The ongoing probe of the financial records and activities of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) by the National Assembly is causing a lot of dramas. BODE GBADEBO reports.
The Prof. Daniel Kemebradikumo Pondei-led Interim Management Committee (IMC) of NDDC is no doubt grappling with a lot of challenges – the execution of the core mandate of the interventionist agency in the Niger Delta region and the obligation of shuttling between Port Harcourt and Abuja to face series of investigations by the relevant committees of both the Senate and House of Representatives in past few weeks.
While the Senate is investigating alleged financial recklessness of the IMC members and alleged illegal sack of some staff of the commission, the House of Representatives on its part, is probing the financial books of the agency. These probes are happening almost simultaneously, a development that brought NDDC to the front burner of national discourse in the past few days.
Meanwhile, there was a mild drama yesterday when the interim management team of the NDDC requested the chairman of the Ad-hoc Committee of the House of Representatives investigating its activities, Hon. Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, to disqualify himself from the matter.
The team, led by the acting Managing Director of the IMC, Prof. Pondei, said Tunji-Ojo is unfit to probe the activities of the commission having allegedly engaged in two major financial infractions including alleged inflation of a N750million road contract to N2.9billion.
The NDDC interim management also accused the chairman of the House Committee of inserting N6.4billion into the 2019 budget as a training cost.
The team consequently walked out on the legislative committee when the panel insisted on going ahead with the investigation of NDDC with Hon. Tunji-Ojo presiding.
LEADERSHIP Friday recalls that last week at the joint sitting of both the Senate and House of Representatives Adhoc Committee probing the same issue, Hon. Tunji-Ojo was accused by the IMC of inflating a N750million road contract to N2.9billion.
He was also accused of allegedly collecting N3.8billion from a N6.4billion before he released the signed copy of the NDDC budget.
Members of the committee, including Hon. Benjamin Kalu, Hon. Ben Ibakpa and Hon. Shehu Koko, told Prof. Pondei that since there was no document before them to prove the allegations against the House committee chairman, the IMC remains constitutionally-bound to answer lawmakers’ queries.
But in swift reaction, the acting Managing Director of the NDDC, Prof. Pondei, has offered reasons for walking out on the House of Representatives committee probing the alleged N40billion corruption in the commission.
Speaking at a press conference in Abuja shortly after staging the walk-out, Pondei said: “We in the NDDC are not comfortable with the chairman of this committee presiding over this matter.”
“He is an accused party. The NDDC has over time accused Hon. Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo of different crimes against the NDDC and he has responded in the press. He is an interested party and we do not believe that the NDDC can get justice because he cannot seat on his own case,” Pondei said.
According to the acting Managing Director, “We have no issue of appearing before the (House of Representatives) committee. We appeared before the Senate adhoc committee and as long as he remains, we will not make any presentation.’’
He maintained that the NDDC did not disrespect the National Assembly, adding that, “we have absolute respect for the National Assembly. That is why we appeared before the Senate ad-hoc committee to investigate the same issue. We made our presentations over two days and we wait for the outcome of the investigation. However, the committee that was set up in the House of Reps is being chaired by the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on the NDDC whom the NDDC has severally accused of different things.”
“Yesterday (Wednesday) for reasons beyond our control we were not able to present ourselves but the report that came out of the briefing yesterday had already indicted us, our head has been shaved in our absence. The fact given by the CBN and the Accountant-General’s office in the Senate explained that between October, 2019 and May 31, 2020, N81.5bn has been spent by the NDDC. Yesterday, according to what was read out by the chairman (Hon. Tunji-Ojo), the same figure was spent in four months by the NDDC. Already it shows that there is a problem, that there is an agreed and conceived effort to portray the management of the NDDC in a bad light and we know we cannot get justice in this manner.
“So any day a fresh ad-hoc committee without anybody being accused by the NDDC is set up, we will appear because we respect the National Assembly. When we saw that the committee was insisting that the chairman will continue presiding, we have no option than to take a leave but we did not disrespect the National Assembly, we asked for permission to leave and we left,” Pondei added.
On the allegation of missing N40bn from the coffers of NDDC, he denied the story being bandied around, saying no money was missing.
According to Pondei, the CBN and the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation had given accounts of how much money was spent by the two interim management committees of the NDDC combined as N81.5bn.
He said out of the N81bn, N59.1bn was recorded as spent by the current interim management committee of the NDDC and in the same report from both financial agencies, the commission has spent N38.6bn on road projects and so on.
The acting MD of the IMC added that a balance of N20bn covers a wide range of things mostly related to staff matters, salaries and historical debts that were inherited.
“Because the interim management committee stands to clear backlogs that are left, untreated issues that have been left to continue to fester and we stated this even at the Senate hearing. We paid a backlog of hotel bills that have been there for long, staff duty allowances that are there for four years.
“We operate a single account with the CBN and account details are published and it was from those things that investigations in the Senate were based on the account provided by the Central Bank of Nigeria,” Pondei explained.
However, the South-South and South-East Transparency Group on Wednesday came to the defence of IMC of the NDDC, saying the Executive Director in charge of Projects, Dr. Cairo Ojougboh, didn’t lie when he said that the money paid into his account was for a trip to visit the commission’s graduating students abroad.
Ojougboh had disclosed during a television discourse on the activities of the NDDC, that the money paid into his account was for a trip to see the NDDC graduating students abroad.
“The money he’s talking about is for a trip to see our students who are graduating in September. We have over a thousand students overseas…,” he said.
Addressing journalists, the President of South-South/South-East Transparency Group, Kekemeke Ewokor, said that the beneficiaries of the scholarship scheme had not been paid since 2016, hence the IMC, which came on board early 2019, had already concluded the process of paying the backlog.
The group noted that since the inception of the programme in 2010, the total number of beneficiaries of the scholarship is 1,800, adding that after the first six years, “it is only the IMC that is putting things together to ensure that the students smile once again.”
PMB Decries Unending Drama On NNDC
Apparently miffed with the unending drama around the probe of the NDDC by the National Assembly, President Buhari has given directives for better coordination among security and investigating agencies with the National Assembly to ensure that the administration’s effort to bring sanity, transparency and accountability to the management of the large amount of resources dedicated to development of the Niger Delta sub-region is not derailed.
In his reaction to the unfolding drama, which includes attacks and counter-attacks between and around persons, institutions, and the NDDC, President Buhari expressed his strong determination to get to the root of the problem undermining the development of the Niger Delta and its peoples in spite of enormous national resources voted year after year for this singular purpose.
According to the directive, auditing firms and investigative agencies working in collaboration with National Assembly Committees to resolve the challenges in the NDDC must initiate actions in a time-bound manner and duly inform the Presidency of the actions being taken.
According to a statement issued by the special assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, yesterday, Buhari also directed timely sharing of information and knowledge in a way to speedily assist the administration to diagnose what had gone wrong in the past and what needs to be done to make corrections in order to return the NDDC to its original mandate of making life better for people in Niger Delta.
President Buhari said the administration wants to bring about “rapid, even and sustainable development to the region.”
The President gave firm assurance that his administration would put in place a transparent and accountable governance framework, not only in the NDDC but in all other institutions of government.