Need for independent inquiry into NDDC scandal – Punch

The current tensions in the National Assembly concerning the lack of transparency in the running of the Niger Delta Development Commission demand a national response. Beyond the allegations and counter-allegations, as well as the theatrics and sordid revelations emanating from the ongoing parliamentary probes into the NDDC operations, what is ultimately needed is an independent inquiry. This is particularly so given the allegation by a former NDDC acting Managing Director, Joy Nunieh, that the Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, had hijacked the forensic audit of the agency ordered by the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.). Again, the House of Representatives Committee on Public Accounts is set to commence its own probe based on the series of queries issued by the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation on NDDC’s operations. To end the confusion, a decent approach requires Buhari to constitute without further delay an independent inquiry into the shoddy affair.

The two chambers of the National Assembly have been separately conducting probes into an allegation that the Interim Management Committee of the NDDC squandered N40 billion within three months. But given past experience and ever widening net of allegations, any other initiative short of an independent probe is a charade and is not acceptable. The National Assembly members, many of whom were accused by Akpabio of being beneficiaries of the NDDC contracts, can no longer be trusted to carry out a thorough job on the probe of the agency because of possible conflict of interest and lack of political will. An independent panel of inquiry will ensure that those found culpable in the mismanagement of the funds budgeted for the development of the region through the agency are identified and made to face the full wrath of the law.

The National Assembly has acquired a sordid record and notoriety in conducting probes into sundry matters in the Fourth Republic, often achieving nothing. There is no reason to believe that the current exercise will be any different. It is, indeed, a bleak reminder of the legislature’s past spectacular failures. A good example was the Ndudi Elumelu-led House of Representatives Committee on Power investigation into the $16 billion allegedly spent by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration on the power sector between 1999 and 2007 without major improvement in the country’s power sector. After much drama, the panel ran into a cul-de-sac following allegations of a N100 million bribe levelled against members of the committee. This led to the rejection of 84 of the 88 recommendations of the report by an ad hoc committee of the House.

The Tony Nwulu-led sub-committee on the Capital Market, Regulation and Compliance into the operations of the capital market in 2018 disappointingly ended the same way even after it claimed to have “unearthed a lot of underhand and sharp practices perpetrated by some companies.” The promise by the committee chairman that “those with proof of poor valuation mostly the insurance companies will be handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for prosecution,” did not see the light of day. Similarly, the 205-page parliamentary report by a committee set up by the House in 2012 on the alleged N2.53 trillion fraud in fuel subsidy payments during the Goodluck Jonathan administration, is still gathering dust years after. The report had revealed partly that “a total of 15 fuel importers collected more than $300 million without importing any fuel, while more than 100 oil marketers collected the same amount of money on several occasions,” the BBC said.

The NDDC stinks to high heaven. Established by the Obasanjo administration in 2000 with the aim of “tackling ecological and environmental problems that arise from the exploration of oil mineral in the Niger Delta region and advising the Federal Government and the member states on the prevention and control of oil spillages, gas flaring and environmental pollution,” the agency has regrettably, not fulfilled these noble objectives. It has instead been turned into a cash cow for a few corrupt officials and individuals. As details of the probes have shown, the grand corruption in the commission leaves the region wallowing in underdevelopment, environmental degradation, squalor and dilapidation with carcasses of ill-conceived, abandoned projects littering every corner.

All this has called into question the relevance of the commission. The Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, has been so unimpressed with the agency’s performance that he has not only called for a probe, but also said he was exploring the option of filing a suit against it for delivering substandard jobs in the state. Shocked that he could not identify commensurate evidence of the N20 billion the NDDC claimed to have spent on projects in the state in six months, the governor said, “… there must be a judicial enquiry into the activities of the NDDC. People must go to jail for their corrupt act.” Even Akpabio, the man in the eye of the storm, once challenged the members to point to “legacy projects” that could be attributed to the agency for which it had amassed a debt of N2 trillion. “How come we don’t have legacy projects to show in the Niger Delta?” he asked.

Now, Nigeria faces a stark choice: allow the pillaging to continue and deepen the misery of the South-South region or rescue the commission by exposing the rogues undermining its effectiveness. Buhari should crack this scandal. The people deserve to know in full – what happened and who did it? Those involved in the scandal should not be able to walk away with impunity. They must be quickly brought to justice through criminal prosecution and or disciplinary action. The investigative panel should comprise Nigerians of impeccable character and integrity, perhaps headed by a retired eminent jurist, with experts drawn from reputable audit firms mandated to go through the books of the agency in detail. The recommendations of the independent inquiry will guide the government and others to make the changes, which will prevent a recurrence.

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