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LongRead: ‘On the mic,’ NDDC forensic audit out! What we have tracked so far

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LongRead: ‘On the mic,’ NDDC forensic audit out! What we have tracked so far

‘On the mic’

Akpabio withdraws from Akwa Ibom senatorial rerun

On August 9, history was made when Akpabio received the Forensic Audit Report on NDDC in Abuja, and announced that it would be submitted to President Buhari for onward review and an inauguration of the Commission’s board.

It was seen as a major break in the fortunes and politics of the Niger Delta region which would, in turn, lead to sanity in the agency, capable of blocking the drainpipe and the cesspit of corruption the Commission had become associated with.

Meanwhile, its abysmal performance so far, has been traced to the deleterious effect of undue interference by the same Federal government using powers and interests outside the zone.

‘Off your mic’, a decay foretold

In July 2020, Nigerians were treated to an absurd entertainment that had a riveting effect at the National Assembly, orchestrated by a panel probing the misappropriation of an alleged N81.5 billion from the coffers of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

The probe into the cesspool of corruption that the NNDC had become started in May, 2020, when it was discovered that the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the agency had allegedly squandered N40 billion in just three months.

The financial recklessness of an agency which was set up to alleviate the sufferings and miseries of the people of the Niger Delta region had called for a widespread probe and Nigerians looked forward to it, hoping that the perpetrators will be brought to book, going by the stance of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government on corruption.

However, the investigation snowballed into a messy and dirty fight between the NDDC and the National Assembly, with accusations and counter accusations flying from all angles.

It was, therefore, not a surprising sight when Nigerians were treated to the several mischievous acts that took place at the panel sittings, leading to the laughable and dramatic, ‘It is okay, Honourable, off your Mic’ comments made by the Chairman of the House Committee probing NDDC scandal, Hon. Thomas Ereyitomi, which is still fresh in public memory and has been rehashed into several versions by Nigerians.

Inside Prof Pondei’s house of sleaze

The IMC, led by the Acting Managing Director, Prof. Kemebradikumo Pondei, was on the hot seat to explain how it spent around N1.32 billion on its staff and cronies as ‘COVID-19 palliative’ in the heat of the coronavirus pandemic.

Within a space of six months of Prof Pondei’s reign, hell was let loose at the agency as an unprecedented gale of corrupt practices took over and millions were frittered away. During the probe, it was curiously discovered that the NDDC had started spending money as ‘COVID-19 palliatives’ well before the pandemic made its way into Nigeria in March of 2020.

Even before the Nigerian government formally announced the outbreak of the coronavirus in the country, and the eventual lockdown in early 2020, the NDDC had begun its spending spree in October to ‘take care of its staff,” according to Pondei.

A breakdown of the NDDC’s reckless spending uncovered by the House of Representatives, showed that the interventionist agency had squandered N1.3b on community relations, N122.9m on condolences, N83m on consultancy, N3.14b for COVID-19 palliatives, N486m for Duty Travel Allowance (DTA), N790.9m as imprest, while Lassa Fever vaccination got a whopping N1.956b.

Nigerians were also shocked when the probe panel discovered that N900m was allegedly spent on ‘legal services’, N220m for maintenance, N85.6 million for overseas travel, while public communications got N1.121b, just as N744m was spent on security, staffing-related payment, N8.8b and stakeholders engagement, whatever that meant, for N248m.

As concerned Nigerians settled in the comfort of their homes to see the direction the probe panel will take, the circus became a theater of the bizarre when Pondei employed one of the oldest tricks by Nigerian politicians whenever they are in the dock over sleaze charges and conveniently ‘fainted’ when he was asked to explain the humongous expenditure.

Pondei cut a pathetic sight as he bowed his head in almost a state of unconsciousness, with saliva dribbling down his lips. It was quite a sight as many could not believe that a man who was not only “hale, hearty and chatty,” prior to the question, could suddenly become the vegetable many Nigerians saw on the podium, when the chips were down and the foxes were braying for his blood.

The Akpabio bombshell

The sitting became another round of laughable circus when the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, accused Peter Nwaoboshi, a member of the Senate panel which was part of the probe, of being a major beneficiary of the skullduggery in the agency.

Before Akpabio’s bombshell, Nwaoboshi had accused the former Akwa Ibom State Governor of appropriating N300m NDDC fencing contract for himself and Joy Nunieh, a former MD of the NDDC, who had, in turn, accused the Minister of corruption, abuse of office and sexual harassment.

Read also: LongRead: Catching up with the Maina scandal. What we know so far

The investigation of the activities of the NDDC further opened a can of worms that left Nigerians not only stunned, but startled and bemused.

It showed how affairs of government are conducted, the rate of decadence in the system and how the minds of Nigerians work whenever there is an investigation bordering on allegations of fraud and decadence, as well as bringing to fore the mind-boggling attempts to cover up such widespread stealing spree.

But by the time Akpabio settled down in his seat, adjusting his glasses and was about to reel out names of lawmakers who had benefited from the corruption in the Commission, Ereyitomi treated Nigerians to the drama of ‘Honourable Minister, it is enough… Off Your Mic.’

The distraction continued when the Chairman of the Committee was accused of being a partaker of the iniquity in the commission and as allegations, counter allegations and recriminations continued to flow from every imaginable angle, Nigerians were once again, treated to a macabre dance reminiscent of the attempts to audit the operations of the NDDC from 2001 and 2019 which also ended in an opening of a can of worms, exposing the scandal and corruption that dogged the agency.

The 2020 NDDC probe was turned into another avenue for political manoeuvring, horse-trading, chicanery and blackmail, which has, in many instances, been the bane of such probes in Nigeria where most inquiries are launched, not for righteous ends but for some predetermined recidivist motives.

The so-called corruption probes are, more often than not, panels set up to exact vengeance, broker deals or cause distraction from national discontent. And the NDDC probe was no exception.

Enter the Forensic Audit

The pile of rubbish facing the NDDC and impeding its achievements, as a result of the endemic corruption in the agency, had, on October 16, 2019, forced the hands of President Buhari, after a meeting with governors from the region that make up the NDDC states, to order a forensic audit of the Commission which led to instituting the probe panel in the first place.

In a statement issued by the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, the President had said, among other things:
“What is on the ground in the South-South region does not justify the huge resources that have been made available to the organization. I try to follow the Act setting up these institutions, especially the NDDC, with the amount that the FG has religiously allocated to the NDDC, we will like to see the results on ground, those that are responsible for that have to explain certain issues…”

The idea of a forensic audit of the NDDC was highly welcomed by many stakeholders in the region, but for some beneficiaries of the sleaze in the Commission, it was becoming like a monkey’s finger in a bottle trying to pick out a ripe palm fruit, and one that must be resisted vehemently.

Before then, precisely on August 15, 2019, Buhari had appointed a 16-man governing board to oversee the affairs of the Commission in line with the Act that set up the agency. The Senate had screened and confirmed the members of the Governing board of the NDDC and made the appropriate returns to the President.

The President, on January 27, 2020, informed the Senate of his order of a forensic audit of the Commission and the need for the newly appointed and confirmed board to hold on until the audit was completed while in the interim, he appointed an IMC with Prof Pondei as the Chairman to oversee the affairs of the Commission.

The need for the Forensic Audit was prompted following widespread public outcry over the deluge of malfeasances in the agency whereby humongous stocks of public largesse, deployed there over the years, had failed to make significant developmental impact in the region, due to the unending embezzlement that went on unabated in the agency.

The announcement of a forensic audit of the Commission by Buhari, though a welcome development, caused a lot of tension among stakeholders, beneficiaries of the corruption and member states of the region, and it was not just about the ordered forensic audit, but also the administration, first by an Interim Management Team and then, by a Sole Administrator.

The argument from those against the audit was that such a corporate governance arrangement was not within the contemplation of the law establishing the Commission, while all Buhari wanted to achieve was to unveil and unmask the maladministration in the Commission.

The inauguration of an authentic board for the NDDC was another sore point that pitted different groups in the Niger Delta against the federal government as many believed they were being short-changed.

Therefore, it was gratifying when the President, at a meeting with leaders of the Ijaw National Congress on 24 June, 2021, promised that as soon as the forensic report was submitted to his office, the board of the NDDC would be inaugurated.

In a statement issued after the meeting by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, the President had said:
“I want to assure you that as soon as the forensic audit is submitted and accepted, the NDDC board will be inaugurated.”

The President’s position was also given additional vent by Akpabio when he announced on June 23, 2021 that the forensic audit would be concluded and the report submitted by the end of July, 2021, and the issue of the governing board of the commission will be addressed.

Forensic Audit out, what next?

In the new dispensation, it is believed that all possible and global best practices fit for restructuring options would be laid bare and deliberated upon as elaborately as possible.

Stakeholders are of the belief that the conversation on the future of the NDDC should, therefore, explore the options of reviewing the very act that set it up.

With the Forensic Report now out, there are two important factors which would be put to rest.

The first is that in a country where the spirit of impunity dominates the public space and public officials are hardly called to account for their actions while in office, the audit on a mega agency as the NDDC, remains remarkable as a precedent that should inspire similar exercises in virtually any other public institution where impunity reigns supreme.

The second thing the Forensic Audit will achieve is that in a similar context, the exercise should remain even more significant as it constitutes the very justification for the emergence of a new NDDC and by implication, a new lease on life for the Niger Delta region and the people the Commission was made to serve.

Stakeholders in the Niger Delta believe that the audit report will help launch a new dispensation in the circumstances of the NDDC to follow-through government decisions on its recommendations as well as unbundle the Commission from the shackles of politicians and powerful contractors who have held it to ransom since it was birthed in the year 2000.

This sad state of affairs goes to corroborate an earlier prognosis that only 12% impact has so far been achieved by the deployment of humongous public funds into the Commission which run into trillions of naira with little or nothing to show for it.

A wild peep at the report revealed that the forensic audit unmasked the individuals behind 12,500 instances of brazen criminality, contract scams, malfeasances and several instances of outright embezzlement, with their names and faces revealed, and this will be made public in due time.

It is also expected that the culpable names and faces captured by the audit shall include contractors, regional politicians, consultants, as well past and present staff of the NDDC.

This is undoubtedly the icing on the cake of retributive justice for the region, as far as caging the spoilers of NDDC is concerned, and it is expected that a parade of dishonour for these felons remains of utmost public interest as it even constitutes the primary justification for the audit exercise itself.

With the Forensic Audit Report sitting comfortably on President Muhammadu Buhari’s table, Nigerians are demanding that it is time for the legality of the NDDC to be restored to its lost glory. And the onus is on Buhari to make sure it is implemented to the letter.

‘On the mic,’ Mr President!

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