By Donu Kogbara
SENATOR Godswill Akpabio, the former Governor of Akwa Ibom State, has been controversial and embattled – to put it mildly! – since he became Minister of Niger Delta Affairs in 2019. First, he got presidential approval to initiate a “forensic audit” of the notoriously tangled finances and opaque operations of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC.
Then he announced that the forensic audit would be supervised solely by an interim management committee, IMC, that had only three members from Rivers, Delta and Akwa Ibom (an Acting MD and two Executive Directors of Finance/Admin and Projects)…despite, as Akpabio’s numerous critics repeatedly pointed out, NDDC being set up to serve the interests of nine states (Ondo, Edo Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Abia, Imo).
It didn’t help that all of the three IMC members were Akpabio’s nominees…much to the chagrin of other Niger Deltan VIPs, who felt that they had a right to be consulted about NDDC appointments.
Then, after a series of particularly sensational dramas, including the woman who was Akpabio’s first Acting MD accusing him of sexual harassment when she was sacked, the seemingly robust Executive Director Finance/Admin dying and Akpabio’s second Acting MD fainting at a National Assembly hearing when he was quizzed about fraud allegations, Akpabio audaciously manoevred the IMC off the stage and installed Effiong Okon Akwa as Sole Administrator.
It has to be said that Akwa (a lawyer and accountant) is amply qualified for the job on paper; but he happens to be from the same state as Minister Akpabio, a fact that has exposed Akpabio to chronic cronyism allegations and exacerbated the representation deficit that was bad enough when there were three IMC members.
Furthermore, Akwa is presiding over a payment system that is depressingly inequitable at best and downright corrupt at worst. The word on the grapevine is that honest, hard-working contractors who have performed are being forced to beg and endlessly wait for money that they have earned, while government buddies or blackmailers who haven’t added value are being enriched. While all this nonsense is going on within the intervention agency that Akpabio controls, we have still not seen any forensic audit report; and a toxic new drama is brewing on a Federal highway. The dangerously and frustratingly dilapidated Rivers State section of the East West Road, which stretches from Eleme Junction to Onne Junction has been a users’ nightmare for a long time.
Akpabio’s Ministry is supposed to be fixing the road; and because no progress has been made, activists have been blocking it all week. The terrible condition of the road prevents my Ogoni brethen from freely shuttling between their villages and Port Harcourt. Okrika, Andoni and Opobo natives are also being inconvenienced. And Ogoni leaders and youths are saying “enough is enough” and have decided to take matters into their own hands. According to Celestine Akpobari, a community-based human rights campaigner from Ogoniland: “People actually sleep in their cars on that road during the rainy season because it becomes impassable.”
Akpobari recently met Akpabio (they are, incidentally, both members of the Governing Council of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project); and he’s not happy about Akpabio’s modus operandi regarding the East West Road.
“We have been pushed to the wall,” he says. “And protests will be ongoing until we get what we deserve.” According to Hon. Emma Deeyah, President of KAGOTE, the organisation that covers all four Ogoni local government areas: “The Minister assured me during a telephone conversation we had last Sunday night that he was coming to Port Harcourt physically, the next day being Monday, July 26, to meet with us.
“However, he sent his Permanent Secretary, who delivered his address. And there are gaps in the address that I will need him to fill, meaning that we are still waiting for his visit. Ultimately, we are demanding that the project funding should be done by the Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund as initially proposed and approved by Mr. President instead of the present plan of the Minister to source for funds by and within the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs…”
As I write, youths are still blockading the road. Watch this space to find out whether the Minister will do the needful. I will keep you posted. Regular readers of this column will know that I have expressed, in the past, a soft spot for Akpabio…and defended him against endless attacks.
But even I am struggling to still believe in Akpabio. Last Christmas, I went to see him and told him that I wanted him to become a superlative driver of development that I and other people from our geopolitical zone could look up to.
I genuinely like the man because he can be warm and witty and is whip-smart. But even I am tired of his failure to ensure that NDDC is run properly, his failure to adequately deal with legitimate complaints and his failure to fulfil the tremendous potential that he displayed when he was governor of Akwa Ibom. Even I can no longer summon up the enthusiasm to stand by him when he is being vilified.
We Niger Deltans are always bitterly grumbling about the fact that our region has been shortchanged by outsiders. And we love to accuse Fulanis, Yorubas and Igbos of messing with us. But, often, the short-changing we constantly endure is being masterminded by our own kith and kin.
The sad truth is that most Niger Deltan leaders at both state and Federal levels not only lack moral authority, but the balls and imagination to stand up for our rights and identify creative solutions to our problems.