NDDC: Whom shall we trust?/ Sonala Olumhense

Were you looking for the spelling of callousness?  Arrogance? 

Try: NDDC.  That is Nigeria’s Niger Delta Development Commission, which appears to be the new NNPC, in the process putting the Muhammadu Buhari government on trial.

The NDDC is 20 years old.  It was set up by President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2000 to lead the rapid development of the area through various projects and programmes.

In 2008, President Umaru Yar’Adua took the challenge of the Niger Delta one step further by creating a Ministry of Niger Delta. And so, in theory Nigeria has had 20 years of close national attention to the question of the Niger Delta, the goose which lays the golden egg of her petroleum prosperity. 

Money has been in abundant supply for the Niger Delta, with trillions of Naira allegedly spent, although there is limited evidence of the hopes and scale of 2000.

Things got considerably more interesting in 2019 when President Buhari began to rearrange the furniture in the room.  First, in August he appointed one Godswill Akpabio to head the Ministry of Delta Affairs. 

Akpabio was a new arrival in Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC).  Previously, he was an iconic figure in the Peoples Democratic Party at its darkest and most depraved, serving two terms as governor of Akwa Ibom, and then claiming a Senate seat.  He was Minority Leader when, to promises of bigger and better, he defected to the APC.

Still, it was to Akpabio that Buhari gave the Niger Delta.  He also nominated a new board that month.  In September, he moved the NDDC from the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation to the Ministry.  Akpabio had complete control.

In November, the Senate confirmed Buhari’s nominees for the NDDC board, but in December, he repudiated his own nominees, choosing instead the appointment of a new board.  That was after Akpabio had named a three-person Interim Management Committee (IMC) for the agency.  They included Dr. Gbene Joi Nunieh as the new Acting Managing Director, and Dr. Cairo Ojougboh as the Acting Executive Director, Projects. 

Buhari, backtracking on his earlier decision, agreed that the IMC remain in place till the completion of the forensic audit. 

Akpabio had left the governorship of Akwa Ibom state to strident criticism, including in connection with a lavish pension scheme he put in place for his own benefit.  He faced even more at the Senate for shamelessly claiming those pension benefits along with his wages and allowances. 

But he arrived at the NDDC with a straight face sharply criticizing the agency over “corruption and political interference.” 

“I think people were treating the place as an ATM, where you just walk in there to go and pluck money and go away,” he said. 

Buhari, champion of verbal onslaughts on corruption, agreed.  He opened a new frontier: a “forensic audit” of the agency for its entire existence.    

Forensic auditing is heavy stuff.  It is basically a declaration of war.  A two-decade examination of the very entrails of an organization not for one or two years, or for a specific leadership or budget or project, is the heaviest heavy stuff there can be.  To perform a forensic audit of the NDDC since 2001 means the exhumation of entire cemeteries, including the retrieval of fresh heads rolling downhill. 

But that is what Buhari implied.

“With the amount of money that the Federal Government has religiously allocated to the NDDC, we will like to see the results on the ground; those that are responsible for that have to explain certain issues.

“The projects said to have been done must be verifiable. You just cannot say you spent so much (sic) billions and when the place is visited, one cannot see the structures that have been done. The consultants must also prove that they are competent.”

Those were very brave words.  But then, Buhari is a big talker, arguably a bigger talker than he is a thinker or doer.   

I suspect that suited Minister Akpabio well, as he described the plan as “ten (10) slots of auditing firms, and each (Niger Delta) State would be assigned one slot while the NDDC Headquarters slot would be the coordinating slot.”

Heavy stuff.

The sharp elbows began to come out early.  In November, members of the APC State Chairmen Forum asked Buhari to fire Akpabio, accusing him of a hidden agenda to “annex the NDDC as a unit of the Niger Delta Ministry where he is the minister.”

But three months later, Buhari did exactly what they feared: he established a committee to monitor the the NDDC.  It would be headed by the Minister in charge of the Ministry already supervising the commission: Akpabio.

Days after the IMC took office, Cairo Ojougboh, its Acting Executive Director of Projects, disclosed that things were so bad that just one serving senator was handling about 300 contracts for the commission, with 120 of them fully paid for.  There was, he said, a whopping debt of N3 trillion owed to “phantom contractors.”

And then it turned out that there may not have been much peace between Akpabio and the IMC, particularly in connection with the choice of the lead consultant for the forensic audit. 

Akpabio was said to favour the firm of Messrs Olumuyiwa Bashiru and Co. for the role, while Nunieh, fearing possible manipulation, wanted the involvement of the Financial Intelligent Unit and the World Bank.  In a messy working relationship with Akpabio that has dominated the news lately, Ms. Nunieh revealed great personal and professional pressure.

Buhari, always dismissive of the underdog, removed her in February, and replaced her with Kemebradikumo Pondei, a professor of medicine.   

In May, Pondei observed that the commission’s 2019 budget was inflated with over 500 non-existing projects, with billions of naira appropriated for non-existing projects.  This compares with a revelation by the Senate last month that when he was a Senator, Akpabio inserted into the 2017 budget N500 million worth of projects.

Days after that became public, the NDDC itself in what it called the “biggest single case of looting of the Commission’s resources,” revealed that Peter Nwaoboshi, who chairs the Senate Committee on the Niger Delta and the NDDC, used 11 companies in 2016 as fronts to snag N3.6 billion contracts.

And then last Thursday in the small hours, a gang of “security agents” sealed off the home of Ms. Nunieh in Port Harcourt, preventing her from departing for her appearance before the House in Abuja. 

Back in Abuja, Pondei was leading a walkout on the House Committee on the Niger Delta on account of its chairman, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, who is accused of contract-entanglement at the NDDC.  The House issued a warrant for his arrest.

One week earlier at a Senate public investigative hearing, Pondei had stunned members by disclosing that the IMC has spent N81.5 billion ($210.3m) as sundry expenses since February.

I am sure the NDDC forensic audit thing was written as a joke.  The punchline: It will never happen, or be completed in Buhari’s time, or see the light of day. 

I have a better joke.   How about a forensic audit of the NNPC for the past 20 years?  Forty?

[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials].

  • @SonalaOlumhense