By EMMANUEL AZIKEN
ABUJA-The disappointment on the faces of the Niger Delta Senators was not hidden after their first meeting with President Umaru Yarâ€˜Adua in January 2008. Their expectation that the former university teacher turned President would quickly resolve the Niger Delta question as he promised during his electioneering campaign had turned into a vapour.
The meeting in the presidential villa was a closed door affair which saw the legislators articulate the issues of the region.
Inevitably, the discussion veered towards the issue of an estimated N225 billion of unreleased funds due to the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
The President according to different sources at the meeting was said to have told the lawmakers that the fund â€œwas expiredâ€ in line with his administrationâ€™s policy of returning all unutlilised funds to the federal treasury.
His assertion came with a tone of finality even though he promised to be more faithful than his predecessor in the release of funds to the commission. Senators were too shocked by the Presidentâ€™s assertion and the seeming finality in his tone that they did not have space to enlighten him that the expired funds could not have expired since the funds were in the first place not released to the commission.
That some lawmakers claim is beside the point that the NDDCâ€™s funds could not be compared with unutilized budgetary funds to ministries as the NDDC funds are direct allocations from the federation account.
The estimated N225 billion were the accrued statutory allocations for the commission that were not released by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration. Even though the Obasanjo administration conceived the idea of the NDDC, the administration was nevertheless known not to be wholly upright in its dealings with the region. The administration was indeed more in the breach in its violations of its financial obligation to the regional development agency.
The NDDC Act which was passed into law by the National Assembly in 2000 requires the federal government to pay 15% of the statutory allocations due to the nine oil producing states to the NDDC as matching grant.
The allocation was to be drawn on the federation account. Immediate past Managing Director of the NDDC Mr. Timi Alaibe conveyed the difficult straits of the commission months before he left office when he hosted a parliamentary delegation from the House of Representatives.
Alaibe told the group that out of the N318 billion allocated due to the commission from the Federal Government between 2001 and 2006, that only N93 billion was released.
The oil companies were remarkably more faithful paying N142 billion out of the N182 billion expected from them in that period. Alaibeâ€™s claims were confirmed by sources in the National Assembly which told Sunday Vanguard of the woeful unfaithfulness of the federal government to the agency.
The N225 billion funding deficit from the federal government may have ballooned to an estimated N326 billion at the end of 2007, according to the Acting Managing Director of the commission, Mr. Power Aginighan who told governors during a regional summit in Tinapa last April that the NDDC received only N110 billion from the federal government since 2001. Aginighan was, however, careful not to blame the President rather putting the blame on the National Assembly!
Sunday Vanguard could not confirm how faithful President Yarâ€˜Adua has been faithful in his releases as a comprehensive audit of the releases to the commission since 2007 is yet to be done. However, in other ways the administration is increasingly perceived by some to be playing a cat and mouse game in the affairs of the region.
President Yarâ€˜Aduaâ€™s creation of a Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs has been received with mixed feelings in the region. While some saw it as a bold attempt to frontally address the issues of the oil rich region, it is on the other hand seen as another bureaucratic drain to pipe away the resources of the region. When he announced the creation of the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs in his budget speech last December, the President disclosed that it would receive a take off grant of an estimated N50 billion.
Remarkably, out of the N50 billion provided for the ministry, about N27 billion was channeled to the construction of the East-West road, an arterial highway running across the core Niger Delta.
The N27 billion provided for the East-West road is remarkably only a fraction needed to complete the road, a point Niger Delta leaders say indicates that the administration may not be able to complete the road in its four year life time.
Skepticism about the administrationâ€™s commitment to the region is equally reflected in its dithering procrastination in detailing out the amnesty conditions for militants who initiated the agitation for better treatment of the region.
That cynicism is compounded by the ongoing military operation by the military in the region which has sometimes seen indiscriminate bombardment of communities in the quest for militants. The perceived hush of the federal authorities towards the affairs of the region is sometimes traced to the alleged squandering of the allocations and resources generated by regional governments.
It is no secret that serving and former governors from the region are among the wealthiest in the land having expropriated the resources of their people to themselves.
In the recent past activists from the region had tended to wave aside such claims of corruption with some affirming that â€œna our money,â€™â€™ or â€œit is an internal affair.â€™â€™Â However, such attitudes even though overlooked for political expediency during the Obasanjo era are no longer being swallowed in the Presidential villa.
Indeed even within the region some of the most aggressive proponents for the development of the region are calling for stability and peace for all to see through the genuine intentions of the Yarâ€˜Adua administration.
Senator Ume Ekaette who represents Akwa Ibom South senatorial district in a telephone interview regretted that crime in the form of hostage taking has tended to suppress development efforts channeled towards the region.
â€œyou cannot mix crime and development,â€™â€™ she said as she noted that staff of construction companies working in the region have been repeatedly kidnapped by hostage takers.
Senator Senator Nimi Barigha-Amange (PDP, Bayelsa East) also argued that President Yarâ€˜Adua could not have been said to have snubbed the region. But irrespective of his claims there is a growing belief that the administration which incidentally has a son of the Niger Delta as its number two is contemptuous of the region.
Such contempt is conveyed in the form of jokes around the federal capital of the lowly regard the administration has for Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, the immediate former Governor of Bayelsa State. Suggestions that the Vice-President is sidelined in the affairs of the government and especially in the ongoing military operations in the region are yet to be confirmed or denied by either the President or the Vice-President.
The Vice-Presidentâ€™s spokesman Ima Niboro who hardly speaks to the press on the issues concerning his boss could not be reached as at press time at the weekend. Indeed Mr. Niboroâ€™s attitude is the faÃ§ade now worn by several Niger Delta leaders in both the executive and legislative arms of government. Many of them contacted on this story were indeed unwilling to comment. The pretence is to see no evil, hear no evil.