By Reuben Abati
It is a show of shame isn’t it, what is going on at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC)? Established in the year 2000 to assuage the fears of the people of the Niger Delta and address their concerns about the lack of infrastructural development in the region, despite the region’s contributions to the sustenance of Nigeria, it is sad to see how like all good initiatives gone bad in Nigeria, this interventionist agency has become, or has been exposed as a festering sore upon the wound of the Niger Delta. From personality clashes to sordid tales of mismanagement of funds, contractors that collect mobilization fees and simply take a walk, politicians in the National Assembly feeding fat on Niger Delta resources, and reports of terrifying wasteful expenditure and the conversion of every event or situation: graduation ceremonies and even COVID-19 into an opportunity to empty the people’s till, the stench from the NDDC stinks to the heavens. In the past week, we have been treated to the kind of melodrama an artist may never have imagined, complete with the stuff of a fainting fit, a failed romantic attempt, a woman scorned, and hell breaking loose and a once self-styled uncommon Governor as the deutragonist.
It is this latter part of the plot that has excited, amused and fascinated Nigerians. The protagonist is Joi Nunieh, the former Acting Managing Director of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the NDDC (October. 2019- February 2020) who left the commission rather abruptly due to a yet unproven allegation around and about her NYSC certificate and so-called “insubordination”. In the course of a forensic audit of the agency ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari, it is noteworthy that all the hidden corpses in the NDDC especially within the last one year began to show up, and some of those ghosts emerged in the form of financial sleaze and broken alliances and failed relationships. The supervising Minister of the Commission, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, a once powerful PDP chieftain, turned an APC floor member, went on television to offer his perspective on what transpired at the NDDC (he must be regretting doing so); rather than address the issues, he launched an attack on Joi Nunieh, who worked briefly as Acting Chairman of the NDDC.
He complained about how the lady had married four husbands and called on those four men, who, if they exist at all, have lent themselves common sense and stayed off the radar. The Minister also made an allusion to Joi Nunieh’s state of health. Of course, she didn’t take it lying low. She seized the occasion with every ounce of oxygen in her body and smashed the table on which Akpabio leaned his bulky frame in the studio. In the course of her now famous interview on Arise TV, we were treated to the sub-plot of how Akpabio failing to dictate to her or control her actions adopted a “Plan B,” which is basically a plan to “entangle” her in “the other room.” She disclosed that what the “uncommon former Governor” from Akwa Ibom State got in response was an “uncommon slap in the face”. It must have been one of those hot, dirty, blinding slaps that result in a momentary loss of vision and a loud scream of Ye!. Akpabio as Governor used to refer to Akwa Ibom as “Gilgal.” His current travail is like a journey from Gilgal to Golgotha. He insists that Joi Nunieh is lying. He says he has asked his lawyers to go to court.
You probably know the rest of the story: how things went downhill afterwards: the attempt to arrest Joi Nunieh at her Port Harcourt residence, a detachment of about 50 policemen knocking on the gates, smashing doors as if they were after a Colombian drug lord, Governor Nyesom Wike’s ironic, swashbuckling gallantry (can you imagine a PDP Governor protecting an APC member from members of her own party?), the sordid spectacle of the current Acting Chairman of the NDDC, Professor Keme Pondei walking out on the House of Representatives Committee on the NDDC, after practically accusing the Chair of the Committee of being an interested party in the matter, and the same Committee issuing a warrant of arrest to call Pondei to order. Earlier, the same Professor Keme Pondei allegedly disclosed how members of the IMC which he leads spent N1.8 billion on themselves alone as COVID palliative within three months! When he eventually showed up at the House of Representatives yesterday, and he was reminded that he and his colleagues had helped themselves to funds that were not covered in the approved NDDC Budget, he started fanning himself in an air-conditioned room and before anyone knew it, he slumped atop his table! His detractors argue that he was merely playing his role: an Acting MD, acting out a scene in the NDDC drama.
Stakeholders within the NGO community who claim that they have been monitoring the NDDC for years, in fact, suggest that we haven’t seen anything yet and that if a thorough forensic audit is conducted, Nigerians will be shocked beyond their marrows. But can anything be worse than what we have seen and heard so far? These stakeholders also argue that all the drama that our eyes have seen so far is at best a distraction and an orchestrated cover up attempt. The only problem is that the Niger Delta NGO community has also been fingered in some of the stories for having received patronage from the NDDC for work not done. If indeed things get more curious, a list of beneficiary-NGOs may surface, and we may all get busy struggling to lift the veil. We should be watchful. A Professor slumped yesterday. Someone else could have a heart attack tomorrow!
But where are the people of the Niger Delta in all of this? What are their views on the on-going controversy? They are the ones who have been short-changed the most. The NDDC, originally OMPADEC, was part of a series of policy measures including derivation, ecological fund, and infrastructure development plans to address the marginalization of the Niger Delta people, check youth restiveness in the region and promote peace and stability. Since inception, the NDDC has been managed by persons from the Niger Delta. A Ministry of the Niger Delta was also created, and to date, only persons from the Niger Delta have headed that Ministry. And yet all of these issues! The usual tendency is to say that the NDDC was designed to fail, but that is certainly not true. The goal was principled – to bring development to the Niger Delta. It will also be incorrect to say that the people have not seen any development at all. In 1999, parts of the Niger Delta were in a complete mess. I recall visiting Yenagoa in 2000. The Governor then was the late Governor-General of the Niger Delta, the famous Diepreye Alamiyesiegha. Yenagoa, the state capital had only one visible road, which looked like something constructed in the 1960s. I saw one bank: the defunct All States Trust, I believe. And one fuel station with a broken, solitary, pump. And there was a higher education college whose female students were friendly and hospitable beyond comparison! Today, Yenagoa looks different, and the same may be said of other areas of the Niger Delta. The improvement does not go far enough, however, because the major threats to the people’s lives: critical infrastructure like the East-West Highway, environmental crisis, and unemployment remain visible.
Governors of the Niger Delta since 1999 may claim credit for this improvement that we have seen but the perception in Nigeria is that the OMPADEC/NDDC intervention has helped to some degree resulting in the request by other regions for a similar intervention agency. Nonetheless, recent revelations that contractors and officials of the NDDC have been busy pilfering the funds of the Commission is at best stupefying, the sheer scale of it is benumbing. The N81.5 billion that was allegedly diverted within two months sounds like enough money to transform the health sector in parts of the Niger Delta in a season of COVID-19. So, this is not the time for the people of the Niger Delta to make the usual defensive point that anybody from the Niger Delta is entitled to take Niger Delta money. The view that “it is our money taken by our children” is unacceptable. The Niger Delta struggle was based on the ideals of justice, equity, development and progress, no latter-day revisionist should impose on the people of the Niger Delta, a Barkin Zuwo philosophy. I bring this up because I have read some comments by some members of the Niger Delta elite insisting that the big issue is that the NDDC has not been properly funded and that the thing to do is to release all outstanding funds to the Commission. Is that why the trillions in contention had to be mismanaged? Is that the issue on the table? There should be a more robust conversation about the development process in the Niger Delta beyond the confusing argument that this is a conflict between “a political Niger Delta” and “a geographical Niger Delta” or that the only way forward is to throw in more money.
President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered two major audits in recent times: the audit of the Niger Delta Development Commission and that of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Both should be taken as a personal reaffirmation of his commitment to one of the major planks of his proposed legacy at the inception of his administration in 2015: that is the fight against corruption. But beyond the anti-corruption battle, there is an emerging downside to the Buhari administration: the constant bickering, the cult of personality and the externalization of battles over territory within the government. In a Presidential democracy, a President appoints persons to assist him, he delegates authority to them and they are required to help him achieve the objectives of his administration. Under President Buhari, the in-fighting among his team conveys the impression that many of his appointees are either not interested in his own objectives or they are on a frolic of their own. We have had the Director General of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission at logger heads with the Minister of Communications over office space; Minister of Information vs. DG National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Minister of Labour and Employment vs. MD NSITF, Joy Nunieh vs Godswill Akpabio; Minister of Health vs. Executive Secretary, NHIS, AGF Malami vs EFCC Chair Magu, DSS vs. EFCC, First Lady vs. Presidential aides…all fighting-to-finish as if “Oga is not around”. They have done so much damage. Five years ago, the fear of Buhari’s war against corruption was the beginning of wisdom Today, his own appointees and political associates have messed up the message and strategy. The economy is in bad shape. The war against terror is not working…
Whatever is happening is a wakeup call and an opportunity for Mr. President to steady the ship. He needs to rescue his government from ambitious and disloyal individuals and strengthen the institutions of state. He should disband the present Interim Management Committee of the NDDC and sack the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs. The Board of the NDDC as provided for in the Enabling Act should be immediately constituted. The audit of the Commission must be totally independent without any interference. The major challenge at the NDDC is that politics has been placed above development objectives. That must change with appropriate mechanisms put in place. On the war against corruption, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Offences Commission (ICPC) should also be audited. Thereafter, it should be merged with the EFCC. The new EFCC should then be unbundled. It should have autonomous departments: an investigation department, a prosecution department and an enforcement department, all headed separately by professionals who will not be required to report to one individual. The EFCC must also be disengaged from the Nigerian Police. Since inception, only policemen have led the EFCC. How about neutral persons or graduates of the EFCC Academy that has produced many officers who have enjoyed international training and who joined the EFCC with the hope that they were looking forward to a career? The President must restore dignity and respect to the governance process.