Why Buhari must stop Akpabio’s circus at the NDDC, By Abiye Tolofari

The sack of Ms Joi Nunieh on Wednesday February 19th 2019, barely four and half months after she was appointed Acting Managing Director of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is yet another chapter in the quagmire that the agency has been plunged into since Godswill Akpabio was appointed the Minister of Niger Delta and handed supervision of the agency. The sack, which was announced in a terse statement signed by President Buhari’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, also announced a new acting managing director and two new members of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) set up by Akpabio on October 29, 2019.

While no reasons were given for the Nunieh’s sack, reports indicate that she had fallen out with Akpabio and the minister had promised to deal with her, a threat he obviously made good on. Well, Akpabio appointed, Akpabio sacked. Period.
Nunieh does not deserve pity, some have argued, and it is no surprise that there are no murmurs anywhere because she made herself available for Akpabio’s scheme to be used to scuttle the constitution of a proper Board for the commission with the reward of heading the interim management committee. It is particularly shameful because she did this just after she was announced as a member of the Board appointed by President Buhari to represent Rivers State and had made an appearance before the Police Federal Investigation Bureau for scrutiny as demanded of all nominees. That board was eventually approved by the senate on November 5th 2019, a week after the IMC was set up. She sold herself cheap and got just what she deserved. Hers is the case of a classical use-and-dump.

Yet, while one is tempted to sit back and say that Nunieh deserves what has come her way having made herself an accomplice in Akpabio’s scheme to personally control the NDDC through the interim management committee just when the president had appointed a substantive board and sent the names for screening by the senate, her sack and the appointment of new members into the IMC barely four months after the committee was set up renews the questions over the propriety of the ad-hoc arrangement which the minister has trumpeted as necessary to supervise the forensic audit. The appointment drew protests from various groups in the region who wondered why a board that was nominated should be so whimsically set aside for a committee answerable only to the minister. Groups such as the Ijaw Youth Council, Urhobo Progressive Movement, Itsekiri Progressive Front, Oron Movement and several influential voices were loud in protesting, insisting that the IMC was Akpabio’s plan to control the agency directly. Eric Omare, president of Ijaw Youth Council, the foremost youth association in the Niger Delta, said in a press statement issued on October 29 2019, the day the Nunieh committee was announced: “The activities of Chief Akpabio since his appointment as Minister of Niger Delta Affairs have led to instability and confusion in the Niger Delta region especially with respect to the management of the NDDC. We make bold to state that Akpabio’s intention in setting up an interim management committee with one of his political loyalist Chief Ibanga Bassey Etang as Acting Executive Director, Finance and Administration is to use the NDDC to promote personal aggrandizement at the expense of the development of the Niger Delta region.”

Allegations of sleaze have attended the work of the committee since it was appointed and these would seem to justify this fear and make clear why the IMC should be scrapped immediately and a board inaugurated for the NDDC. There is indeed a feeling of déjà vu after the crisis that has hit the IMC.

The sack of Nunieh has exposed the grey underbelly of the NDDC under Akpabio and how it has continued in the tradition of fraud and waste. The reason that was given for the appointment of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) and the stay of the Board was the need to cleanse the NDDC. So much PR (public relations) capital had been made out of corruption in the NDDC with Nunieh herself not failing to grab the spotlight to highlight one major discovery of fraud or the other. No sooner had she come in than the faced allegations of paying one Cyrus and Jenny Limited, a company in which she was a director, the sum of N326.3 Million for a contract it got in 2016 for emergency repair of Beeri Internal roads in Khana LGA of Rivers State. A search by whistleblowers at the Corporate Affairs Commission in December 2019 listed her as a director of the company. This was two months after she had been appointed acting MD of the NDDC, which is against the public service rule that demands her resignation of any company of which she is a director. Whistle blowers who raised the alarm also alleged that she ordered the payment even when the company had not shown a compliance certificate and at a time when the NDDC had stayed action on paying contractors pending the verification of their jobs.

Eyebrows were also raised when it was reported that the IMC raised the monthly imprest of the directors while there were complaints from contractors seeking to be verified before the audit that they were being asked to play ball.

When the Interim Management Committee was announced by Chief Akpabio on October 29, 2019, he said it would last no more than six months, yet it has already spent five months and auditors are yet to commence their work. Rather, the federal government has announced that the audit would last nine months, taking the whole IMC ad-hoc arrangement to 15 months if the contraption is allowed to continue. This is not only callous; it shows a clear lack of interest in following the law setting up the commission. It is without a doubt part of a grand design by the minister to continue to run the agency like a one-man institution where he hires and fires committee members like he desires. This design was clearly exemplified by the decision to set up committees to undertake the verification of contracts and more committees to process items which are best left to the forensic auditors to perform because, in the end, they muddle up the documents and make cumbersome the job of getting at the root of the NDDC waste but which serve well to elongate Akpabio’s one-man intervention in the agency and make it his own instrument to dispense favours, as well protect his interests in the commission given that as Governor of Akwa Ibom State he nominated some of the people who are the subject of the forensic audit, including a chairman, a managing director and executive directors.

There are three principal grounds why the presidency must disband the IMC. One is that the IMC is a one-man operation of Akpabio and does not represent the diverse states and groups as provided for in the NDCC Act. The Act provides for representation from all nine states and non-oil producing geopolitical zones. The second reason is that the IMC has proven to be a complete waste of resources and all it does is provide jobs for the boys. It is just a sitting committee which collects outrageous allowances. The third is that the minister has not proven to have any bankable integrity. The story with Nunieh has shown that it does not even have the integrity to supervise an audit. In any case no serious auditor worth its salt needs an IMC to know how to go about its job.
President Buhari can still remedy the situation at the NDDC by disbanding the committee and inaugurating a proper board for the commission because the Niger Delta states are in dire need of development intervention. The fact that previous boards messed up is not a reason to lockdown an agency. After all, as President Buhari is used to say the 16 years of the PDP was a waste, yet his administration was not set aside for an interim national government to right the wrongs of the 16 years of the so-called waste. The president should realize that the buck stops at his desk and the shenanigans of Akpabio at the NDDC will loom large as a failing if he fails to check the minister’s missteps and allow for the inauguration of a proper board for the NDDC.

Tolofari, a commentator on public affairs, lives in Port Harcourt