By Dapo Akinrefon
Senator Peter Nwaoboshi represents Delta North Senatorial District in the Senate. In this interview, the former chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and presently Chairman, Senate Committee on Niger Delta Affairs explains why he initiated the NDDC Amendment Bill and its benefits.
What informed the NDDC Amendment Bill?
If you recall, the Niger Delta Development Bill was promulgated in 2000 and it was one of the first bills that the then President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, refused to give his assent and the National Assembly had to override him. It then became an Act of the National Assembly. When I became the Chairman of the Niger Delta Affairs in the Senate, I went through the bill and l decided something must be done. In spite of what should have been the major inhibitions of first time callers at the hallowed chambers of the Senate, l defied all odds not only to carve a niche for myself as an articulate and active lawmaker, robust debater and a proactive visioner, but also as an indomitable champion of the cause of the Niger Delta and its long marginalised people, for whose sake l have successfully championed the effective amendment to the NDDC Act of 2000.
Don’t you think NDDC is under funded?
Yes, there was the problem of NDDC being under-funded; there was no sufficient fund to run it. The Federal Government owes NDDC almost N1trn as I speak and NDDC runs a deficit, in terms of their exposures, of over N1. 2trn; that is their debt profile and the Federal Government is not paying, but they are supposed to pay over a period of some years. When you go through the law, you will see that they were supposed to pay 50 per cent of the Ecological Fund due to member- states; 50 per cent of that Ecological Fund that is due to member- states is supposed to be paid to the NDDC but as I speak, not one kobo has been paid from the Ecological Fund to the NDDC. Another source of revenue is from the oil and gas processing companies. Now, if you go to the oil companies, the law says that they should pay three per cent of their total annual budgets to NDDC. When I came in and we looked at this problem of under-funding, we found out that they were not able to meet their obligations. We now asked ourselves, if the NDDC was going to get 50 per cent of the Ecological Fund which is due to states in its mandate area, get three per cent of the total annual budget of the oil and gas processing companies and also the Federal Government is to pay a particular percentage to them, then there is no reason why it should be under-funded. So, the question was what is really happening? Why is it that they are not being paid and why all these problems? So, we decided to find out and it was in the process that we found out that no oil company gives NDDC its actual budget and so the three per cent was just whatever the oil companies decided to give to the NDDC; in fact, some of them were even arguing that it was three per cent of the real budget, not even three per cent in terms of their annual budget, that is, what they spend; that is not the ideal thing. When we looked at all these, we said let us do a public hearing to find out truly why the NDDC is in this debt problem. We went further to discover that the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) or even the other gas companies, had not paid one kobo for the past 17 years and we asked why, after all, the law is clear.
In the process, we discovered that LNG said that they went to court with NDDC and late Justice Nwodo of the Federal High Court gave judgment in favour of LNG; they also went to the Court of Appeal and then proceeded to the Supreme Court. Due to the fault of the legal team, they didn’t meet up the period to file their documents and the Supreme Court struck out the appeal on technical grounds, meaning, in effect, that the NDDC lost. So, when we invited the LNG, they just came with the Supreme Court judgment and said ‘we have a judgment at the Federal High Court, we have a judgment at the Court of Appeal and since we have all these judgments in our favour, we are not going to pay’. As a lawyer, I asked for a copy of the judgments, I went through the full judgments and I said ‘Ok, we have a way out of it.’ In fact, my brothers in the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, started the process of amending the LNG Act and, in the process, the LNG started going round the whole country, using all their connections and all of them were putting pressure. Having looked at the judgments of the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and the Federal High Court, I knew where the problem was and said what we want is to amend this section and, in the process, that was how we decided to bring more revenue for the NDDC.
When did the journey to amend the Act actually begin?
In fact, there are two amendments to the NDDC Act that has been passed by the Senate. One is more comprehensive. In that one for example, if you look at the representation in the Niger Delta Development Commission, it says one member from the oil-producing area of the state. That has caused a lot of problems as to how you define an oil- producing area. Do you define it vis-a-vis the local government area or do you define it vis-a-vis the senatorial district, or vis-à-vis the state? It is an issue and so, many problems came up when we were going to clear some nominees of the President and people said we should use states, some said we should use senatorial districts and some others said it should be local government areas. But I and most of my colleagues said that it should be local government area that produces the oil and that’s how we disqualified the people from Abia, the Ondo nominee and of course that of Imo withdrew. Therefore, to remove that ambiguity in the law, we had to go through the amendment and many other sections we needed to amend. But this issue of revenue became very important because you cannot set up a commission like that and they are always crying for funds. The journey started when we discovered all these flaws; we said let’s deal with these issues. To deal with this particular section, we started sometime about one year ago. We had to even invite the gas companies, held series of meetings with them and they made their own case and eventually, we held series of meetings with their boards. We even invited their whole board, they met with us; we met with the leaders, they also met with the Senate President and all of them and we continued talking.
Given the ease with which the bill was passed, it would appear that you have a deep reach and penetration in the National Assembly. To what would you attribute this success?
First, the issue is that everybody in the National Assembly, from the patriotic side, whether you are from the North or anywhere else, believed that there is the need to adequately fund the NDDC. Secondly, the people from that geopolitical zone, the South-south geopolitical zone, see it as a duty to make sure that that place is well funded. So, for everybody from the South-south, whether Senator or in the House of Representatives, it is a call to duty because that is the commission that was established to serve the whole people of the South-south and our brothers from Ondo. So it was a popular bill, it became very popular in the National Assembly. And of course, they saw and did not like the fact that the gas- producing companies for 17 years in the area were not contributing to the development of that area directly to the NDDC; so, it was a very popular bill, and, like I told you, they were looking for any way to make sure that these people contribute. It is the popularity of the bill and also the feeling by some people that the undeserved under-funding of NDDC is not right and the nationalistic feeling of Nigerians; those are the reasons why it was popular.
What, in your view, are the long and short term effects of this particular Act that has been amended in terms of the development of the Niger Delta area?
Revenue; it is going to give them more revenue and let me say that I must thank Mr President because the Act was signed on the last working day of the year and it means that the Act took effect from last year, 2017; the moment it was assented to it become a law. So, the LNG has to pay for 2017; they just have to pay. In the process of negotiation with the oil companies when the bill came, the gas companies also became interested and they saw that there was no way that they would not be asked to pay something. They threatened that they were going to go to court and we said ‘okay, you can go to court. Of course, while we appreciate the fact that if they were to go to court, we can be neither here nor there, depending on how the judges will see it, we said let that area of processing be removed, which is called the feed gas, but after that they should pay the rest. The feed gas is about 40 per cent and then the other is 60 per cent. When we looked at it, we said we will remove the feed gas for them, but, at least, they should pay something after 17 years.
Beyond the issue of the law is the issue of implementation. What have you done at the National Assembly in terms of oversight responsibility to ensure compliance?
First of all we cannot oversight them yet because the law has just gone into effect; the NDDC has to put in the necessary machinery to get their money. If for any reason NDDC reports or we find out during any of our oversight visits or calls that the gas processing companies fail to pay, the other law that is coming and, which of course, has been passed by the Senate and which was also sponsored by me, gives a percentage as fine for non-payment as and when due.
I think there is another comprehensive law where we are amending all the inadequacies and all the things we found out as the short comings in the original bill. It’s about six chapters, six sections we are amending. In that place, we took cognizance of what you are asking about now. If they fail to pay, there is a penalty for that. But I don’t think that LNG will not pay, given the level of negotiations and, of course, they have seen the popular feeling of the people that they must pay.
As the Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Niger Delta Affairs, what have been your findings with respect to the NDDC in terms of its operational ability?
There are so many issues in the NDDC. There is the need to really look at what is the core mandate of the commission and then let them focus on those core mandate areas, not that for everything you want you go there for it. It is also going to take a lot of time and goodwill because there is already a feeling that NDDC is not going to achieve anything; so, it must take a lot of political goodwill for you to be able to stop what is happening now in the NDDC. Sometime, you see the Managing Director of NDDC, when he goes to work, some physically-challenged persons will not allow him enter until he settles them, and even militants will say he has not done ‘this’ for them; it is not that there has not been any development but that they are supposed to be given some incentives. Then you ask yourself, are these core mandates of NDDC? We went into their scholarship scheme and saw that a lot of ‘backyard businesses’ and racketing was going on in that place. In fact, we just requested for the staff audit, they have yet to give it to us. They have not been able to give us the staff audit we requested for over six months now. However, we will do our best to ensure that they focus on their core mandate as well.
You did indicate that the NDDC would have so much money if the oil and gas companies were to pay what they owe in the past 17 years. Does it mean that this law will take a retroactive effect?
No, it’s not retroactive. Bad laws are the laws that take retroactive effect; no good law takes retroactive effect and it is against the spirit of justice for a law to take retroactive effect. What I mean is three per cent of the annual budgets over a period of 17 years. Look at the point I am making: One of the things we did is that the NDDC does not even know the annual budgets of the oil companies and so when we came in, we invited all the oil companies and the issue of whether it is annual budget or the real budget came up and we read the law to them that it is the annual budget. But where is the annual budget of the oil companies? NDDC does not have it.
So, it is what the oil company feel is convenient for them that they pay to NDDC. What we have done is that we have directed DPR to collect the annual budgets of all the oil companies for the past 17 years, because DPR is supposed to be supervising them, and then on that basis, NDDC, gets its consultants, let them meet the oil companies and calculate the three per cent for the past 17 years and when they get it, make a demand notice from all these oil companies to pay them that difference. We also asked the oil companies to get their own consultants to meet with the consultants of the NDDC so that there can be an agreement. That’s what is ongoing. As for me, it is two- sided- a call to duty and patriotism on the part of the employees and appointees of the Niger Delta Development Commission and support from the people of Niger Delta to allow the NDDC to focus on its core mandate.