Nation

How the Niger Delta Leaders Sold Their People for Billions of Dollars

The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) has attained the ignoble status of a long-standing unresolved national mystery which has continued to defy conventional and unconventional interventions geared towards making it function as intended. The NDDC was established by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2000 with the sole mission of developing the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Some of the core mandates of the Commission includes supervising the sound and efficient management of the region’s resources, liaising with international oil companies operating in the region towards giving back to their environment in form of sustainable corporate social responsibilities, training and educating the youths of the oil rich region to curb idleness which breeds hostilities and militancy, promoting peace and economic growth while also developing key infrastructure to sustain the flow of investments into the region.

The NDDC was created largely as a response to the demands of the population of the Niger Delta, a populous area inhabited by a diversity of minority ethnic groups. During the 1990s, these ethnic groups, most notably the Ijaw and the Ogoni established organisations to confront the Nigerian government and Multinational Oil Companies such as Shell. The minorities of the Niger Delta have continued to agitate and articulate demands for greater autonomy and control of the area’s petroleum resources. They justify their grievances by reference to the extensive environmental degradation and pollution from oil activities that have occurred in the region since the late 1950s. However, the minority communities of oil producing areas have received little or no currency from the oil industry and environmental remediation measures are limited and negligible. The region is highly underdeveloped and is poor even by Nigeria’s standards for quality of life. Sometimes violent confrontation with the state and oil companies, as well as with other communities has constrained oil production as disaffected youth or organisations deliberately disrupt oil operations in attempts to effect change. These disruptions have been extremely costly to the Nigerian oil industry, as both the multinationals and the Federal Government have vested interests in permitting uninterrupted extraction operations; the NDDC is a result of these concerns and is an attempt to satisfy the demands of the region.

Towards the tail-end of the Obasanjo administration; notable cracks started appearing as an attestation to the fact that the NDDC has refused to live up to its responsibilities in carrying out its mission effectively. The most significant being the emergence of an armed militant group called MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta) which led other militant groups in violent vandalism and sabotage of oil installations in the region; decrying the persistent neglect and hardship being faced in the region despite it being the supplier of the country’s main revenue. On taking over power, the Yar’adua administration swiftly created a Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs and subsumed the NDDC under it to enforce oversight on its activities and enhance the commission’s performance. He also pioneered an historic amnesty programme which yielded remarkable success in halting the wave of militancy which held the region hostage for those few turbulent years.

The general belief was that the creation of a supervisory ministry for the NDDC will usher in a new era of prosperity for the region; evidence has however proven that the reverse has been the case; with both the supervisor and the supervisee colluding to mismanage huge resources allocated to the region without any landmark development or commensurate achievement to point to.

There was relative peace in the region in the Jonathan days, presumably because he is an indigene of the Niger Delta. Regrettably, he left office without doing anything substantial to reposition the NDDC towards becoming more accountable and committed to improving the lives of the common people in the region.

The Buhari administration emerged and his government felt the full force of violent militancy in 2016, with severe vandalism of oil installations led by the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) bringing the economy to its knees and making it nosedive into a cataclysmic recession. Luckily, the President was able to manage the situation in 2017 by series of productive dialogue with representatives from the region which culminated in some concessions and compensations that stopped the destructive militancy.

In October 2019, the President decided to go a step further than superficial settlements and address the root causes of militancy in the region to prevent future recurrence; he put on the garment of a physician and resolved to diagnose and treat the Niger Delta’s terminal illness with a clinical approach. In a manner that depicted surgical precision, he admitted the NDDC into the operating theater and noted that what is obtainable in the region does not justify the huge resources that have been made available to the Commission. He therefore prescribed a deep forensic audit into its operation since inception till date; yes, a whopping 19 years. He put on hold the inauguration of the Board of the NDDC to allow for independence in the audit while the Federal Executive Council also approved the appointment of a lead consultant for 16 audit firms engaged for the exercise.

In July 2020, while the audit was ongoing; efforts also began to unearth fresh financial mismanagement in the Commission coming to the tune of N80b within the period of Oct 2019 to May 2020. The House of Reps set up an investigative hearing on illegal spending and mismanagement of funds to probe the matter. The NDDC management had admitted to releasing billions of naira in allowances to its top officials during the lockdown occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic. The acting Managing Director of the NDDC, Prof Kemebradikumo Pondei was invited to shed more light on how these funds were allocated and disbursed. Things however took a dramatic turn, when after half an hour of being grilled by the committee, Pondei was suddenly numb, mute and gripped by a mysterious apoplexy, bearing large similitude to bouts of epilepsy. He thereafter slumped. Hysteria was everywhere and he had to be rushed out of the conference hall which brought the hearing to an abrupt end. It remains an unanswered question as to why the NDDC boss conveniently convulsed when he was asked to give a stewardship for the billions expended under his watch. Either natural or not, it proved to be an effective exit strategy as nothing was heard of the probe again. He was later eased out on health grounds and replaced with another interim Managing Director in December that year. That unfortunate scenario underscored the major problem confronting the Commission since inception, lack of accountability and stewardship for public service.

Ordinarily, the massive value chain inherent in the oil and gas industry ought to have been utilised by the Commission to drive wide commercialisation of the region and engender sustainable economic development. But that remains a mirage; the reality is the abundance of environmental crisis, armed militancy, oil theft, oil bunkering, pipeline vandalism, abduction of oil workers, which are all festering symptoms of the malaise triggered by the untold hardships and deprivation that the inhabitants of the region continue to suffer. The common citizens of the Niger Delta remain marginalized and impoverished, as the agencies created to cater for them keep use the opportunity to feather their own nests with no economic value or benefits trickling down to the citizens whatsoever. Worse still, many local farmers and fishermen from the region have faced difficulties caused by the oil spillages and environmental problems affecting the fertility of their lands and sea-life; the woe is endless and multi-dimensional. What has happened to the huge funds allocation to the Commission over the years? Can the NDDC point to just 5 verifiable development landmarks in each state of the region? How many ordinary citizens have been positively impacted? How many have benefitted from educational or entrepreneurial grants? How many industries have been created? Where is the justifying infrastructure? All the billions have grown wings and vanished into thin air! 19 years on and the NDDC is regrettably a monumental failure in all ramifications.

Recently, the report of the forensic audit of the NDDC was presented to the President, who was represented by the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) Abubakar Malami, in receiving the documents from the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio.

On a brief inventory; preliminary disclosures from the audit report was shocking and mind-boggling. It was established that since inception, figures up to the tune of Six Trillion Naira has been allocated to the commission through budgetary appropriation, oil company contributions, domestic and foreign grants, & statutory/non-statutory incomes.  Also revealed was the enormity of the projects awarded since inception which came up to a staggering 13,777 projects, majority of which have been abandoned or neglected. Another indicator of the financial recklessness entrenched in the commission was the large number of bank accounts operated by the commission; a total of 362 bank accounts that lacked the relevant financial controls and reconciliations.

The audit report confirmed widespread belief that people charged with governance of this commission from inception have failed woefully in their duty. Majority of funds awarded for projects were diverted into private pockets; some projects were even non-existent and white elephant undertakings were created for the sole purpose of embezzling funds.

Miffed by these startling revelations, the President through the AGF has ordered a criminal investigation into the six trillion naira allocated into to the Commission since 2001 while also declaring that the Federal Government will in consequence, apply the law to remedy the deficiencies outlined in the audit report as appropriate. The remedial acts will include but not be limited to the initiation of criminal investigations, prosecution, recovery of funds not properly utilized for the public purposes for which they were meant for amongst others. This is vital towards responding to the yearnings of the people of the region to reposition the Commission for effective service delivery.

The AGF further stated that the forensic audit report will be forwarded to the Federal Ministry of Justice for a legal review and relevant Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of government will be engaged in doing justice to the findings accordingly.

Coming on the heels of the newly promulgated Petroleum Industry Act which is also expected to provide funds intended to have huge positive imprint on the Niger Delta communities, it is important for this report not to be swept under the carpet or accumulated into the usual presidential archives.

The only way to bridge the huge gaps between resources invested in the region viz-a-viz the reality on ground and initiate a positive turnaround in the region’s fortunes lies in decisive actions being taken based on this audit report.

Meticulous scrutiny must be conducted on the report, and the whole chain of complicit parties indicted in any of the litany of rot uncovered must be adequately investigated under extant laws with culpable individuals or groups publicly penalized. The NDDC personnel in charge of awarding all these fraudulent contracts, politicians or government office holders involved, the contractors who partnered with the authorities to shortchange the people, corrupt community representatives and any other willing accomplice must be made to answer for their grievous acts of crime and unconscionable irresponsibility. There must be no sacred cow in this purge.

Improper enforcement of punitive measures on identified offenders; or slackness of government to frontally make culprits pay for their offences may prove to be the final nail in the commission’s coffin capable of making it an unsalvageable den of financial impunity. The report simply cannot be window-dressed; heads must roll and physical evidences of people being made to answer for their sordid deeds must be seen. That is the only path towards the commission’s redemption. Any alternative scenario that results in nothing concrete being done to punish offenders indicted by the report will only further establish that looting has been formally “legalised” in the commission. That is a factor that will only motivate current officials of the commission to even do worse than their predecessors.

Following the completion of the audit, certain stakeholders from the region has called on Buhari to comply with the NDDC Act and fulfill his promise by inaugurating the Governing Board of the Commission to ensure accountability, checks and balances, probity and equitable representation of the nine constituent states of the Niger Delta Region. They further stated that Niger Deltans have over the past two years endured the abuse of the NDDC Act by the appointment of interim management committees and a sole administrator who are not fully representative of the constituent states, and have carried on without regard for due process.

There is no gainsaying that all previous Boards have largely failed in their duties of ensuring that the NDDC work as intended; perhaps some Board members have even been actively conniving with the Commission for personal aggrandizement to the detriment of the region, in as such; a new whole order is needed and the new Board should not be a ceremonial body as usual. The NDDC Act in Part 1, Section 2(1) B requires a member of the NDDC Governing Board to come from an “Oil Producing Area”, based on the belief that people from the areas will feel the pain of their indigent communities and work totally towards addressing them. That however has not been the case as all previous Boards partly deserve some blame for their negligence and incompetence. The new Board to be inaugurated must be made to understand it is no longer business as usual, they should be tasked to drive the new system of things in the commission starting with the effective implementation of the recommendations in the audit report. Funds recouped must be channeled back into the communities for intended purposes while abandoned projects that are still critical must be revisited, and accountability must be the mantra henceforth. One other filthy area that needs to be purified is the procurement process as many of the Commission’s contracts are awarded without recourse to due process and extant laws like the Public Procurement Act. The result has been billions frittered away over the years through the award of phony, bogus and inflated contracts to friends and associates of the politicians controlling the NDDC. There needs to be a new order in the award of contracts following due process, and any contract awarded must be properly monitored to ensure value for money.

Going forward, quarterly, bi-annual and annual audits should also be institutionalised into the Commission’s operations. This is to ensure timely investigation of funds disbursed by checking money spent against actual performances in real time. Stricter expenditure controls and frequent performance review should be in place. More efficient internal controls must also be introduced into the Commission’s operations to infuse sanity into its modus operandi. Henceforth, every Naira spent must be accounted for, the crux of the Commission’s operations should centre around the indigent communities and their inhabitants; they must enjoy the basic amenities of society and live decent lives. Their lands provide the mainstay of the nation’s revenue; it is therefore deeply unfair for its people to keep wallowing in poverty and environmental pollution.

The region is the only one in the country having the privilege of a Federal Ministry created for it; but to a large extent, the Ministry has been derelict and uncommitted to the discharge of its main duty. They provide no effective checks and oversight on the activities in the ministry and by extension, activities of the NDDC also. The ministry needs to be overhauled and recalibrated as it was specially created for the purpose of adding economic value and charting the direction of the region’s development.

Traditional rulers and socio-cultural groups like PANDEF also share some blame for their dormancy over the years instead of using their status as elders and statesmen to checkmate the excesses of the commission. PANDEF in particular has a penchant and undue fixation towards dissipating energy on political and ethnic sentiments that add no value to the common citizens of the region. They need to do more in holding the managers of their resources to account and demand for total accountability.

The international oil companies should also do more to directly provide benefits for the people who really need it as previous methods of channeling money into the region through the Ministry and the NDDC has proven counter-productive with the bulk of the monies ending up lining private pockets.

Detractors and traducers will surely emerge, staking various claims to discredit the audit report or undermine the veracity of its contents; they should not be entertained; they are deliberate time-wasters and mostly charlatans engaged to frustrate the rehabilitation of the Commission. Regardless of the perceived inexactitude of the figures declared in the audit report, the undisputable fact remains that the region is under-developed and the situation there is incommensurate with funds expended.

19 years have already been wasted. The people of the Niger Delta region have suffered unquantifiable neglect and injustice meted out by their own kith and kin. The time to finally rescue the NDDC is now, not later.

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