IT is not far from being correct to describe the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) as a theatre of the absurd, given the flurry of negative news reports emanating from the place in recent months. The reports are neither strange nor novel, though, at least to those familiar with government’s efforts to bring succour to the people of the Niger Delta who have been crying over the region’s neglect by successive Federal Governments, through the instrumentality of NDDC and similar initiatives before it. Indeed, given the antecedents of the commission’s progenitor, the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC), established in 1992, it can safely be assumed that NDDC is just acting to type.
Perhaps the spectacular thing this time around is that even as the commission is being investigated, when one would have expected some sobriety in the place, the absurdities seem not in a hurry to abate. As one chapter is tentatively closing, another opens, almost in a manner to suggest the changing never changing, that is if not to give the impression outright that the inquiry into the commission’s operations, particularly its finances, is nothing but a huge joke.
The bile this time around is the news making the round that the commission bought some vehicles for forensic auditors who are looking into its finances. The forensic audit was ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari in August, last year, to probe the commission’s activities since its establishment in 2000. Prof. Kemebradikumo Pondei, NDDC’s Acting Managing Director, handed over what he referred to as ‘additional tools’ to the auditors on November 12, at the commission’s new permanent headquarters in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital. They included 10 Hilux vehicles and five buses.
“We are here to hand over more tools to the auditors to assist them in the ongoing forensic audit of the commission.
“We hope that at the end of the day, the forensic audit will unravel a lot of things that have gone wrong in the commission”, Pondei said at the occasion. He added, rather audaciously, that the forensic audit was not a witch hunt “…but just for us to truly know the state of things and recommend a way forward and make sure that the commission delivers on its core mandate.”
It is gratifying that some activists in the region, under the auspices of Niger Delta Rights Advocates (NDRA) have seen through this absurdity and condemned it in strong terms. This is, as they said, the Federal Government had approved huge sums of money to facilitate the auditors’ job, which the commission had paid to them. According to NDRA’s spokesperson, Darlington Nwauju, the Federal Executive Council (FEC), in February, approved N318 million for the lead consultant (Messrs Olumuyiwa Basiru). This was followed by another N722million approved in August by the Federal Government for eight field auditors to support the lead consultants, besides N641million paid to a communications firm to help the commission identify its own projects.
We agree with the activists that the purchase of the vehicles is disturbing, especially, as they said, “given the fact that the forensic audit remains a defining moment in the history of the Niger Delta, and is capable of causing a positive turnaround in the operational capability and delivery capacity of the interventionist agency.”
It is sad that what some people have expected to be a probe that would end all probes concerning the stench in the NDDC is fast turning into a farce. Regrettably, the foundation for the unfolding absurdities could be traced to the past. Pondei was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari on February 19, 2020, under very controversial circumstances.
Ordinarily, then, his about eight months tenure is also to be audited by the forensic auditors.
But barely five months after assuming office, his tenure had become so controversial as to warrant legislative inquiry in July, during which, curiously, he fainted in the course of the proceedings into allegations of extra-budgetary expenditure running into billions of naira, incurred between February when he took over, and July 20 when he faced the panel.
But it is not only Pondei’s tenure that is controversial, even his appointment and the establishment of the interim management committee (IMC) that he heads have remained a source of controversy. The IMC was established by the Minister of the Niger Delta, Godswill Akpabio, curiously after the Senate had confirmed the list of the commission’s board members sent to it by the President in November, last year.
Again, curiously, President Buhari not only ratified the setting up of the IMC but went ahead to expand its membership from three to five, and replaced its then head, Joy Nunieh, with Pondei, apparently following disagreements between the minister and Nunieh. He also announced the extension of the IMC’s tenure by another six months.
The impression was thus created that the IMC was instituted to clear the Augean stable in the commission, an action which was widely criticised because it has no place in the statute books of the NDDC. More important, it was in flagrant disrespect to the Senate which had confirmed the nominations of the board members presented to it. Why interim committee after the confirmation of board members?
It is the same Pondei’s management that is a subject of probe, that has now gone ahead to buy operational vehicles for forensic auditors probing the commission’s finances. This is a new low elsewhere even if we accept that it is not uncommon in the NDDC where impunity perpetually reigns supreme. Perhaps nothing justifies this than the fact that the vehicles were not quietly presented to the auditors, the presentation was done in the full glare of the public. Obviously, the commission has lost its sense of what is fit and proper and what is reprehensible. How then can anything good come out of such forensic audit? As things stand, the integrity of the audit is already compromised, and this is regrettable.
It is sad because the NDDC was established as an interventionist agency to bring development to the distraught Niger Delta region, the goose that is laying the golden egg for the entire country.
Unfortunately, as things stand, the commission would appear in need of intervention itself. The point must be stressed though that those perpetuating impunity in the commission are continually emboldened to commit even worse atrocities because of the overt backing they seem to be getting from the supervising ministry and even the Presidency. Ordinarily, Pondei should have been asked to step aside during the House of Representatives probe in July, considering the grave allegations against his management team. At any rate, what has become of the much celebrated probe? Perhaps we have heard the last on the matter.
We must make the point that successive governments had established interventionist agencies to see to the development of the Niger Delta, but this is not enough. The agencies must be made to run based on global best practices, especially considering the huge resources at their disposal. Not only must the economics be right, the politics must be right too.
But it is rather sad that those that should be called ‘sons and daughters of the soil’ that should be passionate about reversing the underdevelopment narratives in the region are the ones further entrenching it.
On the specific issue of operational vehicles, we want to submit that the process is already tainted by that singular action of vehicles purchased for the auditors. Who audits the money spent to buy the vehicles? We agree with NDRA that ““Since perception counts in the discharge of public service, we query the purpose for the purchase of these vehicles and consider it inappropriate and therefore falls short of internationally acceptable benchmark for doing a thorough forensic audit of the operations of an agency so blatantly blighted with the scourge of corruption.”
Perhaps it is time to ask Pondei to step aside to give way for a thorough investigation that would be free from people with partisan interests. The Niger Delta can never get the desired dividend from the interventionist agency until politicians and its managers stop seeing it as a cash cow.