presidency’s stance that a new board would be appointed after the forensic audit was not a tenable one, noting that having a substantive board would not in anyway compromise the forensic audit of the Commission.

He further stated that a substantive board would have been the best decision to make, rather than this macabre dance that is happening in the Niger Delta.

The IYC leader regretted that whenever an indigene of the Niger Delta was appointed as Minister of Niger Delta and given the NDDC to supervise, their attention had always been on how to control the NDDC.

“The reason why the Minister of Niger Delta is always distracted by the responsibility of supervising the NDDC is because the commission’s budget is more than five times the budget of the Ministry of Niger Delta. It is just like a boy being richer than his master. So, since the NDDC’s budget is huge and there are lots of opportunities for political empowerment, the minister is more interested in controlling the NDDC than his statutory responsibilities.

“For example, one of the reasons why the Ministry of Niger Delta was created, beyond coordinating the overall development of the Niger Delta region, is the construction of the East-West Road, which is the pilot mandate of that ministry. Since Akpabio came on board, he has not done anything about the road, and no contractors are working on any section of that road. Akpabio as of today is a ‘Minister of NDDC’ and not Niger Delta because he is not interested in fulfilling the mandate of the Niger Delta Ministry,” he said.

Omare lamented that many Niger Delta communities are faced with high and rising rates of poverty; lack of industries, lack of investment, and inferior social services.

He stated that in the past year, there has been no development in the Niger Delta through the activity of the NDDC, rather, all that the Commission has been doing is providing palliatives.

“The significant point is that the NDDC has a budget that has not been approved, but money is being released to the NDDC. All these monies being released are not accounted for. At the end of the day, nobody will ask questions. At the end of this macabre dance, we may even have another forensic audit to audit this period. So, the development is the greatest victim of the politics that is going on,” he said.

The Founder, African Citizens Initiative for Rights and Development, Dr. Young Kigbara, said it was regrettable that for political reasons, the Federal Government is handling the Niger Delta peculiar needs for development the way it is doing.

“What they have as NDDC today is not the NDDC that we had clamoured for; it is not the NDDC that we canvassed. What they did was to merge the NDDC and OMPADEC, which is not proper. The NDDC is supposed to be a product of the Willink’s Commission that looked at the fears of the minorities.

“Take for instance today, Borno has oil. The question now is if the oil that is found in the North is in commercial quantity, they will become part of the NDDC, going by Willinks Commission’s definition of the Niger Delta, which is an area that is difficult to develop, and which the Federal Government should give special attention to. That is a different thing from oil-bearing communities, or states, which OMPADEC represented. But because of the kind of politics that we play in this country, those from the majority, felt that we were getting too much so they fused NDDC into OMPADEC,” he said.

The project verification exercise has been quite revealing, according to sources within the Commission.

For instance, The Guardian gathered that over 40 per cent of the jobs awarded by the NDDC in Abia State is non-existent.

It was also gathered that the project verification committee set up by the interim management committee, made the discovery after inspection of projects sites in the state.

The verification committee also discovered that beyond the 40 per cent jobs that never existed, the rest 60 per cent that is on record and certified 100 per cent completed were never completed.

In fact, only 20 per cent of the 60 per cent of the jobs on record could be described as completed, while the other 40 per cent of the jobs were probably 20 per cent done.

The Guardian gathered from some top management staff, who were startled by the monumental fraud in the Commission said that the ongoing verification and intended forensic audit of the financial transaction of the agency constituted the much-needed break required to reset the direction of the NDDC.

Some contractors have also claimed that a substantial part of the N2t NDDC indebtedness was fictitious as exemplified by the discovery in Abia State and other NDDC states.