By Chioma Onuegbu, Uyo
Senator Christopher Ekpenyong represents Akwa Ibom North West (Ikot Ekpene) in the 9th Senate on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP.
In this interview, speaks on the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) unending controversies, reasons the All Progressives Congress (APC) should not be returned to power at the federal level in 2023, and his sour relationship with his kinsman, Senator Godswill Akpabio. Excerpts:
For some time now, the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, has moved from one controversy to another. Are you satisfied with the way the agency has been run all these years?
I cannot applaud those who have managed the agency all these years. Sometimes you see some of the Managing Directors jump into state capitals like Uyo to fill potholes, and then start acting as if they are competing with the state government, it is not supposed to be so. They should always look at the master plan for the development of the states that constitutes the Niger Delta. When you have taken a look at that, do needs assessment to find out the needs of the people.
For instance if they had built first class health care facilities in the region, now that there is the COVID-19 pandemic, we would not have been running around because those first class healthcare facilities would have been there to take care of such critical health needs. And all the administrators of NDDC are culpable.
They have not performed except few of them who came and opened up areas that had no roads. There is a master plan, which I know Timi Alaibe adopted then, but I don’t think succeeding administrations adopted that master plan. And there are so many Niger Delta youths out there suffering, no jobs, no training whereas these are things the Commission is supposed to have done. I thought that they (MDs) should have built skills acquisition centers to give our youths something to do. I love what Governor Okowa is doing, what is called ‘Delta after Oil’.
That should have been the initiative of the NDDC, training the young people to think outside oil. Even if oil doesn’t dry up soon, the price may crash as we have seen as a result of COVID-19 and even before the pandemic came. Why can’t we start from somewhere?
Those producing aircraft, do they have more than one head? Today we don’t have shipyards where we can build boats when we have waterfront in the Niger Delta. We just want to remain importers, consumers. I thought that those that had been there as managers of the NDDC all these while will have laid good foundation for the economic development of the area. Indeed the situation is disappointing, it is unfortunate.
Some people have expressed the opinion that poor funding was responsible for the poor performance of NDDC managers. Do you agree?
The issue we should be looking at is how the managers had spent what we have been given so far, and not poor funding. Even if you are given one naira, let us see what you have done with it. There must be accountability. And when you award contract to someone who comes from another part of the country to execute in the region, how do you expect that person to deliver on the job? So these are the issues.
Do you support the opinion that the situation at the NDDC has worsened under the Buhari administration because it is not interested in developing the Niger Delta?
It is pathetic that after 20 years of the creation of NDDC, the region has not achieved anything in terms of development. The NDDC was established to address our challenges. Since independence the area had been so marginalized, and neglected in terms of appointments and infrastructural development, apart from the few industries that were set up by the militaryregime such as the Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria (ALSCON), in Ikot Abasi local government area, the Nigerian Newsprint Manufacturing Company, NNMC, at Oku-Iboku, and of course there was the National Fertilizer Company of Nigeria in Rivers State.
It was the military also that built the Port Harcourt and Warri refineries. But all those industries are dead. But what about projects like roads, rail lines to link the Niger Delta to other parts of the country except the East-West Road that was initiated by former President Obasanjo which we are even praying that this government will be able to complete through the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, my brother Godswill Akpabio.
The Niger Delta has not been given corresponding reward for the fact that the region contributes 85 per cent of the resources of Nigeria because of oil. It was even the pressure, agitations from the people that led to the establishment of the NDDC in 2000, and the inclusion of 13 per cent derivation in the 1999 Constitution as amended. Suffice to say that much has not been done for the region under this current administration.
The people of the region were happy when the President said he was going to conduct a forensic audit to see how the resources released to the NDDC all these while were utilized. That exercise was supposed to last for six months, but till today we don’t know what is happening. The result of the forensic audit has not been published. It is necessary that they publish the result for us to know who have been shortchanging Niger Delta, or those awarded contracts and how they utilized the money meant to develop the region, the projects they executed? I had expected that, through that agency, the Niger Delta should have first class facilities, ranging from hospitals to schools, power, just like the ones we see abroad.
And we should be able to find out why the North-East Development Commission (NEDC) is established such that the managers, policy developers, initiators, implementers are only northerners, and, in the NDDC, people from other sections of Nigeria are allowed to be nominal participants in terms of policy formulation. Why should that of the Niger Delta be different?
What efforts have federal lawmakers from Akwa Ibom made to attract projects to the state?
We have been working together. Of course we are all members of the same political party, the PDP. We hold meetings regularly. The last meeting was hosted by Senator Akon Eyakenyi representing Akwa Ibom South. It was supposed to be my turn in December but this didn’t happen because the Senate and House of Representatives were busy with the 2021 budget which was passed on December 21, 2021.
There was no time for such meeting to take place because on the 22nd of December we all traveled for Christmas holiday. So, there is synergy between senators and members of the House of Representatives from Akwa Ibom and we are working to attract projects to the state.
When Senator Akon Eyakenyi brought a bill demanding for the Maritime Academy at Oron to be upgraded to a university, all of us keyed into it, all of us in the Senate supported the bill. Also I brought the motion on the issue of the abandoned Aba-Ikot Ekpene Road, Ikot Ekpene-Umuahia Road, Ikot Ekpene -Odukpani -Calabar Road and others supported me. During the budget defence by the Minister of Works and Housing, he said the road was not done due to paucity of funds.
And I asked why us because we are aware he awarded contracts to other sections of the country, particularly the northern section. I reminded him that the coastal areas should also be considered because of our contribution to the economy of this country, and he gave his word that they were going to look into it when rain subsides.
And we are now in the dry season, the rain has subsided, so as we resume I will follow up on that issue. And it was on our front burner to speak to the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, to ensure that whatever was the impediment on giving approval to the Ibom Deep Seaport should be removed. But sooner than later the governor was able to achieve that.
Many Niger Deltans believe that inability of leaders, especially at the national level, to lobby contributes to dearth of infrastructure in the region. What is your take on that?
That is not correct, we do lobby, but lack of cooperation from those in the executive is an impediment. Within the legislature I can assure you there is synergy. Since I went to the Senate, I have not set my eyes on my brother who is the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Mr Godswill Akpabio. Ours is to make laws, they are the ones given envelopes.
And because I thought that within the limit of the envelope, he will be able to prioritize, I decided to write to him and forwarded list of capital projects to be considered in the budgetary provisions to him, but up till today he has not responded. He is in the executive and the executive implements, we only make laws and also draw attention of the executive to areas of importance that will touch the lives of the people.
I thought there should be a kind of synergy between him and all of us members in the National Assembly. I don’t know, it could be that he is talking to other senators, but he has not spoken with me. I have made attempts to call him, but he never returned my calls. I wrote him and the letter was delivered to his ministry because I have the acknowledgement of the receipt of the letter. But he has not responded to say if he has considered those projects, especially roads, I recommended to him or not.
How do you react to calls for Akpabio’s sack by some Niger Delta groups and individuals who allege that he is misleading the President on NDDC?
What are the sins he committed and how can he be misleading the President? If you read the Act establishing the NDDC, it says that the President shall superintend over the affairs of the NDDC. And if the President in his wisdom assigns the responsibility to his Minister of Niger Delta, it is not Akpabio that is exercising that responsibility on his behalf that should be held responsible, but the President who assigned him that responsibility.
I am not making a case for Akpabio but I am talking from the position of the law. So if something is going wrong in the NDDC, the blame should be put on the President. The President should be the one to be questioned. In his wisdom he chose to carry out a forensic audit of the NDDC beginning from the time it was established. And people believe that whoever he nominates to oversee the process must be someone the people accept. And if the people do not trust that person he chose for that responsibility, they have the right to ask Mr. President why he chose somebody they do not trust. However, I am not hoping for any positive outcome from the forensic audit. Maybe we should find out if the President is even being truthful in his actions and decisions or if he is just manipulating the Niger Delta people until his tenure ends.
Do you think Akpabio is still angry that you won the 2019 Senate election which he also contested?
It was a contest and two people cannot win at the same time. In every contest there must be a loser and a winner. By the grace of God I was the winner in the contest for the Ikot Ekpene senatorial election in 2019. He won in 2007 as a governor and he had said he defeated 51 others. But this time, it was just between me and him and I defeated him.