Editorial: Buhari and the NDDC Corruption Conundrum

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The story of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), like some other agencies in Nigeria is long. It is one of failure, of disappointments, and a callous disregard for the hopes and aspirations of the people. It is a story of contracts awarded for infrastructure projects, monies collected and no projects executed. It is the story of billions of naira appropriated by the Federal Government for projects in the Niger Delta, with little or nothing on the ground to match the huge expenditure. Thus it came to be that highly placed persons of Niger Delta extraction who were given the responsibility to lift their people from poverty, turned round to short-change them. Sadly, President Muhammadu Buhari has made a curious endorsement of the pervasive corruption by supporting the creation of an interim NDDC board without a clear mandate or authority; and further muddied the waters in an agency which, in the opinion of vice-president Yemi Osinbajo, has become Corruption Inc. This is a sad commentary on how Nigerians as a people conduct their affairs. The president must rectify the situation without delay by doing the right thing and inaugurating the NDDC Board. 

 

It is unfortunate that the good intentions of government have been thwarted by the selfish ambitions and greed of the political elite. Established in 2000 by the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration, the NDDC was in reaction to public outcry against official neglect of the hard-pressed Niger Delta region. It was believed that regular budgetary provisions from Abuja were insufficient to close the yawning gap between resource generation from the region and its development needs. It had a mandate: develop the infrastructure of the region through official provisions in the budget. The mandate area covers nine oil producing states of Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo, and Rivers. Sadly, while the NNDC has a comprehensive master plan and hundreds of billions of naira have been spent over the past 20 years, there is little on ground to justify the investment. 

 

Rather than deploy the funds to the development needs of the region, NDDC officials converted public monies for personal use. Inflated contracts, uncompleted or abandoned projects became the order of the day. School buildings which needed urgent attention were used as an avenue to create contract jobs. Contractors collected huge mobilization fees, shared some of it with their cronies in the NDDC and disappeared into thin air. In one instance, an NDDC official committed millions of naira to a fetish priest for his personal problems. One managing director ran into problems with the Obasanjo administration when he got enmeshed in some shady withdrawals to grease the palms of highly placed government officials. Roads that led to nowhere were inserted in the budget. It came to be that the NDDC like the Oil Minerals Producing Area Development Commission (OMPADEC) before it; became a conduit pipe for rewarding the “boys” with phony contracts. Multi-million naira jobs were awarded to persons who had no intention of improving the welfare of the beleaguered region. Kickbacks became the order of the day. As a result, no fewer than 600 projects valued at N200 billion have been cancelled.

 

The dismal state of development in the Niger Delta was documented in the unflattering report of the presidential committee on project execution covering between 2005 and 2011. The report monitored 609 projects across three states - Cross River, Edo and Rivers. According to the committee chairman, Chief Isaac Jemide, of these 609 projects, 222 (36.5%) were completed, 102 (16.7%) were ongoing and 285 (46.8%) were abandoned at various levels of completion. Even worse, some of these projects were completely outside the statutory operational scope of the NDDC. Similarly, a report from the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) reveals that between 2007 and 2014, a whopping N594 billion was remitted to NDDC, but could not account for how N7.4 billion allocated for grassroots development projects was spent, among others.

 

Time was when giving out contracts was a way of settling the boys and dispensing illegal patronage to ladies, friends and families. In most cases, the contracts were over-valued. Once they were awarded to cronies, such contracts would then be sold to a third party. In some cases the sold contract would be re-sold to yet another party who would then start implementing same. Along the line, they would run out of funds and ask for a review of the contract. In the process some awarding bodies compromise themselves. They collect bribes from the contractors. When the contractor fails to perform they find it difficult to enforce the law. In saner climes such contractors would either be compelled to complete the project or go to jail or both. What happened to conscience? What happened to the ethics governing contractual agreements? Why did the Niger Delta elite supported by their powerful allies in Abuja give such a raw deal to the suffering people of the region? Uncompleted projects are spread around the region as they are in different parts of the country. This is a sad legacy for the people of the region and the rest of the country.

 

It is, however, not enough for the President or Vice President to complain. Using the instrumentality of existing laws, proper sanctions should be placed on those responsible for this criminal behavior. To achieve this, through the appropriate machinery, there should be a thorough audit of the NDDC from its inception till date. Until some officials are called to account for their years in office and go to jail if found guilty for their offences, more persons will continue to perpetrate criminality. It is an established fact that if the NDDC had lived to its responsibilities, the current agitations and tension in the Niger Delta region would have been minimized. For a culture of transparency and accountability to be entrenched in the NDDC, it is important to have a substantive board in place rather than an interim management committee at the whims and caprices of the Niger Delta Minister, Godswill Akpabio; a man not known for probity. Having recognized the problem and ordered a forensic audit of the commission, President Buhari must understand that an interim board cannot be the way to instill accountability in NDDC.

 

It is indeed disheartening that the president is sending contradictory signals with his endorsement of the interim management committee after the list of NDDC board members he appointed were screened and approved by the Senate. It is intriguing that while they were undergoing the Senate screening Akpabio, went ahead to inaugurate the three-man Interim Management Committee headed by Dr. Gbene Joi Nunieh (Acting Managing Director); Dr. Cairo Ojougboh (Acting Executive Director, Projects); and Chief Ibanga Bassey Etang (Acting Executive Director, Finance and Administration). The mandate of the committee is to help create an “enabling environment” for the NDDC forensic audit announced by the President. However, Akpabio did not provide a deadline for the committee to complete its assignment. By implication, they could be there for as long as those who appointed them desire. This is unacceptable

 

Here, therefore, is a call on Mr. President to do what is right for the NDDC and the people of the Niger Delta. The crude era when the NDDC was seen as a means of filling the pockets of some officials while they got ready for elections should end. Accountability should be their watchword. Some time ago, the Presidency hinted that it would soon start prosecuting contractors who failed to meet the terms of their contractual agreements with the NDDC on projects’ execution. Indeed, this already-established principle should be applied to ALL failed contracts across the country. To collect mobilization fees for a job and fail to execute the contract is a criminal offence. Sadly, this scenario has become a norm in Nigeria.

 

Recovering the millions of naira which contractors collected should not be a mere threat. It must be backed with action. In the light of the above, the Federal Government should embark on a forensic analysis of all contracts awarded in the last 20 years. The state of the contracts in terms of level of execution should also be noted. The names of the companies or beneficiaries should be included in the compilation. It should also include how much was paid out as mobilization and the level of work done. What worries Nigerians is that such practices may still be going on in the current administration which has sworn to fight corruption to a standstill. The NDDC should be the starting point. The federal airports, the federal highways, power and water projects in the country should also be audited. Anywhere there had been an infraction the contractors should be invited to complete the job or face prosecution. To put a stop to the impunity that is contract-abuse in Nigeria, all failed contractors, along with their civil servant colluders must be vigorously pursued and brought to book. The management at NDDC has a duty to ensure that contracts are properly awarded. Those which were awarded and were not executed should be completed before embarking on new ones. That way, stakeholders would be encouraged to deploy more funds to cater to the needs of the Niger Delta.