When Godswill Akpabio, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, and some federal lawmakers squared off in July during a National Assembly investigative hearing, the minister’s aides and his political supporters celebrated it as a victory for him.
Rattled by Mr Akpabio’s assertion that National Assembly members were involved in contract-awards in the tainted Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), the chairman of the panel, Thomas Ereyitomi, asked the minister to discontinue his testimony which was broadcast live.
“Honourable minister, it’s okay, it’s okay. Off your mic!” Mr Ereyitomi told Mr Akpabio.
An enraged Mr Akpabio, after the public hearing, went ahead to name lawmakers who got contracts from NDDC.
‘Off your mic’
However, much to Mr Akpabio’s disadvantage, the infamous remarks by Mr Ereyitomi has become well-known among Nigerians, much more than any programme or project of the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs.
The Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, in fact, has been overshadowed by corruption scandals in NDDC which it supervises, although some of the corruption cases predate Mr Akpabio’s appointment as minister.
The notable corruption cases in NDDC during Mr Akpabio’s first year as minister include the admittance by the acting Managing Director of the commission, Kemebradikumo Pondei, that the commission spent N1.5 billion for its staff as ‘COVID-19 relief funds’.
A recent report by the Senate said top management of the NDDC paid themselves N85.6 million to attend a graduation ceremony in the United Kingdom at a time Nigeria was on lockdown and airports shut because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Senate also said NDDC officials paid themselves scholarship grants at a time hundreds of deserving scholarship beneficiaries had not been paid for years and were stranded in different countries.
Two directors in the NDDC were arrested and detained in August by the Independent Corrupt Practices & Other Related Offences Commission over corruption allegations, while a former managing director of NDDC forfeited N250 million to the federal government a few days ago.
Mr Akpabio himself has been accused of inserting N500 million worth of projects into the 2017 budget of the NDDC when he was the Senate minority leader, an accusation the minister’s spokesperson, Anietie Ekong, dismissed as “nothing extraordinary”.
“In fact, it would have been a dereliction of duty if Senator Akpabio did not try to influence projects to his constituency. It was part of his legislative duties as the Senate minority leader to attract projects to his constituency.
“I don’t know what the hue is about,” a smug Mr Ekong said.
A former acting managing director of NDDC), Joy Nunieh, said Mr Akpabio had wanted her to take an oath which would have restrained her from exposing fraud at the commission.
“For instance, he told me to raise a memo to fraudulently award emergency contracts for flood victims in the Niger Delta,” she said.
Ms Nunieh also said she once slapped the minister at his guest house in Abuja for sexually assaulting her.
Mr Akpabio denied Ms Nunieh’s allegations and has sued her for defamation.
The Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs was created in 2008 by the administration of President Umaru Yar’adua “to promote and coordinate policies for the development, peace and security of the Niger Delta Region”.
It is generally seen as a ‘project’ ministry – meant to take roads, jetties, bridges, modern school and hospital buildings to the nine states that make up the Niger Delta region.
The ministry’s budget in 2019 was N37 billion, with more than 70 per cent of it allocated to capital projects.
The budget, which increased to N69 billion in 2020, with N21 billion allocated to capital projects, is replete with several roads, water, school building and other projects which could help improve the standard of living in the region.
But it unclear to what extent the ministry’s budgets have been implemented.
PREMIUM TIMES could not get the list of the actual projects undertaken by the ministry since Mr Akpabio assumed office. The ‘projects’ section on the ministry’s website had no item when this newspaper checked it out on Monday.
When contacted, the minister’s spokesperson, Mr Ekong, said he would have to contact a senior ministry official for the list of the ministry’s projects.
But Mr Ekong, for almost seven days, did not respond to further calls from a PREMIUM TIMES reporter.
And when he eventually did, he requested he should be given some hours “to gather information on the ministry’s projects”. Again, he did not respond when the reporter called him.
Thousands of uncompleted NDDC projects, many of them poorly executed, have been abandoned across the Niger Delta region, as shown in recent investigative reports by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ).
Even Mr Akpabio, on assumption of office, said about 12,000 projects have been abandoned by NDDC.
A group, Niger Delta Rights Advocates (NDRA), said there was no clear cut roadmap to the completion of the abandoned projects.
“On February 5th 2020, the FEC gave approval for the completion of 12,000 abandoned projects and setting-up of nine (9) skills acquisition centres in each of the mandate states of the NDDC.
“As at today, 7 months down the line, nothing has been heard of these skills acquisition centres which to our mind will take the teeming unemployed youths in the region off the streets,” NDRA spokesperson, Darlington Nwauju, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Forensic audit of NDDC
The planned forensic audit of the NDDC appears to be Mr Akpabio’s signature project – he speaks about it at various forums and even said it was the reason his ‘enemies’ within and outside the National Assembly were ‘fighting’ him and the current interim management of NDDC which enjoys his backing.
But the planned audit appears to be at very slow pace, to the consternation of many.
The Federal Executive Council only recently, in August, approved the appointment of auditors, 10 months after President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the forensic audit which could possibly uncover decades of corrupt dealings at the commission.
Besides, some people feel the NDDC forensic audit is being unnecessarily politicised by Mr Akpabio.
“The NDRA frowns strongly at the dramatisation and politicisation of the forensic audit. Audits all over the world are diligently, thoroughly and silently executed not dramatized,” the group said.
“It is quite strange for managers of agencies under probe to bamboozle Nigerians with pedestrian stories such as, ‘if we release the names of contract beneficiaries/looters, Nigeria will break’.
“The NDRA considers this an alibi to confirm our fears that those trumpeting and sloganeering the forensic audit exercise may actually be acting out a script or intending the exercise as a tool for blackmail.”
East-West Road Project
The East-West Road, an ambitious project meant to connect the various states of the Niger Delta region, remains uncompleted 14 years after it was initiated by the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Mr Akpabio’s spokesperson, Mr Ekong, said the project has just been “moved” from the Presidential Intervention Fund to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs and that the contractors handling the project have just been “mobilised” to resume work.
Several people who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES said Mr Akpabio’s ministry, in the past one year, has not created any noticeable impact in the Niger Delta.
“They have failed,” Ken Henshaw, the Executive Director of We The People, a non-governmental organization, said of the ministry’s performance.
Mr Henshaw said the Presidential Amnesty Programme has been a “flagship project” of the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs.
“The fact that after 2009 when the amnesty programme was initiated and up till now we are still talking about the payment of stipends to ex-combatants, simply shows that that system has failed.
“We are still seeing the escalation of insecurity and violence in the region, it shows that something is not right,” Mr Henshaw said.
He said the uncompleted East-West Road is another indicator that the ministry has failed.
“I can tell you authoritatively that I have not in my various survey seen any tangible infrastructural project which is credited to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, I work in the region and I have traveled around extensively.
“So, my rating of the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs in the last one year is that nothing has really changed,” he added.
Mr Henshaw said the East-West Road, as far as he is aware, has always been a project of the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs.
“And guess what? The Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs has been more known for the corruption in that place than any developmental strides,” Mr Henshaw said.
Bassey Henshaw, a youth leader in the Niger Delta, said the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs is “work in progress” even though “it might not be where we want it to be”.
Mr Henshaw, who is the secretary of Niger Delta Ethnic Nationality Youth Leaders Council, said there was, therefore, no need to castigate the ministry.
Ken Henshaw said there is need to re-evaluate how people are appointed to lead the NDDC and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs.
“This presidency alone has replaced the leadership of NDDC six times in five years,” he said while advising the government not to use the commission and its supervising ministry to “settle” politicians.
He said the “lack of monitory and evaluation of NDDC” was another loophole.
“I said it on radio the other day, why did it take us 20 years to know that NDDC was not living up to its mandate?” he said. “It was created in 2000 and it took us up to 2020 to realise that the NDDC wasn’t working.
“The same thing with the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. Have we carried out any evaluation to know whether the ministry is living up to its mandate?
“I think we should put robust monitoring and evaluation frame-work in place to ensure there is a match between projects and objectives and to ensure that those projects actually speak to the issues in the Niger Delta region,” he said.
During the launch of PTCIJ’s report on NDDC, in August, experts called for the prosecution of those who have stolen money from the commission and the overhaul of Nigeria’s procurement process.
The NDRA called for removal of NDDC from the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs to the presidency where it was before.
“We remind Nigerians and President Buhari that we do firmly believe that if the Dubai desert could be transformed with $12 billion in six years, the Niger Delta region could have been transmogrified in the last 20 years, if there was the political will,” the NDRA said.