Rescue NDDC From Influence Peddlers

FRUSTRATION is gradually giving way to disgust and impatience among stakeholders over the never-ending crises rocking the Niger Delta Development Commission. The crises have without a doubt, hobbled the performance of the commission over the years. There is an urgent need to enthrone transparency and take a major bite out of the fraud, corruption and influence-peddling that pervade the commission.

Of recent, there have been bitter recriminations over alleged budget padding and other sharp practices involving members of the National Assembly. As usual, the lawmakers have also pushed back, claiming that they are only performing their constitutional duties, to wit, of oversight of the commission’s functions, and could as such not be faulted.

In the main, the lawmakers have been accused of messy interference in a manner that has handicapped the commission’s discharge of its duties. According to NDDC officials, the lawmakers did not only sit on the NDDC’s 2019 budget, but are also pressuring it to pay for 132 projects, amounting to N6.4 billion, with no evidence that the contracts have been executed. They are further alleged to have injected projects worth N85 billion into the NDDC budget for last year, while cancelling those originally in the budget. Aggrieved officials of the commission claim that lawmakers from both chambers of the National Assembly have benefited from contracts from the commission to the tune of N3 trillion. It is an absolute outrage.

On the other hand, the lawmakers are insisting on investigating the NDDC, which is already under the scrutiny of an interim management committee charged with overseeing an ongoing forensic audit of the corruption-riddled agency. The House of Representatives committee saddled with the investigation is accusing the IMC of mismanaging N40 billion. The lawmakers believe that NDDC’s allegations are only meant to discourage them from forging ahead with the probe. “I can tell you there is no one trillion, two trillion anywhere because it does not exist,” Olubunmi Ojo, the Chairman, House Committee on Niger Delta, said in response to one of the NDDC allegations.

Undoubtedly, the NDDC needs a shot in the arm to render it more effective, efficient and responsive to the needs of the people. Unfortunately, with distractions from many directions, it is going to be difficult to return it to the path of redemption. These are issues the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), should not ignore, especially given his regime’s stance on corruption. These mind-boggling allegations deserve a thorough investigation.

Established in 2000 as successor to the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission to hasten development and tackle ecological problems, arising from the exploration of oil minerals in the largely neglected oil producing areas of the country, the NDDC has failed woefully to meet the aspirations of its founders. Its mandate of conceiving plans and implementing projects and programmes for the development of the area has been largely abandoned. The commission, according to its enabling law, has a mandate to construct roads, develop jetties, health facilities and promote education, job creation, agriculture, fisheries, housing, urban development, among other things. The law also charges the NDDC with the responsibility of preparing “master plans and schemes designed to promote the physical development of the Niger Delta area and the estimates of the costs of implementing the master plans and schemes.”

It is a broad-based package that, if followed through, could have transformed the oil-rich area of the country. However, instead of concentrating on its important mandate, the commission has been bedevilled by massive corruption and fraud, resulting in the enrichment of individuals at the expense of the targeted area. The scale of corruption reported in the NDDC is nothing short of overwhelming. “I think people were treating the place as an ATM, where you just walk in … pluck money and go away,” Godswill Akpabio, the minister whose Niger Delta Affairs Ministry supervises the agency, said last year.

The region, according to the minister, is dotted with over 12,000 abandoned projects. There is no way any progress can be made if the NDDC is not purged. A prominent Niger Delta son and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Itse Sagay, once described the NDDC as “another name for abandoned projects.” During his time as the acting President, Yemi Osinbajo told an audience in Benin, “We are going to ensure that any contractor who has taken money and abandoned the project is prosecuted; they must be held accountable.” That was in 2017, but nothing has changed.

Barring some tokens, in its 20 years of existence, it has been difficult to find any landmark project that can be credited to the agency, given the amount of money that comes to its purse. So disappointed are some of the stakeholders in the performance of the NDDC that governors from the South-South were compelled to visit the President to demand its probe, which resulted in the current forensic audit. Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, last year, threatened to file a suit against the agency for delivering substandard jobs in his state.

Realising that it cannot continue to stand aloof, the government has rightly taken a step towards cleansing the NDDC mess, but the forensic audit should be done by a respectable firm. All those who have been paid for abandoned projects should be prosecuted and made to refund the money they collected. The people of the Niger Delta should also ask questions about what happened to the money voted for the development of their area.

Many have wrongly called for the scrapping of the NDDC, but the right thing to do is to bring fraudulent individuals to book.

Buhari’s aloofness to issues like this is damaging the anti-graft war. He should make the hard choice of reconstituting the NDDC board by appointing people with unassailable integrity to run the commission. There should be transparency and accountability in the way the NDDC is run. The public’s oversight of NDDC contracts can be improved by strictly applying the Freedom of Information Act. The Niger Delta people deserve to know who is getting the contracts, the benefits and how they will be executed. The NDDC law needs to be revised to create an open governance portal for publication of information about its projects. A public database of businesses and organisations that are awarded contracts, payments made and grants received will increase transparency and accountability and curb opportunities for graft.

The Punch Editorial

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