Former deputy governor of Akwa Ibom State and chieftain of the All Progressives Congress, Nsima Ekere, is the managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC. In this interview in Lagos, Ekere outlines the issues and challenges he has faced in his assignment. He speaks on how he responded to the culture of protests that was once the signature portrait of the NDDC. Excerpts:
So far, what challenges have you encountered in realising your objectives at the NDDC?
Lots of challenges. First of all, institutional resistance to change, which is normal. A lot of people have become used to doing things in a certain way; they wouldn’t be very pleased that you now demand a new attitude. And second, you also have political interferences here and there. You want to go a certain way, (and it) may not be politically correct to do that. So you always have to juggle and balance all of these issues. And then the major problem of the Niger Delta which has affected the Commission, if you ask me, is the attitude of some of our stakeholders and the youths particularly. They have this sense of entitlement, that this place was meant for them, so why are you trying to stop us from “chopping” our money?
That is not an easy thing to do and that is why, it is not an easy thing to contain. But we are doing the best we can to try and put all of these things to check and build up the region and the Commission
How did you confront the mindset of bickering that has historically been associated with the boards of the NDDC?
Well, I guess it is generally a management strategy, if you come in and you are not able to carry members of your management and board along in the way you run the Commission, definitely you will have problems. It is engagement; you just engage people, get them, try and get their buy-in to things you think you want to do. We’ve set up a Strategy Committee at Management level and the three executive directors, that is the two EDs and myself, we always interface with the strategy team. So there is this buy-in by all members of the executive management to the programmes and reforms agenda that we are driving. And then with the board also, we have a representative from the chairman in that strategic team. So there is no disconnect between the management and the board.
Most times, what one really needs to fight is suspicion, mutual suspicion. If you don’t carry people along and they are suspicious of what you are trying to do, and you have certain agenda different from their agenda, then you have these problems. But fortunately we don’t have these issues, and I pray that the infighting that you have noticed in the NDDC Boards of the past will not be our portion.
So how are you dealing with this sense of entitlement?
I have always said to the youths and stakeholders any time I am opportune to address them, that it is better to think of sustainable economic model that we can use to empower our people. I don’t believe that you should just keep dashing them money. There was a time at NDDC when there were like two to three protests every week, because when they come for the protest, when you are dispersing them they expect to be given some money. So any time somebody is broke in his house, they will come and protest, so that something can come. I stopped that.
I made protests unattractive. So when they come to protest, you allow them stay there the whole day and don’t give them money when they are going. So, gradually the number of protests began to reduce, so the protest you see now, are protests that are sponsored by some politicians for their selfish reasons.
We know a couple, they had to sponsor protests, but ordinarily the genuine protesters that used to come on their own spontaneously have drastically reduced, almost stopped because they know that there will be no money to pay the buses that they hired to come unlike what used to happen in the past.
I believe that it is better to think of sustainable economic models, sustainable economic activities to engage our youths with and that is why we are coming up with what we call The Niger Delta Enterprise Centres for start-ups, so that people with bright ideas can come into those centres. It is different from what we used to do before. Before now, we used to do a lot of trainings and empowerment programmes. in other words, we called people, train them in various skills and at the end of the training give them starter packs to go and start their businesses. For instance, we train somebody in some skill area, give him a starter pack and six months, one year down the line you see the guy still unemployed; he is standing at the gate of NDDC.
What used to happen for most of them is that when they get those starter packs at the end of the training, they will sell it off and collect the money and after that they will come back and look for more. But with the enterprise hub that we are thinking of doing now, we should be able to address that challenge.
How are you tackling allegations by your contractors about delayed payments for jobs done and reports of delays in the remittance of scholarship grants to students?
We discovered that there was a lot of over trading in NDDC; they had much more projects than they could pay for with the available funds and that’s why we have also said going forward in our budget instead of creating new projects, 70% of the budget would be dedicated to servicing ongoing projects, while only 30% would be used for salaries, overhead and new projects.
When you look at the NDDC Act, there is a financial provision which states how much and how the funding of NDDC would be structured. If NDDC was able to get all the money that we are supposed to get under the Act, you will see that there would be enough money to pay for those contracts. As we speak today, we have a shortfall of about N1.7 – 1.8 trillion from the Federal Government contribution to the NDDC. In other words, the Federal Government is owing us that much money.
If that much money was paid why wouldn’t contractors be paid? So it is basically a funding problem. I have about N5 billion in a month. By the time you pay salaries and overheads maybe you have N3 billion remaining. How can you use N3 billion to pay N1 trillion to contractors? We are using bare hands; we are working with our bare knuckles as it were. So, there is a serious constraint of funds in NDDC and that is why we have a lot of those problems. But we believe that that would improve. We believe that the Federal Government would make good on their contributions.
Fortunately Mr. President approved that the Ministers of Finance and Budget & Planning should sit with us and resolve these issues. We are hoping that with that we would be able to make some progress, once money comes in the contractors would be paid.
On the NDDC Post Graduate Scholarship Programme
We have paid up all NDDC scholars. When we came in, we discovered that there were lots of hanky-panky in the scholarship thing.
A master’s programme for instance is supposed to last one year, 18 months in the maximum. But you will see that an NDDC scholar who won the scholarship in 2007 to do a master’s programme in the US or the UK will still be claiming scholarship in 2017. Do you understand what I mean? And we had several cases like this. Somebody will win the NDDC scholarship, would be in Nigeria, not in any school anywhere in the world and he is claiming money.
So that is why it was necessary that we froze that process, because we needed to confirm what really the issues were, who the genuine students were but unfortunately in that process some genuine students suffered. We regret very much that some genuine students had their money withheld for a while during that verification process.
But all of that has been done now and we have paid up to date. We are hoping that going forward, all NDDC scholars will get their money as at when due, because at least we have been able to do the verification. We are happy with the numbers that we are getting and we are happy that the people in school are the genuine students and we wouldn’t owe them.
The Timi Alaibe administration developed a regional master plan. Are you working with that master plan?
The Niger Delta Master Regional Plan wasn’t a master plan for NDDC alone; it was a master plan that was to see to the integrated regional development of the entire Niger Delta Region. Physical development, economic development, even social economic development as well. Now, all of the development centres, I am talking of the Federal Government agencies and departments, ministries, and ministry of Niger Delta, the nine State Governments of the Niger Delta, Local Governments, International Donor Agencies, and all these international agencies that are working in the Niger Delta and of course NDDC and even the international oil companies operating in the region; everybody must key into that master plan, work and develop the Niger Delta in incremental fashion.
Unfortunately, that master plan has not been implemented, because, for the master plan to have been successfully implemented, you needed the buy-in of the various stakeholders that we are talking about. Maybe because of a lack of awareness and political differences, that hasn’t happened and so we have decided now that there is a need for the review of the Master Plan.
I was with the German Ambassador the other day when he came to visit. That was one of the major things we talked about and they have an agency of the German Government, GTC that was originally instrumental in the development of the Master Plan, coming to help us again.
The World Bank and the EU are also in, we are getting a lot of international support in the review of the Master Plan. And for me, the major thing in reviewing the master plan is that we must get the collaboration and buy-in of all the respective stakeholders. So Edo State Government, Ondo State Government, Delta State Government, Bayelsa, Rivers, Imo, Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Cross River, all the 9 State Governments of the Niger Delta must buy-in to the need for a regional development master plan.
If the State Governments buy-in, their respective local government areas would also. Then we would now review the master plan and give ourselves timeliness that is when we would have a meaningful implementation of the master plan and that is when it would make sense. And so we are in the process of reviewing it in line with current realities and then set targets that are attainable.
There have been some issues and report from your home state, Akwa Ibom about conflicts with the Commission and your contractors being driven away from projects sites. How are you tackling such issues?
Unfortunately, most of what happened in Akwa Ibom was political. We have engaged them through the Federal Government. We hear there is a change of heart from the State Government.
Overall, we are trying very hard now to engage with the nine Niger Delta Governors. We are not in competition with any of them. The roles and responsibilities of a governor and managing director of NDDC are very different. We are and should work as partners to resolve the problems of the region. That has been my focus. That is why the Board is constantly engaging with the state governors. We have visited virtually all of them except Akwa Ibom.
Why Akwa-Ibom? Have you made an effort to visit Akwa-Ibom?
Yes, we have and we are still engaging them hoping that we will have an opportunity to visit. We have had a very unfavourable situation in Akwa Ibom and that is unfortunate. I am from Akwa Ibom and have served that state as deputy governor. So the best interest of the state is always paramount to me.
Akwa Ibom is the largest oil producing state in Nigeria and by NDDC policies, it should attract the highest number of projects from the Commission. That is not what the present Board met on ground. The Board has been magnanimous enough to want to redress this. We need the partnership and support of the State Government to make this happen.
It is not about me. It is not about the Board. It is not about politics. We at NDDC believe it is the right and proper thing to do. And that’s the focus of the Board.
Like I said, we have visited all the State Governors except Akwa Ibom State and we are interfacing well with all of them. For the very first time, we have set up budget committees in all the states. We asked our State Representatives, that is the commissioners representing the various states on the Board of NDDC – who serve as chairmen of the budget committees in their respective states – to go to their State Governments and sit down with them and articulate the programmes and projects to be included in our budgets.