By Michael Jegede
The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) was created as an interventionist agency in the year 2000 during the administration of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, with the sole mandate of ensuring an overall development of the oil-rich Niger Delta, in response to the demands of the people of the region.
It came with “the mission of facilitating the rapid, even and sustainable development of the Niger Delta into a region that is economically prosperous, socially stable, ecologically regenerative and politically peaceful.”
Despite government’s noble intention of establishing the NDDC, the agency completely failed to perform and live up to expectations in the fulfillment of its mandate. Not much did it do to meet the yearnings and aspirations of the Niger Deltans which informed its establishment.
The Niger Delta master plan launched in 2007, of which the NDDC was expected to oversee its implementation to assist in the realization of the agency’s mandate, was abandoned almost immediately. Nothing meaningful was done by successive management and board members to genuinely stimulate activities towards the accomplishment of the master plan in the interest of the Niger Delta people.
Corruption, mismanagement, poor implementation of development plan and indiscriminate award of contracts by previous boards combined to leave the NDDC in a situation where projects were being recklessly abandoned across the Niger Delta region. Monies from budgetary provisions and other sources made available to the NDDC from onset were not prudently applied for proper execution of projects for the benefit of the Niger Deltans.
Before the inauguration of the Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba-led board on November 4, 2016, there were over 4,000 abandoned projects scattered across the states of Niger Delta out of over 8, 000 that have been awarded since the inception of the commission. While some of the abandoned projects had reached certain stage of completion, others were yet to commence after years of awarding the contracts. The interventionist agency was indebted to contractors to tune of over one trillion naira. All these, coupled with the issue of funding posed serious challenges to the Ndoma-Egba-headed board after it was inaugurated.
When Ndoma-Egba was last year nominated as Chairman of the NDDC board constituted by President Muhammadu Buhari, the people of Niger Delta were full of praises for the President. The appointment of Ndoma-Egba as the Head of the NDDC board was described as the best decision taking by Buhari in his desire to see to the true development of the Niger Delta zone.
Chief Clement Ebri, a former governor of Cross River State, had for instance, while giving kudos to the President for nominating the ex-Senate Leader to oversee the board of the NDDC, said: “I commend Ndoma-Egba’s nomination for the NDDC top job. He has the requisite experience required to perform creditably. I think we should be expecting a lot of development of infrastructure in the entire nine states of the Niger Delta. His appointment is a clear example of fixing a square peg in a square hole by President Muhammadu Buhari. Ndoma-Egba is a nationalist, and I have confidence that under his watch as chairman, every part of the region will witness tremendous development.”
One year after his assumption of office as NDDC chairman, Ndoma-Egba, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) who left an indelible mark as Senate Leader in the Seventh National Assembly, has not disappointed his admirers and all those that had hailed his appointment. Since the board was inaugurated, vigorous efforts have been made by his team to reinvent the NDDC and reposition it for better performance. Certain laudable steps have been taken to galvanize activities that would guarantee an integrated development of the Niger Delta region and redeem the lost glory and image of the interventionist agency.
The former lawmaker, who competently represented the good people of Cross River Central for 12 years in the Senate, has in the last one year, worked harmoniously with the Managing Director (MD) Mr. Nsima Ekere and other members of the board, to entrench transparency, probity and accountability aimed at strengthening governance framework in the NDDC for improved efficiency in its operations. Without any doubt, there is relative improvement in the process of awarding contracts and the general running of the affairs of the commission, as against the previous practice where due process was discarded and the NDDC turned into a contract awarding machine that dished out contracts with obvious irregularities.
Over 600 contracts said to have been awarded for political patronage and worth about N200b of the over N1tr debt owed contractors have been cancelled, as a result of irregularities discovered in the course of a thorough contract verification exercise carried out by the NDDC board. This is in line with the board’s 21-point agenda of streamlining the number of new procurements in the agency, ascertaining the status of ongoing projects and programmes, putting in place a mechanism to re-assess the feasibility of some projects, reviewing the scope of others, re-negotiating the cost of some and relocating or merging others, as well as evolving a strategy for settling verified debts.
Soon after Ndoma-Egba and Ekere assumed office as Chairman and MD respectively, most abandoned jobs were resuscitated as pressure was mounted on contractors to deliver on ongoing projects or face prosecution, an indication that it was no longer business as usual. The order by the board asking contractors of abandoned projects to return to site or risk prosecution paid off as NDDC recently commissioned three new roads in Cross River. Emergency repair works are being carried out by the agency on a number of roads that got damaged and have become virtually impassable in different areas of the region.
In the words of Ndoma-Egba, “Our simple strategy has been to audit the debts, the contracts and our personnel and make a charge on the commission’s finances. I think we would do better if we are properly scrutinized… We discovered amazingly that they are 63 contract payment points in the NDDC and this of course milks contractors; that has been reduced and we are currently working to ensure that we deploy internet based systems that will see people tender for NDDC jobs online, get them if they are successful and be paid online as well, when their jobs are successfully executed to specification.”
The reform-minded initiative of the NDDC board under the leadership of Ndoma-Egba, has also seen it making conscious efforts to reactivate all the dormant organs of the commission, like the Advisory Committee made up of governors of the nine member states and the Project Monitoring Committee. Determined to change the unedifying reputation and general public perception of failure about the commission and build confidence, Ndoma-Egba has led the board members on separate visits to all the governors of the Niger Delta states, believing that their support and partnership would be needed to facilitate development in the zone. Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) were signed between NDDC and some of the states during the visits on some key projects that would have significant impact on the people. The governors visited were impressed that NDDC story has changed under the able leadership of Ndoma-Egba as Chairman and Ekere as MD.
The Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, for instance, eulogized the board and management of the interventionist body for imbibing a new spirit of collaboration in the development of the Niger Delta region when the chairman led the NDDC team to the Government House, Umuahia.
According to Ikpeazu, “We are excited by the new spirit in the NDDC. There seems to be a reinvigoration and a new spirit. People now see NDDC in a better light. The previous experience where NDDC projects are looked at with suspicion appears to be over. We are happy with the work the present Board and Management of the NDDC is doing. The expectations of Nigerians are very high knowing the pedigree of the Chairman, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba and the Management team. I assure you of the full cooperation of the people of Abia State. We will tell the story that this NDDC Board and Management are running a new agency of development.”
At a three-day retreat titled: “Collaboration for sustainable development” organized as part of measures to carry along all the Niger Delta stakeholders and secure their active involvement in the activities of the NDDC, the Chairman said: “The advisory committee is charged with the responsibility of advising the Board and monitoring the activities of the commission. It will ensure harmonization of projects and programmes with member states and will also make NDDC a partner to the states rather than the competitor, it now appears to be. The monitoring committee consisting of such number of persons from the public or civil service as President Buhari may deem fit, will monitor management of fund and implementation of projects. The committee will have access to the books of account and other records of the commission at all times and will submit periodic reports to Mr President.”
The NDDC under Ndoma-Egba is equally planning to set up a specialized Niger Delta Development Bank for the youths and other Niger Deltans to be able to access funds, especially those that have been trained in different skills but remained unemployed. This would, no doubt, help to create employment for the Niger Delta youths.
Looking for ways to overcome its funding challenge, the board had written a petition to the Presidency and the Senate seeking for the full implementation of the funding provisions for the commission, as enshrined in the NDDC Act. Appearing before the Senate Committee on Niger Delta Affairs, the MD, Ekere, had on behalf of the board made a strong appeal for the release of the backlog of statutory allocations amounting to N1.8 trillion said to be due to the NDDC from the Federal Government (FG) over the years. Buhari who is believed to have so far demonstrated great political will towards ensuring sustainable development of the Niger Delta, was said to have responded promptly by mandating the Ministries of Niger Delta Affairs, Budget and National Planning to sit with the NDDC board, with a view to determining precisely how much was owed the agency by the FG.
Now that we have in NDDC a board that has shown the willingness and sincerity to work for the good of the Niger Deltans, with the highly visible transformation efforts so far made and achievements recorded within one year, the payment of the said outstanding arrears of statutory allocations would make a lot of sense. Definitely, it would put the agency in a better position to embark on the massive infrastructural and socio-economic development of the Niger Delta region. Buhari should, therefore, take a step further in the increased budgetary provisions he has magnanimously ensured for the NDDC to approve the release of the statutory allocations payable to the commission in accordance to section 14 (2) (a) & (c) of the Act establishing the NDDC.
Michael Jegede, a media professional, writes from Abuja