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NDDC: Board crisis, power play cripple agency

By Kelvin Ebiri (South-South Bureau Chief)
08 December 2019   |   3:08 am
The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is at a historic crossroads having been caught in a web of intricate power play involving contending forces within the Presidency and the National Assembly.

Abandoned NDDC rice mill at Elele Alimi

The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is at a historic crossroads having been caught in a web of intricate power play involving contending forces within the Presidency and the National Assembly.

Indeed, it has been a tumultuous time in the Niger Delta region since the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Boss Gida Mustapha, released a circular announcing the composition of a new NDDC board in August. This was consequent upon the sack of the immediate past interim management committee (IMC) following allegations of corruption and irregularities in the day-to-day functioning of the NDDC.

The genesis of the current crisis plaguing the interventionist agency that was established to address the dire developmental needs of the Niger Delta, as well as oil-producing states, lies in the alleged flawed manner, which the new board members were appointed, particularly in the case of the chairman, Dr. Pius Odubu (Edo) and Bernard Okumagba (Delta) as managing director.

The NDDC Act explicitly states that the office of the chairman shall rotate amongst member-states of the commission in alphabetical order. The immediately past chairman of the board is Senator Victor Idoma-Egba, who hails from Cross River State. Adherence to the provisions of the Act means that Delta State was in line to produce the next chairman and not Edo State as has now happened.

On the position of a managing director, NDDC Act stipulates that the persons must be indigenes of oil-producing areas, and the slot is to be occupied sequentially starting with member-states of the commission with the highest production quantum of oil.

Owing to the fact that Akwa Ibom State, which is the presently the highest oil-producing state just vacated the position, and the position of the chairman ought to go to Delta State, which is the second-largest oil-producing, it follows that Rivers State ought to produce the next managing director being the third producer of oil based on current data obtained from the Department of Petroleum Resources.

The governors of the region are equally worried about the composition of the NDDC board.

Barely a few hours after the Presidency released names of the new board members, governors of the oil-producing states met in Abuja to denounce the composition.

Their disenchantment resulted in a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari, where it was agreed that to reverse the negative trajectory of the intervention agency now suffering from a credibility crisis due to claims of widespread corruption, there should be a forensic audit of the NDDC dating back to its inception.

But irrespective of the uproar caused by the announcement of the board members, the President, in a letter dated October 18, 2019, which was addressed to the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, proceeded to submit the names of the nominees to the Senate for screening and confirmation “in accordance with the provision of Section 2(2)(a) of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Establishment Act 2000.

Curiously, on the day that the Senate began the screening of the new board members, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godwill Akpabio, announced that Buhari had approved the appointment of Dr. Joi Nunieh, as the acting managing director; Dr. Cairo Ojougboh, acting executive director, projects and Ibanga Bassey Etang, as acting executive director, finance and administration, to serve as an interim management committee for the next six months, and oversee the forensic audit of the commission’s operations between 2001- 2019.

Irked by Akpabio’s action, Lawan, a few days after confirmation of the board, pronounced the interim management committee of the NDDC a nullity.

“With the completion of this process now (confirmation), I am sure that any other structure that exists now (in NDDC) is vitiated,” he said.

Amid the brewing crisis, the Senate, now apparently at loggerheads with the Presidency, said it would not allow the Nunieh-led committee to defend the 2019/2020 budget of the Commission, a move, which would further incapacitate the NDDC from completing thousands of abandoned projects littering the oil-producing states, especially still hamstrung with its over N1t indebtedness.

In reaction to the Senate stance, Nunieh, who said that the NDDC Act was clear on the matter of the Commission’s chairmanship, emphasised that after Cross River State, Delta State was supposed to produce the chairman of the NDDC board.

“If the Act says that after Cross River State, Delta State should produce the chairman, why would anyone say no? When governors of South-South states, led by Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State visited President Muhammadu Buhari, he assured them that he would comply with the Act setting up the NDDC in taking decisions concerning the agency; he said that he would respect the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; he also directed that a forensic audit be carried out from 2001 to date, stating that it was only after the audit that he would decide what to do with the Commission,” said Nunieh.

A source in the NDDC disclosed to The Guardian that President Buhari had written to the National Assembly when he realised that he had breached the NDDC Act in his initial nomination.

He explained that this was what informed the decision to set up the interim management committee to oversee the forensic audit of the NDDC.

According to him, the choice of Nunieh, who is said to be the nominee of the wife of the President was predicated on the fact that by law, it would be the turn of Rivers State to produce the managing director.

“What I know by way of privileged information is that the President is determined to leave Joi Nunieh there as long as it is necessary. He is not in a hurry, as at now there is no board. Will he constitute the same persons he withdrew their nomination? No. So, the President has given some hint to some persons close to him that any person worrying about the woman is wasting his time. Even the Senate is wasting its time, the only thing is that the faceoff may affect the funding of the commission, but the commission will find a way around that,” he said.

Activities at the NDDC’s Headquarters in Port Harcourt, are currently at their lowest ebb in years. Staffers of the commission and hundreds of contractors are despondent.

According to a director, “the place is crippled, and at the moment, not much is going on. Staff is not certain what is going to happen next. The effective internal collaboration that should be amongst directorates is slow. Not much is going on. It is disheartening.”

A top management staff in the commission disclosed to The Guardian that the IMC does not seem to be enjoying the cooperation of some deputy directors and directors. This has resulted in the redeployment of some staff.

“They have moved the director of finance to a different directorate and then brought in someone else. They have posted some people out of the headquarters to other state offices.  Those affected are from the level of assistant director to directors. Within the headquarters, some persons were moved from one directorate to another. I understand that the director of finance was not cooperating with the committee, particularly when it has to do with approvals and payment,” she said.

Several stakeholders including the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ), Niger Delta Civil Society Coalition (NDCSC), and other groups have so far kicked against the IMC and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs’ engagement of 10 different forensic consultants to audit the Commission.

The involvement of the ministry, they argued, would allow politics and other primordial interests to not only creep into the process but to continue to hold the commission captive.

But Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, is of the view that the appointment of officials of the Commission was strictly a function of the President. Perhaps, sensing that the state was now in a vantage position to clinch the slot of the managing director, the governor said he would not join in the fight over the emergence of the IMC.
 
“The appointment of the interim management committee is purely an executive function. There is no reason for our people to be fighting over it. I will protect anything that has to do with Rivers State. I will not support anybody asking that the interim management committee should be removed.”

While the politically induced crisis rocking the NDDC continues, several thousands of ordinary citizens whose communities have been ravaged by flood in Delta, Rivers, Bayelsa and Ondo states, are languishing in agony with no help from the NDDC. Amid the power play, the oil-producing communities are grappling with worsening poverty levels, and deteriorating public service delivery.

Stakeholders in the Niger Delta, who are concerned that things are on a definite negative trajectory as the Commission faces its worst instability since its establishment in 2000, have urged President Buhari to break his silence and end the imbroglio in order not to deprive the Niger Delta of developmental projects.

The director of the ecological thinktank, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nnimmo Bassey, has expressed concerns that if the crisis festers, it would have an adverse impact on the region and compound the poor delivery capacity of the agency.

He said it was unfortunate that the NDDC has been extremely politicised to the extent that it is now seen as an establishment for political patronage rather than a service delivery agency.

“As you know, we have a whole number of projects by name, not in reality according to what people are saying. And now, this present crisis is uncalled for. Things should be done in the right way. Generally speaking, NDDC is a good idea to salvage a bad situation created by the negative impact of oil exploitation in the region; it is a bandage being put over a wound. It was a good idea in that sense, but in terms of project delivery, it has been a failure as confirmed by the downward slide, and this crisis will further compound the situation,” he said.

The renowned environmentalist, who noted that ideally, forensic auditing and even nomination of board members should be regular activities, explained that the reason why these issues have raised contention was because of the continuous political intervention that has turned the Commission into a patronage outlet for politicians.

“If people are appointed, they should be given clear targets. Those who appointed them must insulate them from the pervading atmosphere of entitlement and see it as a call to service, and not a cause for political enrichment. By 2017 we looked at development projects in the region and why they don’t work, and it boiled down to the issue of political patronage. This has hampered the delivery of services needed by the people. The NDDC needs to be reviewed in terms of focus and structure, and it should not be run by patronage, neither should it be a job for the boys kind of thing because that is the way that the people see the agency, that is, it is our turn to eat. NDDC should be about competency; it should be about focus, and about what is coming to the people and value for money, so to speak,” he said.

On his part, the presidential candidate of the Hope Democratic Party, Ambrose Owuru, wondered why President Buhari did not deem it appropriate to nominate non-politically exposed professionals and committed statesmen, who are passionate about the Niger Delta into the board of the NDDC.
 
“What you are seeing now is a power game. It is not just Akpabio, he is only representing an interest in the Presidency; that is why you have this discordant tune between the President and the Senate. Very soon the Senate will understand where the problem lies. It will play down this aspect of clearing this board if it is not in its interest. Won’t you be surprised tomorrow to hear that the board is dissolved. Akpabio is an arrowhead, some people have realised that that board may not serve their interest. So, let this interim committee be, after a while they will fire them while the people of the Niger Delta suffer.”

In the same vein, the Coordinator, Centre for Peace Development and Child Welfare, Inemo Samiama, wondered why the abrupt leadership imbroglio, especially at a time when the Presidency has acceded to conduct a forensic audit of the NDDC.

He lamented that the NDDC has been used and abused by politicians, who see it as a very juicy agency to fund their political campaigns and activities.

Samiama regretted that rather than adopt a synergistic approach to address the developmental needs of the region, the Presidency has instead attempted to entrench a culture of impunity that has made it possible for the commission to remain a cash cow to the recalcitrant political class, through the appointment of politically exposed persons into its board.

According to him: “The ongoing crisis is not necessary, but we are saddled with this political machination that is going on. I can assure of one thing, and that is, whatever is happening at the level of the Senate, or the Presidency is not in the interest of the Niger Delta. In other words, we continue to wallow in our lack of development while expecting wonders from an agency that was set up to deal with developmental issues. We will continue to wish and pray for some kind of change, which I don’t see coming anytime soon.”

For the head of Environmental Rights Action, in Bayelsa State Morris Alagoa, it was ironical that at a time when the President has raised the hope of the region that he was determined to make people accountable for their actions at the NDDC, the Commission is enmeshed in an unwarranted crisis.

“There is so much hope that there will be some improvement in service delivery in the Commission. Any further delay to end this board crisis will be detrimental to the Niger Delta. Look at the budget, which the interim management committee cannot defend. So, what is going on there is not going to help us at all. The silence of Mr. president is worrisome too, except he has a hidden agenda against the people of the Niger Delta. Why will Buhari allow personal interests to override that of the Niger Delta?”

Alagoa noted that commonsense should at this point prevail while contending forces forge a consensus in order to end the imbroglio for the collective good of the Niger Delta.

The IYC President, Eric Omare, apart from being irked by the lingering NDDC board crisis, also said what he finds curious about the controversy was the silence of the Presidency.

While blaming the inaction of the Presidency for the unnecessary controversy surrounding the NDDC, he advised President Buhari to immediately end the controversy by inaugurating members of the NDDC board, whose names he submitted to the Senate for screening, and who have all been cleared.

“The blame arising from this controversy should go to President Muhammadu Buhari. He caused it and he is responsible for the controversy. The way out is for Mr. President to inaugurate the NDDC board and also appoint forensic auditors to audit the NDDC. He should also supervise the audit directly,” he said

Omare urged the National Assembly to remain resolute in its refusal to recognise the interim management committee, adding that the budget presented to the lawmakers was defective because it was in breach of Section 18 of the NDDC Act, which mandates the board to prepare the budget.
 
“In the absence of a substantive board, and even the inauguration by President Muhammadu Buhari, who prepared the NDDC budget submitted to the National Assembly? Was it the interim management committee that the National Assembly has declared illegal and a contraption that does not have power to prepare a budget on behalf of the NDDC,” he said.

On the contrary, the president, Coalition of South-South Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture, Billy Gillis-Harry, said he was convinced that the appointment of Nunieh and the interim committee was to help create stability at the commission.

“As a business leader in the area, I would say that with this avalanche of fraud and maladministration, the Senate should be patient to see the result of what she wants to do. She is also a member of the board. If she has the magic wand to end the malfeasance, let her be given the chance. The issue at stake is accountability. A lot has happened in the last 20 years of the NDDC, and the Niger Delta. If any agency has awarded billions of naira worth of contracts and you cannot tell what the money was used for, it calls for concern and that is what she has come to unravel for the first time,” he said.

Harry said it was wrong for the Senate to deny the interim committee the privilege of defending the NDDC budget, adding that before the Senate resorts to arm-twisting, it ought to have asked how previously passed budgets had impacted positively on the Niger Delta.

“Have past budgets been of any benefit to grow the Niger Delta economy, and her infrastructural development? There has been none. Let them not rush to pass the budget, we have to get all those who are stealing our money to account. We need to redesign how the NDDC should function,” he added.