Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
The probe of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) by the House of Representatives was intended to unravel the circumstances surrounding the expenditure of N81.5billion by the commission.
Ironically, after four days of tension-soaked investigative hearings, characterized by so much drama, the probe, which would pass for the most controversial since the inception of the Ninth House, has raised more questions than answers about the operations of the NDDC.
The House had on May 5 adopted a motion seeking an investigation into the alleged irregular expenditure of N40 billion in the NDDC and mandated its committee on NDDC to undertake the probe. After many weeks of media altercations between the Chairman, House Committee on NDDC, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo and the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the interventionist agency, the probe kicked off last Wednesday.
Speaking at the inaugural session, Tunji-Ojo said the panel was aware of the sensitivity of its assignment, and as such would be painstaking in its approach.
According to him, “in the build up to this day, there were needless distractions of diverse shapes and colour; the committee, however, remained focused on delivering a very exhaustive investigation result that would be a reference point in the annals of history of the commission, the region at large and this committee. Because of the investigative nature of the House resolution, the past weeks have been spent on working tirelessly on gathering the necessary data and analyzing same.”
The lawmaker added that data at the disposal of the committee indicated that the NDDC IMC spent N81.5billion in the period under review as follows – community relations, N1 .3billion; condolences, N122.9million; consultancy, N83million; COVlD-19 , N3.14 billion; DTA , N486million; Inprest, N790.9 million; Lassa fever, N1.956 billion; legal services, N900million; maintenance, N220million; overseas travels, N85.6 million; project public communication, Nl.121 billion; security, N744million; staffing related payments, N8.8 billion and stakeholders engagement, N248million.
However, the NDDC was absent at the inaugural sitting as the acting Managing Director, Kemerbrandikumo Pondei was said to be attending the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting. The agency was thereafter directed to appear, unfailingly, before the committee the following day.
Twists and turns
Events started taking a new turn on July 16, when the NDDC management appeared before the panel and objected to Tunji-Ojo presiding over the probe because he is an interested party in the issue under investigation.
Pondei told the panel “that we are not comfortable with the chairman of this committee presiding over a matter in which he is an accused party. The NDDC has over the time accused Tunji-Ojo of different crimes against the NDDC and its people and he has responded in the press. He is an interested party. And we do not believe that the NDDC can have justice because he cannot sit in his own case. We have no issues appearing; we have appeared before the Senate ad-hoc committee. And as long as he is the chairman of this committee, the NDDC will not make any presentations here.”
Members of the panel disagree with his postulation, stating that it was not for the NDDC boss to dictate to the House how to conduct the investigative hearing. As the controversy raged on whether or not Tunji-Ojo should preside over the probe, Pondei asked “can I excuse myself? “ and immediately got up and left Hearing Room 231, venue of the probe, alongside other members of the NDDC team.
Exasperated by the action of the NDDC boss, the committee resolved to issue a warrant of arrest against him to compel him to appear before it. Pondei later told journalists that the NDDC has utmost regard for the National Assembly and would appear before any panel that is not headed by Tunji-Ojo.
According to him, “we voiced our reservation about the leadership of that committee. And somehow, it did not amount to anything. We knew about the chairmanship of that committee and we voiced our reservation to the appropriate quarters, but nothing happened; maybe we didn’t put it in writing, but nothing happened.
“When we saw that the committee was insistent that the chairman will continue, we had no option rather than to take a leave. We did not disrespect the National Assembly, we asked for permission to leave and we left.”
He added that going by Tunji-Ojo’s speech at the first day of proceedings, there seem “a preconceived effort to portray the management of the NDDC in a bad light and we know we won’t get justice in this.”
Pondei said the demand from the NDDC was simple- the House should set up an ad-hoc committee to hear the allegations, noting that once that is done, the interventionist agency will appear and make presentations.
In a twist, the panel summoned the NDDC management to appear before it on Monday, July 20. The chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu, told Daily Sun that the gesture was to give the interventionist agency a fresh opportunity to defend itself.
Kalu, who is also a member of the House Committee on NDDC, stated that there was no basis for the request by the commission for an ad-hoc committee to undertake the probe. The House spokesman explained that acceding to their demand will be setting a bad precedence in the annals of the parliament.
Expectedly, at the resumed hearing last Monday, both the NDDC team and the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, who had been summoned to appear on that fateful day were present. Instructively, to take the sail off the interventionist agency’s demand for an ad-hoc committee, the Chairman, Tunji- Ojo, before the commencement of the day’s proceedings announced his recusal from the panel.
The lawmaker said his decision to step aside is based on the many allegations leveled against him by the NDDC. He subsequently handed over the proceedings to his deputy, Thomas Ereyitomi.
With Ereyitomi in the saddle, as acting chairman of the panel, Pondei apologized to the lawmakers for the event of the preceding week and proceeded with his presentation.
Nevertheless, the probe assumed a new twist minutes later, as the NDDC boss unexpectedly, collapsed as he was being grilled by the panel.
Pondei had explained to the panel that the N81.5 billion, in question was spent from October 2019 to May 31, this year by the NDDC. Of this, he explained that the incumbent interim management committee which came in February spent N59.1 billion. He added that what was spent on COVID -19 palliatives for staff of the commission was N1.32billion and not N1.5billion.
According to him, “Of this, N38.6 billion was spent on capital projects . N35.3 billion was paid to contractors hired by previous administrations.”
He added that N20.5 billion was spent on recurrent expenditure between February 20, 2019, and May 21, this year.
“They are a backlog of debt for about three years. Duty tour allowance hasn’t been paid for three years; we cleared it.”
When the session resumed about one hour later, the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, who made a surprise appearance at the investigative hearing, said Pondei does not need to appear before the committee again and directed the panel to adopt his written submission.
The probe seemed to have raised more questions than answers about how things work at the NDDC, as it brought to the fore many salient issues about the operations of the commission, which were hitherto unknown.
Akpabio, while fielding questions from the panel pointedly accused members of the National Assembly of being major beneficiary of the contracts awarded by the NDDC. The minister wasn’t done. He equally alleged that the chairmen of the National Assembly committees on NDDC were in the habit of manipulating the budget of the commission.
The minister in response to a question by a member of the panel, Boma Goodhead, retorted; “are you asking me the beneficiaries in the National Assembly? I just told you that we have records to show that most of the contracts in the NDDC are given to members of the National Assembly, but you don’t know about it. The two chairmen (Senate andHouse) can explain to you. I was a member of the NDDC committee. I did not know what was going on…That is why we have to change the modus operandi. You must not allow the two chairmen to hijack the budget every year. I was a member like you. I did not know what was going on.”
However, reprieve came for the chairman, House Committee on NDDC as Akpabio, in responding to a challenge from a member of the panel against the former, Shehu Koko to substantiate his claim, said Tunji-Ojo was not awarded any contract by the interventionist agency.
Koko had queried the minister thus, “you said the NDDC gave contracts to the chairman of the committee in April 2019. And the chairman was appointed in November. He was not a chairman of the committee. He was not even a member of the House…”
In his response, Akpabio, replied: “I think I must correct myself. I was giving an example of a contract of N10.9 billion in the chairman’s place. I am saying that contracts are split to a point where it comes below the threshold of the minister’s approval. The contract is not for the chairman, but for the chairman’s state (Ondo).”
Another salient issue raised by the probe is the status of the forensic audit ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari in the NDDC since last year.
For instance, the former acting Managing Director of the NDDC, Joi Nunieh, who testified before the probe panel virtually last week had alleged that no forensic audit is being conducted by the commission.
“The issue is that everyone in Nigeria has been deceived that the forensic audit is going on…There is no forensic audit going on,” she posited.
Akpabio disagrees. According to him, “there is an ongoing forensic audit…We have concluded with the Bureau of Public Procurement for the forensic auditors, we divided them into ten lots. Ernest and young has been approved by the BPP which we’ve presented to the Federal Executive Council, in addition to about eight other companies right now.”
Nevertheless, Ben Igbakpa, a member of the probe panel described the process as “faulty and fraudulent.”
Considering the conflicting testimonies of Nuneih and Akpabio, the question begging for answer is what is the true state of the forensic audit? What is the veracity of the claim that majority of the contracts in NDDC are awarded to lawmakers and that the budget of the commission is usually determined by the two chairmen of the supervising committees in the National Assembly?
Apparently, in a bid to seek answers to the questions, especially as it concerns contract awards to members of the National Assembly, Gbajabiamila on Tuesday, issued a 48- hour ultimatum to Akpabio to name members of the Ninth assembly, who are beneficiaries of contracts in the NDDC. He said if Akpabio fails to comply, the House will bring the full weight of the law to bear on him.
The Minority Leader, Ndudi Elumelu, had at Tuesday’s plenary raised concerns over the allegations made by Akpabio against the lawmakers and urged the House to invite him to substantiate his allegations.
In his ruling, the speaker stated: “I am giving the minister 48 hours to publish the names, the contracts so given, the dates and the companies of the members of the National Assembly-members of this Ninth assembly; names, contracts and companies every single detail, failing which this House will bring full wrath of the law.” It is yet to be seen how Akpabio will react to the challenge.
Nevertheless, analysts say Gbajabiamila’s challenge should extend beyond members of the Ninth assembly, who are barely one year in office, but should cover members of previous assemblies.
The Chairman of the Amnesty Phase II, Delta State chapter, Chief Kingsley Muturu, said the probe of the NDDC should be thorough. Muturu, in a statement, said the problem of the commission and the Niger Delta States largely is conflicting interests.
What exactly is the House going to do in respect of the many unresolved issues thrown up by the investigative hearing? Will it gloss over them or result in a more extensive inquest on the NDDC?