Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the ongoing public hearing of the Senate Adhoc Committee investigating corruption allegations at the Niger Delta Development Commission has uncovered a lot of disheartening infractions which support the insistent calls to disband the Interim Management Committee and a probe of the role of the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio
The corruption, financial recklessness and voodoo fetish oaths at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) under the Interim Management Committee as unveiled at the recent public hearing of the Senate Adhoc Committee investigating corruption allegations should not be condoned any further. It is disheartening that these infractions, which came complete with evidentiary material, have the imprimatur of the Niger Delta Minister Chief Godswill Akpabio who, it seems, has engineered the whole fraud for his own selfish aggrandizement.
Akpabio, it seems took with him to his new office, the script, complete with the evil oath taking sessions, with which he allegedly milked the finances of Akwa Ibom State where he was governor for eight years between 2007 and 2015. On the outside, people saw the flyover bridges and the stadium which were built by his administration with exaggerated sums, but the Akpabio regime institutionalised malevolent cultism and elevated it to a status symbol. So deep has the tendency to do evil to others (which was nourished to an art by Akpabio) eaten into the fabric of the Akwa Ibom society that the current governor, Mr. Udom Emmanuel has been battling to take the state back from hold of cultists. Recently, Governor Emmanuel proscribed scores of such groups from operating in the state. The proclivity towards cultism is arguably the most maximum damage that Akpabio has wrecked on the Akwa Ibom society.
And emerging facts from the NDDC show that he had started establishing his sorcery in Abuja and Port Harcourt. Whereas Akwa Ibom could be easily tucked into his pocket (or so it seemed), the nine Niger Delta states, many of which are a hotbed of youth restiveness are proving to be a different kettle of fish. The Minister of Niger Delta Affairs may have found out too late that apart from impetuous youths, there are too many independent minded and established elders from states like Rivers, Delta and Bayelsa who can't be hoodwinked by his favourite maxim that, 'what money can't buy, more money can'. The plethora of fraud allegations against the former governor of Akwa Ibom State which have not yet been pursued to a logical conclusion may just have been ignited again. Did Akpabio escape fraud allegations in Akwa Ibom only to be buried in the NDDC cesspit of corruption?
The presentations of the current Acting Managing Director Prof Keme Pondei and his immediate predecessor, Ms Joy Nunieh, who were both appointed by Akpabio, and Mr Kolawole Johnson of the NGO, Act for Positive Transformation Initiative, gave a blow-by-blow account of the financial recklessness that now pervades the NDDC under Akpabio and his IMC.
Imagine, Pondei saying the agency disbursed N5million to youth groups in each senatorial district in the nine Niger Delta states. Women groups and the physically challenged got the same amount. With each state have three senatorial districts, the nine Niger Delta states collectively have 27 senatorial districts. Meaning for these three groups-of youths, women and the physically challenged-N405,000,000 in each state! If this is multiplied by the nine Niger Delta states, it adds up to N3.6billion. Pondei said this was in addition of food items which were purchased and distributed in the region as COVID-19 palliatives. With the population of Akwa Ibom State standing at 5.4million and that of the entire Niger Delta region estimated at about 30 million, each citizen from that part of the country could have received N3million as COVID-19 relief. As things stand, it would not be wrong to assume that the effects of Pondei's did not get to the city centre of the Niger Delta states, let alone the rural areas.
Ms Joy Nunieh told the Senate panel of Akpabio's demand for her to swear to a personal fetish oath of loyalty, not to the Federal Republic of Nigeria, but to him as supervising Minister of the NDDC, aimed at ensuring that she keeps quiet and play ball to the Minister's fraudulent schemes. However, according to her, no sooner had she taken the job than Akpabio demanded his pound of flesh - uncommon loyalty - sworn to in a fetish ceremony. In her words, "He told me to take an oath. He told me three times until we had a reconciliation meeting at the Villa in the office of Mr Abba who is the SSA. to the President on Domestics. In that meeting was Alhaji Maikano and he (Akpabio) said the only condition is when I take the oath and I didn't take the oath and will never take it."
On Akpabio's hold over the Commission, she added: "Nobody makes payments in NDDC without Godswill Akpabio's consent. On the day of the inauguration, while we were in his car, he told me, Madam MD, if you don't do what I said, the same pen I used in signing your letter, that is the same pen I will use in removing you. He said the first thing I should do, when I get to Port Harcourt, is to change dollars in (the) NDDC account into Naira. I told him I am scared to do that. He claimed that I have a poverty mentality, that I was afraid of money."
Giving an insight into how Akpabio operates without following due process at the NDDC, Nunieh said further that Akpabio took a memo to the Federal Executive Council without going through the laid down process as prescribed in the Public Procurement Act. According to Nunieh, she refused to go along with Akpabio to present that memo at the FEC meeting because it was predicated on the NDDC budget, which has not been passed into law at the time because doing so carries a five-year imprisonment without an option of fine. "So if I had gone with him to deceive the president I would have been in trouble." She further stated that Akpabio went ahead to get the approval in breach of the Procurement Act. Again, Akpabio got the Federal Executive Council on June 10 to approve yet another memo in the sum of N1.599 billion for the purchase of vehicles for the NDDC, again in breach of the Procurement Act. In essence, Akpabio in both instances, got the Federal Executive Council to commit an illegality in contravention of the country's Procurement laws.
Mr Kolawole Johnson of the NGO, Act for Positive Transformation, gave damning evidence at the Senate hearing of how payments were made to contractors and vendors post-haste and then shared out to the top NDDC officials in kickbacks. According to him, multiple payments were made for the same contracts, such as to Clearpoint Communications, which was paid N536 million and another N641 million tagged Media Support on the 22nd of May. After receiving payment, Clearpoint now made back payments to its collaborators among the IMC and Directors. For instance, according to Mr Johnson, "Mr Charles Odili, a director in the Commission, got N1.15 million into his UBN account from Clearpoint Communications. He got another on the 21st of May and N5 million again on the 24th of May into his UBN account. He got another one again. If you ask for the accounts of these companies and individuals you will find how they made back payments to the NDDC Directors."
Johnson also gave details of how the IMC members and their internal collaborators shared millions of naira on fictitious tasks. Prof Pondei collected N51 million monthly for maintenance of his guest house, while the IMC moved out money through the account of some Directors. There were duplicate payments for project monitoring, with several millions paid into the personal accounts of the IMC members.
If there were doubts as to the financial recklessness and gross insensitivity of the IMC, the testimony of the current Acting Managing Director and head of the IMC, Prof Keme Pondei, put them to rest, with a stunning brazen revelation of how the IMC shared N1.5 billion among themselves and staff as Covid-19 Palliative. He said: "We used it to take care of ourselves. We are NDDC, we need to take care of ourselves too." Pondei received N10 million as Covid-19 Palliative, while the Acting Executive Director Projects, Dr Cairo Ojugboh got N7 million. The rest was shared to other IMC members and staff in a bazaar arrangement that befuddles, especially as their salaries and allowances were still being paid. It can only be hush payments to buy the loyalty of the Directors and keep them from squealing on the IMC members. In addition to that, the IMC paid themselves N302 million as tour duty allowance, even though the country was on lockdown and the NDDC offices were closed. They were not done with the sharing as they paid themselves another N85.6 million in April and May as overseas travel allowance to attend graduation ceremonies abroad, at a time much of the world was on lockdown and flights were grounded.
Yet there were more revelations of how Akpabio demanded that contracts be awarded and paid without going through the public procurement process for such projects as river desilting and Covid-19 supplies. In all, Akpabio has carried on like a man on a rabid mission to take out as much as he could from the NDDC coffers, without regard for the Public Procurement Act or a sense of good conduct. He is doing this against his own words that condemned previous managements of the NDDC, accusing them of using the agency as an ATM.
These unwholesome practices, which are happening at a time when the nation is facing dire financial crisis, and the people of the Niger Delta are suffering untold hardship and lack of development, is not just sad but callous. Yet, all these happened under the alibi of reforming the NDDC, while the minister, who tried tooth and nail to demonise the ongoing investigation by the National Assembly, supervises a grand heist running into billions of naira.
Akpabio and the IMC have sought to weapon the forensic audit of the NDDC as defence against the allegations of corruption ongoing at the Commission. Using paid PR hirelings and pseudo activists of questionable reputation, they fought to keep the rotten underbelly hidden from Nigerians in the hope that they clean out the accounts while posturing as reformers.
The revelations from the Senate Committee Public Hearing should be a wake-up call to the Federal Government to take a deep introspective look at the decisions it had made on the NDDC in the last eight months, especially the Constitution of the IMC when the Governing Board has been screened and confirmed by the National Assembly in line with the provisions of the NDDC Act, because the IMC has proven to be more irresponsible and fraudulent than imagined.
There are recurring themes that crop up in the statements of Akpabio and the IMC, among them is the dubious argument that those who demand the investigation of the corruption under the IMC at the NDDC are opposed to the so-called forensic audit. There is also the attempt to justify the continued stay of the IMC by the so-called forensic audit. These are patently false narratives designed to confuse the issues, while they undertake the heist.
As it stands, Akpabio and the IMC have lost the moral high ground to supervise the forensic audit and run the affairs of the NDDC. What he has put in place to all intents and purposes is a sham exercise. The manipulations of contractor files by the minister and the IMC, the selective payment of contractors for jobs even against the queries raised by the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation, have been pointed out by whistleblowers in the last few months as portending a compromised audit. These are the issues that need serious intervention at the level of the federal authority because it would be a complete disservice and a blow to the Anti-Corruption battle to have a shambolic forensic audit report. The Niger Delta people deserve better.
No serious audit requires a supervisor as the corrupt and illegal IMC, except, of course, it is an audit with predetermined boundaries. In fact, Governments set up Special audits every year for ministries departments and agencies but not one of them is an excuse to abrogate the law of these agencies as has been done to create room for Akpabio's men to pillage the accounts of the NDDC in the guise of an intervention management. In this instance, the IMC is at best an interloper, a contraption, whose life at the Commission hangs by the thread of an audit it is micromanaging for the benefit of Akpabio. And that is the case being made by the Niger Delta people and their authentic civil society representatives who have come out to protest the continued stay of the IMC.
Anyone who truly opposes corruption should cringe at the fact that N81.5 billion has been spent recklessly in just a few months without demonstrable impact on the Niger Delta. You do not need anyone to tell you that an IMC that can preside over the stealing of that amount in just a few months has clearly won the gold medal in corruption.
These infractions must not be treated with kid gloves if we are to make progress as a nation. The Senate investigation into the Akpabio and IMC corruption should run its full course and all those found guilty must get the appropriate sanctions, including retrieving all money collected inappropriately. This should be the minimum in our drive to sanitise our public institutions.
Going forward, it is crystal clear to everyone that there is no justifiable reason for continuing with the IMC in violation of the NDDC Act which provides for a Governing Board. The IMC should be disbanded and the Board should be put in place immediately to run the affairs of the Commission in line with best practices. In addition, a reputable independent auditor who will be directly responsible to the Presidency, should be appointed for the forensic audit. This was the case with the NNPC audit, which was done by Price Waterhouse a few years back while the legitimate Board and management was still in place. We cannot afford to let the NDDC fail.
Anyone who truly opposes corruption should cringe at the fact that N81.5 billion has been spent recklessly in just a few months without demonstrable impact on the Niger Delta. You do not need anyone to tell you that an IMC that can preside over the stealing of that amount in just a few months has clearly won the gold medal in corruption. These infractions must not be treated with kid gloves if we are to make progress as a nation. The Senate investigation into the Akpabio and IMC corruption should run its full course and all those found guilty must get the appropriate sanctions, including retrieving all money collected inappropriately