Merry-Go-Round at NDDC: Heading for a Break?
Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the predictable gimmick of interim management committees and forensic audit reports deployed by Senator Godswill Akpabio, Minister of Niger Delta Affairs to delay inauguration of the Niger Delta Development Commission Board is about to run its course
Senator Godswill Obot Akpabio, Minister of Niger Delta Affairs is used to having his way. As Governor of Akwa Ibom State between 2007 and 2015, things had to be done his way or no way. He ruled when the Naira was relatively strong, compared to what we have today. At the peak of his power in 2013, former Minister of Finance and now the Director General of the World Trade Organisation revealed that revenue allocation to Akwa Ibom State was far in excess of the national budgets of countries like Ghana and Liberia. Akwa Ibom State got about USD1.7 billion (N260 billion) from the Federation Account in 2013.
In one of his brash statements, Akpabio was famously quoted saying that “what money can’t do, more money can do.” But the former governor found out in the 2019 national elections, in which he made a bid to return to the Senate to represent Akwa Ibom North West, that he was wrong. He had left office in 2015 as executive governor and descended to the position of a Senator where he had no executive power and his jurisdiction was limited to representation of one-third of the state in the federal legislature. Even this section, that are clearly, his kith-and-kin rejected him in the 2019 senatorial election for taking his leave of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and pursuing a personal agenda to play big on the national political scene.
The scandal of the 2019 Akwa Ibom North West senatorial continues to haunt Akpabio. Two months ago, a High Court in Akwa-Ibom State sentenced Professor Peter Ogban to three years in prison, for election fraud. He was found guilty of fraudulent manipulation of election results, publishing and announcing of false results. He was also asked to pay N100,000 fine. Ogban was the Returning Officer in the 2019 general elections in Akwa Ibom North-West District, was charged for manipulating the election results to put the APC ahead of its main rival, the PDP. Akpabio was the APC candidate in the election. The PDP candidate was Obong Chris Ekpenyong, a former deputy governor in Akwa Ibom State, who was declared winner.
Akpabio’s shameful defeat in that election was one of the most talked about upsets. Many within and outside Akwa Ibom thought, albeit wrongly, that the state was wrapped around Akpabio’s little finger; that all the former Senate Minority Leader needed to do was sneeze and the oil rich state would catch cold. The Akpabio plan was to return to Senate and fight to become Senate President and if he couldn’t get it, settle for Deputy Senate President, which he was assured was zoned to the South-south (that position is now occupied by Senator Ovie Omo-Agege from Delta State). That may be the reason he did not play his role as Senate Minority Leader well. He remained passive in that office throughout his tenure, markedly refusing to criticize the government in power or turn the fire of the opposition against them, as he was already nursing the idea of switching political party loyalty from the PDP to the All Progressives Congress (APC). In his time as governor, Akpabio was generous to many, Akwa Ibomites and non-indigenes alike. It was widely known that Akpabio suffered from Oniomania, sometimes called compulsive buying disorder, that is, spending far beyond what is necessary. Some of the advertised edifices initiated by his administration were not only haphazardly done, but commissioned at outlandish ceremonies, even when they were incomplete. The story profligacy can be seen in the Godswill Akpabio Stadium, the Ibom Specialist Hospital, e-library, Ibom Tropicana and the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Ikot Ekpene. They all had an outer casing that were nicely done to cover a crude and rough skeleton; more like a painted sepulcher-a decorated tomb filled with bones of the dead. It is the current administration of Governor Udom Emmanuel that has concealed his infamy by retooling the projects and getting them to work properly.
Akpabio’s loss in the February 23, 2019 National Assembly elections was inconceivable to many. Although he devoted huge sums of money to the campaign, his efforts were thwarted by diverse interests within and outside Akwa Ibom who worked against the emergence of an increasingly powerful Akpabio at the centre of power in Abuja. Accusing fingers have been pointed at the former National Chairman of the APC, Adams Oshiomhole and Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, who were alleged to be uncomfortable with the idea of another powerful figure from the South-south. However, the tragedy of the APC in the 2019 national elections was also self-inflicted, because some influential personalities who found themselves in the same political camp for the first time could not bury their ego and self interest to work for the collective good. At the time, Akpabio defected to the APC, Akpabio’s arch-rival, Senator John Akpan Udoedeghe, Secretary of the APC National Caretaker and Extra-Ordinary Convention Committee, Obong Umana Okon Umana, the party’s governorship candidate in the 2015 election, Obong Nsima Ekere, who carried the APC governorship flag in the 2019 election, Group Captain (rtd.), Sam Ewang, a former military administrator of Rivers State and Senator Ita Enang, presidential aide on Niger Delta Affairs were already in the party. But Akpabio shoved them all aside and assumed the position of the leader of the APC in Akwa Ibom State, thereby clinching the ministerial slot for the state. Once he was made Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, it was payback time for the likes of Oshiomhole and Amaechi.
Akpabio Takes Pound of Flesh
When President Muhammadu Buhari constituted the cabinet for his second tenure, Chief Festus Keyamo (SAN) was announced to pair with Akpabio as Minister of State in the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. The combination spelt trouble for Akpabio and he knew it. With his strong links to the human rights community and friendship with the media, Keyamo would not be a docile accomplice to the dishonest financial activities which Akpabio was planning. He pressured to have Keyamo re-assigned. His wish was granted. Keyamo was made to swap places with Senator Tayo Alasoadura in the Ministry of Labour and Employment.
On October 18, 2019, President Muhamnadu Buhari had requested the Senate to confirm appointment of a 16 – member board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). Buhari sought the Senate’s confirmation for Dr Pius Odubu, former Edo state deputy governor as chairman of the NDDC, Chief Bernard Okumagba as Managing Director and 14 others as members of its board.
The president’s letter read: “In accordance with the provision of Section 2(2)(a) of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) (Establishment) Act, 2000, I write to forward, for confirmation by the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the under listed nominees for appointment into the NDDC board, to occupy the positions indicated against their names.”
The written request was read on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday, October 22, 2019 by Senate President Ahmad Lawan. The upper legislative chamber went to work quickly, with a directive to its standing committee on NDDC to screen the nominees and file a report under one week.
Headed by Senator Peter Nwaoboshi (PDP Delta North), the committee reported back on 15 out of the 16 nominees on Thursday, October 31, 2019. Based on this, the Senate confirmed their appointments on Tuesday, November 5, 2019.
But members of the NDDC Board duly nominated by the President and screened by the Senate are yet to be inaugurated.
The NDDC rose from the ashes of the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC). The nine states that makes up the Niger Delta region include Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo and Rivers.
Mr. Pius Odubu, chairman of the NDDC Board in-waiting had served Oshiomhole as Deputy Governor of Edo. Allowing a Chairman with known links and loyalty to Oshiomhole is not an option Akpabio is willing to consider; so the forensic audit which was not originally his idea has become a very useful gimmick to delay the inauguration of the NDDC board until Akpabio can achieve his ultimate aim to disband the Odubu-led board and have the board reconstituted. His plans appear to be working, so far, as the Presidency and federal legislators who should normally insist that the right thing is done have entered into a conspiracy of silence, allowing Akpabio to have a free reign to run the affairs of the NDDC as he pleases.
Unending Cycle of Interim Administration
Akpabio is not a stranger to NDDC affairs. As Governor of Akwa Ibom State between 2007 and 2015 he nominated a chairman, a managing director and NDDC state representatives. He nominated Mr. Bassey Dan-Abia, a former MD of the NDDC. As the only agency of government under the Niger Delta Ministry Affairs and one that was conceived to address the neglect of the Niger Delta, the region of the country that produces her oil and gas wealth, the huge funds committed to development of infrastructure and human capital does not reflect the glaring abject poverty in the region.
In 2014, the Senate approved a budget of N322.6 billion for the NDDC. The Senate has approved N241 billion as the 2016 NDDC budget.
The House of Representatives passed an Appropriation bill of N346.388 billion for the 2019 operations of the NDDC. However, their counterparts in the Senate waited till 10 days to the end of the year to approve the 2020 budget of N453.2 billion for the NDDC. The Senate reneged on its promise to decline approval of a budget for the commission until its board is constituted.
The Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the NDDC had a hard time trying to defend financial anomalies and other allegations of fraud and embezzlement of funds which federal lawmakers observed in the 2019 budget performance.
A former acting Managing Director of the NDDC, Dr. Joi Nunieh opened the can of worms at the NDDC in her bid to ensure a thorough forensic audit of the over N2 trillion alleged indebtedness of the NDDC. In order to forestall exploitation of the process, she wanted the Financial Intelligent Unit and the World Bank to supervise the audit of the. But powerful interest groups including persons from The Presidency and federal legislators who have been feeding fat from the corruption at the NDDC used the excuse of an alleged insubordination against Akpabio to throw Nunieh out. Her strong allegations, with documentary evidence, against the Minister were ignored. No one cared to know why she slapped the Minister, an incident, Akpabio did not deny.
Nunieh was replaced with Professor Kemebradikumo Pondei. Again, it was another scandal filled phase that ended with an unfortunate drama of infamy on live television. A skilled mudslinger, Akpabio climbed back from the pit into which he was being buried by a House of Representatives committee headed by Hon. Bunmi Tunji-Ojo (APC-Ondo) probing allegations of financial fraud at the NDDC. Under pressure from the probe panel, the former Governor of Akwa Ibom had fired back that most of the contracts at the NDDC were executed by federal legislators. It was a shocking revelation that many were not prepared for. Fully aware of the implication should he allow Akpabio to continue, Tunji-Ojo, pleaded with the Minister to “off his mic.” For full impact, Pondei slipped into unconsciousness and had to be resuscitated. The activities of the committee ended abruptly that day and has since not resumed. Till today, Tunji-Ojo has not submitted his committee report to the House neither has any mention of it been made.
While Pondei was lucky to be brought back to life, Ibanga Bassey Etang, acting Executive Director, finance and administration of the NDDC died under mysterious circumstances that got the Akwa Ibom State Governor Udom Emmanuel, saying that he will ask questions about his death at the right time.
When he sold the idea of an Interim Management for the NDDC in October 2019, even after the names of the Governing Board had been sent by the President to the Senate for statutory screening and the Senate subsequently screened and confirmed them, Akpabio said his illegal Interim Management Committee will only stay in office for six months to supervise the audit after which the Board will be inaugurated.
As the appointed time of March 2020 was closing in, Akpabio sacked his first IMC acting Managing Director Ms Joi Nunieh and appointed a new acting Managing Director, Prof Pondei and extended the stay of this IMC to December 2020, by which time he said the audit will be concluded and the Board put in place. Again, he sacked the Interim Management Committee and appointed his close ally, Mr. Effiong Okon Akwa, as Interim Sole Administrator with a promised forensic audit completion date of March 2021. Akpabio has shifted the goalpost yet again, promising a new completion date in July 2021. But stakeholders in the Niger Delta do not believe him anymore. They know Akpabio is capable of coming up with the most ludicrous excuse to keep the NDDC Board from resuming its work until he can find a reason to have it reconstituted.
Niger Deltans Reject Illegality
Joseph Ambakederimo, Lead Executive Director, Global Forum for Accountability and Transparency has made a strong case for the removal of Mr. Effiong Akwa, Sole Administrator of the Niger Delta Development Commission. According to the group, “From emerging and confirmed reports in the media, the NDDC Sole Administrator deliberately refused to abide by extant rules in the declaration of his assets as mandated for public officers by the law.”
Governors of the South-south states have also stated clearly that the current interim management system in NDDC does not represent the interest of the people. ‘We believe that it is best for both the country, for the states of the Niger Delta and for the people of the Niger Delta when the due process is followed by the reconstitution of the board.”
Chairman of the South-south Governors Forum and Governor of Delta State, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa made this assertion at the end of the forum’s meeting which held at the Government House, Port Harcourt.
Okowa said, “The NDDC is actually run in such a manner that it is actually not truly beneficial to our people, because there is no stakeholders input in the running of the affairs of the NDDC. We do know that there is a forensic audit taking place and if that is the reason the board has not been constituted, our advice is that monies being sent to the NDDC should be put in an escrow account until a board is constituted and then proper processes are followed in the expenditure of the money in such a way it will be visibly accountable in the best interest of the peoples of the Niger Delta.”
Boma Ebiakpo, National Chairman of Niger Delta Peoples’ Forum, warned that the Niger Delta region was on the verge of being engulfed in major crises instigated by the refusal of Senator Godswill Akpabio, Minister of Niger Delta Affairs to inaugurate the Board of the Niger Delta Development Commission
He said it was important that the peace of the Niger Delta is not troubled at this time when Nigeria is facing multiple conflicts across the country. “The IYC, various socio political groups in the region, and indeed the governors of the constituent states and stakeholders have demanded an end to the appointment of illegal Interim Managements for the NDDC by the Niger Delta Minister Chief Godswill Akpabio. Akpabio who has been employing every excuse to run the NDDC like his personal property,” he stated.
The Ovie of Idjerhe Kingdom, Delta State, His Royal Majesty, King Obukohwo Whiskey Udurhie I, described the ongoing forensic audit by the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs as a fraud. According to him, the NDDC Act 2000 does not recognize an Interim Management Committee, not to talk of Sole Administrator. “Of course, we are all witnesses to the fact that under the interim management committee, N87 billion allegedly grew wings and flew out of the coffers of NDDC. A budget of about N500 billion has been passed for the NDDC for an individual to superintend. The Idjerhe clan in Delta State is a major oil-producing community and for two years, NDDC has not done anything here because there is no structure. From the happenings we are beginning to think that the Federal Government is collaborating with the Minister to undo the Niger Delta people and one of these days they will wake up to scrap the commission. It is now very clear that the Forensic Audit of the commission is a scam. Nothing is going on there. As a major oil-producing region, nobody has come to my domain, Idjerhe, to say they want to verify the project of NDDC in the region. With over 50 communities in my domain, there are abandoned NDDC projects, so, if they are carrying out forensic auditing they would have visited some of the projects, but they have not come here.”
Damian Nwikinaka, National Chairman of Niger Delta Renaissance Coalition, wonders why President Muhammadu Buhari and the National Assembly are quiet while the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio runs the Niger Delta Development Commission in contravention of the laws establishing the agency.”
Ajulo Goes to Court
Meanwhile, a Federal High Court in Abuja has granted leave to a Constitutional Lawyer and Right Activist, Dr. Olukayode Ajulo to file an Originating Summons against the Niger Delta Development Commission for failure to grant his requests pursuant to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) which among others include the publication of the budgetary appropriations made by the National Assembly to the Niger Delta Development Commission from 2010 to 2020 and the names and designation of members of the National Assembly who have been awarded contracts by the NDDC or who have otherwise benefitted in any manner howsoever from the budgetary funds of the Commission from 2010 to 2020.
Moving the motion exparte, a lawyer in the law firm of Messrs. Kayode Ajulo & Co.-Castle of Law, Ifunanya Okeke Esq, who led Eme Jackson Esq. and Glory Uhunmwangho Esq. noted that Dr. Olukayode Ajulo had written to the NDDC requesting same to fulfill its statutory obligations under the FOI Act and to comply with the provisions of Section 2(3), (4) and (5), Section 29(1) and (2) and Section 13 of the Act. She further noted that since NDDC received and acknowledged receipt of the letters dated 2nd September, 2020 and 29th September, 2020 respectively which were also copied to the Attorney General of the Federation and the National Assembly, it has refused to comply with the requests contained in the letters.
Justice A. I Chikere accordingly granted Dr. Olukayode Ajulo leave to apply for judicial review of the actions of NDDC and its officials under the FOI Act and claim the reliefs he is seeking. However, the ongoing strike by the Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) has stalled continuation of the case.
In his time as governor, Akpabio was generous to many, Akwa Ibomites and non-indigenes alike. It was widely known that Akpabio suffered from Oniomania, sometimes called compulsive buying disorder, that is, spending far beyond what is necessary. Some of the advertised edifices initiated by his administration were not only haphazardly done, but commissioned at outlandish ceremonies, even when they were incomplete. The story profligacy can be seen in the Godswill Akpabio Stadium, the Ibom Specialist Hospital, e-library, Ibom Tropicana and the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Ikot Ekpene. They all had an outer casing that were nicely done to cover a crude and rough skeleton; more like a painted sepulcher-a decorated tomb filled with bones of the dead
When he sold the idea of an Interim Management for the NDDC in October 2019, even after the names of the Governing Board had been sent by the President to the Senate for statutory screening and the Senate subsequently screened and confirmed them, Akpabio said his illegal Interim Management Committee will only stay in office for six months to supervise the audit after which the Board will be inaugurated. As the appointed time of March 2020 was closing in, Akpabio sacked his first IMC acting Managing Director Ms Joi Nunieh and appointed a new acting Managing Director, Prof Pondei and extended the stay of this IMC to December 2020, by which time he said the audit will be concluded and the Board put in place. Again, he sacked the Interim Management Committee and appointed his close ally, Mr. Effiong Okon Akwa, as Interim Sole Administrator with a promised forensic audit completion date of March 2021. Akpabio has shifted the goalpost yet again, promising a new completion date in July 2021