Punishing fraud in Niger Delta agencies – Punch

Rather than hasten development in the region, interventionist efforts in the Niger Delta have become a veritable means of corrupt enrichment of individuals. This has been the experience with agencies such as the Niger Delta Development Commission, the Oil Minerals Areas Production Development Commission before it, and the latest addition, the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. In the performance of these agencies and ministry, it has become evident that the well-intentioned efforts of the government have been rendered counterproductive.

Following from this premise therefore, not many people could have been surprised when the Minister, Uguru Usani, cried out recently about the uncovering of massive fraud in the ministry. According to him, a report of an investigative panel instituted by the ministry revealed that over N423 billion had been invested in projects in the region, by the ministry alone, between 2009 and 2015, with very little or nothing to show for it. While many contractors simply collected money and bolted, others just managed to clear the sites or execute rudimentary level of projects before vanishing with the money they collected.

The fallout is obvious. “From this amount, project execution rate has been at 12 per cent, with an average completion rate of a project standing at five years. The impact rate is eight per cent,” the minister said, as if he was helpless. This is a ringing indictment of the performance of the region’s leaders and previous ministers who had been in charge of the ministry since its creation in 2008 by the late former President, Umaru Yar’Adua. Significantly, this monumental level of malfeasance took place at a time Goodluck Jonathan, a son of the region, was the president.

The report showed that all known and accepted international standard practices were jettisoned as contracts were originated by departments and awarded without due diligence to ascertain the capacity and competence of the contractors; nor were there adequate budgetary provisions to ensure that the projects were executed to completion. When contracts are awarded without the requisite supervision, as was the case in the MNDA within the period under review, it is clearly evident that they were not designed to produce any desired result, but merely to reward political associates, hirelings, vocal local critics or even warlords that needed to be silenced.

As is already known, what happened in the ministry is not markedly different from what transpired in the NDDC, another agency created by the government to bring succour to the people who suffer from the direct impact of oil exploitation in their immediate environment. It is another agency that has become a cesspit of corruption. Given the rate of uncompleted and abandoned projects under the supervision of the commission, it is no surprise that another prominent son of the region and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Itse Sagay, had cause to describe the NDDC as “the other name for uncompleted projects.”

In the mad rush to award contracts and dole out money, it is not uncommon to see the same projects for which contracts had been awarded by the NDDC being taken up by the ministry, evidence of total lack of coordination and diligence. In most cases, the procurement departments were not involved in the awards. This is why it was possible that projects that were yet to get off the ground were already registered as completed and the costs paid.

Most blame for the sharp practices that have short-changed the region has been laid on the doorsteps of the elite of the region. This was exactly the view expressed by the Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, at a stakeholders’ meeting in Benin in March. While promising to ignore the so-called elite in government’s future dealings with the region, he said, “I can tell you precisely how much has been voted to several communities and there is no sign of development in those areas.”

But the situation calls for more than lamentations from the minister and the Acting President; it calls for action. Most of the fraudulent activities were perpetrated because people knew that they could get away with their impunity. In countries where there are consequences for fraud, such things rarely occur; and when they do, those involved get punished sufficiently to deter others.

This is why Osinbajo’s promise to go after fraudulent contractors should go beyond mere platitudes. He had told the audience in Benin, “We are going to ensure that any contractor who has taken money and abandoned the project is prosecuted; they must be held accountable.” Three months after, not much seems to have happened along that line. But if the objectives of the interventionist agencies are to be realised, it can only be through enforcement of contractual agreements.

The clean-up must start with the contract award process. In the first instance, contracts are won through a shady and corrupt process, often by few and politically connected individuals. To drive transparency and efficiency into the process, contracts should be made accessible to a wider pool of contractors. There should also be a national database of records of companies and individuals that have been previously convicted of a criminal offence, committed an act of grave misconduct or significantly or persistently deficient in previous contract executions.

Contractors should be made to complete projects for which they have been paid. In the alternative, they should be made to refund the money collected or face prosecution and jailed. Besides, since it has been established that most of the contractors are indigenes of the Niger Delta region, then their identity should be unmasked so that the people would know those who have been denying them the benefits of the oil found in their area. Until these are done, no matter how much money is channelled into the development of the region, there will still be very little to cheer.

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