By Willie Etim
INSINUATIONS of corrupt practices in the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, are not entirely new to stakeholders and various other interest groups in the region. These allegations have never been waived aside as successive administrations had attempted to sanitise the commission.
The pronouncement of a forensic audit for the commission by President Muhammadu Buhari seems to be the most ambitious effort at cleansing the endemic malfeasance that had crippled the optimal functioning of the NDDC since it was inaugurated in the year 2000.
It is common knowledge that some contractors handling jobs at the commission had collected monies from the commission without executing the jobs they were paid for. There were also records of payment from oil companies meant for the NDDC which never got to the commission. Because the forensic audit report will unveil a lot of things there have been panic and unease amongst suspected defaulters as they are bent to truncate the process of the audit as evidenced in the negative publications in the news media with the aim of discrediting the proposed forensic audit.
Desperate to scuttle the effort at bringing back sanity into the commission, the Interim Management Committee, IMC, led by Professor Keme Pondei and the Minister of Niger Delta, Senator Godswill Akpabio have been targeted as all their genuine effort is being misrepresented.
However, buoyed by the outcry for a thorough investigation into the operations of the NDDC and determined not to compromise on his mission, President Buhari has put in place structures that will strengthen the commission as he has injected fresh hands who are professionals with strong moral compasses into management committee of the commission.
The new leadership of the IMC comprising Professor Keme Pondei, acting Managing Director; Chief Ibanga Bassey Etang, acting Executive Director Finance and Administration; acting Executive Director Project, Dr Cairo Ojougboh; Mrs Caroline Nagbo and Cecilia Bukola Akintomide are already effectively pursuing the task of restoring the essence of the commission.
President Buhari, on March 10, 2020, inaugurated the Advisory Committee of the NDDC, made up of all the nine governors of the Niger Delta states. Two additional members were added to the committee: the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs and his Ministry of Environment counterpart. The president had urged members of the committee to show leadership through their advisory role.
To consolidate on the shared commitment to improve the lots of the Niger Delta people, Senator Akpabio had also inaugurated the presidential monitoring committee with membership drawn across the country. Before the inauguration of the various committees, including the Interim Management Committee, governors of the Niger Delta states had unanimously canvassed for the investigation into activities of the commission.
The governors led by Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa, Chairman South-South Governors Forum, had collectively submitted that the commission had not lived up to the expectation of the people of the region. Drawing on the strength of the governor’s position and agitations from the civil society organisations and other key stakeholders in the region, President Buhari made a pronouncement for the forensic audit of the commission from 2001 to 2019.
The President’s decision has been hailed as a courageous step to redirect the commission on the path of development and retain the values for the monies voted into the development of the region. Rather than being commended for the genuine effort at returning sanity to the commission, several vested interests who would want the NDDC to remain business-as-usual are rather sponsoring various attacks with spurious allegations against members of the interim management committee and Senator Akpabio for daring to put things right at the commission.
Only last week, the NDDC managing director had handed over the preliminary report and documents of the verification exercise to the lead consultants of the audit, Olumuyiwa Basiru & Co., at the NDDC headquarters in Port Harcourt. At the handing over ceremony, Professor Pondei disclosed that over 8,000 projects were captured throughout the nine states during the verification exercise.
The NDDC chief executive officer said that the report, containing contract documents covering projects captured during the NDDC’s verification exercise, marked the take-off of the critical next phase of the forensic audit. For effective implementation of the audit exercise the management of the commission has placed some members of staff on mandatory leave with full benefits, pending the conclusion and outcome of the on-going forensic audit.
The action is based on the advice of the Lead Consultant on the Forensic Audit exercise, which has been accepted by the Interim Management Committee, IMC. The staff sent on mandatory leave fall into three categories: those indicted by security agencies like the Police, ICPC and the Economic Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, for acts of impropriety; those whose acts are the subject of investigations by the forensic auditors and the third category are those who held key and sensitive positions in the commission during the period covered by the forensic audit and whose continued presence in the Commission could interfere, impair, undermine or compromise the objective forensic auditing of the affairs of the commission.
Apart from inspiring hope in the heart of stakeholders, such moves may also be sending a strong warning signal to the errant contractors and those who were opposed to the forensic audit that it may not be business as usual anymore. It would appear the time to give account has come, perhaps, sooner than expected. The people of the region have applauded President Buhari for ordering the forensic audit.
The immediate past chairman of the Board of the Commission, Senator Victor Ndoma Egba, in a recent interview said: “I am very much in support of the move; certainly the NDDC needs a forensic audit. And that need has been there for a very long time. The President has taken the right step in the right direction”.
Because of the importance President Buhari places on proper execution of the audit exercise, the new leadership of the Interim Management Committee has introduced some level of thoroughness and discipline to bear in the management of the affairs of the commission. The strict regulation and strengthening of the governance structure of the commission seems to be threatening perceived interests in the region, thus the campaign against the new leadership at the commission.
The professor Pondei-led management committee within the short period has recorded a quick turn-around in the commission. It would, therefore, amount to an infantile reasoning for anyone to imagine that the acting managing director has squandered the fortunes of the commission within just two months of being on the saddle.
The commission currently pays rent at a staggering cost of three hundred million naira a year, in the rented headquarters building they are presently occupying. While previous administrations at the commission took 24 years to get the headquarter project to 50 per cent completion, it has taken the Interim Management Committee just one year under Senator Akpabio’s direction to get the projection to 98 per cent completion and waiting for commissioning.
In other words the present management of the commission has achieved in six months, the same level of work that took 24 years. Even though some members of the National Assembly have fingered sponsors of the series of attack against the interim management committee and the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, key stakeholders in the region are not surprised as some very high profile persons in the region had made the NDDC their cash-cow. In the interim, the question still remains, if the forensic audit exercise is meant to sanitise and reposition the commission, who then is afraid of the Forensic audit? Time and the audit report would tell.
Etim, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Abuja