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Again, NDDC entangled in web of scandals

NDDC office

Amid the anticipation of the much-touted forensic audit of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), the agency has been enmeshed in yet another web of scandal involving questionable awards and payments for unbudgeted contracts.

At a time when people are losing faith in the ability of legislative and political actors to ensure the reign of corporate governance in the NDDC, the National Assembly against all odds, has ordered a probe into alleged financial malfeasance in the outfit, particularly, the alleged spending of N40b within three months, by the Prof. Kemebradikumo Pondei-led Interim Management Committee (IMC).

At the centre of the brewing contract scandal, is the IMC, which was set up to oversee the forensic audit of the NDDC, where corruption has undermined all efforts to develop the Niger Delta region.

The action of the National Assembly is predicated on a flurry of petitions to it, anti-graft agencies, the Nigeria Police by groups, including Transparency and Accountability Advancement Group; Niger Delta Transparency and Accountability Watchdog; Niger Delta Rights Advocates; Niger Delta Frontline Coalition (NDFC), as well as an environmental activist, Hosanna Jalogho-Williams, who specifically accused the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio of micromanaging the NDDC.

Besides, the aforementioned stakeholders have also accused the minister and NDDC of exploiting the dreaded Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to award contracts for emergency procurement of specialised Medical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health workers, and the provision of community-based sensitisation campaign against the spread of the pandemic and other communicable diseases in the nine states of the Niger Delta at the cost of N5. 4b to Signoria Concept Services Limited.

Signoria’s Operational Manager, Patrick Ijeomah, had denied the firm was awarded a N5.4b contract by the IMC. But, he, however, confirmed that under the former acting managing director of the NDDC, Prof Nelson Brambaiyefa, Signora was among 21 other companies that were awarded contracts for the supply of various medical accessories, ranging from Lassa fever kits, maternal delivery kits, cholera vaccines, and science equipment.

He said the amount paid by former IMC acting managing director, Dr. Joi Nunieh, was N2.9b, with an outstanding balance of N972m.

In another contract with Reference Number NDDC/MD/HPU/20/4/EHSS/02 in the sum of N4.8b to Osmoserve Global Limited, under the heading ‘award of contract for the emergency supply and delivery of medical equipment and consumables to the NDDC, the contractors were allegedly paid 55 percent of the contract sum upfront.

Concerned that corruption in NDDC is a problem that has serious implications for peace and stability in the oil-producing states, the groups also noted that while the management of the NDDC claimed it had remitted N1.045b to the nine NDDC states as part payment for the establishment of COVID-19 isolation centres in each of the 27 senatorial districts, there presently does not exist any NDDC-funded isolation centre in any of the 27 senatorial districts.

Another allegation, which is still generating ripples in the intervention agency, is the claims that a whopping sum N60b has been expended as payments of unbudgeted clearing of water hyacinths since November 2016 till date. This is in serious violation of the Public Procurement Act of 2007.

Amid these allegations, the stakeholders are arguing that the retention of the IMC in contravention of the NDDC Act, might not be unconnected to the desire by elements of “deep state” to cover up their corrupt footprints and shield themselves and their protégés if a proper forensic audit of the commission is carried out.

They also insisted that this was perhaps why international auditing firms were not hired for the forensic exercise to foist an accounting hocus-pocus.

However, as allegations of corrupt practices in the agency continue to mount, Akpabio has written to Prof. Pondei, through the permanent secretary in the ministry, Olusade Adesola, for a detailed explanation of the alleged award of contracts by the IMC.

He requested Pondei to also address the allegations of the mandatory retirement of staff of the commission over a purported leakage of official documents.

But the NDDC Head of Corporate Affairs, Charles Odili, while responding to allegations of contract scandal, affirmed that the letter purportedly issued by the Director of Procurement awarding a PPE contract and other kits to fight the spread of COVID-19 to the tune of over N5b was fake.

According to him, “the document is simply fake or at best unauthorized.”

Odili, who explained that the commission has launched an internal investigation into how such a letter was issued, and on what authority, however, admitted that the only contract that the NDDC awarded to Osmoserve Ltd, was approved by the Presidency, adding that it was not out of place for the NDDC to intervene in the fight against COVID-19.

He had also refuted allegations that the embattled IMC had squandered N200b on payment for fake contracts in the past two months as alleged in some quarters.

“The total payments made by the Interim Management Committee in the past two months is about N22b. This covers payments to vendors and suppliers like hotels and contractors, especially those owed N50m and below. The total funds available to the commission in the past three months is N33b,” he said.

The acting managing director, Prof Pondei has accused “corruption-tainted” individuals, who took part in the grand conspiracy to loot the NDDC of being behind the attack on the IMC, saying they were jittery that their misdeeds would come to light.

“We wish we could sympathise with them. But it should have occurred to them that a day of reckoning would come. The fear of the impunity of their past misdeeds being brought to light is causing panic. The vultures are shivering,” he said.

It is widely agreed that there has been a governance deficit in the NDDC, occasioned primarily by a political culture that is steeped in corruption, clientelism and elite capture.

In appreciation of the gravity of this menace, NDDC directors in a memo to the executive management, last year raised, concerns about poor governance in the commission.

The directors had also warned that the procedures and processes adopted for the award of over-invoiced emergency contracts, which has landed the incumbent IMC in trouble, was faulty, thus burgeoning financial liabilities of the NDDC way past N2t.

To understand the NDDC’s corruption ecosystem, and why the commission has failed to deliver on his mandate, President Muhammadu Buhari, in consonance with the wishes of stakeholders, including South South governors, ordered the forensic audit of the commission beginning from 2001 till 2019.

The smooth take-off of the forensic audit, which may not be politically convenient for the “deep state” actors in and outside the Niger Delta has been mired in intrigues since the unceremonious ousting of Nunieh, the former IMC acting managing director.

The Guardian findings revealed that the resumption of award and payment of emergency contracts, which include roads, water hyacinth, and canal de-silting has been made possible by the abrupt and unprecedented transfer of 26 out of the 32 directors of the NDDC from its Headquarters in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, to the state offices of the commission.

Prof Pondei’s predecessor, Dr. Nunieh, had stopped the payment for all emergency contracts awarded by previous managements until a contract verification and evaluation committee, which she set up to investigate the veracity of the jobs had submitted its report.

Some of the directors who have now been transferred out of the NDDC Headquarters were among those that Nunieh nominated to head the various teams in the nine states, where reports were expected to be generated. Among other things, the reports were to determine the authenticity of contracts awarded; the genuineness of the contractors, and whether they were duly registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC),

After this, the mission of the verification committee, which was working in tandem with engineers and surveyors recommended by the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN), and the Nigerian Institute of Quantity Surveyors (NIQS) respectively, was to visit these emergency projects sites and appraise the actual value of the work done before payment would be made. It was on the verge of commencement of this process that Nunieh was ousted over an allegation that she did not participate in the mandatory one-year National Youth Service (NYSC) scheme.

Keen observers of the NDDC believe that powerful individuals who benefitted from these suspicious emergency contract awards, who are now afraid that inherent flaws in the exercise might be exposed by the audit, quickly moved against all directors that were engaged in the contract verification exercise by ensuring they were all transferred outside the headquarters. This paved way for the abortion of the on-the-spot assessment of the job done.

Subsequently, a source in the NDDC revealed to The Guardian that immediately the directors were transferred, the IMC started paying for the same emergency contracts without the all-important assessment initiated by Mrs. Nunieh being completed.

“Nunieh had declared that she would not pay for any emergency job until it was verified and the work done was equivalent to the money approved for the job. Now, the IMC has paid for most of the emergency contracts, such as canal de-silting. Some directors, who kicked against this, were hurriedly transferred out of the Headquarters. They argued that NDDC cannot be awarding contracts for canal de-silting. Rather than award contracts for de-silting, you should award contracts to stop what led to the drainage being clogged,” she said.

She explained that tackling corruption in the NDDC was a massive task, but the enormity of the challenge has not dampened the spirit of whistle-blowers represented by the various groups and stakeholders that have petitioned the Presidency, the National Assembly, and the various anti-graft agencies.

According to her, there is compelling evidence of lingering financial malfeasance in the commission.

“Imagine a situation where an executive could sit down in his office, open his laptop computer, and issue a contract for up to N500m under a spurious guise of an emergency. It is never done anywhere. If it is an emergency, it must come to the management committee. The management committee will still vet quotations from three specialised people before going ahead with any award. There is a process, and no one should just get on a computer set and issue a contract letter. That is what they are doing and they have started doing it again. And that is why they are now denying contract letters that they have already issued,” she added.

On the forensic audit, a director, who pledged anonymity told The Guardian that Nunieh had recommended that the exercise should involve the World Bank, which was ready to sponsor the process, on the condition that some of its officials would observe the process. She was also pressing for a world-class brand like Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and other international firms to carry out the exercise, after the project verification. But for some inexplicable reasons, indigenous auditing firms were eventually selected by the government.

He described as ludicrous, the claim that the lead consultant for forensic auditing firm had advised the management that certain persons with vast experience in the operations of the commission should proceed on mandatory leave ahead of the audit.

According to him, the whole intent was to enable the deep state actors who kicked against the likes of Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, which are bigger brands than the NDDC to manipulate the process.

“An audit is an inspection of the book of an organisation to ascertain how the funds have been appropriated. It is not a probe. Now, these auditors did not even know what NDDC was until they were appointed. They had not even started working only to recommend that this man, that woman should be removed because they occupy sensitive positions, whereas these auditors need them to get to the bottom of what has happened in that position. A few years ago at the NNPC, PricewaterhouseCoopers carried out a forensic audit supervised by the Office Auditor General. Nobody was asked to go on leave; nobody was asked to go on retirement because those people were needed to get to the bottom of the audit,” he said.

While observing that the stakes were high as there was a grand ploy to distort the outcome of the audit, he warned that if this development was left unchecked, it would diminish the faith of the ordinary Niger Delta people, and trigger a negative spiral where even sincere initiatives of government would be viewed with suspicion.

“Now, the people who know about NDDC are suddenly wanted out so that they would not talk to the auditors for them (auditors) not TO get to the truth of the matter. In audit, you need to ask people questions. Whom do they want the auditors to ask questions? Is it the acting managing director or the acting executive director of the project who does not know anything about the NDDC? Or it is those assistant directors or deputy directors that they are propping up? They need the core directors, to tell the truth about what has been happening. That is how it is done everywhere,” he said.

Worried that unchecked financial malfeasance would erode the trust the people of the Niger Delta have in the managers of the NDDC, stakeholders in the region are calling on President Buhari to leverage on the desire for a genuine forensic audit and purge the NDDC of the scourge of corruption, which is threatening its existence.

According to him, if the status quo is sustained, the implication is that the people would have to put up with the poor quality of infrastructure, which the commission has become known for.

While the Rivers State Coordinator, Nigeria Tax Justice and Governance Platform (RTJGP), Amaechi Kelechi Justin, shares the sentiment of groups that are alleging corruption in the NDDC, he suggested that people should be circumspect and pressurise anti-graft agencies to probe the alleged contract scam, as well as the illegal release of funds for jobs not executed.

“The anti-corruption agencies are there to deal with individuals. Of course, the IMC members do not have immunity. There will never be a moratorium on the fight against corruption, even when people are auditing NDDC. But in the same vein, it will not also be good if people just make allegations that cannot be substantiated, and the leadership of the NDDC is removed again on that basis and replaced with another one. Attempts to frustrate this forensic audit must be avoided because most of us have agitated for this because the NDDC has not in anyway met the minimum standard of our expectations,” he said.

Justin, who expressed dissatisfaction that the Pondei-led IMC failed to commence, and conclude the forensic audit before its tenure was extended by the President, urged aggrieved stakeholders in the region to be patient in order not to foist a leadership change in the NDDC that would further delay the conclusion of the forensic audit.

He regretted that international auditing firms like Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and KPMG that have their reputation to protect were not made lead consultants in the forensic audit, adding, however, that whenever the audit report is released, his group would join forces with other stakeholders and subject the outcome of the investigation to professional and public scrutiny.

“We will object if it falls short of professional and financial experts’ scrutiny. Maybe that is when the services of these international audit firms would be sought. It would be a defeatist exercise for us at this stage to say if we don’t see KPGM, PricewaterhouseCoopers, we will not accept the audit,” he said.

On his part, the Programmes Coordinator, Centre for Citizenship Capacity Advancement and Development Alternatives, Bonny Akinze, said that the diversion of funds meant for addressing identified developmental gaps contributes immensely to infrastructural decay in the Niger Delta.

“Loss of funds and poor governance processes in the NDDC if not urgently resolved, will continue to contribute to the sorry state of things we have in the Niger Delta,” he said.

Akinze urged the President to immediately inaugurate the board of the NDDC, which statutorily is supposed to be like the eyes of the government in the commission, and also formulate policies for the commission.

“If the board is not in place, who represents the government? Who is supposed to oversee the management? So, automatically, the absence of the board is a huge challenge to the smooth running of the agency. So, let the President put a proper board in place and task the board with specific assignments. If there is a panel set up to investigate certain things, the board should be there to oversee it. If a forensic audit is to be carried out, the board should be the one overseeing it. The absence of the board is a huge gap in the administration of the NDDC,” he said.

The Executive Director of the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ), David Ugolor, is not surprised at what is playing out at the NDDC as he alleged that those who appointed the IMC were out to cover up corrupt practices and the poor governance system there.

Ugolor explained that if the President was interested in redeeming the beleaguered interventionist agency, he should have engaged NEITI, which has a statutory obligation to monitor oil revenues in the country to probe the commission. He stressed that the President should take responsibility because whatever is happening in the commission was being executed by his men.

“Appointment into NDDC comes from the Presidency. If Buhari wants the atrocity that is going on in NDDC to stop today he should just empower the EFCC chairman, Ibrahim Magu, and all those activities will stop right away. But the EFCC cannot do anything without the support of the Presidency. The political will that is missing has hampered development in the region. Where are institutions like the ICPC and EFCC amid all these fraud allegations that are going on in the NDDC? That gives you an indication of what is going on.”

He observed that with the compromise of militants in the Niger Delta, and the unfortunate divisiveness of political elites from the region in the APC, the Presidency has taken advantage of this to foist on the NDDC, incompetence and corruption.

“The forensic audit was designed to deceive the entire region. It is not with the motive of finding a solution to the corrupt procurement processes within the NDDC. For instance, how do you appoint people to be judges in their cases? That is what I don’t understand. Ultimately, we should hold President Buhari responsible for what is happening in NDDC. The crisis in the NDDC is not surprising. It is a clear case that development has been arrested,” he said.

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