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Again, Akpabio in the Eye of the Storm –

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Emameh Gabriel writes that Senator Godswill Akpabio, Minister of Niger Delta Affairs is not the right man for the task of ridding the Niger Delta Development Commissiony of corruption and sanitising its operations
There is no end in sight to the power play, allegation of corruption, breathtaking scandals and most conspicuously, the scramble for the control and management of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), a situation that is almost at the verge of tearing the Niger Delta region apart.

Giving the widespread graft that the commission is notorious for since inception, President Muhammadu Buhari in his wisdom in May 2020 desolved the Prof. Keme Pondei’s led Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the commission after allegations of financial misappropriation and other official misconducts levelled against the committee.

The President subsequently ordered for a forensic audit and investigation to chat a new path for the commission as well as to put an end to the decades long rot in the commission, that has become endemic.

One year after, a new management board is yet to be constituted despite the clamour and pressure by various interests groups in the oil producing region on President Muhammadu Buhari even after the nomination and subsequent screening of selected members across the region since last year by the National Assembly.

Similarly, report of the forensic audit ordered by the President has till date not been released, such that it is already creating rooms for eyeballs to raise.

The ultimatum issued by Niger Delta leaders to President Buhari to inaugurate a new board expired last week.

In what appears to be a watery response to the agitations from the Niger Delta region, Minister of Niger Delta affairs, Goodwill Akpabio, recently at the State House told journalists that the much awaited report of the forensic and special audit into the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is expected to be ready by the end of July. He also disclosed that a new board of the commission would be reconstituted.

This came after various groups in the Niger Delta had faulted the current management committee of the board and called on the President to inaugurate a new board as in line with the Act establishing the commission.

Clearly, Akpabio seems to have been involved in a long running struggle to dictate the affairs of the NDDC. He prides himself on a mandate to rid the agency of corruption and sanitize its operations in the interest of the Niger Delta but many do not think he is such a man for the task.

The NDDC since its creation in 200 has been the focal point of Niger Delta politics, as control of the Commission has always reflected the power balance on the ground, as politicians and factions vie for control and influence over one of the most lucrative federal agency in the country.

Power brokers see it as a cash cow and funds from its coffers have been used to further political interests. It is this prevailing situation that has engendered high leadership turnover in the agency overtime and the order for forensic audit by President Muhammadu Buhari. Central to the problem of the NDDC has always been accountability.

With the ascension of Akpabio as Minister in 2019 after his defection from the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), he began to make moves to asset himself and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs over the commission much to the consternation of some stakeholders in the region. Many of which felt the NDDC as an interventionist agency should operate with the least political interference if it is to deliver the required and expected good to the people of the Niger Delta region. Akpabio was a member of the Senate standing committee on NDDC. He understands its workings and political intricacies. As a former governor of a NDDC-member state, he was involved in nomination of key administrators of the agency.

Clearly, it was for this reason that when the President in mid – 2019 constituted a new board for the commission it did not seat well with Akpabio, who in the middle of the confirmation by the Senate went round to get the President’s approval for an interim management committee pending the completion of the forensic audit.

Political watchers have avared that Akpabio is afraid of the calibre of personalities that were appointed board nominees by the president, such as Dr Pius Odubu, who is a close associate and deputy governor of Edo state under Adams Oshiomhole, who was then national chairman of the APC and Bernard Okumagba a respected technocrat, who is a former Commissioner of Economic Planning and Finance in Delta State under Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan. With both at the helm of the board as Chairman and Managing Director, it would be difficult for Akpabio to enjoy an unbridled reign over the commission.

Akpabio’s attempt to exercise a stranglehold over the agency may not be unconnected to his fallout with and removal of two previous acting MD’s he controversially appointed.

Ms Joi Nunieh assumed office as the acting MD of NDDC after the removal of Akwagaga Enyia in October 2019, but she was sacked four months later. She made a startling allegation during a Senate public hearing in 2020, that during her brief tenure at the commission, Mr Akpabio repeatedly pressured her to take “an oath of secrecy” that was meant to keep her from exposing fraud at the commission.
She told the committee that only N8 billion of the said N81.5 billion spent between October 2019 and May 2020 was spent under her watch.

She also said that she was under pressure by Mr Akpabio to abuse processes and engage in financial recklessness, and accused him of hijacking the forensic audit ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Analysts posit that Akpabio’s quest for control is clear in the appointment of Effiong Okon Akwa as current interim administrator, and that it can ethical compromise the said forensic audit. This is because Mr Akwa served as SA Finance to Mr Bassey Dan-Abia while he was MD of the NDDC between 2013 and 2015.

He, in fact was posted by Akpabio to Dan-Abia for that job. Akpabio as Akwa Ibom State governor between 2007 and 2015 nominated Dan-Abia and got him appointed as NDDC MD in 2013. Those years are part of the period under investigation by the forensic audit, yet, a key player in the NDDC mess during this period in the person of Mr Akwa is now in charge of overseeing the forensic audit. And that Akwa was part of the discredited IMC.

Clash with National Assembly

Akpabio’s move to prevent the newly confirmed governing board to take over the management of the NDDC by swiftly setting up an Interim Management Committee did not seat well with the National Assembly members with accusations and counter – accusations. With Senate President, Ahmed Lawan mandating the Senate Niger Delta Committee to deal with the board instead of the IMC. But in a swift and deft move Akpabio got the president to dissolve the constituted board, removing an obstacle to the smooth operation of the interim management.

The IMC was viewed with suspicion by the National Assembly as an appendage of Akpabio, which subsequently launched a series of probe that resulted in the inglorious fainting of Prof. Pondei before the house committee.

But Akpabio and the interim committee fought back saying “disgruntled elites who are uncomfortable with the forensic audit of the commission have mobilized resources to demonize them and that it was untenable and indefensible”. They even accused National Assembly members of being major beneficiaries of NDDC contracts.

Stakeholders protest, denounce Akpabio’s move

Despite attempts by Akpabio to calm frayed nerves through his region wide itinerary, many in the Niger Delta still think that he is exercising undue influence in the affairs of the commission which they say is inimical to peace, stability and development in the region. They contend that board dissolved by the president under the instigation of the minister was the result of wide consultation in the region and had the backing and acceptance of stakeholders. According to them any attempt to reconstitute the board with new set of individuals would defeat the purpose and mandate of the commission as it would give certain politicians or political faction overwhelming influence that may not necessarily reflect the will and aspirations of the people.

Just last week some elders in the region under the auspices of Rural Chiefs and Development Initiative called on President Muhammadu Buhari to dissolve the interim management committee of the NDDC and inaugurate the president’s nominees cleared and confirmed by the Senate in 2019.

This came after the expiration of an ultimatum handed by leader of Niger Delta to the federal government to constitute a management board for the commission.

In a letter to the president, the Niger-Delta chiefs described the Interim Management team set up by the Minister of Niger Delta, Godswill Akpabio, as illegal and unacceptable, saying it negates the Act that establishing the commission.

The letter jointly signed by the Chairman of the group, Chief Nengi Eriwori, and Legal Adviser, Mr. Ebinyu Aderigba, the group said the tenure of the previous interim management board had expired, noting that they were not unaware of the power of the president under the 1999 constitution as altered to delegate his powers to any ministry to carry out any function as contained in Section 170 of the constitution.

They argued that the Act establishing the NDDC does not contemplate interim management to take over the management of the commission.

Also last recently, a civil society organisation, Vanguard for Transparent Leadership and Democracy (VATLAD), called on the presidency to disregard manipulation of NDDC board membership that is likely to generate crisis between stakeholders in Niger Delta and presidency.

This was contained in a press statement signed by the group’s national president, Comrade Igbini Odafe Emmanuel.

“We are shocked and very disappointed to read that some members and leadership of the House of Representatives on June 10, 2021, resolved to urge President Buhari to disregard the Senate screened and confirmed members of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) which were put on standby for forensic auditing of alleged monumental fraud in the past twenty years of the Commission.

“The timing of this said Resolution coming only few days after the Elders, Youths and High Chief Government Ekpemupolo, better known as, Tompolo vehemently opposed the continued unlawful hijack of the NDDC by a Sole Administrator and demanded immediate inauguration of the Substantive Board of NDDC to avoid total showdown of oil production in the Region, raises concern,”

“Everyone is fully aware that the Senate, before confirming members of this NDDC Board placed it on standby because of forensic auditing, carefully considered these same arguments being represented by these members of House of Representatives. Why then are these members representing same if not only to create avoidable and unnecessary crisis for President Buhari and Nigeria?

“Their action is also regrettably targeted at discrediting the Senate and unjustly bringing the Hallowed Red Chamber to Public Ridicule”, the group said, calling on Nigerians to resist new members in order to save the country from further crisis.

”it is better imagined if the South-south region is provoked to anger at this time of increasing Insecurity and Instability in other geopolitical zones of Nigeria”, the statement cautioned.

There are also several other groups in the region that have lended their voices, appealing to President Buhari to ensure that the right thing is done for sake of the peace of the region. They have also charged him to be personally involved in the appointment of the next managing director to stop the trend of playing politics with the fate of the people.

Minister’s office faults agitators, says Presidency reserves the power to hire and fire

A consultant of the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, who also has the ears of Sen Akpabio told THISDAY that those “making unfounded allegations against the minister are probably not conversant with the laws, the constitutional provisions and the Act establishing the NDDC.

Mrs Obiaruko Ndukwe says the president is empowered by law to take such decisions and that one thing he cannot be denied of.

“The NDDC as it is, is under the Presidency and President reserves the right by law to bring it under the responsibility of anybody. In this case, he asked the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio to be the supervising minister of NDDC. He is empowered by law, if you check the Act very well, to appoint, to hire and also to fire. You can’t take that away from him.

“Whoever is saying that Akpabio is responsible for the delay for inauguration of the new board, the person is not aware of the reality and the fact of the matter. I think somebody is just playing politics somewhere”.

Malami advised Buhari dropped Odubu, others

On the issue of the board that was initially constituted and screened and was later dropped, the consultant told THISDAY that Buhari still in the excersise of his constitutional power, dropped the initial constituted board due to several petitions and litigations.

“The President on his own decided to drop that board because there were over 110 litigations against the nominations into that particular board. In that list you are talking about, even Rivers State which is the third highest oil producing state was also excluded from the executive director position. So there arw so many issues. Based on the advice from the Attorney General of the Federation, the President had to drop that board to avoid having a board that would be affected by litigations.”

Akpabio remains adamant in the eyes of the storm

While the agitations against his design for the commission is growing, Akpabio seems determined to have his way. When the IMC was created it was given the mandate to oversee the forensic audit after which it would give way to a substantive board. But with the subsequent dissolution of the Senate confirmed Pius Odubu led NDDC board, the road seems clear for Akpabio to push through his agenda. He has reportedly commenced compilation of a new list of board members nominees allegedly with the backing of President Buhari.

As several groups connected or sympathetic with the minister calling for entirely new set of individuals to constitute a new board, it is indicative that regardless of the clamour by prominent groups and individuals from the region, Akpabio is hell bent on having absolute control over the affairs of the commission. With the purported audit coming to end in July according to the minister no doubt the Niger Delta region is in for a showdown.

QUOTE

Political watchers have avared that Akpabio is afraid of the calibre of personalities that were appointed board nominees by the president, such as Dr Pius Odubu, who is a close associate and deputy governor of Edo state under Adams Oshiomhole, who was then national chairman of the APC and Bernard Okumagba a respected technocrat, who is a former Commissioner of Economic Planning and Finance in Delta State under Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan. With both at the helm of the board as Chairman and Managing Director, it would be difficult for Akpabio to enjoy an unbridled reign over the commission

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