The Niger Delta Development Commission, an idea conceived to speed up the development of the oil producing region of the country, has completely derailed from her dreams and philosophy and is now riddled with allegations of corruption, writes Ernest Chinwo
Events surrounding the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) recently, have clearly, more than ever brought to the fore, the existential rot in the commission and institutions that are supposed to oversee its activities.
Created in 2000 by the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo administration to replace the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC), the NDDC raised the hopes of the people of the nine states covered by the interventionist agency for speedy development and freedom from the environmental hazards, arising from the activities of oil and gas companies in the area. The states covered by the commission are Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo, Delta, Ondo, Imo and Abia.
The expectations of the people were understandable given the mandate of the NDDC, which included the formulation of policies and guidelines for the development of the Niger Delta area; conception, planning and implementation, in accordance with set rules and regulations, of projects and programmes for sustainable development of the area in the field of transportation including roads, jetties and waterways, health, employment, industrialisation, agriculture and fisheries, housing and urban development, water supply, electricity and telecommunications.
The commission was also mandated to survey the Niger Delta in order to ascertain measures necessary to promote its physical and socio-economic development, and also prepare master plans and schemes designed to promote the physical development of the region and the estimation of the member states of the Commission.
It was also directed to tackle ecological and environmental problems that arise from the exploration of oil mineral in the region and advise the federal government and the member states on the prevention and control of oil spillages, gas flaring and environmental pollution as well as liaising with the various oil mineral and gas prospecting and producing companies on all matters of pollution, prevention and control, among other functions.
Arising from this mandate, it is understandable why the expectations of the people and indeed other parts of the country and beyond were high. At last, the region that contributes about 65 per cent of government's revenue and 88 per cent of Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings will witness rapid development to assuage for the years of neglect and pollution.
But how wrong they were. How would they have known that the commission would turn out to be a cesspool of corruption, to enrich a few persons and never care for the core mandate of bringing development to the region?
Observers of the Niger Delta development agenda, however, believe that the NDDC has received and squandered trillions of naira since its establishment. Although figures are hard to come by, BudgIT Nigeria, Nigeria's civic tech organisation involved in transparency, citizen engagement and accountability activism, said as much in its June 25, 2019 twitter report.
"Since inception in 2000, NDDC has received at least $40bn (N15 trillion) for projects in oil-rich Niger Delta yet failed to achieve the Niger Delta Regional Development Masterplan to lay the foundation for transforming the region into Nigeria's Dubai," BudgIT said.
A tour of states covered by the commission will reveal that it is an area, where poverty still walks on four legs. Access to most parts of the riverine areas is to say the least, hellish, while potable water is hard to come by. The area is still ravaged by environmental pollution even as marine resources are daily depleted by the pollution of the area.
But while the people suffer, politicians and key officers of the commission fed fat with funds accruing to the NDDC. Indeed, in the run up to the 2019 elections, Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, accused the All Progressives Congress (APC) of using the NDDC to fund its campaigns in the South-south region.
It is also widely believed that a former Managing Director of the commission, Dr. Nsima Ekere, who contested for the governorship of Akwa Ibom State, amassed his resources to prosecute the election from the NDDC.
Sharp practices from even staff further painted the commission in bad light. It is widely believed that contracts are awarded by the agency to the staff through fronts, to the extent that roads to the private property (and there are many of such) of the staff are constructed by the commission and at costs criminal enough to raise concerns.
Worried by the deepening dissatisfaction of the people and calls by governors of the nine states covered by the NDDC, President Muhammadu Buhari, on October 30, 2019 inaugurated a new Interim Management Committee, with Gbene Joi Nunieh as the acting managing director, and ordered a forensic audit of the commission.
While the people hailed Buhari's intervention as a move to revive the interventionist agency that was almost comatose, the move opened a Pandora's Box of allegations and counter allegations of corruption.
To lay the ground work for the forensic audit, the Nunieh-led administration set up a Contract Verification Committee, headed by the Executive Director, Projects, Dr. Cairo Ojougboh.
In an interview with journalists, Ojougboh said, "I make bold to tell you that without President Muhammadu Buhari, the NDDC would have been killed and buried.
"In seven months in 2019, a total of 1,921 emergency contracts valued at N1,070,349,631,757.70 was awarded while the unprocessed budget of the NDDC was N350 billion and was still before the National Assembly.
"You will recall that the Acting MD/CEO, Dr. Joi Nunieh had last week, in line with the directive of Mr. President, inaugurated a Contract Verification Committee as a prelude to the ordered forensic audit, with my humble self as Chairman, I can tell you as I said in a recent press conference that we have made some remarkable discoveries.
"While successive leaderships of NDDC may have done their best, today, the general conclusion of most stakeholders in the region is that the NDDC has not delivered on its mandate, at best a lack-lustre performance, with very little to show for the humongous resources that have accrued to it over the past 19 years.
"Stories of pervasive corruption, flagrant abuse of due process, abandoned projects, and poor quality project delivery among others at the NDDC, have adorned our media space over the years."
He claimed that the contract verification committee was designed to lay a foundation for the forensic audit of the activities of the Commission from inception to date, and intended to establish the true position of the emergency regime between 2016 and 2019 in the commission.
According to him, "It is now common knowledge that some of the awards were not only spurious, but criminal as records available to us show that most of the awards were not backed by budget, have no bills of engineering measurement or drawings and were just open cheque for contractors and their collaborators to fill in at the nearest banks.
"For instance in 2017, the commission awarded a total of 201 emergency contracts valued at N100,396,879,001.06; in 2018, a total 1,057 emergency contracts valued at N162,688,289,333.05; and just seven months in 2019, a total 1,921 emergency contracts valued at N1,070,249,631,757.70 were awarded.
"We are talking of a total of over N1.3trillion in less than three years. The yearly budget of NDDC is hardly above 400billion and a situation, where contracts that do not qualify for emergencies were fraudulently awarded to over one trillion naira valued in less than one year amounts to stealing from the pulpit and stealing the entire pulpit," he stated.
Ojougboh also alleged that a serving senator has 300 NDDC contracts to his name. "Of the 300 contracts, 120 have been fully paid and he has not mobilised to site for these 120," he stated.
He also stated that as at January (when the interview was held), "The NDDC Interim Payment Certificates that are pending are worth over N3 trillion. That is what the NDDC owes these phantom contractors."
On February 19, Buhari changed and expanded the IMC of NDDC with Professor Kemebradikumo Daniel Pondei, Dr Cairo Ojougboh, Ag. Executive Director (Projects); Mr Ibanga Bassey Etang, Ag. Executive Director (Finance and Administration); Mrs Caroline Nagbo (Member); and Cecilia Bukola Akintomide, OON, a former Vice President with African Development Bank, (Member). If there were allegations of corruption earlier, they rose to astronomical levels with the new IMC.
In April, a group of stakeholders in the Niger Delta region raised an alarm that the NDDC fraudulently awarded a N5,474,647,125.00 contract to a Port Harcourt-based company, Signora Concepts Services Limited, for the procurement of specialised medical personal protective equipment (PPEs) for health workers to fight the coronavirus in the nine member states of the commission.
But the NDDC and Signora Concepts Services Limited, in separate reactions, dismissed the claims and insisted that there was no such contract and no fraud in the interventionist agency.
The group of stakeholders, Ijaw Peoples Development Initiatives (IPDI), had in a statement signed by its National President, Ozobo Austin, alleged that the company received the sum from NDDC through the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, to procure the equipment and described the contract as fraudulent.
It also published a letter with reference number NDDC/MD/HPU/20/4/EHSS/05, purportedly signed by the Head, Procurement Unit of NDDC, Alex Enebeli, on behalf of the Acting Managing Director, awarding the said N5.5 billion contract to Signora on April 6, 2020 to supply the said materials and carry out sensitisation campaigns in 2,775 communities in the nine states covered by the commission within 15 days from the date of the award of the contract.
In a swift reaction, the NDDC issued a statement denying the issues raised by the IPDI and insisted that there was no fraud in the commission.
The statement issued and signed by the NDDC Director, Corporate Affairs, Charles Odili, disowned the letter awarding the contract to Signora Concepts Services Limited and said there was no fraud in the commission.
The statement stated in part: "The online publications are circulating a letter purportedly issued by the Director of Procurement, awarding a contract of N5.55 billion for the procurement of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and other kits to fight the spread of COVID-19 in the Niger Delta region.
"We wish to unequivocally deny that contract. The document is simply fake or at best unauthorised. The letters for all contracts awarded by the Commission are signed by the Executive Director Projects on the authority of the Ag Managing Director who is the chief accounting officer of the Commission.
"Neither of the officials is aware of the contract letter. It is inconceivable that a contract of such magnitude could be awarded otherwise. The Commission has launched an internal investigation into how such a letter came to be issued and on what authority? "For the purpose of transparency, we wish to confirm that the Commission has just secured presidential approval to intervene by assisting NCDC in the supply of kits and the building of isolation centres in the nine Niger Delta States.
"Also, the Commission has disbursed N775m to assist the nine Niger Delta States fight the plague. We have also disbursed N270 million as palliatives to the youths, women and the physically challenged in the 27 senatorial districts of the region."
Odili also said the commission had noticed an upsurge in attacks on it, the Interim Management Committee and the Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs since the launch of a forensic audit into the affairs of the commission.
"These attacks are meant to distract the commission from the task of holding those who looted the commonwealth to account," he said. On its part, Signora Concepts Services Limited said, it was never awarded any N5.5 billion contract by the NDDC to supply Coronavirus personal protection equipment to the nine states in the Niger Delta region.
The firm, in a statement signed by its Operation Manager, Patrick Ijeomah, accused the IPDI of peddling falsehood and asked members of the public to disregard the claims.
The new Acting Managing Director, Pondei, in a press conference in Port Harcourt on May 26, also accused the committees of the National Assembly, responsible for the oversight of the Commission, of working against the forensic audit ordered by Buhari. He was reacting to investigations by the National Assembly into allegations of financial recklessness and corruption against the current IMC. He said the probe being embarked on by the National Assembly was distracting the Commission from focusing on the forensic audit "which all stakeholders, including governors of the nine Niger Delta States, agreed with Mr. President as the way forward for the Commission.
"We suspect that the probe being trumpeted by the National Assembly is not for altruistic reason but an attempt by some members to arm-twist the Interim Management Committee."
Pondei justified the claim, stating: "We have faced so much pressure from some members of the National Assembly not to send certain files to forensic auditors. We fear that this will compromise the integrity of the exercise and have refused to do their bidding.
"We have also faced pressure from some members of the National Assembly to pay for 132 jobs, which have no proof of execution. We have refused to pay out N6.4 billion for those jobs. We believe that an IMC set up as a cleansing structure cannot become part of the old story of rot."
The NDDC Chief Executive Officer observed that since the IMC came to make NDDC better and had a limited mandate till December, it had summoned the courage its predecessors did not have to tell Nigerians the truth.
He lamented that, "50 per cent of NDDC's inability to deliver on its mandate is as a result of the stranglehold of the National Assembly on the Commission.
"The National Assembly delays passage of the Commission's budget until it is too late for it to be implemented. The 2019 was passed two months to the end of its implementation period. In fact, the hardcopy was received by the Commission on April 10, 2020, when the implementation period ends on May 31. Given the procurement rules, it is not enough time to call for tender and execution of the jobs. The statutory period for advertising tenders is six weeks.
"Two, the budgets are bastardised by National Assembly in a way that renders it useless. A case will suffice. In the 2019 budget, we had a provision of N1.32 billion to pay our counterpart funding to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) for the $129.7m Livelihood Improvement Family Enterprises Programme in the Niger Delta (LIFE-ND). The National Assembly cut the provision to N100 million. Are we going to IFAD, a UN agency, to tell them to bring their $129.7m when our National Assembly says we can only pay N100m out of N1.32 billion obligation?
"Three, the National Assembly members insert items we had no plans for. These items are then forced on the Commission when it is not part of the master plan. Rather than be a major intervention agency, the Commission is busy erecting street lights and drainages, something local governments should do."
Pondei explained that at the time the expanded IMC took over on February 20, 2020, the 2019 and 2020 budget of the NDDC had already been transmitted to the National Assembly, noting that the 2019 budget was laid before the two chambers and it was approved.
However, the problem was in harmonisation of the budget, which was to follow the approval. "For that to be done, we were told to pay for some contracts. That was relayed to us through the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on NDDC. "We waited for the meeting but it did not take place, because we had not paid. On March 17, 2020 we managed to pay some and on March 19, 2020 we paid the others. That was when approval was transmitted to us on March 20, 2020," Pondei said.
According to him, "We understand that this had been the regular practice over the years. You have to accede to the requests of the National Assembly or you don't have a budget.
It was the lack of budget in 2016 and 2017 that led the past administrations in NDDC to device what is now called the emergency projects. That was the only way they could get some projects to be executed until it has now become a very big burden."
Pondei stressed that until the NDDC returned to the drawing board to work out a budgetary process that's transparent and free from the stranglehold of the committees of the National Assembly, the problems of the Commission would persist.
"Even if you bring somebody from outer space, if you don't remove the bottlenecks, the problems with the NDDC budget will persist. I can come here with a vision to put water in every community but you approve a budget without provision for water. How then can I contribute to changing the Niger Delta?" he lamented.
But the officers of the National Assembly denied the allegations and said the legislators were only performing their oversight duties on the commission.
Last Thursday, the Senate held a public hearing as part of its investigation into allegations of financial recklessness and misappropriation of N81 billion levelled against the IMC.
At the public hearing, Lawan, who was represented by Deputy Senate Leader, Ajayi Boroffice, said the NDDC was an important statutory agency that was supposed to improve the lot of the Niger Delta community, hence the efforts to sanitise the commission.
"It is, therefore, unacceptable to hear about inappropriate use of resources or outright financial recklessness," he said, adding that, the weighty allegations of misappropriation of public funds to the tune of N81 billion by the IMC of the NDDC prompted the upper chamber to investigate the commission.
While urging stakeholders present at the hearing to cooperate with the ad-hoc committee, Lawan assured the public of the senate's commitment to fairness and transparency in the discharge of its constitutional responsibility.
Chairman of the Committee, Senator Olubunmi Adetumbi, said the panel, in line with its mandate, sought "to holistically investigate all financially related allegations, mismanagement and misappropriation and the breach of the extant procurement processes as enshrined in the public procurement Act 2007."
The lawmaker added that, "the exercise is not aimed at witch-hunting any individual, groups, persons or institutions, but to rather get at the root of the matter, that will aid in repositioning the NDDC to effectively deliver on the mandate on which it was established.
He however frowned at the expenditure of N3.14 billion made by the IMC to provide COVID-19 palliatives to its staff that were not numbered more than 4,000 workers and the police commands in the nine oil producing states.
He wondered why N10 million was given to a single staff as COVID-19 relief fund even when the person did not test positive to the virus.
He said: "From the financial statements and documents forwarded to this committee from your office as regards expenditure carried out between October 29, 2019 and May 31, 2020, monies expended on COVID-19 pandemic relief are mind-boggling.
"N3.14 billion was spent on COVID-19 pandemic as relief funds out of the total expenditure of N81.495 billion spent by both the IMC that was led by Mrs. Gbene Nunieh as Managing Director between October 29, 2019 and February 18, 2020 and the current IMC that is led by Professor Pondei between February 19, 2020 and May 31, 2020.
"Highly disturbing is the fact that based on the records of payment of such funds, a whopping N10 million was given to a single staff while two other staffers collected N7 million each.
"Other payments as reliefs against the pandemic are N3 million given to each of 148 other staffers; N1.5 million each to 157 other category of staffers; N1 million each to 497 others and N600,000.00 each to the last category of 464 other staffers.
"Also included in the COVID-19 pandemic relief, as clearly stated in your submitted financial documents, is N475 million given to the police high command for purchase of face masks and hand sanitisers for men and officers across the nine states in the Niger Delta Region."
But the IMC still accused the leadership of the National Assembly Joint committee on Niger Delta Affairs of meddling in the financial affairs of the commission. It said no money was missing in its account since inception of the current IMC.
Adetunbi also took up the IMC officials on other spending, including N1.3 billion for community relations, N1.956 billion for Lassa fever, N23.8 billion for consultancy fees, N486 million for duty travel allowance and N85.6 million for overseas travels etc.
However, in their separate explanations, both Pondei and Ojougboh claimed that the various expenditures were done in the best interest of the commission and Niger Delta region at large.
Pondei explained that the commission alone has 150 policemen attached to it for security purposes aside the various police commands in the affected nine states in the Niger Delta Region.
On his part, Ojougboh alleged financial interference, contracts grabbing and splitting against the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Peter Nwaoboshi, and his counterpart in the House of Representatives.
He said the two chairmen requested for 1,000 projects out of the 2,900 emergency projects the commission planned to use to change the face of the Niger Delta communities.
"Aside projects grabbing, the two chairmen are holding the commission to ransom on its 2020 budget, which had been submitted since November last year but yet to see the light in July 2020.
"We have lost confidence in the two chairmen who have been hijacking and bastardising operations of the commission over the years," he said.
Ojougboh said there was nothing like the N40 billion allegation levelled against the current IMC by the Senate within the first three months of this year.
"The current IMC met debt of over N3 trillion as payments for contracts awarded and executed by previous management, out of which N156 billion had been released and ready for payment."
Allegations and counter allegations have been the order of the day. But questions boggling the minds now are the purpose(s) of the altercations between the IMC and the National Assembly. Is it designed to scuttle the forensic audit of the NDDC? Why have we not seen this kind of fervour in the National Assembly over the years until forensic audit is mentioned? Is corruption fighting back attempts to expose hidden truths?
But whatever are the intentions it is obvious that the NDDC is rotten, very rotten. Both operators and overseers of the commission are well immersed in the mind-boggling corruption that has become the norm in the interventionist agency. But can the forensic audit take place, before the Niger Delta region and all concerned go the way of the commission?