Nigeria: President Buhari - You Must Act More Decisively to Salvage NDDC

opinion

Given the magnitude of the problems currently besetting NDDC, such that the actual work of developing the Niger Delta has practically ceased, only the president can break the impasse. If he wishes to make friends in the creeks now and beyond 2023, I would suggest the following as urgent steps that he must take. First, he should ensure that the forensic audit he has ordered is done by a reputable international accounting firm.

The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is a special category agency under the Presidency, established for the express purpose of "rapid and sustainable development" of the region to "one that is economically prosperous, socially stable, ecologically regenerative and politically peaceful." This goal is not only beneficial to the Niger Delta but also to Nigeria as a whole, given that the Niger Delta is the economic heartbeat of the nation. As elaborated under Section 7 of its enabling act, the mandate turns NDDC into a virtual regional government, with just one sub-section giving an idea of its magnitude: "[To] conceive, plan and implement, in accordance with set rules and regulations, projects and programmes for the sustainable development of the Niger-Delta area in the field of transportation including roads, jetties and waterways, health, education, employment, industrialization, agriculture and fisheries, housing and urban development, water supply, electricity and telecommunications." There are nine other functions specified, including the omnibus duty to "execute such other works and perform such other functions which in the opinion of the Commission, are required for the sustainable development of the Niger-Delta area and its peoples."

My general activist commitment to human rights and development aside, it was the prospect of being in a position to make some direct contribution towards the realisation of this great goal that had me excited when the minister of Transport, Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, called mid-June 2016 to inform me that President Buhari had approved my nomination as the representative of Delta State on NDDC's governing board. Two days before, I had booked a flight to London for the final interview to be country director of the world's foremost international human rights organisation, Amnesty International. I was given the job on the spot, leaving me with the rather nice problem of occupying my thoughts with the job to take on my return flight. I had spent a full decade of my life working as a rights activist with the Civil Liberties Organisation, Nigeria's premier non-governmental organisation, before proceeding to Cornell University for postgraduate studies in 2001. And after all the years of advocacy for rights, democracy and social justice dating to my undergraduate days as a student leader, I thought it was time to be more directly involved in bringing about the change I pined for. After all, we can't always whine about poor governance due to a dearth of people genuinely committed to the public good, while spurning every chance to serve. It was why, fresh on my return in 2014 from my teaching position at Texas State University, I dared to join a "bourgeois" political party for the first time and sought the ticket of the All Progressives Congress for the House of Representatives, my ambition thwarted at the primaries by a sore lack of you-know-what: Money.

Despite the many structural, administrative and political interference problems noticeable at once, I threw myself at the job with gusto. I inspected minor and major projects but devoted most of my time to the latter. And discovered that many of the projects described as "ongoing" in the status report I got from the Delta office had virtually been abandoned. Among them: Uzere-Patani Road with bridges, awarded on December 10, 2004 at the cost of N3.03 billion; Gbaregolor-Gbekebor-Ogulaha Road (Phase I) with bridges (2009, N16.1 billion); Bomadi-Tuomo-Ojobo-Tamigbe Road with bridges, Phase II (2009, N8.9 billion); Ugheye-Koko-Escravos Road, Phase II (2014, N14.8 billion); Shore Protection at Koko (ca 2012, N3 billion); Ugborodo Shore Protection, Lots 1-9 (2014, N8.07 billion); Nigeria Army Jetty (Forward Operation Base) in Uvwie-Warri (2012, N4.7 billion); Ozoro Township Roads (2012, N2.4 billion); and 132 KV Transmission Line and 1 No. 30 MVA 132/33 KV Substation each at Ughelli and Ozoro (2011, N2.1 billion). I focussed on this category of projects as those that truly seek to meet the Niger Delta's crying infrastructural needs.

But midway into its tenure, our board was dissolved. The news awaited me on my return from commissioning Phase I of the last listed project, with rising hopes for Phase II in Ozoro, which would ameliorate the power woes of my Isoko people. I chose to wear my disappointment as a badge of honour: "Well, sacked while on duty," I said, vainly looking for a glimmer of light in the sudden gloom! Yet, until my stint on the board, no one could have persuaded me that NDDC was not a colossal waste. I had yet to see its impact in the lives of the harried citizens stuck in that sweltering swamp of anger from the utter despoliation of their land, air and water, as the inhuman price of oil and gas extraction. The project inspection trips changed my mind. I could see now the immense potential of NDDC to transform the Niger Delta as envisaged. Why hadn't the goal been achieved and, worse, why did it seem unachievable, twenty years after?

On February 7, 2018, I had the honour and privilege of a private meeting with the president. I humbly suggested to him that he would need to do more to enable us make friends in the Delta. NDDC had to be restructured and refocussed on its mandate. He had to set clear timelines and benchmarks.

Of the many ills that bedevil NDDC, the frequent dissolution of its boards ranks among the most deleterious. All the powers of NDDC are vested in the board. Consequently, precipitate board dissolutions can only cause catastrophic lack of continuity in policy and internal oversight. In time, crippling bureaucracy replaced technocracy. A minor example: For over a year until our board was dissolved, and nearly twenty minutes after, from one desk to another and yet another, the Delta office could not get approval for the replacement of broken-down furniture and equipment! The headquarters in Port Harcourt became the Abuja of the Delta: To get anything done, even as trifling as replenishing photocopying paper, you must trek to Port Harcourt. But perhaps even more devastating is political interference. The drama currently playing out before the eyes of the world, against the backdrop of the forensic audit ordered by President Buhari at the urging of the Commission's member state governors, gives an idea of the destabilising role of this problem.

During a pre-inauguration retreat, the last chairman, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, informed us that the only agenda President Buhari laid out for him was "to go and make friends in the Niger Delta." On February 7, 2018, I had the honour and privilege of a private meeting with the president. I humbly suggested to him that he would need to do more to enable us make friends in the Delta. NDDC had to be restructured and refocussed on its mandate. He had to set clear timelines and benchmarks. And because the army of profiteers at the expense of the ordinary indigenes would be up in arms against a development-centred initiative, he would have to publicly give the board his backing and deflect their inevitable attacks.

I didn't elaborate further; the point was obvious. Any development agency worth the name must be insulated from partisan politics, the perils of electoral cycles and the attendant substitution and prioritisation of narrow interests. Lastly, there must be strict adherence to the enabling law in order to reduce the undue politicisation of appointments. Politics might never be completely avoided but that does not have to be the same thing as turning NDDC, any government agency, into a mere political patronage machine. After all, the benefits of development are not reserved for party members only.

Given the magnitude of the problems currently besetting NDDC, such that the actual work of developing the Niger Delta has practically ceased, only the president can break the impasse. If he wishes to make friends in the creeks now and beyond 2023, I would suggest the following as urgent steps that he must take. First, he should ensure that the forensic audit he has ordered is done by a reputable international accounting firm. The patriot in me would like a local company, but it would be distracted and unnecessarily impugned by the irredeemably tainted environment of allegations and counter-allegations by those at the heart of the problem. To adapt a legal maxim, probity must not only be served but be seen to have been served.

... the President should ensure a restructuring of NDDC's bloated balance sheet, estimated at over N2 trillion. As a first step to this goal, our board cancelled a tranche of projects at zero per cent completion, thereby reducing the balance sheet by N200 billion.

Second, he should order a halt to any new regional or major projects in the next five years and cap quick impact or emergency projects to no more than ten per cent of NDDC's annual budget. In that period, all abandoned projects are to be completed. The only exception would be the Niger Delta Regional Power Pool and Business Parks, whose goal is to deliver 7GW (seven gigawatts) of affordable energy across the region by harvesting its copious gas supplies (still sadly flared) for embedded power plants that would feed business parks in raw material enclaves. Any other exception would have to be projects with funding from donors or private sector partners requiring no more than token commitment guarantee payments. Such as the Niger Delta Digital e-Learning Initiative, including the retraining of teachers and upgrading of curricula across primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions.

Third, the President should ensure a restructuring of NDDC's bloated balance sheet, estimated at over N2 trillion. As a first step to this goal, our board cancelled a tranche of projects at zero per cent completion, thereby reducing the balance sheet by N200 billion.

Fourth, urgent reform of NDDC's governance system. The current administrative framework is so heavily bureaucratic and bound to the analog mode as to be a mighty clog in the wheel of development. In the view of Dr. Joe Abah, former director-general of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms, everything that can possibly be wrong in an institution is to be found in NDDC, to the point of it being almost unreformable. Lastly, NDDC must be returned to its core mandate. The Regional Development Master Plan should be updated to align it with the dizzying realities of the Information Technology Age and the brave new world dawning on us, of a green and sustainable energy future beyond fossil fuels.

This is not an exhaustive agenda of what must be done to salvage NDDC now. It is, I hope, a good starting point.

Ogaga Ifowodo, a lawyer, writer, scholar and rights activist, was the Delta State representative on the board of NDDC from November 2016 to February 2019.

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