By Tombia Perekumo
The recent revelations of fraud against the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the fallouts from them give great cause for concern. The reports indicate a troubling corruption armada at the NDDC at a time the minister of Niger Delta Affairs Godswill Akpabio is busy mouthing a forensic audit. The allegations plainly show that while Akpabio was all over the place talking of a forensic audit, he was surreptitiously working against the effectiveness of that same audit. Some of the contracts mentioned, for instance the payment of over N4 billion for Lassa fever and other medical equipment supplies, were contracted during the life of the last board and were among items flagged for investigation but Akpabio ordered that they be paid for.
In effect the IMC did not treat the NDDC as the crime scene it was supposed to but as a farm to be exploited. Two others for a combined sum of over N10 billion awarded early April this year were also for emergency medical supplies! What is even more worrisome is that these contracts are awarded a lump sum, quality and quantity are unspecified and payments are hurriedly arranged without regard to extant public sector regulations on financial transactions.
Ordinarily, anyone desirous of cleansing the agency should be happy at the unearthing of these humongous and opaque contracts and payments, but the opposite is the case at the NDDC. In response to the reports of corruption, the minister and the IMC seem to have gone into overdrive, sacking staff of the commission suspected to be disloyal and behind the leaks. Some of these staff are said not to be only experienced but very dedicated. Yet, that is not a quality that appeals to the minister and the managers of the NDDC at this time; they want lackeys who would raise no finger as the looting of the agency goes on. What is going on at the NDDC is a negation of the anti-corruption campaign of the Buhari administration and the president must put a stop to it. President Buhari should as a matter of urgency halt the slide at the NDDC, especially as it concerns these mindboggling payments and others yet to be revealed.
Clearly, the IMC fraud allegations indicate the governance problems in the interventionist agency and point to a clear failure on the part of the current administration in that Akpabio, who is the central figure mentioned in these allegations and who appointed the IMC members, is the supervising minister, Chairman of the Monitoring Committee and Member of the Advisory Committee. The administration allowed itself to be hoodwinked by an ambitious minister who clearly has sinister motives to put the NDDC under his thumb. Clear-headed thinking should tell anyone that there is a great danger in running an agency on the basis of narrow selfish and primordial instincts, as Akpabio is currently doing at the NDDC, where he has compromised qualification and competence by sacking dedicated staff for his loyalists who now occupy these key positions. The unearthed cases of fraudulent dealings that came to light in the last few weeks show the danger of allowing Akpabio to perfect his decapitation of experienced hands in the commission. It will, to restate the obvious, give room for further corruption in the NDDC. We cannot afford to have corrupt persons managing the resources of the NDDC when resources are in short supply, the Niger Delta people are pauperized and many communities do not feel the impact of the commission.
In the last few weeks it has been revealed that the NDDC under the IMC and on the instruction of Akpabio has made over N15 billion in payments for and award of new emergency contracts. These are contracts unbudgeted for. Some of them include for unspecified medical supplies and maternal delivery kits. Pray, what emergency is there that these cannot be provided for in the regular budget? There are three major payments and contract awards that have surfaced in these reports, and all are for medical supplies. Ordinarily that should not be a problem but they call to question the diligence/motive of the IMC and the supervising minister. One of these is the release of the sum of Four Billion, Ninety Six Million Seven Hundred and Ninety Eight Thousand Three Hundred and Thirty Two Naira (N4, 096,798,332.50) as the payment for the supply of Lassa fever and other medical supplies for the constituent states of the region on February 22, 2000. The payments were for Maternal Delivery Kits at N1,128,750,000.00, Cholera Vaccines at N680,000,000.00, Lassa Fever Protective Kits at N1,092,283,500.00 and Outstanding Science Equipment at N292,764,832.50, among others.
There is also the unprofessional manner in which the outstanding job at the NDDC headquarters in Port Harcourt was awarded for N16 billion to a crony company linked to Akpabio and since he was appointed minister had made full payment while the job is yet to be completed. Again, on April 6th 2020, it awarded two contracts at over N10 billion to two companies for the supply of medical equipment. The first is an award letter in the sum of N4.8 billion to Osmoserve Global Limited under the heading ‘Award of Contract for the Emergency Supply and delivery of Medical Equipment and consumables to the NDDC Warehouse, Oroworukwu in Port Harcourt City LGA of Rivers State,’ for which the whistleblowers say more than half of the contract sum has been paid upfront; and then another one in the sum of N5.47 billion to Signoria Concepts for the emergency supply of Medical PPE and for an anti-coronavirus publicity campaign. While Signoria and NDDC have called the accusation false, the whistleblowers say the commission is only ducking because of the avalanche of reports and protest that have greeted the reports. For the other payments the NDDC has been at best feeble in explaining them. This has got people in the region up in arms because it would seem that, in addition to the N4.4 billion emergency contract for medical supplies, the IMC is using the current pandemic to exploit the commission and fleece the people of the region.
These revelations say in plain language that the idea of an Interim Management Committee for the NDDC was a gross error at best and at worst a ploy to micromanage the agency for selfish ends. Indeed, when the IMC was clandestinely appointed in October 2019 at a time a Governing Board had been nominated and was undergoing screening at the Senate, Akpabio had said that the IMC will supervise the audit strictly as its only mandate after which the board will be inaugurated. Its job, he effused, would be limited to handing over the contract papers of the commission to the auditors and ensuring that the NDDC, which the government had famously labeled as something akin to a crime scene, was not contaminated when the auditors come. Sadly, contract papers are being deodorized for payment. And the IMC sold as a substantive management that would be involved in contract verification and settling contractors and awarding fresh contracts. In fact, many groups and individuals from the Niger Delta region and beyond had objected to the appointment as illegal and unnecessary.
Associations from virtually every nationality in the Niger Delta, among them the Ijaw Youth Council, Oyom Movement, Urhobo Political Forum, Isoko Nation Youths Congress, Ikwerre Youth Assembly, Itsekiri Nationality Movement, Arogbo-Ijaw Progressive Front and several others, had stated clearly that the substantive Governing Board should be inaugurated for the commission with a mandate to supervise the audit.
That was ignored and the chickens would seem to have come home to roost. The makers of the NDDC Act of 2000 as amended could not have been wrong about having a Governing Board for the agency, as indeed it is for other such agencies. The Act lays down the manner in which the board is to be appointed and its functions, along with the Monitoring and Advisory Committees, providing checks and balances in the process. What operates today is a situation where the minister practically controls the NDDC; the result has been terrible thus far. The idea of an interim committee beholding to no one but the minister has clearly proven to be wrong. The right thing to do is to walk away from it and bring in the board to give confidence to the people of the region, while the forensic audit continues unfettered.
These allegations are grievous indeed and any attempt to sweep them under the carpet will have grave implications for the anti-corruption campaign of President Buhari. Across the region, people are watching to see what the administration will do with these evidences of corruption under the IMC with bated breath. This peace of the graveyard must not be taken for granted.
Mr Perekumo lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.