BY DAMIAN CHUKWUKELU
The reaction of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to the allegations of fraud leveled at it by some Niger Delta groups in the last few weeks is the clearest indication that the committee, which several lawyers and stakeholders in the region have labeled illegal on account of the fact that it is not provided for in the Act governing the Commission, has been exposed for what it is – a smokescreen for illegal payments and withdrawals from the agency’s accounts under the guise of supervising a forensic audit.
When confronted with the allegations of billions of naira paid out for fraudulent contracts without due process, the commission could not deny them; rather, all it could say is that the allegations were targeted at the Niger Delta Minister Chief Godswill Akpabio.
Indeed, Niger Delta stakeholders have asked President Muhammadu Buhari to sack both the minister and his IMC and constitute the Governing Board for the Commission because the arguments that were used to sell the IMC have proven to be fraudulent. I cannot agree less.
The allegations of fraud made by Niger Delta groups including the Niger Delta Ijaw Development and Response Assembly (NDIDRA) have exposed the raw underbelly of the current NDDC interim management and the unsustainable lies that the Commission was undergoing a reform when in actual fact the minister, Godswill Akpabio, is using his handpicked IMC members to settle his favoured contractors and award emergency contracts running into several billions of naira.
Rather than address pointedly the issues of these illegal payments influenced by the minister, the IMC in its response was specious and vague, resorting to sentiments. The people of the Niger Delta will not be hoodwinked by such sentiments, which are meant to mask the ongoing fraud while desecrating the legal instrument on which the agency was founded and which should guide its actions.
In the words of NDIDRA, “NDDC is in this current state of quagmire and indebtedness because monies are being looted and syphoned using three forms of phoney contracts, namely: Clearing of Water Hyacinths, Emergency Jobs and River De-silting, the payment of various sums of money for bogus emergency contracts by the IMC.
Emergency contracts are unbudgeted for and, while they are useful in times of emergencies, they are opaque and often abused. In fact, they are clearly advised against by the office of the Auditor General of the Federation. Yet these payments have persisted since Akpabio brought in the IMC in October 2019, with several billions of naira going to contractors for phony jobs such as river desilting, supply of lassa fever equipment and clearing of water hyacinth. While many have been paid for jobs not done, the full payment for the uncompleted NDDC headquarters building on the direction of Akpabio is scandalous even by the basic rules of payment for government jobs.
For instance, NDIDRA claims that: “The amount to complete the permanent Headquarters of the NDDC located along Eastern By-pass, Port Harcourt, was pegged at N6b by the NDDC Engineers empanelled to cost the project but the contract was awarded to Rodnab Construction Ltd at the cost of N16b. Does this not amount to contract inflation? The whole N16b has been paid to Rodnab Construction Ltd while the project is less than 70% complete. Does government make full payment of a contract that is yet to be completed? Since 2016 under the leadership of Nsima Ekere as the Managing Director, the Commission has been awash with contracts for clearing Water Hyacinths, Emergency Projects and River De-silting. Chief Godswill Akpabio is a major beneficiary of these contracts. The sum of N65b has been paid for clearing of Water Hyacinths. Chief Godswill Akpabio (authorised the payment of) N1.9b and N700m within two weeks interval on assumption of office and is processing additional N30b payment for the same non-existent jobs. Chief Akpabio (authorised) N4b payment for supply of Lassa fever equipment that was never supplied.”
Like NDIDRA noted, “The NDDC spokesperson was silent on Emergency contracts in his response to our publication. 80% of recent payments were for Emergency Jobs, one of the three ways the Commission is defrauded. The other two are Water Hyacinth and River De-silting. 20% of recent payments made by the present IMC cover this two fraud infested areas.”
Rather than answer the allegations, the IMC through the spokesman simply said, rather offhandedly, that: “The attacks are obviously targeted at Senator Godswill Akpabio, the Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs, who is driving the forensic audit ordered on the Commission by President Muhammadu Buhari.” Meanwhile, no forensic audit has been done six months after the appointment of the IMC.
The response by Rodnab Construction to the allegations has been less than satisfactory. While the company claims that it has done no wrong, the fact that it has been paid its full contract value when the job is not yet done raises eyebrows. As NDIDRA explains, “Rodnab Construction Ltd received roughly N10.4b before Chief Godswill Akpabio became the supervising Minister of the NDDC. Upon assumption of duty, Chief Akpabio hurriedly visited the project site and ordered the Commission to pay N2.6b, giving March, 2020 as project completion dateline. From reliable sources, the project is currently about 70% complete, implying that Rodnab’s input to the project is just about 5%, after collecting a total of N13b. Yet, late last month, (March, 2020) the current Interim Management Committee (IMC) paid Rodnab N3b, bringing the total sum received by Rodnab to N16b, representing the total contract sum.”
From the current state of affairs, the cold reality is that the NDDC has been turned to a private estate of contract deals and selective payments run by the minister and even the so-called forensic audit, which Niger Delta stakeholders fought for before Akpabio and the Governors latched onto it, is nowhere to be seen. It has become a convenient excuse for the minister and his co-travellers to continue to control the Commission directly for their own selfish ends.
It is very clear that Akpabio has lost the moral authority to continue to push the argument that the NDDC is being retooled when in fact it is business as usual. This is the position of several groups in the region, several of which opposed the original decision of the federal government to appoint an interim management committee when what the NDDC Act of 2000 (as amended) provided for is a Governing Board representing the oil producing areas of the oil producing states and other geopolitical cum industry and bureaucratic groups. The argument for appointing the IMC is no longer tenable and it should be disbanded.
If the audit is the excuse there is no reason to believe that there is a forensic audit ongoing six months after the plan was mentioned to justify appointing the IMC; it has become Akpabio’s jamboree and the NDDC his playground. When Akpabio sold the idea of the IMC and defended it in the early days, he gave the impression that the only job the IMC would do is stay in place for the period of the audit, while the NDDC was being reorganized to make it more result-oriented, but it has unfolded as a scam.
Today, the IMC has usurped the role of the Governing Board and is presiding over an annual budget running into over N300 billion, which the minister is using to settle his crony contractors. This is a travesty by a team that was not properly appointed having not gone through the formal requirements of screening by the Senate. In effect, a committee that is responsible to only one man is presiding over the patrimony of the region without regard for due process and without the responsibility to oversight checks. In October 2019 when he announced the IMC, Akpabio said it would last six months but since then it has become an endless jamboree.
Niger Delta stakeholders cannot take this any longer and Nigerians expect the president to take immediate action to restore order to the NDDC by calling Akpabio to order. We insist that the way forward is to inaugurate the Governing Board for the Commission with a clear mandate on reforming the agency and delivering on the goals of the agency, after all the constituted authority over entities are not displaced when audits are to be carried out.
The forensic audit can only happen under an independent Board because Akpabio has compromised and shown that he has vested interests to protect. This is what Niger Delta stakeholders warned against when Akpabio was handed the ministry by the president and when he went ahead to insist on the forensic audit being supervised by his handpicked committee. The NDDC under Akpabio has confirmed our worst fears and President Buhari cannot afford to be aloof when the buck stops on his desk. He should relieve Akpabio of control of the NDDC, inaugurate a Board for the Commission and appoint independent auditors for the forensic audit.
*Chukwukelu wrote in from Port Harcourt, Rivers State.*