The investigation of the activities of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) by the House of Representatives has opened a can of worms that has left Nigerians startled and bemused. It has shown how affairs of government are conducted, the rate of decadence in the system and how the minds of Nigerians work whenever there is an investigation bordering on allegations of fraud.
The NDDC, a government agency established for the good of the people of the Niger Delta, has become an object of public ridicule, with revelations that are as shocking as they are mind-boggling. Nigerians are amused by what is coming out of the House of Representatives public hearing. The actors have nobody’s sympathy. The acting managing director of the NDDC, Prof. Kemebradikumo Pondei, for instance, fainted while answering questions at the public hearing. He was a pathetic sight as he bowed his head in almost a state of unconsciousness. Nobody wants to believe that the professor could be ill. Most people think he could just be acting to avoid the public hearing.
However, the question is: Why would the NDDC acting MD be pretending? What would he achieve from such a stunt? The public hearing gave him the opportunity to defend himself. His testimony would bring another dimension to the narrative. If he has such an opportunity and decides to dodge it, by pretending to be ill, he is the loser. Without his side of the story, everybody would believe whatever allegation levelled against him.
Those who manage Pondei should take the blame for the doubts Nigerians have about his predicament. Since he was helped out of the public hearing, nothing has been heard of him. Was Pondei hospitalised? Is he hale and hearty? Has he returned to work? Has he communicated to the House of Representatives committee, to explain what happened, about his state of health and how he will answer questions he left unattended? The public does not know. The Pondei managers have not seen the desirability to explain. They are the ultimate losers.
Funny enough, while the majority believe that Pondei was feigning to be ill, only a few tend to believe the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, that contracts from the NDDC were given to some members of the National Assembly. It started with the female member of the House of Representatives investigative committee, who challenged the minister on the spot. She had asked Akpabio if he ever got contracts when he was a member of Senate Committee. Her conclusion was that, since Akpabio never got contracts as a lawmaker, his allegation was false. The fact that the Speaker of the House of Representatives challenged Akpabio to publish names of lawmakers who have benefitted from NDDC contracts shows also that he has doubts. Well, since the onus is on whoever alleges to prove, it is expected that the Niger Delta minister will substantiate his claims. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that contracts are awarded to companies, not individuals. When Akpabio does name the companies, the Corporate Affairs Commission would be of help to expose those behind the companies. Also, money paid to the companies should be traced, to know where they eventually ended.
The National Assembly probe of the NDDC is necessary. The exercise will uncover any form of wrongdoing in the government agency. The allegation that NDDC has spent about N81 billion in eight or nine months should not be swept under the carpet. There was an allegation that billions of naira were spent to buy COVID-19 equipment. There was an allegation that members of the NDDC management shared about N1.3 billion as COVID-19 palliatives. There was an allegation that billions were paid a media consultancy firm for the image laundering of the NDDC. These are projects that may be expedient, but was the money paid justified? Contract inflation in government agencies is rampant. It is a Nigerian illness that should not be allowed to continue.
One prominent Nigerian recently told me a story that exposed the rot in the system. He revealed that he once found himself in the same room, where a meeting was going on about a project being sponsored by a top politician. According to him, since he was not part of the meeting, he sat aside, minding his business, even though he could hear the conversation at the meeting. The subject matter was the cost of a project the politician was sponsoring. He said somebody at the meeting projected that N1.5 billion would do the job. Another person said N1.4 billion would be enough. Yet another person said it would cost N1.3 billion. However, before the meeting concluded what the budget would be, the politician sponsoring the project invited the man who told me the story and sought his view. After doing a mental calculation, the man said the project would not cost more than N300 million and explained.
For a man spending money, any news about reducing cost is always welcome. The sponsor, knowing who this man was and his antecedents, bought the idea. He reconstituted the committee and made the man the chairman. Of course, the people who tabled a cost in excess of N1 billion were not happy. They boycotted the committee, but the project was eventually executed. The cost was not more than N300 million. This is the kind of thing that happens in government.
The revelations about the NDDC show the decay therein. The agency has become an institution for greed satisfaction and political patronage. People are recommended for appointment as compensation for their political support. The NDDC is also seen as an agency where the powerbrokers in the Niger Delta are ‘settled’ with contracts that are never executed. Abandoned NDDC projects dot the nine states of the Niger Delta. Many of the contracts have been fully paid for, while nothing has been done. Some of the people who get the contracts are known, but no effort is made to get them to do jobs they have been paid or refund the money disbursed.
The National Assembly, by probing the NDDC, is exercising its oversight function. It should do its job dispassionately. The probe should expose all the wrongs.
However, the snag is that this kind of investigation has not really yielded any positive result. In the past, the National Assembly had conducted inquests into activities of government agencies and made recommendations, but nothing came out of it. The National Assembly once probed the fuel subsidy regime. It also investigated revenue leakages and shortfalls from such agencies as Nigerian Customs Services and Federal Inland Revenue Services. Nothing came out of the probes. This is mainly because whatever the National Assembly does in this regard is just advisory. It has no binding force. The Executive, which appoints the heads of these agencies, is the only one that could take action.
It is gratifying that President Muhammadu Buhari has shown interest in the NDDC probe. Whatever report the National Assembly turns in should serve as a fillip for the Presidency to take action. President Buhari should also detail the anti-corruption agencies to investigate the NDCC and take action. Those found culpable should be brought to book. It is only by so doing that confidence will be restored.