By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South, Sam Oyadongha, Jimitota Onoyume, Festus Ahon, Egufe Yafugborhi, Chioma Onuegbu, Davies Iheamnachor, Emem Idio, Ozioruva Aliu, Tordue Salem, Olayinka Ajayi & Francis Efe
THE on going investigative hearing of the House of Representatives’ Ad-hoc Committee into the activities of Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, was yesterday full of drama.
Acting Managing Director of the agency, Kemebradikumo Pondei, did not only collapse while being grilled by the lawmakers, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, also got into a hot exchange with some of the lawmakers after alleging they were beneficiaries of most of the commission’s contract.
Another drama of the day resulted from the stepping down of chairman of the investigating committee, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, who recused himself from yesterday’s sitting, following protests from the NDDC team that he is an interested party and would, therefore, not be fair to them.
The NDDC team, led by the acting MD, Pondei, had last Friday walked out on the committee, insisting the committee chairman should recuse himself.
Emotions ran high yesterday after the committee members subjected Pondei to series of probing questions on the alleged financial recklessness at the commission.
‘We spent N1.32bn, not N1.5bn on COVID-19 palliatives’
Pondei said the commission spent N1.32 billion as ‘COVID-19 relief funds’ for staff, not N1.5 billion as alleged by the lawmakers.
At a Senate hearing about a fortnight ago, Pondei had said the commission spent only N1.5 billion to take care of staff, despite being paid their salaries.
“The youth were given palliatives to help cushion the effect of the pandemic on the people. The youth were idle and to avoid violence, they were paid.
“Five million for youths and five million for women and five million for people living with disabilities in each senatorial district,” he had said.
However, yesterday, when asked again about the ‘relief funds,’ he said he must have said 1.5 billion while he was not attentive.
“The amount the IMC used to take care of NDDC staff as COVID-19 palliative was N1.32 billion, not N1.5 billion,” he said to the question posed to him by coordinator of the panel and Vice Chairman of the committee, Thomas Ereyitomi, who took over after the chairman stepped aside at the start of the hearing over allegations of bias.
Pondei also disagreed with the committee that the commission had extra-budgetary spending by approving that sum for themselves.
He also said N81.5 billion was spent from October 2019 to May 31, this year by the NDDC.
Of this, he explained that the incumbent interim management committee he heads, which came in February spent N59.1 billion.
He said: “Of this, N38.6 billion was spent on capital projects. N35.3 billion was paid to contractors hired by previous administrations.”
He added that N20.5 billion was spent on recurrent expenditure between February 20, 2019, and May 21, this year.
“They are a backlog of debt for about three years. Duty tour allowances haven’t been paid for three years; we cleared it. Scholarship fees haven’t been paid since 2016,” he said, adding that the NDDC paid N500,000 to each beneficiary.
He also told the committee that the commission paid a contractor N641 million for the completion of what he called turning point road in Asaba and over N500 million to a consultant to identify NDDC projects in different parts of the nine Niger Delta states.
Not satisfied with his explanations, the lawmakers fired questions which the acting NDDC chair could not provide convincing answers.
Pondei slumps, taken to NASS clinic
Pondei had been grilled for over an hour and he slowly slumped over his desk. Once he was spotted, several people present at the hearing rushed to his aid, propping him up and attempting to stabilize him, with the proceedings halted.
He then appeared to be in a seizure, with a man holding open his mouth as others held him upright. After he appeared to regain consciousness and lose composure intermittently, he was moved out of the session.
Vanguard gathered that Pondei was eventually taken to the National Assembly clinic, from where he was transferred to another hospital.
Consequently, hearing was suspended for 30 minutes by the lawmakers. Giving his brief remarks at the opening session earlier, chairman of the House Commission on NDDC, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, had announced that he was recusing himself from the probe to allow for fair hearing.
“The forensic audit must go on. We have not condemned anybody; we have not concluded the assignment and have not found anybody guilty. This is only an investigation, nothing is personal.
“The investigation is to have a better and more productive Niger Delta. I’m not on any revenge mission,” Tunji-Ojo said, and handed over the proceedings to his deputy, Thomas Ereyitomi.
Meanwhile, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, entered the investigation room moments after the acting NDDC MD was rushed out to the clinic.
Gbajabiamila apologised to the NDDC team and other people in the room over its stuffy nature.
He urged the committee to allow, after the Minister, Godswill Akpabio’s testimony, other NDDC staff appearing before it to send in their presentations because “the room is very hot.’’
Another ensued after the Minister, Akpabio, was asked to make his presentation before the committee and take questions.
Akpabio’s declaration that most of the contracts awarded by the NDDC were given to National Assembly members stirred the hornet’s nest.
Akpabio: NASS members got most NDDC contracts
Making his presentations, the minister said: “Who are even the greatest beneficiary of the contracts?It’s you people at the National Assembly,”
A female lawmaker interrupted him, saying: “Can I ask you a question? What is the National Assembly benefiting from NDDC?”
The minister responded: “I just told you that we have records to show that most of the contracts in NDDC are given out to members of the National Assembly but you don’t know about it, the two chairmen can explain to you. I was a member of the NDDC committee so I know about it.
“We cannot close down the Niger Delta Development Commission because of the fact that we are doing (a) forensic audit.
“The NDDC plays a vital role in ensuring peace and security of the region and 90 per cent or more of the resources of the country come from there.
“If you close it down in totality all you will have is chaos. You will have a lot of, not just militancy, you will have a lot of insurrection.
“So it is important that people who have gone to court, people who genuinely did jobs should be paid for their jobs.
Speaking further, Akpabio said: “Whatever we do here is subject to judicial review as he contends the legality of the proceedings.
“The minister did not hijack the committee. No NDDC staff was sacked to my knowledge. I never asked anybody to swear to an oath. There was never an issue of oath taken.
“I have no Presidential ambition. The 2019 budget of the NDDC was not available. So there is no way the minister would ask NDDC to bring N10billion to share.
“How I wish this probe had been done before now, we would not have been in this mess we are in now. I want to state emphatically that no N40 billion was missing. Nothing was paid to the minister and no contract was given to the minister.
“You would have asked me to speak first before the acting MD who fainted, may be he would have had enough time to take fresh air.
“ In 2019, the Federal Government appropriated N100 billion to NDDC. I believe the NDDC now has the budget of 2019 in May 2020.
“Ernst & Young was approved by the Bureau of Public Procurement for the forensic audit of NDDC and forensic audit is on-going and we are following due process. Since I came on board, it’s only three contracts I have embarked on. Among them is COVID-19 emergency contract which is under the law. You cannot leave the entire Niger-Delta to only two people.”
Asked if he has influenced or acted in the capacity of the MD of NDDC, he said: “If I find out the action is in the interest of Niger-Delta, I have to intervene but it does not include tax files.
“The NDDC management withdrew N4.2bn cash in one day. I am not even aware that such contracts have been given. I don’t have to be aware of payment. No money is missing. I have only awarded three contracts which include the COVID-19 and procurement. They are all in the 2020 budget.
“Why the NDDC is where it is today is because of lack of proper monitoring. It is important for the Minister to be appointed as chairman of the Presidential monitoring team. If we want to change the Niger-Delta, we must consider the forensic”.
“The constitution gives power to the President to appoint, to supervise.”
‘’It is the NDDC that procured the forensic auditors. All the procurement came through them.
On rift between Akpabio and ex-MD
“Most of the payments NDDC made do not have to go through the minister. She does not have NYSC certificate. She was removed because of insubordination. She even swore to a fake affidavit.’’
Pondei ignored doctor’s advice — NDDC
Reacting to Pondei’s collapse yesterday, the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, said he ignored doctors’ advice to observe some rest.
In a press statement, entitled: “Prof Pondei has been ill”, and signed by Mr. Charles Obi Odili, Director of Corporate Affairs, NDDC, the commission said the MD had been ill for two weeks, prior to the sad incident.
The statement read: “The Acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, Prof Kemebradikumo Pondei, collapsed today at the public hearing by the House of Representatives Committee on NDDC.
“The Commission wishes to disclose that Prof Pondei, has been ill for the past two weeks. This morning, his condition deteriorated, and his doctors advised against attending the hearing. However, he ignored his doctors’ advice because of the realization that his traducers will use his absence at the hearing to soil his name and reputation.
“He thought he could make it through the hearing and take care of his health later. As it turned out, his doctors were right. Prof Pondei is in a stable condition at a clinic in Abuja.”
The commission rubbished the conduct of the investigative hearing, claiming that proceedings of the panel were wrong-headed.
It exonerated the Acting MD, saying he was not involved in any alleged malfeasance at the commission.
“Prof Prondei became Ag Managing Director of NDDC on February 20, 2020. By May 5, the two arms of the National Assembly ordered a probe of his tenure of exactly 74 days at the time, two-thirds of which was spent under Covid-19 lockdown conditions.
“Prof Pondei, as the Managing Director of the Commission, has an official duty to answer for the activities of the Commission like what happened between 2008 – 2012 which is the subject of another hearing based on the auditor-general’s report for the period.
“It would, however, be unfair to hold him personally liable for acts which took place when he was not the head of the Commission.
“When the two arms of the National Assembly called for a probe, it was over a missing N40 billion. The Commission took the rare step of publishing all payments made by it under Prof Pondei. No organization in Nigeria, public or private has ever got to that level of transparency in our national history.
“As this publication undermined the claims of his accusers, the subject of the public hearing changed to ‘financial recklessness’. While this might appear insignificant, it amounted to changing the goal posts to smear a clean man.
“While misappropriation of N40 billion is a matter demanding objective proof, the question of financial recklessness is one open to subjective judgement,” the commission stated.
The commission, however expressed satisfaction with the decision of chairman of the committee, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, to step down.
“The commission is delighted that Hon Olubunmi Ojo, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on NDDC has recused himself from the hearing. At the end of the day, everyone has to answer for his role in the misappropriation of the resources of the commission.
“It is this search for answers that led President Muhammadu Buhari, on the request of the nine governors of the region, to institute a forensic audit to probe what happened to the resources of the Commission from 2001 to date.
“The Prof Pondei-led IMC has committed to the success of that exercise. While we thought there will be a fight back by those who dipped their hands in the cookie’s jar, we never expected this level of boldness and malevolent aggression as witnessed by accusers at the hearing and their paid agents through all the media platforms.
“The commission is participating at the hearing, even though it thinks that seeing to the conclusion of the forensic audit will serve the future of the Commission and the Niger Delta region more than the probe of 74 days of activities,” the NDDC stated further.
Get well, clear your name, N-Delta stakeholders tell Pondei
Reacting to the development yesterday, leaders and stakeholders in Niger Delta empathized with the Acting Managing Director, Interim Management Committee, NDDC, Prof Kemebradikumo Pondei but urged him to get well quickly and return to clear his reputation.
Former National Chairman, Traditional Rulers of Oil Minerals Producing Communities of Nigeria, TROMPCON, and Pere of Siembiri Kingdom, Delta State, HM Charles Ayemi-Botu, and others, however, blamed the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, who cleared the air on the various allegations against him shortly after Pondei was rushed out for medical attention, for the embarrassing state of affairs.
National Secretary, South-South Peoples Assembly, SSPA, Dr. Ayakeme Whisky and renowned environmental activist, Alaoga Morris, described him as an academic and administrator unschooled in the act of double-dealing like politicians, which greatly troubled his heart as he testified, making him to succumb to the enormous pressure from his subconscious mind.
National Convener, South- South Reawakening Group, Joseph Ambakederimo, differed, saying “I call it a well -scripted soap opera to hoodwink Nigerians as they have always trivialized very serious allegations of corruption levelled against the minister and the IMC team.”
All of them, however, lamented that NDDC, which was set up as an interventionist agency to develop the Niger Delta region has turned out to be a corruption contraption for some few privileged politicians, their sponsors from other parts of the country and cronies.
Former Deputy Governor of Edo State, Rev Peter Obadan, who believed that Prof Pondei faked his collapse, said the people of the region should wait patiently for the report of the probe he commended.
‘It’s unfortunate Poindei fainted’
HM Ayemi-Botu told Vanguard: “It is unfortunate that the Acting Managing Director of NDDC slumped during hearing at the House of Representatives yesterday (Monday), but I pray for his quick recovery to enable him come back to clear himself in the ongoing investigation.”
“In my considered opinion, the appointment of the Minister of Niger Delta to have oversight responsibility on the NDDC by President Muhammadu Buhari is the bane of the litany of crises in NDDC. I presume Mr. President was misled by Senator Godswill Akpabio to transfer NDDC, a federal parastatal under the Presidency established to develop the marginalized people of the region to the supervision of the Ministry of Niger Delta.
“It is a misnomer because the Minister has not got any budget to complete the East-West Road, but to concentrate on NDDC to milk it dry by throwing a spanner in the wheel of progress with the appointment of IMC, which is an aberration. Ask the minister what and what projects his ministry has executed since his appointment.
“Be it IMC or forensic audit, all are canon fodders and camouflage to siphon NDDC dry,” he added.
Reverend Obadan told Vanguard: “I think it is their flames that is catching up with them and a man that collapses cannot raise up his hand, I saw that clearly, I think he was just faking it but what the House is doing should be highly commended, the armed robbers we crucify, they do not do one tenth of what these fellows have done. They have robbed the nation, they have robbed the future generation. One is so ashamed of them, one is ashamed of what has happened.”
“But let the truth be made known, be made public because most of the things we read on internet and social media, some of them may not be true because there are a lot of fake messages, let the truth be unveiled through the investigation, I think Nigerians should just be patient for the results to be out. Let Nigerians wait for the outcome of the committee. It is the wealth of the people, it is the wealth of the nation and the Niger Delta people are anxiously waiting to know what actually transpired,” he said.
‘It was shocking’
Well-known environmentalist and Head, Environmental Rights Action, ERA, in Bayelsa state, Alagoa Morris, said: “First of all, it (Pondei’s slouching) came as a shock to me, but on a second thought, even though l care about his safety; I recall that such things are not entirely strange as some facing corruption charges have appeared in court even on a stretcher and other features showing signs of illness.”
“However, l felt the Prof may not have been properly briefed about certain details by the older NDDC management officials and he did not prepare well before appearing. Again, I thought he should not have bothered to answer questions on anything he has no knowledge of since he is also relatively new in the office.
“Answering for the actions of others would be a mistake on his part and I hope he did not, a clear conscience and not taking to defend what you know nothing about would not result into such fainting scenario.
“There is nothing wrong in investigating the interventionist agency, but it should be in the common interest and not witch-hunting. Only the best intentions would be good enough,” he told one of our reporters.
Former All Progressives Congress, APC, presidential aspirant, Alhaji Mumakai Unagha, who spoke in Warri, Delta state, stated: “On the issue of Pondei slumping, it is only the doctor that can ascertain if it is pretense. My take in the whole saga is that there should be thorough investigation to bring all corrupt members of the commission to book.”
His words: “Similarly, the commission should be decentralized to reduce the prohibitive corruption in the commission,”
“The on- going drama in the NDDC is an embarrassment to Niger Deltans, particularly those of us who struggled for the establishment of the commission. This was not what we bargained for. We thought by now the entire region, would have been transformed, rather, what we hear every now and then is corruption upon corruption.”
“Few persons are amassing wealth to the exclusion of others and despite the Commission, poverty is very high in the region while few are riding on our wealth. It is very sad, sad indeed that NDDC has become a conduct pipe for politicians and their political ambition driven using the instrumentality of government. During the heat if the Niger Delta struggle, they were not with us.
“Funny enough, genuine contractors that executed their projects have not been paid, yet those appointed to steer the ship of the commission are busy amassing wealth ahead of 2023. I would suggest that there should be no hiding place for such persons,” he added.
National Secretary, South-South Peoples Assembly, SSPA, Dr. Ayakeme Whisky, who spoke in Yenagoa said: “I saw it on television that Professor Kemebradikumo Pondei was a bit distressed. There are two clear scenarios and one could be that he had health challenges before today. The pressure could precipitate sudden health challenges. The other scenario is that when you put a man, who is innocent of certain grave allegations in the public sphere that could put in a very distressful state.”
“Prof Pondei had never been a politician; he is not used to public office rascality. Pondei may not have this emotional fiber to absorb the public shock that comes with this kind of public pressure. So, he has all my sympathy. Having said that, the truth is that NDDC is enmeshed in crisis.
“There was reason why for 19 years NDDC was operated and supervised from the office of the President. The haste with which Senator Akpabio rushed to secure presidential nod to transfer the supervisory role of NDDC from the Presidency to his ministry from the beginning was full of suspicion to some of us, who are deeply involved in the affairs of the South -South and Niger Delta.
“Is he the only minister that has presided over the Ministry of Niger Delta affairs? The first Minister was Ufot Ekaette of blessed memory and the man did not do anything to transfer NDDC to his office, my good friend Godwin Orubebe became the minister, he did nothing to supervise the affairs of NDDC. There was also another Niger Delta Affairs Minister from Cross- River state in the first tenure of President Buhari and the man made no effort to transfer,,” Dr Whisky asserted.
‘Show of shame’
Immediate past President, Ijaw Youth Council, IYC, Eric Omare, said: “The show of shame going on in the NDDC has become worrisome. It is sad that President Buhari could allow this national disgrace to continue without taking drastic actions to arrest the drift to anarchy. As to Prof. Pondei’s slumping, I do not know whether he actually had a health situation or not, but what is important is that President Buhari handling of the situation leaves much to be desired.
“I call on Mr. President to bring this show of shame to an end by instituting an independent probe into the ongoing show of shame in the NDDC. The IMC of the NDDC should also be sacked.’’
Joseph Ambakederimo, national convener, South- South Reawakening Group said: “This IMC have never responded to any allegations of corruption with precision, perhaps because they are neck deep in the malfeasance in the commission. With all of these revelations coming out of the commission on a daily basis, how can we now say we are being marginalized in the scheme of things in Nigeria?”
“To forestall the reoccurrence of this mess in future the NDDC have to be taken back to the Presidency as it was before. The Minister has brought a bad precedence to the NDDC and this is the more reason the commission must be taken back to the Presidency,”
Darlington Nwauju, Spokesman, Niger Delta Rights Advocates, asserted: “We invite Nigerians to thoroughly interrogate the intellectual and psychological competence of Prof Pondei, who could neither show vastness in the 2019 budget, which he himself operated nor knew what actually transpires in the office he occupies.”
“We hope today’s (yesterday) drama does not confirm our claim at the public hearing that the IMC is seeking an escapist route out of the stratospheric corruption allegations leveled against the Prof Pondei- led IMC, which has breached its mandate of supervising the forensic audit exercise into misapplying taxpayers monies for matters extraneous to the core mandate of the development agency.
“In the history of public hearings in the House of Representatives of the Federal Republic, the investigative hearing of the NDDC has set the record of being the first where an invitee gasps for breathe or loses consciousness. But, we insist that the truth about the rot and malfeasance in the region’s foremost agency must be unraveled,” he said.
Zik Gbemre, Coordinator, Niger Delta Peace Coalition, NPDC, said” “We do not wish anybody dead, but the whole drama shows we are our own problem as Niger- Deltans. The same people shouting we are under-developed as a region are same people, who hijack money meant for the Niger Delta.”
“None of these persons was significant, none prominent as being in any noticeable wealth from any meaningful economic engagement or investment. They got rich overnight, feasting on the commonwealth meant to develop the region.
‘Oil will soon dry up’
National president of NDYM, Comrade Joe Jackson, asserted: “The news that the NDDC acting MD slumped during grilling by the House Committee was shocking and surprising because before today, we did not hear that he was sick or that he has a health challenge.“However we suggest that the committee should give him some time to be attended to by medical experts, who will examine him and come out with reasons why he actually slumped while being grilled.
“And once he is fit again, he should be invited again to continue with his own investigation because we want to hear him talk. Everybody in the NDDC involved in the alleged misappropriation of funds must talk.
“As a Niger Delta youth group, we are interested in the forensic audit. Our concern is to know what is actually happening that the agency has not been able to achieve its mandate since inception. As stakeholders we should be worried,” he added.
Human rights activist, Oghenejabor Ikimi, who also weighed in on the matter, said: “What is happening in the NDDC is a very ugly development, and it a shame funds meant for the development of the region are been squandered, while a similar body in the North is being used to build fantastic schools in the North.”
“So, until we make corruption to attract death sentence, corruption will still be the order of the day in this country.
“We are acting as if the oil will last forever. The oil will soon dry up in the next 20 years. When this oil dries up the region will remain pauperized and underdeveloped. It as if the oil is a curse to our people. It is so unfortunate that they people of the region are the ones undoing the region. You can imagine the money that was shared for palliatives amongst themselves. These are monies meant for the people of the real Niger Delta region and who are suffering.”
Constitutional Lawyer, Dr Akpo Mudiaga-Odje, said: “We have been watching with bated breath and paralyzing suspicion the revelations emanating from the public hearing on the NDDC, it is absolutely despicable! So much money gone down drain pipe of corruption.
“The region and her ethnic nationalities are in endemic tears and pandemic poverty, whereas the huge billions upon billions budgeted for their development find their way to private accounts. The players who are milking the commission dry to skeletal level are not Hausas, Fulanis, Yorubas or Ibos! “They are our own blood Niger Delta brothers and sisters! My heart bleeds that our own people can inflict this herculean stealing on a commission we fought for to develop our region and its people.
“We thus urge that the hearing be continued and concluded so we recommend the culprits for rigorous and vigorous criminal trial and sanction, including confiscating their illegally acquired loot obtained by primordial acquisitions. It is simply frightening.”