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After the National Assembly probe, what’s next?

 

In this NEWS ANALYSIS, ETIM ETIM, an economist and seasoned journalist, gives an insight into the well-advertised probe of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) by the House Representatives Committee on NDDC, detailing what happened at sitting of the probe panel, the takeaways from the exercise and why the President must save the NDDC from the rapacity of ‘its very owners’.

The much talked-about and anticipated probe of the NDDC by the National Assembly has come and gone. But without a bang! Over 40 million Nigerians watched the public sitting of the probe panel on Monday, 20th July on TV, but many were disappointed that there was no ‘I got you moment’ when Senator Godswill Akpabio gave his testimony and answered questions from the panel members. As usual, the minister was calm and articulate, and answered all questions clearly and succinctly. His presentations and documented evidence completely dismantled all the lies, false allegations, fabricated and malicious publications made against him and the management of the Commission. But it is doubtful that his accusers and traducers will give up. These are dubious and wealthy lawmakers, politicians and perhaps past and current management staff of the commission who are bent on sabotaging the forensic audit of the commission.

I sat a few rows from Professor Pondei, the Ag. Managing Director of the Commission at the public hearing this morning. I could tell that he was not looking well, but I had thought that he was just weighed down by the pressures of work and preparing for the probe. The NDDC team and the Minister’s staffers had worked all of the previous nights, putting together their presentations. Senator Akpabio was with them although. The MD himself had been pretty much under the weather in the weeks leading up to this hearing. His conditions were exacerbated by the poor ventilation and stuffiness in the conference room of the second floor of the massive complex. I must confess that this was my first visit to the National Assembly complex, and I was completely taken in by the vastness and majesty of the complex.  The lawns are well kept and the buildings look spick and span. But when Prof Pondei slumped midway into his testimony, the shock and fear that I experienced were indescribable. It was only two months ago that his colleague in the IMC had died tragically. I just froze in shock, wondering if this would be another tragedy.  I am grateful to the Almighty God that he is out of the hospital, according to a statement from the Commission. With the two public sittings over, Prof Pondei should have enough time to attend to his health, while we await the reports of the investigations.

For me, some of the important points made by Senator Akpabio to the panel were that the forensic audit has commenced and approvals have been obtained for most of the procurements and all expenses incurred by the NDDC under the period covered by the investigation were properly budgeted for. On the budget issue, the Minister said: “This honourable Committee is adequately informed that a component of the NDDC budget comes from the annual national appropriation as a single line vote and of which the 2020 Appropriation Act signed into law by the President on December 17, 2019 and went into force on January 1, 2020, provided the sum of N80.88 billion for NDDC.”

It was important that the minister took time to explain these two points because Ms. Joi Nunieh, the sacked Ag. Managing Director of the Commission had been making very false and uninformed statements that the NDDC had no budget for Fiscal Year 2020 and the audit had not commenced. I just wonder how she would not have known that part of the NDDC’s funds had already been approved in the Federal Budget signed into law by the President two months before she was removed. Such an executive shallowness also manifested in a few other actions she took, according to the minister. In one case, she blatantly failed to attend a Federal Executive Council Meeting to participate in briefing the Council on the activities of her agency. It looks like poor judgment has been part of her DNA right from youth. By skipping the NYSC programme after law school, and lying on oath about it, she had committed perjury, a serious criminal offence. No wonder the police are looking for her. I have often known that many people assume very senior positions in government without adequately being prepared for it. She is one of them.

Another submission made by Senator Akpabio that stunned the audience and stupefied the panel members was that most of the contracts of the NDDC were awarded in the past to members of the National Assembly, with the Chairmen of the House and Senate Committees on the NDDC as the ‘chief runners of things’. The Minister noted that when NDDC’s budget proposals got to the National Assembly, the legislators would make bulk sum allocations to each line item like education, health, roads, etc.  The two chairmen would then take it upon themselves to fill in the specific projects under each item and the particular contractor that should be given the contract. It is a smart and easy way for the two men to award these jobs to companies they are interested in. This explains why one senator, Peter Nwaboshi, has been the Chairman of the Senate Committee on NDDC since inception of the agency. And he is a PDP Senator! How could this have happened for so long and nobody in the country had the courage to talk openly about it?

The complicity of the leaderships of the National Assembly and past managements of the Commission in this scam is perplexing. We can now understand why some people just do not want any inquiry into the ugly past of the organization and why they want Akpabio out of the way. I am also startled that Senator Ahmed Lawan, the Senate President, has not been completely seized of these issues. There is also the issue of contract splitting which previous managements employed to subvert supervisory scrutiny. It is a major reason for corruption in the Commission.

I am pleased that the full text of the Minister’s presentation has addressed all the issues raised in all the accusations made in the past several months. The presentation has been well circulated and could be obtained from the Minister’s Office. I can only hope that our journalists and Talk Show anchors will have the mental discipline to read it. Clearly, about 20 years after its founding, the NDDC requires total overhaul and rebirth in many aspects of its operations, including governance, contracting procedures, executive and staff recruitment, etc. President Buhari will be a hero of the region if he succeeds in repositioning the organization.

 

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