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By Ndimele Ajuri

The Niger Delta Minister Chief Godswill Akpabio has turned the forensic audit of the Niger Delta Development Commission into an unending circus for his self-aggrandisement. Early in the year, the presidency had said that the audit report will be presented at the end of this year, 2020, for which reason it extended the tenure of the illegal Interim Management Committee. However, Less than a month to the scheduled conclusion of the audit, which has so far taken over a year, Akpabio has nominated and got the presidency’s approval of Mr Effiong Okon Akwa as Interim sole administrator, in what is clearly an agenda to appropriate the resources of the Commission through phony schemes instead of the proper structure of a Governing Board as required by the NDDC Act.

The announcement of Mr Akwa, which was made on the night of Sunday, December 13, 2020, to replace the Interim Management Committee, has rightly been called another imposition by Niger Delta stakeholders. This is, because, like the equally illegal IMC, the position of Interim Administrator is not known to the law setting up the NDDC. Mr Akwa himself is a member of the discredited IMC, having been appointed in August as Acting Executive Director Finance and Administration.

Mr Akwa is even more ethically conflicted in his new designation, which according to the announcement by the presidency is to oversee the forensic audit. This is because Mr Akwa served as SA Finance to Mr Bassey Dan-Abia while he was MD of the NDDC between 2013 and 2015. He in fact was posted by Akpabio to Dan-Abia for that job. Akpabio as Akwa Ibom State governor between 2007 and 2015 nominated Dan-Abia and got him appointed as NDDC MD in 2013. The period Mr Akwa served as SA Finance to the NDDC MD have been mentioned as some of the most corrupt years in the NDDC, marked by mismanagement, fraud and reckless spending, a point that was succinctly made when the president himself, on assuming office on May 29, 2019, dissolved the Dan-Abia Board. Those years are part of the period under investigation by the forensic audit, yet, a key player in the NDDC mess during this period in the person of Mr Akwa is now in charge of overseeing the forensic audit.

This point is not lost on Niger Delta groups which have consistently said that the forensic audit is simply a smokescreen for the minister to micromanage the NDDC and corner its resources. Several NGOs raised the alarm weeks ago that Akwa was being prepared by Akpabio to take over from the IMC as sole administrator under the guise of supervising the unending forensic audit.

The anger of Niger Deltans is that Akpabio has weaponed the forensic audit, an otherwise regular activity in any institution, as an excuse to disregard the NDDC Act and run the Commission through interim managements solely picked by him to corner the resources of the Commission for his personal interest. Even those who initially gave him and the Buhari Administration the benefit of the doubt on the audit have now seen the fraudulent agenda unfold and are calling for the return to compliance with the NDDC Act.

The minister first started this fraudulent hijack when he manipulated the appointment of the IMC into office in October 2019, after the president had announced his nominees for the NDDC Governing Board in August and sent the names to the Senate for confirmation. The Board members were subsequently screened and confirmed by the Senate on November 5, 2019. Since then, the Minister has through subterfuge delayed the inauguration of the NDDC Governing Board as duly stipulated in the NDDC Act. His strategy has been to use the excuse of the external audit of the NDDC, stretched through a lengthy process of twists and turns to justify the continued illegal stay of the IMC and now an interim sole administrator, members of which he single-handedly nominated and appointed.

Initially, the IMC was sold as an aberration to last between three and six months, which was between October 2019 and March 2020. But, strangely, Akpabio got the president to approve an extension in April for the IMC to remain till December this year. Now, with the terminal date at hand, Akpabio is using the smokescreen of the audit to put in place an administrator to fleece the agency of its resources instead of the proper governance structure of a Governing Board as provided for in the NDDC Act.

Indeed, to the people of the Niger Delta states, the retention of Akpabio and his interim contraptions, despite the clear cases of contract racketeering, appointment manipulation and reported cases of fraud, shows that President Buhari does not care for the orderly functioning of the NDDC and the speedy development of the region.

The Niger Delta region is the economic livewire of the country, with the oil and gas industry, which is located in the Niger Delta states, contributing over 90 percent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings. Yet, the people of these oil-bearing states of the Niger Delta have a massive infrastructure deficit, suffer from oil spills and other ecological disasters that are unremedied, and generally do not enjoy the expected benefits of being hosts to the oil and gas industry, with poverty and unemployment very high.

The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) was established in  2000 by an Act of the National Assembly, with a mandate to spur the development of the nine oil producing states that it covers. These are Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo and Rivers States. Sadly, rather than help solve the problem of underdevelopment, President Buhari seems to have compounded them, by not allowing for the proper functioning of the agency.

Under the Buhari Administration we are beginning to see a pattern where the NDDC has been reduced to a source of slush funds to fund various schemes and activities outside of its legitimate mandate because of the undue attention on the agency, by the same government officials who cry to the rooftops about corruption. Perhaps, this is why the administration appears to be comfortable with this adhoc interim arrangement where the management is not accountable to the people of the Niger Delta region.

For instance at the recent National Assembly probe of corruption against the Interim Management Committee between May and July this year, the NDDC account statement with the CBN indicated that the agency paid out about half a billion naira to buy face masks and hand sanitisers for the Nigeria Police, an independent government agency that not only has a robust budget but also has a ministry of its own! Even the president’s lukewarm reaction to that investigation and the generally corrupt behaviour of the IMC, in the view of many Niger Deltans pointed to a deliberate pattern of the administration in condoning corruption at the Commission for its own selfish interests, which is why the government prefers to have the adhoc arrangement of an interim management committee and now an interim administrator clearly in breach of the NDDC Act, which provides for a Governing Board.

There is a pattern of illegalities instituted by the current administration to undermine accountability at the NDDC in a way that no other federal agency has been so treated in the last five and a half years of the Buhari government. In the 15-year history of the NDDC, prior to Buhari’s coming in 2015, an interim appointment had never been made outside of the law, even when the Governing Boards were dissolved. In line with the provisions of the NDDC Act, when the Board is dissolved, the next most senior Civil servant in the NDDC establishment takes over as MD in acting capacity until a new Board is constituted in line with the NDDC Act. Buhari refused to follow this requirement, and instead introduced an illegal succession tradition, which Akpabio has exploited to the hilt.

In August 2019 there was hope that his second term will be different when the president nominated a 16-man Governing Board in line with the law, and sent their names to the Senate which screened and confirmed them. However, strangely, he asked that the board be put on hold and allowed Akpabio to put in place an Illegal Interim Management, on the excuse of conducting a forensic audit of the agency. The IMC spent over a year and was itself mired in corruption but the president seemed unperturbed that the idea of an adhoc interim management was not only unlawful but unhelpful.

As many experts and statesmen have stated over the last several months, the excuse of a forensic audit is no ground to abrogate the law governing an institution. External audits, the kind the Federal Government says it is doing at the NDDC, are done regularly in many Ministries Departments and Agencies (MDAs) but their laws are not set aside for interim managements to head the organisations. Both the NNPC and NPA have been so audited, yet interim management committees or administrators were not appointed to run these federal organisations. So there must be a more sinister reason for this action.

The NDDC law is clear on how people should be appointed into its Governing Board and provides for broad representation across the nine constituent states, yet, the president who is sworn to defend and uphold the law, has committed the illegality of unilaterally suspending the law for an interim arrangement that is not responsible to anyone but the Minister of the Niger Delta Chief Godswill Akpabio who imposed it on the NDDC, obviously for his own agenda, as whistleblowers and two National Assembly probes have shown. It is no wonder that Akpabio and his interim appointees took it upon themselves to steal and loot the resources of the NDDC. The Senate probe uncovered fraud, financial recklessness and mismanagement by the IMC running into billions of naira. Based on that indictment, the Senate in a resolution of the whole house on July 23, 2020, passed a resolution calling for the recovery of billions of naira stolen and mismanaged by the IMC and asked President Buhari to dissolve the committee and put in place the Governing board in line with the NDDC Act, among other resolutions. Records from the probe and the NDDC account with the Central Bank of Nigeria show that in the last one year the IMC has spent over N100 billion without appropriation by the National Assembly on frivolous items.

In spite of the detailed 121-page Senate report and resolution, and petitions by whistleblowers alleging more fraudulent infractions by the members of the IMC, the president refused to address the IMC corruption for several months. Rather, he has imposed one of their own as interim sole administrator. While many find this a betrayal of the people’s trust and a negation of Buhari’s commitment to good government, one is tempted to agree with other comrades in the Niger Delta who see a pattern of scorn and derision of the Niger Delta people despite our contribution to the national economy and our grave state of underdevelopment. Those who hold this view point to the president’s overarching interest in promoting and strengthening the North East Development Commission which is operating with a proper Governing Board in line with its establishment Act.

In comparison, the North East Development Commission, which was established after Buhari became president, is operating normally with all its governance institutions in place.

NEDC is being run by a Board representing the various states as provided for in its Establishment Act, while NDDC, which has a provision for broad representation, is being run by just one person handpicked by Akpabio. The NEDC is being managed from the presidency without meddlesome interference of a minister and signifying the importance placed on it. However, President Buhari downgraded the value he places on the NDDC by taking it from the presidency and handing it over to a minister with vested corrupt interest in the agency.

President Buhari has continued to enjoy the peace and cooperation of the Niger Delta people; our minimum demand is that he should not continue to be a willing tool in the hands of fraudulent characters like Akpabio who have soiled their hands and are manipulating the NDDC for their selfish ends. The president should revert to established norms of good governance and follow the law establishing the NDDC both in its management and funding. He should as a matter of urgency inaugurate a Governing Board for the NDDC. The patience of the Niger Delta people is wearing thin and there is tension in the Niger Delta. Mr President should do the lawful thing now by complying with the provisions of the NDDC Act and inaugurate the Board to represent the constituent states in line with the Law. He has a duty to ensure the NDDC is administered according to the law and that all states are represented, rather than having one man pocket the NDDC by subterfuge.

Ndimele Ajuri lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State

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