In the recent past, there has been a cold war in the NDDC, between the board chairman, Lauretta Onochie and the management team. TNN moved to speak with Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, who was once chairman of the NDDC board on how he presided over the commission’s board without such hiccups as are being experienced today.
He bared his mind in the interview with OFONIME UMANAH, sharing some thoughts on possible causes of the conflict and also spoke on what can be done for the commission to fulfil the objectives of its establishment.
You were chairman of the NDDC. When you were chairman, how was the relationship between the board and the management? How were you able to get the management to work with the board?
You know, the NDDC is a creation of law. The law establishing the NDDC provides for the powers of the board and the powers of management. The overall powers of managing the NDDC reside with the board; they provide the policy direction and all of that.
Now, management carries out the day to day management of the commission and they also implement the decisions of the board. But ordinarily, there shouldn’t be a problem because the powers are clearly defined. But you see, where the problem comes in, is on the issue of control of funds, that is where the issue comes in because by the various laws, Fiscal Responsibility Act, and even the NDDC Act, makes the chief executive officer the accounting officer, and in some cases, liability for infractions of those laws are personal on the Chief Executive. So, the Chief Executive says look, ‘when it comes to money, I’m in charge.’ But the Chief Executive cannot spend outside the budget, which must be approved by the board. So, all you need do is to exercise the powers that have been given to you in a very creative way that will check the board without necessarily impeding the running of the commission.
Like I said, the board has overall powers. When we were there, the chairmanship of the NDDC is part time in name, only in name.
Okay. Only in name?
Only in name because you cannot do your work as NDDC chairman and do any other thing, because of the volume of work. I was there for a short period, barely two years, a little under two years. When I went, there were over three thousand files in the chairman’s office unattended to. So you had to go through each of those files individually and send them out and I needed help because the laws say look, you are entitled to three aides and I went to the board and said for so-so and so reasons, I needed more aids and I think they approved two more or three more. So I had a total of six or eight. But, the board has power to approve. So if you required any additional help, you go to the board.
The chairman is not an executive chairman; so you cannot say as chairman, I have decreed A, B, C or D, you need the approval of the board. So I think that, what is causing the confusion is a misapprehension of the law establishing the NDDC; either a misapprehension or it hasn’t been properly read. And then because the NDDC has not been allowed to grow, you don’t have any established tradition because by now, apart from the law, we should have had an established tradition, because NDDC was established in the year 2000, that’s 23 years ago, it’s long enough for certain things to be traditions. But there is no board of NDDC that has survived its full term. So those traditions haven’t been established, and then there is too much outside interference.
If you look at the objectives of the NDDC, you can summarize them, they are eleven or 12, but you can summarize all of them as being to create an integrated developed economy for the South-South region or the Niger Delta region; and if you look at the amount of money that has passed through the NDDC, we have the region in general, NDDC and the South-South regions in the last 23 years, if we couldn’t look like Dubai, we should look like Barren. But what has happened? A number of problems, the first was 2006, President Obasanjo lunched an elaborate master plan, a stakeholder generated masterplan, state government, Oil companies, development partners, host communities, all participated in generating that plan, a master plan for the region. But the plan was abandoned almost immediately. Now, they are trying to develop a region without a plan, how? You can’t even build a bungalow without a plan, not to talk of developing a whole region without a plan.
So everything that is happening in the Niger Delta Development Commission now is adhoc, as far as I’m concerned; and that is why you will see the commission competing with local governments and state governments on projects. They are building classroom blocks, they are building pit latrines. That wasn’t the intention. The intention was for the NDDC to integrate the economies of all the member states through projects that cut across. For instance, have a road, a highway that serves all the member states, have a rail system, have a power grid and all of those things. Those were the things that we were trying to work on because the starting point was to either revalidate the initial master plan which had a 15-year life span and had expired, or get a new master plan. So, we were in the process of developing that master plan, we were already talking with the government of Sao Tome, for them to deploy their excess internet capacity to Niger Delta region because Sao Tome is just behind us here and all the trunks that are coming from America and from Europe meet in Sao Tome before they are distributed to different parts of Africa, and it’s just a country of an Island nation, with 200,000 people, but the capacity they have is far more than what we have in Nigeria with 220 million people. So we were in talks with them; in fact, they were willing to even give us their excess capacity plus their telecommunication companies, the equivalent of our NITEL. But it was at that point that the board was abruptly dissolved. We had already gotten approval in principle because funding of NDDC is from oil, from the oil companies and from proceeds from oil, certain percentages.
So we knew that oil being a finite resource, it is a question of time before funding becomes an issue and we said okay, let’s not depend on oil anymore, let’s begin to look for other ways of funding NDDC and we came up with the idea of a Niger Delta Development Bank and we got approval in principle, from the then acting president, Professor Yemi Osibanjo. So we were working on the bank, a development bank that will take over all these mega projects so that their sustainability doesn’t depend on who was on the board. But all of those things ended. So the fight you see there, one is that there are no traditions. Two, the laws are not being applied and three, most of those fights are externally generated and they are political.
You talked about the master plan, where was it when you were there? Today, where is it?
I said the master plan was abandoned and it had a 15- year lifespan, I think. So it was already, was it 15 years or 12 years? I can’t remember, but it was already expired, it was obsolete. So we needed to either update, revalidate or come up with a new master plan and that we had already started the process of getting a new master plan when we left.
During you time, were you a signatory to the account? What connection did you have with the finances of NDDC?
Apart from approving the budget, none, and I didn’t desire to be a signatory to any account.
What does the law establishing the NDDC say concerning the powers of the chairman vis-a-vis that of the MD and where do they meet?
The law does not have any powers attributed to the chairman. The powers of the chairman are the powers of the board and when we started, the first thing the board did was to donate their powers to me as chairman, to act in urgent cases. But you always came back to the board for them to ratify what you had done. So as chairman, you don’t have any special powers. The powers of the chairman are coterminous with the powers of the board. It is the managing director that for instance, is named as the chief accounting officer and by virtue of the extant laws, he is personally liable for the infraction of those laws.
When you saw or heard of the disagreement, the quarrel between the MD and the chairman, what are the things that were going through your mind?
I said NDDC again?(laughs). Regrettably, the NDDC has lost focus, has lost its mission, has lost its commission, regrettably. Because we haven’t achieved any of the things that the commission was set out to achieve. Have we achieved an integrated regional economy? No. Have we achieved a developed regional economy? No. And then, even the organs of the NDDC, the first thing I did was, because I noticed that some of the organs, there is an advisory committee made up of all the governors of the member states.
Have they ever met?
No. And I wrote to the president as soon as I was appointed. We have these organs that have been dormant, can you appoint them? Can you reactivate them? The minister at the time, the Niger Delta, the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs said I shouldn’t have written to the President directly, I should have routed it through him. I apologized and routed it through him and that was the end of the discussion. Nothing more was said.
The minister of Niger Delta then was Usani Usani, and that was the end of discussion. Look, there is too much interference, too much over bearance on the NDDC. The ministers that are appointed, their main concern is the NDDC and not even their ministries and then if you look at the governance issues in the place, the amount of debts, the number of projects, there is no reason why NDDC should have the number of projects that it does. No reason, because it is like you are competing with local government councils. No, it is not the intention. Then the accumulated debts. Like I said, the governance issues, the opacity of their processes, we were trying to streamline all of those things but I think politics is a bigger consideration for NDDC than its mandate.
Okay now, if you were to meet with the current occupant of the office you left, consideration all the things that are happening now in the NDDC and then on top of it, the management is at war the board, what would you have advised the Board Chairman?
(laughs) it’s not what you advise, it’s what he/she does. So what I would advise is, go and read the law. But, that is not the end of the story. Like I said, the external influence on NDDC is unimaginable. So, for all you care, this might as well be a proxy war that is going on.
So where do we go from here? How do we take NDDC out of this?
Extreme surgery. You know the NDDC is not the first intervention in the Niger Delta, we have had many before. The last before the NDDC was OMPADEC. How did they deal with the predecessors of NDDC? It is the same way you have to deal with this, and how come none of them was able to deliver on the mandate? I remember President Buhari sent for me before we were inaugurated, you know, and I said Sir, this mandate, what do we make of it? He said, go ahead and develop your region, he said go and develop your region and I am sure every president before him has said so to the predecessor bodies. So how come we have been unable to develop the region? Is the fault in our stars or in us?
Do you think there is hope with what is going on for the Niger Delta region, through the NDDC?
Look, government needs to take a very cold and very detached review of the NDDC. You must look at its liabilities than its income and take a critical business decision. When I say business, I don’t mean in the sense of the private sector business but business in the sense of meeting all basic governance in such situations. How can you be owing? For instance you are owing N3m, your revenue, over a given period would be N1.5million, your budget in a year is N500,000, but you are awarding contracts every year of N3m.
When my board took over, from the records we saw, the commission was owing N1.2 trillion. I hear today it is almost N3 trillion, in just a question about four years, because I left about 4 years, it is today N3 trillion and we are not seeing anything on the ground. So government has to take a very cold, very detached, very critical, very professional approach to NDDC.
What is the board not doing rightly? You’ve headed the board of the NDDC before, what are they not doing rightly?
The problem is not the board, the problem is above the board. You have a minister, you have the president, you have the National Assembly. So their problems are many.