The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is an enigma and a sordid organisation. The last few weeks have seen public scrutiny and spotlight focused on the senior leaders of the government agency and the supervising minister over substantial allegations of misappropriation of public money.
The rot within the organisation has reached a crescendo. The structures on which the NDDC was constructed have collapsed. The objectives that informed the setting up of the organisation have been buried in the middle of mind-blowing and inconceivable corruption. The entire edifice known as the NDDC has disintegrated.
The corruption narratives emerging from the NDDC are staggering. They raise questions about the capacity, qualifications, track record, and management skills of senior officials and the minister to oversee the development of the region.
The Niger Delta remains a national tragedy and a contradiction. As an oil-producing region, the Niger Delta ought to have the best facilities, best educational institutions, best infrastructure, best social services, best hospitals, best roads, and best airports. Unfortunately, these expectations have remained tall dreams unachievable for decades yet to come.
The region is impoverished. It lacks so many things. It cannot afford basic human needs such as decent shelter, food, good drinking water, and hospitals. This discrepancy between the quality of life of people in the oil-producing Niger Delta and that of people in other parts of Nigeria typifies the local phrase: monkey dey work and baboon dey chop. It also exposes high levels of corruption and injustice in Nigeria. What an irony.
The NDDC was set up by former President Olusegun Obasanjo 20 years ago in response to growing agitations over lack of socioeconomic development, environmental damage caused by oil prospecting and production, destruction of agricultural land and fishing due to frequent incidents of oil pollution, gas flaring, and so on. The mission of the NDDC was, therefore, to facilitate the transformation of the region into an economically flourishing, agriculturally productive, politically stable, and socially peaceful region. Compare these lofty ideals with the situation on the ground today, years after the commission was set up. Surely, the NDDC has deviated from its underlying mission.
When officials of a government agency are trapped in allegations and counter-allegations of looting funds meant for the development of an impoverished region, and when the government fails to intervene quickly to stop the criminal diversion of public money, you have to wonder about the moral character of officials appointed by the government to manage the NDDC.
Surely, NDDC officials whose activities are driven by selfish desires to enhance their personal welfare rather than the wellbeing of the people in the Niger Delta have shown they have no interest in facilitating the socioeconomic development of the region.
What is happening within the NDDC is symptomatic of the situation in the country. Politicians are elected to serve the people. Unfortunately, they expect the people to serve them.
The NDDC was established to transform the Niger Delta. It was expected to solve the numerous problems in the region, to empower the people, and to uplift the standards of living of the population. The officials took one look at the problems and decided, like crooked and self-centred persons, that they must serve their own interests first before attending to the needs of the people. It is this sheer dishonesty and illegality that has held Nigeria down for six decades. It is this kind of mindset, this entitlement culture, that feeds corrupt practices in the country.
It is unthinkable that the NDDC that is overseen by a minister could manufacture hare-brained projects that have baffled everyone. It is stupefying that billions of public funds could be moved or transferred flawlessly from the NDDC into personal accounts without proper oversight by various agencies and financial institutions, such as the Central Bank. It is only in the NDDC that magicians still operate as public officials.
Everyone must be outraged that the NDDC allocated a huge amount of money to overseas travel at a time when overseas travel was banned in many countries and international flights suspended owing to COVID-19 restrictions. Sadly, none of the phoney projects listed by the NDDC has the potential to add value to the lives of the Niger Delta people. Civil society must be confounded by the magnitude of the financial scam at the NDDC. An agency of government that is supposed to look after the welfare, wellbeing, and security of the people has diverted illegally and plundered the money meant for major development projects.
I was offended when I heard NDDC boss Professor Keme Pondei attempt to justify the payment of what he called “COVID allowance” to every staff of the NDDC to enable them to take care of themselves first before they could attend to ordinary people in the region. He argued in a silly manner: “If we all die because of COVID, who would do the intervention?” This is the most irresponsible argument any head of a government agency could advance to justify illegal expenditure of funds. It is this kind of idiotic, insensitive, cold-hearted, and mindless reasoning that defines the way NDDC senior officials mismanage government funds.
Here is the weird logic propounded by Professor Pondei. To serve the people of the Niger Delta, NDDC officials must first serve their own interests. Nothing can be as offensive and inflammatory as the kind of bizarre argument advocated by Pondei. The behaviour of Pondei and his senior officials is clearly pathetic, disgraceful, sickening, embarrassing, pitiful, and repugnant. They must be punished severely. They must account for every naira they misused. At a time of economic hardship, the government must not allow Pondei and NDDC officials to spend public money in the manner of prodigal sons. The bogus projects have no bearing on the people in the region.
The insensitivity and obstinacy demonstrated by Professor Pondei underline once more the lack of moral direction by the NDDC leadership. It is painful to see NDDC officials and the minister remain in office while investigations are ongoing. That is not an appropriate and ethical practice. The management should have been suspended pending the conclusion of investigations. If they are cleared at the end of the inquiries, they could be recalled to their jobs.
Corruption is a dragon fire. It consumes both the giver and the receiver. It is difficult to wipe clean once it sticks on anyone’s shirt sleeves.
One of the issues that must be addressed after this scandal has cleared is the way political party affiliation influences Federal Government appointments. Frequently, people are appointed into sensitive positions of power, not on the basis of their experience or their management skills or their professionalism or their educational qualifications, but on the basis of ties such as their ethnicity, their shared religious faith, and their region of origin. This is how we encourage and recycle corruption.
In Nigeria, the fastest way to illegal financial enrichment is usually not through personal commitment to government work, or through personal endeavour in business or through ground-breaking science and technology research. It is through appointment into Federal Government departments and agencies.