By Jerome-Mario Utomi
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, a Public institution is an institution conducted with the approval, and from the funds of the public. While explaining that whenever such an institution ceases to have public support, it forfeits its right to exist, Gandhi observed that most institutions maintained on permanent funds are often found to ignore public opinion, and are frequently responsible for acts contrary to it. And instead of living like nature, from day to day, they (public institutions) in some cases abandon the ideals of public trust.
The above worries were expressed years ago in far-away India.
However, each time I ruminate on; first, the recent squabble between Godswill Akpabio, the Minister for Niger Delta with the former acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Dr Joi Nunieh. Secondly, the staged walk-out from the House of Representative committee by the Interim Management Committee of the NDDC, on Wednesday 16th July, 2020, when it appeared for the continuation of the investigative hearing of the commission’s financial dealings. And, the Lawmakers’ order of the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, to immediately arrest the Acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, Prof Kemebradikumo Daniel Pondei, for contempt of the legislature, the above thought about public institutions and public trust by Ghandhi comes flooding.
Indeed, while I sympathize with the people of the Niger Delta region and President Muhammadu Buhari on whose shoulders lay the crushing weight of uninspiring leadership in both NDDC and the Niger Delta Ministry precipitated by a bunch of people that daily demonstrate lack of commitment to their mission while masquerading as leaders, I must quickly underline that the situation says something else. The Federal Government and of course other Nigerians should begin to see the problem in the region as a national one and not restricted to the region.
To shed more light on this piece, the Niger Delta Development Commission is a federal government agency created on the 5th of June 2000, by Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo with the sole mandate of developing the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. It was a response to overwhelming human deprivation in the Niger Delta. It succeeded the highly politicized, incompetent and grossly corrupt, Oil Mineral Area Development Commission (OMPADEC) that was established in 1993. OMPADEC was not the first agency established in Nigeria charged with the development of the oil rich Niger Delta. In 1960, the newly independent government of Nigeria established the Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB). This agency was virtually moribund. The NDDC was conceived as a fresh beginning and a more focused effort on development in the Niger Delta.
According to the NDDC Act, the commission is funded by: Federal Government contribution, which shall be equivalent to 15% of the monthly statutory allocations due to member States of the Commission from the Federation Account: Oil and Gas processing companies’ contribution of 3% of their total budget: 50% of the Ecological Fund allocations due to member states: proceeds from other NDDC assets: miscellaneous sources including but not limited to, grants-in-aid, gifts, interests on deposits and investments, loans by Federal and State Government and any local or foreign bodies, and donations.
Despite this good intention, NDDC right from the year 2000, when it was created by enabling Act has refused to get it right in terms of leadership. This explains why the region is still stuck in the mud of underdevelopment despite its huge financial, human and natural resources. In the estimation of so many Nigerians particularly those from the Niger Delta region, the Commission and Niger Delta Ministry by extension manifests, and glaringly qualify as a nanny that deliberately kills children that they were hired to protect.
Take as an illustration, the commission going by the words of Kemebradikumo Pondei, Acting Managing Director, used N1.5bn as COVID-19 Palliatives to take care of its management and staff. This is happened at about the same time that disease and illiteracy walked the creeks, rivers and estuaries of the Niger Delta, Again the Commission according to media reports spent N40bn in three months without due process, and have since inception received from the Federal Government well over 15 trillion Naira from inception, And just on Tuesday 14th July, 2020, The Central bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the office of the Accountant General of the federation further inflicted a terrible wound on the agency following the revelation that the commision illegal spent N81.5 Billion between January/July 2020. Yet, no tangible infrastructures to show for it.
From the above and other chilly revelations that will be discussed in the course of this intervention, it is important to appreciate Mr. President recent declaration that his administration wants to bring about “rapid, even and sustainable development to the region. And therefore, directed that 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 timely share information and knowledge in a way to speedily assist the administration 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. However, I must quickly underline that it is obvious that NDDC and the Niger Delta Ministry, as public institutions have lost the public trust which is the most important alchemy in public leadership.
As there exists fundamental instances that point to the fact that present happening in both NDDC and the Niger Delta Ministry, occurred neither by accident nor new but a reoccurring circle. A compelling reason for the Federal Government to reflect on the present challenge and develop a new solution to the challenge.
Supporting this claim is the July 2004 report by the Social and Economic Rights Action (SERAC)s fact-finding mission to the Niger Delta which among other objectives sought to: ascertain the quality and structure of government’s intervention through the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and the Federal Ministry of Environment.
NDDC according to the report claimed that it has built 40 roads, constructed 90 units of water projects, 129 electricity projects and forty seven shore protections and jetties as at February, 2003. SERAC fact finding mission visited some of the communities where NDDC claims to have provided development projects. The problem with these claims is that the costs quoted are usually above what such projects should cost in market value. The NDDC water jetty for example was a project started by the defunct OMPADEC. All that NDDC has done is to resuscitate the project.
Another important reason, the report added for the failure of the NDDC to impact meaningfully on the lives of the people is the democracy deficit in the designing and implementation of its projects. NDDC has run itsef like another public bureaucracy. The commission does not engage the communities and civil society in the Niger Delta. Some human rights and environmental activists interviewed have never been approached by the agency for their support with information and technical skills in responding to the human crisis in the Niger Delta.
The report noted that decisions about projects the agency intends to embark upon are taken without the inputs of the affected communities. The result of lack of consultation is that so many otherwise useful projects are held down due to resistance of community leaders who demand a voice both in the structuring of the project and its execution.
Interpretatively, the event of the past weeks can best be understood and explicated using the general structural paradigm of crime. ‘Propounded by criminologists, the structural theory holds that crime is a creation of society and that people tend to take to crime principally as a consequence of existential conditions, which make criminal living, not only attractive but also compelling. The structural materialism of crime is thus hinged on the understanding that “the structure matters”.
Viewed from the above prism, the next question that will be of greater importance is; how do we solve this nagging development challenge of the region?
The answer is a simple one. Mr. President and his handlers, must, as they have demonstrated in the past, understand that neither NDDC nor the Niger Delta ministry can engineer prosperity in the region. Rather, there is an urgent need to appreciate the development of the region from a rights-based perspective. Government must desist from the current political and non-participatory approach to appointments. It is time to embrace a broad-based consultative approach that will give the Civil Societies Organizations operating in the region and people of the Niger Delta, some sense of ownership over their own issues.
In the face of all these regrets, i believed and still believe that we have a mutual responsibility to deliver Niger Delta region.
Utomi Jerome-Mario is a Lagos-Based Media Consultant