Fellow Nigerians, I am at pains to point out that our failing country is a crime scene. I am not kidding. There is no better description for what our beloved fatherland has become. For emphasis, the entire Nigerian landscape of 923,768 km2 (356,669 sq mi), making it the world’s 32nd-largest country is a mammoth crime scene. Some would agree with me this is unarguably the biggest crime scene in the world. There is no denying that what we have on our hands is a country that has receded from those basic values that make other countries tick; that have put them on an enviable pedestal such that they are now reference points for others to emulate.
The country has become the land of gangsters, buccaneers, kidnappers, cultists, devilish terrorists (some of whom have been caught and released by a government too eager to downplay their atrocities), thieving politicians, government officials, security agents and their collaborators who steal without a care in the world; and sadly, we have a totally inept, incompetent and directionless government that indulges their bad behaviour.
Today, Nigeria is in pure confusion and chaos, with mind-boggling revelations of the mess in Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). With the complete lack of outrage from a government that has consistently beaten its own worst record of indifference to public anger, it is obvious nothing will come out of the various probes. I dare say, what we know so far is just a tip of the iceberg. The intervention agency is a cesspool of corruption, massively inflated contracts, influence peddling, abuse of the noble objective for which it was established which was to make the impact of the oil revenue felt in the oil-producing areas by way of infrastructure development.
The sons and daughters of the region have sadly in collusion with the power brokers and people from other regions frustrated the realisation of the noble goals for which the commission was created. A few impetuous people have turned the development agency into their ATM. An appointment into the agency is now the equivalent of winning the lottery sweepstakes. NDDC contractors in collaboration with the agency’s officials have perfected the art of getting contracts, collecting huge upfront payments and then abandoning the work without consequences.
You see, cunning comes as second nature to many a Nigerian government official. While the Covid-19 pandemic was sweeping across all nations on earth, NDDC officials saw it as an opportunity to line their pockets in the name of the virus palliatives. They were busy looting, not even thinking whether they would survive the ravaging virus that had already proved to be no respecter of anybody. This is simply a homegrown tragedy in thinking, character, behaviour, orientation and vision.
Prominent sons and daughters of the region have become the greatest threats to the progress and development of that zone. It is one of the most heart-wrenching paradoxes for a region so rich, and yet so poor. It is difficult to understand the leaders of this zone. A commission established to somewhat midwife the rebirth of their zone is being roundly looted?
From the so-called militants who were kidnapping people and breaking oil pipelines to draw attention to the neglect of the region, to the managers of NDDC and its numerous shadowy contractors, political and otherwise, to local representatives, up to leaders of thought from the region, politicians, lawmakers, state governors, right up to the presidency which has failed colossally to take action concerning the large-scale mismanagement of the commission, the tragedy of the Nigerian nation is laid bare for the world to see.
Angered by rotten revelations from various probes as well as weighty allegations against the Minister of Niger Delta, Godswill Akpabio, I decided to dig deeper into the mess to understand why the commission is failing so badly. Here are the findings from my personal investigation: The rot is not just about naira and kobo as important as that may be. Add to what is already in the public domain is the mess which is yet to filter through.
The NDDC is bedeviled by political and bureaucratic incompetence. Close to half the workforce is redundant and about that same percentage is incompetent. There is a thriving culture of mediocrity where the only exceptional trait is the ability of the civil servants to steal big money from the system. In truth, there were efforts by past managements of the commission, specifically under Mr. Timi Alaibe and Chibuzor Ugwoha, to improve staff welfare and bring conditions at par with what obtains even in the oil and financial sectors. But this has not curbed the huge appetite for big thievery in the commission by civil servants.
At the political level, the National Assembly knows there is big money to be accessed in the commission. That is why the defence of the budget of the commission in the National Assembly is often as crucial as the defence of the national budget itself. It is in the pre-defence preparations that the National Assembly members do a lot of arm-twisting to reorder the commission’s budgets. In the end, what the lawmakers approve is a world different from the original proposals of the commission.
Clauses and projects as already made public are inserted freely for the benefit of members who insist that the budget to be operated is the one approved by them and which has the signature of the Chairmen of the Senate and House Committees on NDDC on every page of the document. Is it not puzzling that Nicholas Mutu, representing Bomadi Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, and James Manager, representing Delta South in the Senate, became permanent chairmen of the Committees on NDDC in the House of Representatives and Senate respectively? The missing link is provided by the fact that close to 50 per cent of the projects of the commission meant for Delta State usually got shared between the duo when they both held sway.
Now I ask, what kind of system makes it possible for a serving senator to be awarded 300 contracts by an agency of government he has oversight power over? According to the Acting Executive Director of Projects, Cairo Ojougboh, 120 of the contracts awarded to Senator James Manager had been fully paid for with nothing much to show on the ground. Ditto House of Representatives member, Nicholas Mutu was said to have enjoyed a bazaar of contracts from the same NDDC. Is this not the height of corruption? Senator James Manager, Nicholas Mutu and others have perfected ways of stifling NDDC for their personal benefits and yet claim to be representing their people?
An average director at NDDC is a billionaire. Go and check them out and see the lifestyle they are living. Compare it with how they lived before they joined NDDC, the difference will be clear to you. The more money they steal, the more they yearn for. They have all mastered the art of creating fraudulent budget subheads to steal monies meant for development of the region and menaced anyone with good intentions into silence. The astonishing thing about the mess going on in that important intervention agency is that the crime-busting agencies are said to have evidence incriminating many persons in several petitions sent to them but have curiously looked the other way. The same way no heads have rolled at the agency despite the sordid revelations thus far. Without a doubt, NDDC is only a metaphor for all that is wrong with Nigeria. There is countrywide looting of the commonwealth with no deterrence measures or consequences whatsoever.
Let us now examine how NDDC got to this sorry pass so that we can suggest a pathway to progress. At the root of the problem is the way the commission was structured. It was structured to entrench politics and mediocrity as reward for failed politicians, and ultimately to fail. More could have been done to insulate it from politics to safeguard its goals.
NDDC has three administrative components: First is the board headed by the chairman and a representative from the nine NDDC states, namely Rivers, Bayelsa, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Imo, Abia, Edo, Ondo and Delta. There are also representatives each from the Finance Ministry, Ministry of Environment, the IOCs and the non-oil producing states. The second component is the Executive Management Team comprising the Managing Director and the two Executive Directors in charge of projects and finance. The third is the bureaucracy made up of the directors and other public servants.
The first two components comprise political appointees and that is where the problem begins. The appointments are usually done to distribute political patronage. Even so, the executive management team remains the most crucial yet the most politicised because it is the team that has power over the disbursement of funds. That is why today for instance, a failed medical doctor and politician operates as an Executive Director, Projects of the commission! A personal assistant to the former Delta State governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan had also held that office. His only work experience was that he completed his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) to become a personal assistant to Uduaghan from where he was appointed as the Director of Projects of the multi-billion naira agency. In a normal well-run and structured organisations, can such an anomaly happen? But this is Nigeria where everything is done in reverse to goals and objectives.
Due to politics, this all-important administrative organ of the commission is as mediocre as they come. If President Muhammadu Buhari can muster the political will to professionalise the executive management team, most of the issues would be taken care of.
On why NDDC is plagued by so many abandoned projects, here is my observation from interacting with some former NDDC staff: Except for the political contractors, the real contractors of the commission do try most times to deliver on agreed terms even though in most cases the contracts are heavily inflated. According to a former staff, “When projects get abandoned by the real contractors, it could be as a result of payment lapses; a situation that arises when the commission is unable to meet its own commitment as a result of plundered finances. The thing to note is that so much cannot leave a system unaccounted for and still hope to get so much that will be accounted for. It is a negation of simple accounting principles.”
Now, what do we do to get NDDC out of the current mess so that it can fulfill its mandate? The government should first and foremost return NDDC back to the presidency, as abuses in the agency have escalated since it was moved to the Ministry of Niger Delta and also remove the appendages of politics in the recruitment process. Subject the recruitment of the managing director and his executive directors to international best practice and let the most qualified persons be appointed to run it. They should be people with a real background in development. All this will unarguably eliminate the propensity for wholesale thievery. The practice of appointing failed politicians to head the place is clearly counterproductive and fuels a culture of impunity and avarice. They see such appointments as compensation and not a call to service. I dare say even the appointing authority actually know this to be true but nevertheless go ahead with appointing such people. Such appointees resume work t with eyes on the purse.
A second proposal is that the oil and gas companies, which are statutorily required to contribute three percent of their annual budgets to the NDCC, should be given representation on the agency’s board, preferably in the capacity of an Independent Non-Executive Director (INED), who has previous board experience, with the wherewithal to champion corporate governance tenets and provide oversight in the way the NDDC is run.
It is rather bewildering that the international oil companies (IOCs), in particular, which have mostly been in compliance with this statutory requirement, have continued to look the other way despite all the looting and corruption that has taken place in the commission. After all, it is in their interest that the NDDC lives up to its mandate as an interventionist agency in the Niger Delta region where they operate – not just from a transparent point of view, but from a security and developmental perspective.
Are these companies saying they have no interest whatsoever in how their contributions are spent? If I contribute as much as three percent of my annual budget to the development of an area, I will sure take more than a casual interest in how the money is deployed in advancing the development of that region. Why are the IOCs not asking questions considering the huge resources committed to NDDC and with virtually nothing to show for it all these years? This to me shows lack of genuine commitment to the region.
The Media Relations Manager, Shell Nigeria, Bamidele Odugbesan, stated last year that between the inception of NDDC in 2002 and the end of 2018, SPDC JV parties, SNEPCo and its co-venture partners contributed $2 billion to the NDDC. Why is Shell and its partners not outraged by the large-scale mismanagement of their contributions?
There is no doubt that a well-developed Niger Delta is in the interest of the IOCs – in terms of security, operational stability and economic prosperity of both the IOCs and the people of the region. Yet these companies have shown scant interest in how their massive contributions are being deployed or frittered away by unscrupulous management teams at NDDC in cahoots with rapacious bandit politicians.