Harry: Blame presidency, senate for crisis
Former President of the Ijaw National Congress (INC), Alatubo Charles Harry, told KELVIN EBIRI that the crisis rocking the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) has been induced by certain powers within the Presidency and the Senate. While calling for the removal of the NDDC from the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, he described extant laws of the commission as fraudulently faulty, hence the need to be urgently reviewed.
What is your assessment of the seeming face-off between the Presidency and Senate over the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC)?
Basically, the crisis in the NDDC is induced in the sense that there is a power play in the governance of the place and that is why you see a situation where an interim management committee is in place and then a full board that the Senate hurriedly screened and confirmed.
The truth of the matter is that in nominating members of the board, the extant laws of the NDDC were not followed in terms of where the personnel came from. And the interim management committee, to the best of my knowledge, is a child of circumstances that came because Mr. President, after meeting with governors of the Niger Delta states, decided that a forensic audit was necessary. That audit could not have been called for if there was no need for it. Maybe, the board would have been allowed to assume office first, but because of the pending audit, the board needs to start on a clean slate. So, interim management was put there to clean the Augean stables before we start putting money into that system all over again.
Having said that, let me add that the National Assembly (NASS) has been the greatest problem of the NDDC board because members of the NASS, instead of using their oversight function to see to the functionality of the commission and the projects therein, are using it to corner contracts for themselves. Now, this forensic audit is going to lead to the opening of cans of worms and therefore the National Assembly and the Senate, in particular, believe that those worms must never come out, so they want a board that is made in their image. But an interim management committee is not answerable to the Senate, and its job is clearly defined- to go and unearth how so many trillions of naira have been pumped into an institution, but there is no value for such money.
What we have now is a situation where lawmakers insist, ‘before we approve your budget, you must agree that so, so contract must be given to me, or Mr. A, Mr. B, and Mr. C.’ That is the problem with the NDDC. And these people do not execute these contracts when they collect them because they are the same people, who will carry out the oversight over them. So, in the first place is the crisis of confidence between the National Assembly and the NDDC.
Some are blaming President Muhammadu Buhari for the crisis rocking the NDDC. Is the President to blame for all these?
You may choose to say the President should be blamed, but I think it is the Presidency that should be blamed because, first and foremost, the President was not even in the country when those names were submitted to the Senate and the President was not in the country when the interim management committee was sworn in.
I think that some people in the Presidency are putting the President in a quagmire, but the fact remains that the President is back and on the seat. He should take definite steps and show, which way he wants to go. The Niger Delta will suffer and a lot of things will continue to go wrong in the whole imbroglio if not effectively handled.
Now, we can see that there is an argument between the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives has invited the interim board to meet with it, while the Senate is insisting that it will not recognise the interim management committee, and because of that, it will not look at the 2019/2020 budget of the NDDC. This is wrong. This is atrocious!
Are you bothered by the Presidency’s silence so far?
I think what the President should do, which he has not done, is to not allow it to fester. He should come out very clearly and say listen until this audit is done (and I think a time frame of six months was given to the interim management committee) to let the other people hang in there. We have not sworn them in, so they cannot claim to be aboard. A board or an official only takes office when he is sworn in. In the interim, the same President has said let these people go and do the audit, let us allow that happen. If the Senate continues to fight, then it must have skeletons that it is trying to cover up in its cupboard.
Won’t it have been proper for the President to withdraw the board’s nominees at the peak of the crisis in order to douse tension?
That is why I said that the crisis is induced, rather than caused because there is a serious, ongoing power play, and I think it is the Presidency, and not the President per se, that is walking on the edge, and does not want to hurt, or wrong some people’s feelings. Therefore, what should ordinarily be a simple issue has been allowed to fester. The President should have just said, ‘I hereby withdraw the board nominees that I submitted until further notice, but this has not happened. There is an interim management committee in place for now, which does not need the Senate’s approval.
Why has the planned forensic audit of the NDDC been a contentious issue, and what should be the modality for the audit?
It is not a contentious issue; it is the only way forward. Talking about how the forensic audit should be done, if is it not politicised, an audit firm in the mold of PricewaterhouseCoopers should be approached for the job. Now, I hear they have gone to take nine audit firms that can be easily manipulated. That is not the audit we want to see. The people of Niger Delta want to see an audit firm that can directly say this is how much came into the Commission; this is how much was expended on this project, and this is what is on the ground. What we are looking for is value for money, and to ensure that we have value for the money that we have spent. As long as there is no mechanism to ensure value for the monies spent from the NDDC’s coffers, we will be running in circles. And you know the worst part of this thing is that over 80 per cent of this value and these monies are paid out to people outside this region.
How can political interference in the affairs of the NDDC be curbed?
Political interference in the affairs of the NDDC is a structural issue that is caused by the law. When you create an interventionist agency, you don’t tie it to the apron string of bureaucracy.
In 1945/46 when the Marshall Plan for Germany was conceived, there was an agency created and that agency did not have to work within the bureaucracy of the American government, or the United Nations, it created its own bureaucracy. Now, what is that big bureaucracy in the NDDC doing? As a matter of fact, if you go there, the place is 10 times overstaffed with redundant workers, who are doing nothing, and the overhead is spent on recurrent expenditure is too high. Something needs to be done.
One of the important reasons why political interference needs to be addressed is the recent action of the Presidency. They have moved the NDDC from the Presidency to the Ministry of Niger Delta. We completely believe that is a wrong move. When institutions are embedded in the Presidency, it means that the President believes that it is of great importance to keep it within his purview, and that matter the institution has to address is the first-line issue.
What the President then does is to get a special adviser, who oversees and reports to him on how the place is being run. But as matters stand now, the National Assembly is the biggest clog in the wheel of progress of the NDDC. The interference from there and the arm twisting of the leadership of the NDDC had led many good men down the slippery slope of political correctness of how to give the job to interested parties or their cronies. That is how a member of the National Assembly got 300 contracts fully paid and not one job was done.
Why has there always been contention about the composition of the NDDC board and management?
You see, the problem we have is actually the extant law that established the NDDC. It is fraudulently faulty and until that law is tinkered with, the crisis will continue to bedevil the NDDC. The bill that we are proposing is to see what can be done to create efficiency in the place.
Looking at the composition of the board, we can all come to the conclusion that it is not proper because most of them do not know where the shoe pinches. For you to carry out anything on the board, sometimes you may need to satisfy the aspirations, whims, and caprices of these people. The NDDC has people from the North West, North Central and the North East. South West has board members, which should not be.
The other issue is the fact that as a statutory body, the NDDC should have been given some level of autonomy whereby the oversight body should be the Niger Delta people. If you want to create development in a place, you should give the job to the people who are plagued by the underdevelopment. By so doing, you will also be empowering them to create empowerment within their environment. And then there is the cyclical velocity that comes from money being ensconced in an area. If you give the job to someone from Kaura Namoda, in the North West, if he does the job at all, the proceeds are transported to Kaura Namoda where he is building a house, and employing people from Kaura Namoda. So, the cyclical benefits do not reside within the polity. Let the NDDC money create development, not just contracts.
What I know about the NDDC is that after it gives out a contract, the state government still gives out that same contract, the local government or one development board still gives the same contract out in the same location. At the end of the day, the projects will not be done because all these agencies know that they awarded the same contract, and all of them believe that one of the contractors will do it. So, there must be harmonization, and the NDDC must go back to the master plan as was done by the Timi Alaibe-led board. If it was faulty, review it as you go along.
Again, the NDDC is involved in too many things that it should not be. First, it must take into consideration the basic operational things for development. What does development mean? Why is the NDDC giving scholarships for people to go to school abroad? That is not what they should be doing. Yes, education is development, but it must be done at home, by developing the institutions of learning here. How many professorial chairs in the universities have NDDC created? None. Building mono pumps in communities is asinine in the year 2019. We have gone way beyond that. Why should the NDDC go to to some communities to build river-based toilets thereby further polluting the waterways? Is it what they should be doing?
The way out is for Mr. President to come outright and put the board in cooler and keep it until the forensic audit has been done. And then give the interim management committee a free hand to conduct the forensic audit with a major mandate that no major contracts should be awarded during its tenure of office. The committee is going to take care of recurrent expenditure and issues of great national importance in the Niger Delta as informed and approved by the Presidency itself. And the President should remove the NDDC from the Ministry of Niger Delta.