By Reuben Abati
The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) was in the news for all the wrong reasons in 2020. The agency that was established 20 years ago to bring development to the nine oil-bearing States of the Niger Delta became an embarrassment to the Nigerian government. In 2019, President Buhari had ordered a forensic audit of the agency’s accounts, a move that was hailed as long overdue by many Nigerians. This was also said to be consistent with the administration’s anti-corruption campaign. What should have been a smooth administrative process however became a battle for the soul of the agency itself. The conflict was in the shape of controversies over the appointment of a Board for the NDDC. A Board was constituted only to be suspended and replaced with an Interim Management Committee. While the president opted for the Interim Management Committee and urged the team of auditors looking into the books of the NDDC to do a thorough job, the National Assembly also launched an inquiry into the affairs of the NDDC. It was like opening a can of worms.
The drama that unfolded was the stuff of box office hits: From the minister of Niger Delta Affairs accusing former NDDC interim administrator, Joi Nunieh of being a serial monogamist (four husbands, one woman, he boldly stated on television). By the time Nunieh hit back, it was as if someone had used a coconut to break the minister’s head (“He tried to touch me!”, Nunieh declared!). This drama had many episodes, including an attempt to abduct Nunieh and Governor Wike of Rivers State stepping in chivalrously to protect a daughter of Rivers who was being harassed by powerful forces. Niger Delta stakeholders and particularly Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) activists took over every available airwave and media space to expose the extent of corruption and abuse of due process in the NDDC. Many Nigerians were so shocked they called for the scrapping of the Commission or at best an immediate reform of the agency to realign it with its original objectives. Anyone and everyone ever associated with the NDDC became a suspect, because the details were eye-blinding. Those who made the allegations were often armed with tons of documents, with confident public affirmation that they had duplicates. Accusations and counter accusations flew all over the place. Opposition parties heaped the blame on the Buhari administration. Which was wrong and unfair because the NDDC had been enmeshed in institutional failures long before President Buhari won election at the fourth attempt in 2015.
The more disturbing part of the drama unfolded at the National Assembly where the NDDC IMC members openly accused chairmen of NDDC Committees in the National Assembly of being the main culprits behind the award of emergency contracts, which were all abandoned after more than half of the contract fees had been collected as mobilisation fee. Out of all the projects earmarked for the Niger Delta in the last five years, lawmakers simply used their positions of influence to collect rent, and do nothing. Dr. Cairo Ojougboh, speaking on behalf of the IMC on several occasions, provided the names of lawmakers and the companies that they used to cover up their tracks. The lawmakers fought back, of course. On one occasion, the House of Representatives had tough questions for Professor Daniel Pondei, the then head of the IMC and right there on live television, the man fainted. On another occasion, the minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, whose name had featured prominently in the entire circus, made some very hard revelations before the House Committee. He was told “Hon. Minister, off your mic. It’s okay. Off your mic.” Fainting in the face of serious interrogation and the phrase “Off your Mic” became part of Nigeria’s popular culture jokes and lexicon. Both chambers of the National Assembly wrote their reports, but as these things go, nobody is sure of the true copy of the reports as there are many versions in circulation.
What we are sure of is that in August 2020, the Federal Government named a group of auditors led by Ernst and Young to do a thorough forensic audit of the NDDC. The expectation was that they would complete the assignment by December 2020. The public was skeptical. Many thought no forensic audit would go well, with the Pondei-led IMC still in office. In April 2020, the tenure of that Committee was extended. On December 12, 2020, President Buhari dissolved the Daniel Pondei IMC, in response to a Federal High Court Abuja ruling which declared the Interim Management Committee illegal. He thereater named as sole administrator, Effiong Akwa, a lawyer and accountant; former special assistant, Finance at the NDDC; and former acting executive director, Finance. His mandate is to fast-track and facilitate the conclusion of the audit process. Anything NDDC attracts controversy like bees to nectar. In just about three weeks in office, Akwa’s appointment has generated a huge volume of smear campaign, name-calling, objections, protests, sponsored content, a series of articles in the newspapers, for and against him. President Buhari’s decision must have been borne out of a determination to re-invigorate the NDDC audit. Nigeria has invested so much money in the NDDC over the last 20 years. Nearly all the projects remain abandoned, including the city roads that are a perennial source of conflict with state governors. Perhaps the only project that the NDDC can point to, with very small fingers, are the roads leading to the Nigeria Maritime University in Okerenkoko. Oil spillage remains an unresolved problem. The people are poor. The objections to Akwa show just how complex the politics of the Niger Delta and the NDDC is, and why a far-reaching reform is required. Akwa enjoys the support of an umbrella group called Niger Delta Change Ambassadors – a coalition of over 50 civil society groups, and especially, the Oron Union, who vowed that they would resist any attempt to ridicule Akwa. The Oron people have a long history of nationalism, dating back to the determined struggles of the early ’80s led by Professor Okon Edet Uya with the slogan: “Oro-n-phobia! The Oron Union argues that the attack on their kinsman smacks of “Oronphobia”. His main attackers operate under the banner of the Niger Delta Renaissance Coalition, Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and Mothers of Oil Producing Communities of Niger Delta (MOPROCOND), who have promised a “grand nude protest” in front of the NDDC headquarters in Port Harcourt. I will leave out the name-calling and deal with their substantial points.
The first argument is that by appointing a sole administrator, the president has acted in an illegal and unconstitutional manner. They insist that the NDDC Establishment Act (2000) as amended, does not provide for a sole administrator. It provides instead for an interim management committee, whose tenure is defined in law. One of the protesters also claims that the president has broken the law. I don’t see how the president has broken any law in this instance. The president is sworn to defend the Constitution, which is superior to any subsidiary legislation. Section 5 of the 1999 Constitution grants the president executive powers that are personal to him and his office. He may also delegate authority to ministers, aides and any person of his choice as he deems fit. He cannot, however, exercise powers that are not granted to him under the Constitution. It is as simple as that. Whoever is not pleased has every right to challenge the president’s decision in court, rather than engaging in disruptive manoeuvres with a hidden agenda. Already one K.C. Okpo has filed a suit at a Federal High Court citing breaches of Sections 2, 3, 4 and 12 of the NDDC Establishment Act. No date has been fixed for hearing.
The second argument is that Effiong Akwa is a stooge of the minister of the Niger Delta. How does anyone determine that? It is strange that since Senator Godswill Akpabio assumed office as minister of Niger Delta Affairs, he has been fingered as the man calling all the shots at the NDDC, with the sub-text of projecting him as a man who is so powerful that he can dictate to the president of Nigeria. There are too many people who are described as great and powerful ministers in the media, but who in the corridors of power kneel down like schoolboys in order to keep their jobs. It is delusional to think that an aide of the president can impose on him. Presidents can delegate powers but they do not share it. Akpabio may be the supervising minister but he cannot, must not and should not be allowed to become a one-man Board of the NDDC. The Federal Government has made it clear that immediately after the completion of the audit, a new NDDC Board will be constituted. But even then, the NDDC forensic audit cannot continue forever. Akwa’s tenure must be properly defined and the team of auditors must be given strict deadlines. Senator Akpabio should be given clear presidential directives to steer clear of the audit to build trust and confidence in the process.
The third argument pushed by the Ijaw Youth Congress, which I find ridiculous, is the view that Ijaws are the only true Niger Delta people, so they should be allowed to lead NDDC. How can an Akwa from Akwa Ibom be less Niger Delta than an Ijaw person? What determines true Niger Deltan-ness? It is precisely this kind of ethnic in-fighting that makes other Nigerians worry about the politics of the Niger Delta. Has anybody heard any similar stories since the North East Development Commission was established? Never. But our brothers and sisters in the Niger Delta are busy fighting over appointments, money and contracts. Ijaw Youths cannot claim any extra-ordinary privilege in the Niger Delta. It is true that oil was discovered in commercial quantities in Oloibiri, Bayelsa State. Ijaws also gave us the hero of the struggle, Isaac Adaka Boro. But so have other parts of the Niger Delta through the years. Akwa Ibom can boast of the likes of Obong Victor Attah, who fell out of favour with the Obasanjo administration because of his insistence on an upward review of derivation and the likes of Udom Inoyo, Air Commodore Idongesit Nkanga, Senator Anietie Okon and many others who fought for justice in the Niger Delta. In terms of crude oil output, Akwa Ibom accounts for over 40 per cent of the total crude oil output in the Niger Delta, with 80 per cent of that from Oron, where Akwa hails from. Akwa Ibom is followed by Delta State, Rivers, while Bayelsa is number four on the list. Ijaws have benefitted more than any other group in the Niger Delta. And yet, I have not seen any record of Akwa Ibom people bombing oil pipelines or kidnapping expatriates for ransom.
The objections are disruptive and distractive. IYC and other stakeholders should unite with others to confront the major problems of the region, instead of fighting over appointments. There are big problems: Pollution, Ogoni clean up, gas flaring, amendment of the NDDC Act, reform of the NDDC itself, etc. Those former officials of the NDDC who are having battle with their conscience and are looking for every means possible to cover up their tracks or discredit the audit should be reminded that “catching the thieves” is only an expected derivative of the audit, the bigger picture is how to transform the NDDC from a sinkhole, a leaky bucket, a vehicle of rent distribution into a true development agency with measurable benefits for the people.
Within three weeks of assuming office, Effiong Akwa has engaged with the National Assembly to get approval, finally, for NDDC Budget 2020, which will run till June. But he must remain focused and refuse to be dragged into the politics of the job. His assignment is simple: facilitate the completion of the forensic audit. By now, he should know that all eyes are on him. All the paid agents within the NDDC will monitor everything he does or says, looking for loopholes and omissions with which to nail him when the opportunity arises. He must be firm but sensible. He has already been called Godfrey Akpabio’s stooge. It is important that he does not behave like one. NDDC is not a revenue generating agency. It is a development agency with budgeted outlines. He must put an end to the trend of rent-distribution. Ninety percent of contracts awarded by the NDDC are emergency contracts. These contracts are a conduit for fraud. Every procurement in the public sector is governed by the Public Procurement Act (2007). The Act requires that every contract to be awarded must be backed by Appropriation and “a Certificate of No Objection” from the Bureau of Public Procurement, the violations of which amount to a criminal offence. Effiong Akwa should get a copy of the Procurement Act and commit it to memory. He will be glad he did… When will the Niger Delta rise above atomistic politics?
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.