By Egufe Yafugborhi
Amid the storm over the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), lawyer and former President of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Ledum Mitee, in this interview, says the fuss over Interim Management, forensic audit and sundry agitations are academic as changing the narrative of the agency as a patronage outfit of the Presidency should be the overriding worry. Excerpts:
Rot in NDDC has been common knowledge for long, only it hasn’t been this intense. What has been your view of this rot?
NDDC is a bundle of confusion from conceptualisation. Niger Delta is an area afflicted by adverse environmental difficulties which make it a challenge for development. There are areas you need to first reclaim land before talking of erecting roads and other infrastructures. There was, therefore, need for affirmative action for the development of this very hostile environment. This was part of the agitations of the region’s people even before independence which led to the setting up of the Niger Delta Development Board.
Unfortunately, oil was now found in the region. And oil has its own problems including pollution and associated setbacks. We then have two problems in one area. Before the Obasanjo administration, there was no pretence about what the Oil Minerals Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) was. It was targeting oil producing communities. When the Obasanjo administration came, there was so much agitation in the Niger Delta and then-President wanted to show he was concerned. He now set up the NDDC.
Before NDDC, the Abdulsalami Abubakar administration’s OMPADEC Decree of 1998, in my view, was the best piece of legislation anyone had done. Abdulsalami consulted far and wide and listened to all. I remember on one occasion he invited the Ijaw National Congress President, I as then MOSOP President, and some other stakeholders and we discussed issues of development of the region. On another occasion, he called all Military Administrators in the region at the time, called the incoming civilian governors then and his ministers for a meeting that lasted nearly nine hours.
He asked each of the Milads and Ministers to tell him those things they claimed they had been doing in the region. He found out that most of what they were telling him did not represent what was on ground. The outcome was the OMPADEC Decree in which he charged the commission with the responsibility to development the oil producing areas according to priorities set by the communities. And the board was to aggregate what came from the ground.
And so each community was to have a CDC to set agenda or development priorities for the community. It went from there to the local government level. So these were the desires the OMPADEC was to aggregate. Unfortunately that did not see light of the day because Obasanjo came and repealed that decree, and brought NDDC which now deals with peculiar issues of the Niger Delta and those associated with oil.
It became like someone who has malaria and typhoid and you now expect him to take Fansidar to cure both. It won’t work because there are two different ailments and so you must have one medicine for malaria and a separate one for typhoid to get the right result. The peculiar challenges of the Niger Delta remain. Oil associated issues are added problems.
If you find oil in Maiduguri now, you will experience the pollution and sundry exploration negative impact, but the way they made the NDDC Act, anywhere you have oil automatically becomes Niger Delta, part of the fundamental flaws. And in Section 7 of the NDDC Act, it is clear that the commission is just an agency of the Presidency and states clearly that all what it does is subject to the control, direction and supervision of the President. And in practice, NDDC has been doing well as a patronage machine of the Presidency. Let me tell you what a top management official of the NDDC once told me. He said “the marching order was given to me from Abuja, that this is an outfit I am to use to empower supporters of the Presidency in the Niger Delta”.
And that is what he has been doing, a means by which the Presidency empowers people here. So, when you look at it, no President can sit down today and, without any interference, do a truly independent audit of the NDDC, because some of the funds from the commission went back to Abuja, some went into elections. That is the situation we’ve found ourselves in the region.
Even as flawed as the establishment Act is, no Section says the President must use it for elections or help his supporters. Is the real problem not then in the flagrant abuse of the Act?
What is clear is that what the agency is doing is subject to the control of the President. I am not sure that even the management does all the things it is doing consciously, but courtesy of the powers up there. On this pedestal, was NDDC conceived to develop the Niger Delta? I doubt. It is just a patronage agency.
Of late apparently, I think the situation has gone worse. Let’s not pretend. Even in Obasanjo’s time, there were some sparks here and there. They came up with a master plan and all of that, but, of late, people have almost given up on what NDDC is. And I am not excited about this so much focus of late on what is happening because, if we are not careful, it is going to result into using the commission as scapegoat for the non-development of the region.
The buck stops on the table of one person, the President. We should not run away from it, NDDC is not doing the East-West Road. Why is it that for the past four years, we’ve not been able to get one extra km of the East-West completed? It’s not just an NDDC thing. Why can’t we get the Ministry of Water Resources, of Works, Education, to give us anything? Are we excluded because NDDC has been put there?
That why I am not excited one bit about all this forensic audit drama, because one, what people want is change in their lives, not for people to go and look for the money officials embezzled in the past because nothing will come out of it. Track it very well and you see that it entered into elections of people who will now sit over the outcome of such audit. Besides, there already exist records of anything you want to track there. I was the Chairman of NEITI. We published, I think in 2015, the report of fiscal allocation and service disbursement audit to track funds from the extractive industry. NDDC became the focal point of that report and there were sordid details in that report.
Two weeks ago, NEITI published another report on it. There are several reports out there that if you want to do things, you can do. Let’s not be deluded. We will set up forensic audit for electricity that has gone down? Or some parts of the East-West Road now, people can’t pass and that is the flagship project in the Niger Delta. Why is focus not on forensic audit on why that road is not completed?
My view is that since NDDC is supposed to do things subject to the control of the President, what the President needs to do is to direct that, ‘Please, I want you people from now to change from what it has been. Don’t become patronage for my people who are here. Go and do things in the Niger Delta’. That’s the marching order that will affect lives of people here.
Apparently in making the necessary change, the President has ascribed supervisory role to the Ministry and the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs (MNDA). Is that a step in the right direction against dissenting voices?
Being a cash-cow, the Minister, Akpabio, calls the NDDC an ATM machine. It is quite alright, but what he didn’t go further to say is who holds the ATM card? You will find out that the ATM, contrary to public perception, is not in the hands, so much, of Niger Delta people. It is in Abuja. If you have an ATM machine and you don’t have an ATM card, you can’t take money. So, it has always been, for whatever reason, put in the hands of the Presidency. So, it makes sense to me that NDDC should rather be under MNDA because the ministry should not say they are not doing this and NDDC say they are doing that.
I don’t see any problem about a supervisory ministry over a parastatal from the region. The concern is about what to do to move things forward. NDDC is the most bureaucratic entity you can ever see in this country. You have a Management Committee, a board, you have the Governors Advisory Forum, you have Presidential Monitoring Committee, you have Senate Committee on the Niger Delta, and the House Committee on the Niger Delta. All these are channels things are going through except the Governors Forum which they have excluded of late from what they are doing. If you go into NDDC, you can a see a project state governors are claiming, NDDC is claiming, oil companies are claiming.
This is not right. How do we take a break from that and do what works? Why haven’t we asked ourselves, why is it that construction giants, the Julius Bergers and RCCs of the world are not taking jobs from NDDC? All these companies know that most of those jobs are not supposed to be done. They are just patronage. NDDC well run should have global partners to do certain things, but because of how it is run, development agencies keep a distance from it. All reputable construction firms keep a distance from it and it is known to the authorities. Let’s not pretend that it is a forensic audit that will bring one meaningful change. There’s nobody that doesn’t know how that outfit is.
If you are not bothered whether the President places supervision on the MNDA, are you still not worried that the President’s substantive nominees have been cleared by the Senate and they now have to wait how long for an Interim Management Committee (IMC) before taking over?
The buck stops with one person. In inaugurating the IMC, the Minister said the President had approved such an interim board. The Senate didn’t just screen anybody from the blues. It is the letter from the President that took those nominees to the Senate. Senate have done their work. Having finished their work, they now sent it back to the same President who also nominated the interim board.
The question is how does the President go on from here? It is he who takes the decision. If he feels he has the substantive board, interim go, they go. If he allows interim to continue, then people can now ask, ‘why did you bother to send the list if you are allowing these people to stay?’ But the buck stops with him. Whatever Akpabio is doing is the delegated authority of the President. He’s not acting on his own. It is academic to debate what has happened when the person who has responsibility should override. If there’s confusion, he created it, and it is for him to resolve.
Number one, change the conceptual attitude from a patronage agency to actual intervention agency. We might need to amend the law to go back to the bottom up approach for a commission charged with the development of a Niger Delta according to priorities set by those communities. Community A’s priorities might be water, but that might not be community B or C’s priority. They may need a road to evacuate agricultural produce.
It is when you scratch someone where it itches that the person feels grateful. When my back itches me and you scratch on my leg, I would shout you are pinching me. That’s why government is not getting the public relations benefit from how much money they say they have spent, because they are scratching the masses where it doesn’t itch them. You are doing solar streets lights in communities where there are no roads, no water.
Since the law says in carrying out its functions, NDDC must be subject to presidential control, even within ambit of the law as it were, the President can direct this board coming, whether interim or whatever nomenclature, and say “this is what I want you to do. Go to all the areas, meet each of them to give you their priorities. And go work on those things like from yesterday”.
You can also direct that “what I want you to do is something regional in appeal”. Partnering with the state governors, you can direct that from Ondo to Calabar, there should be a fast rail to ease transport across the region. While I was Chairman of Niger Delta Technical Committee, based on assumption that East-West Road was almost finished, we took our focus off East-West and thought of a Coastal Road to connect the region. And NDDC and MNDA have spent huge sums on the design of that Coastal Road. These are the things we want to see. And let the President add that, “from now on, if anyone tells you that I sent him to come to collect 300 contracts and all that, don’t listen to them”.
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