The Aba road head office of the Niger delta development commission in port Harcourt, Rivesr state has all the trappings of a security zone. Perhaps this underpins the importance of what goes on there. however, it was stunning that several years after setting up the commission, the provision for its funding through 15 per cent of the budget of the country was still being breached. Till date, no one can put a finger on the real amount due to the intervention agency both from the federal government and the oil companies. As a result, the NDDC has not made much progress regarding projects meant for the region. to complete existing projects in the region, Christian Oboh, NDDC MD says N1.4 trillion will be needed. He spoke to Roland Ogbonnaya and Ahamefula Ogbu on this and other issues. excerpts...
Has the government started funding NDDC statutorily by remitting the actual percentage of the budget to the commission as prescribed by the law setting up NDDC?
Well, of course you know that your question is political and I will respond that way. I can tell you that what is due to the NDDC since I joined this new team has been released up to the third quarter. I don't have the figure to actually ascertain if that is the 15 per cent of what the law says but what is due to us quarterly has been released to us.
Who is supposed to solve the problem of ensuring that the legally prescribed funding is appropriated for the commission. Is it the National Assembly or your office?
The law is clear on what is due to NDDC. I think what is lacking is the implementation. We have written a letter to the Accountant General of the Federation to let us know what is due to us because we have just noticed that in 2012, what is due to the NDDC is lower than what we got in 2011. Well, of course, there have been challenges; the economy has been up and down. We have written to the government and we are expecting a reply from them.
That implies that as it stands, until the Accountant General tells you how much the 15 percent amounts to in figures, you won't know...? (cuts in)
Yes, we will actually not know what is due us. All we know is that once quarterly releases are made, we get our own. So, we expect that it is the 15 per cent but we will like somebody to educate us. We are also trying to get NAPIMS to also tell us what is the three per cent of oil companies' budget. We don't also know the value. So, we are awaiting the response of these two organisations.
Are the oil companies paying their contributions for the funding of NDDC as and when due?
Yea, they are paying as and when due but we don't know if what they give us is the three per cent. We will like to know what the figure is.
In other words you take whatever you are given now as your allocation?
You are quoting me.
A lot of projects started by your predecessors appear abandoned like the airport link road that runs behind NTA, projects in Bonny and those in universities across the Niger Delta. What is the true situation of these projects?
Yes, two weeks ago we had a meeting in the Villa. All the stakeholders who are doing developments in the Niger Delta were there. Like you rightly mentioned, an audit was carried out and it was discovered that some projects have been abandoned, especially the hostels being built by the NDDC as an intervention in Niger Delta states. Those hostels were for one reason or the other abandoned until we joined the team. But I can tell you that 11 of those projects are about 80 per cent completed and we have the commitment of the contractors that all the 11 projects will be commissioned before the end of February next year.
There are 18 or 19 of them, the remaining seven have some challenges which of course we are trying to address with BPP; as soon as that is settled, we will respond to them. One thing we have done is to focus on on-going projects; our main focus is on the completion of projects that are on-going.
Specifically on the one you asked about the road that connects the airport and running behind NTA, we found out that there were some design challenges on that road and the Rivers State Government also mentioned that the scope of what we want to do is not the scope of what they are looking at. So, they directed us to put that project on hold until we are able to agree on what that project should look like. That project actually is not abandoned. It is on hold now until we are able to agree on what the design should look like.
With regard to the project in Bonny, the contractor is on site. They had some challenges with the community, luckily the King, the traditional ruler and every other stakeholder were involved in negotiation and I can tell you that the contractor is back on site. Last week, we met with the contractor and he highlighted security challenges on site which of course we are responding to but I can categorically tell you that there is no NDDC project you can classify as abandoned. We are ensuring that every person in the Niger Delta is part of what we are doing. In the last two weeks, we ran an advertorial with phone numbers for people in the region to call and tell us about the state of NDDC projects in their areas. If we have information, we will be willing to respond.
The NDDC Master Plan was launched with much glee. Is the commission still following the Master Plan?
Yes, we are following the master plan. We are reviewing the master plan for us to know if what we started when the master plan was launched is still being followed.
Where are we now? We want to know if we are following the plan as dictated. What are the success rates we have achieved? If not, we also want stakeholders to tell us if we have to chart a new course of development in the region because I want to believe that based on our expectations 10 years back, we should be moving forward. Maybe there are better things now, because now, the governors in the Niger Delta region are looking at connecting the region in terms of power and transportation. So, these are the new visions that we may want to reflect in the master plan in the next 10 or 15 years.
Since you came in what have you brought to the table to make the commission work?
Our focus has been first to ensure that projects that have been awarded over the years are completed. For us to do this, we improved on the payment to contractors; we have improved on projects monitoring and supervision. We have also insisted that none of our contractor will go to site without a design.
The essence of doing this is to ensure that we know what the cost is and we should be able to know how long the project will take to complete. This is because we have noticed that most contractors remain on site perpetually. We want to ensure that projects are delivered as and when due. God willing, in the last one year, it has been wonderful. In another one week, we will witness commissioning of projects across the states; projects that have been delivered since we came, we will begin to hand them over for people to begin to use them.
Most people are of the view that so much money is coming into the Niger Delta without commensurate development. How would you respond to that?
I think I will differ with them a little because if you take a tour of the Niger Delta area, you will see a whole lot of projects going on. Now, we can say that so much has been given but for us to complete all these projects, we will need more than N1.4 trillion. That is a lot of money and I can tell you that if all the projects are completed we will have a Niger Delta region that people can be proud of. All we require is for consistent funding from government and on our part, we have tried to improve our level of transparency. If all the money that is given to us is used to complete these projects, I am sure we will move a little further away from where we are.
I can tell you that initially, contractors were not being paid. Now, contractors are being paid and we have life in nearly all the sites in the Niger Delta. We have activities going on. Of course, when the members of the House of Representatives Committee on NDDC visited, they had no opportunity of going round to all our projects because of the floods then, but the Senate Committee visited our projects and they saw a whole lot of activities. So, we can tell you that the funds are not enough to confront the challenges in the region. But we want to show that what is given to us, we are able to utilise efficiently and effectively and then we can make more demands to say that we need more funding from government.
From your estimation, what is needed is about N1.4 trillion to complete all existing projects, how much do you think will bring Niger Delta to say 50 per cent of your developmental expectations?
We noticed that over the years, there have been continuous awards of contracts and we have been able to make presentations to Mr. President who buys our idea that for us to be able to evacuate most of these projects, we need to reverse the trend. So, what we are doing now is that we are looking at a reduced level of award of contracts so that if we do this consistently for two, three years, it means we have a poll of funds to fund on-going projects.
We are hoping that by the time the National Assembly would pass the 2012 budget though belated, we would have enough funds to fund existing projects. If we also do that in 2013 and 2014, it means we would have saved more than 50 per cent of what we would need to fund these projects. So, we have the funds but all we need is to slow down the rate of award of new contracts until we complete what we have on our plates.
There were allegations that the reason for the poor development of the region is that the powers that be, use the commission for political patronage by awarding its contracts to their cronies who end up taking the money without doing the job. Are you under such pressure?
I am not aware of that. You know that now we have a due process of how we procure our projects and programmes. So, no such allegation is before me. All our projects are procured through due process. BPP would normally issue us certificate of no objection before we will award. For the small tickets, we do all that is required by law. So, I will differ again with you on this allegation because that is not before me.
So, you are saying that you are not under any form of pressure to award contracts to some powers that be?
You have seen the MD of NDDC in this office. Am I looking like one under pressure?
There are allegations that contractors who have finished their jobs are not paid and some even allege the designs submitted to your commission were used to award to other contractors. Why do you do that?
There is no law that says that if you design a project, we must give it to you. Within this week, maybe today or tomorrow, people will see advertorials from NDDC. Those who have interests and competence are encouraged to tender or bid for it. If you qualify, we move them up to BPP, which will evaluate on the ability of every contractor and then advise us on what to do. Then the decision is taken from the Executive Council. It is a whole lot of process; it is not for one man to decide who gets what. That is one side.
Now, it is also fair that if you design a project, you should not execute it because there has to be checks and balances. On non-payment to contractors, we have severally challenged contractors who think that they are on site working and we owe them. I have put my phone numbers and emails and I have asked them to send me mail. I can tell you that we do not owe any contractor categorically because there are contractors who are not on site working. A while ago, you heard that there were two people I sent away. They wanted to get money fraudulently without working for it. I said no and I have asked them to be verified. So, contractors that are genuinely working and said we owe them, should please send me mails on firstname.lastname@example.org. I will pay them if they are genuine.
The problem of squabbles among board members bogged down the former MD. Is the problem still persisting?
If there had been squabbles, you are our carrier and would have been writing about it. I have been lucky to have colleagues who are working effectively with us. The Board has supported the management and God willing when our tenure comes to an end, we will have cause to thank God that we may not be the best but we have done our best. So, I can tell you that we have been working harmoniously with the board.
How did you meet NDDC? Where is it now and where do you intend to take it to?
It may be difficult for me to answer you that question now because by the 28th of December, I would have done one year. That was the day we were inaugurated and I would want to evaluate myself after one solid year. So, I still have few days left. So, probably I will appeal that you move this question to the first week of December when I will be looking at my scorecard.
What have been your challenges especially as many people see NDDC as a cash cow?
The biggest challenge is that we in the Niger Delta think that what is due us annually from the federation account should be shared among ourselves. Contractors think that the contracts should be awarded to them and they will not execute it. It has been hectic. But what we have done is not to fight, not to quarrel. Let all of us change our values and our orientation for us to know that this money is for the development of our place and if our place is properly developed it means we will live a better life compared to what we have now. First, is a whole lot of things including poverty because a man who does not have money to eat must do whatever thing he needs to do in order to stay alive.
The NDDC we have has moved a little bit further from what it used to be. We have a place where men and women can walk in quietly now to do business. It is not rowdy again compared to what it used to be. Every day, we use to have huge visitors at our gate. We have been able to appeal to our brothers and sisters that we can gently ask for what is due us and then it will be given to them. We have also encouraged everybody who we can genuinely and confidently do business with to apply to us because they have a right to do business with NDDC. We have a better environment to do business here now. So, I think we should thank God. It is not by our strength; God has been able to give us that grace.
At a point, militants or repentant militants were threatening to bring down your office alleging that payments for contracts given to them as a form of resettlement was held or that the contracts were not being funded. How did you navigate that problem?
Well, I will not be able to agree with you when you said some militants, whether you said serving or retired militants, militant is militant. But what I can tell you is that when we came in, we discovered that we had an outstanding award of over N200 billion and it was impossible for us to carry all these new awards. So, what we did was to engage every person who was involved at different fora to explain what was the realistic thing for them. Then, the board in its wisdom also decided that as we move on, those ones that have confirmed to be genuine would be captured in subsequent budgets. So, what we are doing is a phased thing.
In 2012 we have been able to capture some as our budget could carry. For others, we will do for those we can as our strength will carry us based on the availability of funds because they are projects intended to develop the region not because any man is a militant or either serving or retired.
There was this issue of each Managing Director of the commission concentrating on awarding contracts for projects in his own state to the negligence of others. Are you still having such issues?
This present board allocated projects in states based on derivation. We have a formula that we got from DPR and from relevant agencies so that is what we apply. Every state has an allocation. My brothers will call it an envelope. There is an envelope for each state. Projects are tailored to meet what you have. So, it is not just like as the MD of NDDC I will decide to allocate all the projects to Rivers State, no. And then, because the process is transparent, it is on the table for everybody to see and everybody participates. That is what we have been doing.
So, the question of concentration of projects in upland or riverine areas has stopped?
No, in this present board we don't have anything like that. What we are also trying to do is also that we try to put projects in oil bearing communities; those communities where we know that these oil wells are standing. Some of them that complain to us about marginalisation, we try to see what we can do to respond to their needs. Currently, there is a community somewhere between Bayelsa and Delta States, some communities around there are complaining including Ojobo community. We are inviting them and want to know the type of project and programmes they may need. We also reflect them in our budgets because those communities that bear the oil wells need development.
Since you resumed, you must have noticed some bleeding points in the commission ...(cuts in)
Bleeding points as per'
Financially, every organisation has its drainpipe. Did you see any drainpipe and how did you block it when you resumed?
Well, I would not want to tell you whether there was a drainpipe or if I saw one or I blocked it but what we are trying to do is that we first try to improve on our due process. We also try to improve on our transparency level and then since we believe we are one team, everybody, we all have our hands on what roles; I don't think we had some drainpipes that I had to block or not. All what we try to do is to ensure that we have one team and also identified one goal and the goal is to ensure that what was given to us we use it to develop the region. Since we have been doing that, I don't think we should be talking of whether there was a drainpipe or a blocked pipe.
The flood must have damaged some of the projects, especially roads that had been completed or nearing completion? What is the extent of damage?
We may not be able to give you the exact figure for the damage but what we have done is that we have asked the states and we have also commissioned some consultants to do an audit to be able to give us what the value of the damage is especially the roads.
There are some roads that contractors may have completed the earthwork or have gone ahead to do stone base before asphalt. Those ones would have gone now. So, we are trying to see within the acceptable limits, knowing full well that people will like to cash in on it to make us spend more money. But we will look at these things technically and see how we can respond. But of course, it not any man's fault. Flood is a natural disaster.
Many people see banana peels around this your seat. What have you learnt in this one year to ensure you avoid any of such peels?
I didn't see any peel when I came, but what I can tell you is that the task before the Managing Director of NDDC is quite demanding and I will say that you need the grace of God to continue being the Managing Director. A man cannot do it alone. It is challenging.
What have you seen or done differently in the past nine months?
What I have seen differently is that public sector life is different from private sector life.
Going from there, moving from private to public sector life comes with responsibilities. Have you come under any form of pressure to use funds meant for one project to execute another to cover exigencies?
That is virement and the law does not allow us to do that. The only pressure I have had is the pressure to ensure that I deliver on the assignment that has been given to me by the President. I believe that when my tenure will come to an end on the 6th of August next year, I should be able to stand tall and say oh, I was called to serve and to the best of my ability I have done that.
While managing the enormous funds so to say of NDDC, have you been tempted to help yourself from the funds in anyway?
Ha! It may not be right for me to assess myself. It is for you to know, knowing fully well that you know the law guiding public officers. So, I may be tempted to keep quiet, not to answer your question. It is for you to tell me all the places I have stolen the money and opened foreign accounts.
Have you been tempted to do that because some say they are tempted because there cannot be corruption unless there is money?
The temptation is that you may be tempted to come and bribe me. So, I am waiting for you to come.
Are you considering moving for an amendment to the NDDC Act so that the grey areas especially on funding would be addressed?
Of course you know when the Act was put together there were quite a few things we have come to see. It is supposed to be an intervention agency but what the law provides even in terms of procurement moves us far away from being an intervention agency.
When we had the issue of flood and when we look at what the law provides for us to even do the emergency procurement, it still required that we had to pass through some level of tendering. So, we are putting together a team of experts to look at what the law is now and what we have on ground, the present reality and then we will be able to write to government to see what we can do in terms of amendment. What the reality is now, is that we need to amend the Act.
Are you paying rent here?
We paid rent last year and the rent is yet to expire. But we saw a publication from the Governor of Rivers State that the building has been taken over for public interest. Actually the building used to belong to the family of Chief A.K Spiff but we are still waiting for communication from government.
Do you have any immediate plans to move into your own facility?
Actually we were developing our permanent site somewhere along Eastern bypass in Rivers State. Over the years we have realised that for some reasons security and all that, the Rivers State government is also of the opinion that NDDC cannot go there. So, we have started the process of getting a new place, which of course we are discussing with the government to move to the Greater Port Harcourt Area.
We are believing God that before the end of this year, Rivers State Government would give us a place in the Greater Port Harcourt and we are also talking with them for both parties to evaluate what we have put on ground in our permanent site and then if we have that it will enable us to develop a better site because you can see the number of persons we have. If we move to that area, there would be a whole lot of security and traffic challenges on that area.
Taking into consideration the volume of on-going contracts and how much that is needed to complete it and inflow of funds not being enough, is NDDC in debt?
The debt we can say that we are in, is that for us in project planning and execution, if you say a project will cost you N4 million, you should set aside that N4 million. That is what we think, so as a man is working, he will not lack money to execute the project because usually the project should have cost should have time and also you look at quality. But over the years, because of no funds to fund maybe a project that needs annually, say one billion, a man is given 30 million, he can barely do anything.
So, you find out that the project quality is watered down. The time takes too long and then there is no value. So, we cannot say we are indebted but we can say that for us to complete all we want at a time, we need so much and I have given you the value. So we cannot say that NDDC is indebted, no we are not.