After many months of wrangling, President MuhammaduBuhari last week nominated 16 persons to constitute a new board for the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). In his letter to the Senate seeking confirmation of the nominees, Buhari presented Mrs Lauretta Onochie, his special assistant on New Media, as chairman and 15 others as board members. Without a board for some years, the agency has been enmeshed in controversies that have distracted it from its stated objectives of uplifting the fortunes of the country’s nine oil producing states. The new board should set itself the target of transforming the agency into a nimble, effective change-agent.
Established in 2000 following violent restiveness accompanying the demand for resource control, it was envisaged as an interventionist vehicle to provide infrastructure, training and education in the Niger Delta region and other oil states. Its website defines its mission thus; “To offer a lasting solution to the socio-economic difficulties of the Niger Delta region and facilitate the rapid and sustainable development of the Niger Delta into a region that is economically prosperous, socially stable, and ecologically regenerative.”
To this end, it has a master plan that it says will transform the Niger Delta region in the next 15 years. It covers infrastructure provision and services and training across 24 broad areas. These include transport, agriculture, telecommunications, health, water supply, energy, tourism, industry, mining, investment promotion and conflict prevention.
Though set up with high hopes, the NDDC has often been in the news for the wrong reasons. Frequent scandals, squabbling among stakeholders and inefficiencies have raised questions on its continued relevance. These have diverted attention from the extensive range of projects it has ventured into while external influences have slowed it down.
Without a doubt, the NDDC is still far from fulfilling its mandate and its existence has not resolved the crises of resource control and militancy that birthed it. This is a challenge that Nigeria must resolve by restructuring the country into a true federation
The 22-year-old agency is overdue for a review. An interventionist agency should have specified time frame to ameliorate the worst impact of environmental degradation in the Niger-Delta region after decades of extraction activities.
The country should revert to its natural mode of true federalism and allow states considerable fiscal autonomy and shared control over mineral resources. The current 13 per cent derivation mode is a gross injustice. The NDDC was established because the Nigerian state, a natural federation of diverse nationalities and territories, operates like a unitary polity and denies the component states the appropriate benefits of the revenue accruing from their minerals, including crude oil and gas revenues. Oil extraction activities have meanwhile devastated the Niger-Delta environment, and pauperised the majority of the residents.
The first task the new board should address is cleaning up the agency and ridding it of corrupt elements and external influence peddlers. In 2019, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) quizzed some staff members of the NDDC over a N2 billion contract for skill acquisition training of women in the 27 senatorial districts of the nine oil-producing states. In May 2022, a former managing director was quizzed over a N47 billion fraud; a former chairman once gave a whopping N800 million to a spiritualist to help him extend his tenure. A House of Representatives committee once lamented how N100 billion allotted to NDDC projects could not be properly accounted for. In 2020, an acting managing director and chief executive officer confessed that management and staff shared N1.32 billion as “COVID-19 palliative”!
Involved in the alleged looting have been previous senior management staff, senior politicians and legislators, community rulers in the region, civil servants and contractors who collect upfront payments, sometimes up to 100 per cent, and vanish. A senator was jailed seven years in July for using his companies to defraud the agency. A forensic audit report in 2021 covering 2001 to 2019 found 13,777 “compromised, doubtful and abandoned” NDDC projects across the region. It said over N300 billion worth of contracts did not follow due process.
The new team should realise that despite previous efforts, the region is not significantly better off. In the latest national multi-dimensional poverty survey statistics released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) the South-South region is the poorest of the three southern regions, while Bayelsa, a major oil state, is the second poorest Nigerian state by percentage of poor persons, beating only Sokoto in the North-West.
Yet, the NDDC claims many successes. It says it has delivered 15,307 projects, of which 60 per cent are capital projects and over 3,000 rural electrical projects, apart from thousands of scholarships awarded to deserving students. Its master plan, if faithfully implemented, could go a long way in improving the quality of lives in its area of coverage. Its list of projects published in major news outlets recently is presented as evidence of its prowess.
Successive NDDC managements also complain that its allotted funds are never fully released by the government thereby hindering service delivery.
To break decisively with the past, President MuhammaduBuhari should publish the report, order the arrest and prosecution of culprits. All stolen funds and proceeds of corruption should be recovered.
The new board should overhaul procurement processes and eliminate sharp practices. There should be effective project monitoring and oversight. It should cut waste, excess staff and avoid white elephant.
The chairman and the board should also muster the strong will to resist unwarranted external pressure and influence peddling; the capacity of officials to decline illegal or unethical demands even from highly placed quarters is one of the building blocks of strong institutions in other climes. The NDDC board should sign on to this noble culture.
Ultimately, all stakeholders should press for true federalism and resource control.
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