By Emmanuel Aziken
The evolving drama from the probe of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, was not unexpected given the dynamics that played out at the establishment of the commission exactly 20 years ago.
The NDDC was conceived by President Olusegun Obasanjo. It was one of the first two bills he brought to the National Assembly once he was inaugurated as president in May 1999. The other bill was the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission, ICPC bill.
President Obasanjo it appeared, arrived on his duty post set on his course. Those two bills to stem corruption on one part and to address the restiveness and lack of development in the Niger Delta seemed to be his weapons.
Twenty years after those two initiatives revelations from the Ibrahim Magu probe and the odious tales from the NDDC probe tell us how far those initiatives have been derailed.
The NDDC Establishment Bill was reportedly partly inspired by the Willniks Commission report of 1958 that recommended the establishment of a specialized agency to develop the Niger Delta.
Indeed, at that time in 1957-58, oil was not even a reference resource of the Niger Delta.
However, once President Obasanjo conceived the board and presented it to the Senate a power game ensued between him and the National Assembly.
With Chuba Okadigbo as Senate President and Ghali Na‘Abba as Speaker, the National Assembly leadership sought to take the initiative away from the president.
Among the fundamental objections was the rejection of the president’s proposal for the states to contribute a proportion to the funding. The National Assembly rejected this on the claim that it could not compel the states to part with their funds.
Also, the National Assembly increased the scope of funding for the commission from onshore to offshore oil income. Another sticking point was the increase by a percentage point, the contribution from the oil companies.
President Obasanjo asked the two houses to reconsider their amendments but they refused. The bellicosity between the two arms of government underlined by the moves to remove the two presiding officers did not help matters.
By July 2000 after the mandatory one month for the president to sign the bill had lapsed and with Obasanjo sticking to his position the legislators in both chambers mobilized to override the veto!
Indeed, it became the first of only two times a presidential veto was overturned in the history of the country’s presidential system of government.
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The only other act of the override of a veto but less consequential was the Order of Precedence Act that happened about five years later.
It was an irony that a bill conceived with the good wishes of Dr. Obasanjo was taken away from him by those ‘boys’ in the National Assembly as presidential officials would have muttered.
Indeed, Okadigbo and Na‘Abba decided to use him to shine.
The goodwill of the Northern legislators in helping to push the bill to an act at that time was despite quiet nudges from the Northern establishment not to do so as more money going to the Niger Delta meant less money for the general pool.
If the goodwill that helped push that bill was harvested and sustained, Nigeria would have been a better nation.
Faced with what he considered an insult with the override of his veto, Obasanjo now played his ace by refusing to bring the board into existence.
For more than one year, the NDDC was in limbo despite the transformation of the bill into an act.
There were no staff, no offices and everything remained in limbo.
It was at that point that the South-South National Assembly caucus who at that time held regular meetings with their governors in rotation in Abuja caved in.
Supplications were made to Obasanjo who finally in late 2001 forwarded names to the National Assembly to establish a board.
There was yet one sticking point. Obasanjo’s choice of Chief Onyema Ugochukwu as chairman of the NDDC brought about resistance from Abia Senators who said that he was not from an oil-producing area.
Their objection to Ugochukwu was also fired by Governor Orji Uzor Kalu who it was alleged did not want his political foe for such a position.