Senate’s obsession with zonal commissions – Punch

Sponsors of the North-West Development Commission have resurrected their campaign by re-introducing a bill for it in the Senate. The cause is unjustifiable. The bill was passed by the last assembly, but was denied presidential assent. A senator from Kano State, Barau Jibrin, is the arrowhead of this parochial legislative drive.

The desire for such a commission is motivated by the North-East Development Commission that came into existence in 2017, precisely on October 25, when President Muhammadu Buhari assented to the bill. The commission is to rehabilitate states in the region, especially Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, the epicentre of the 10-year-old devastating Boko Haram Islamist jihad. Under its focus will be schools, public facilities destroyed, blown up bridges and roads, many communities reduced to rubble, orphans and widows and the humanitarian crisis that has consigned about 1.9 million people to living in Internally Displaced Persons camps. It is a tragedy for which the Federal Government has been pleading with the international community for assistance, financial and material, stating that the challenges are beyond its capacity to handle alone.

Apparently incensed by the irrational politicking that underpinned the NWDC initiative in the Eighth Senate, senators from the South-East presented a South-East Development Commission bill. It has also been re-presented in the present Senate, along with new bills for the North-Central Development Commission and South-West Development Commission, thus bringing the number of such bills to four.

This obsession for development commissions, since the North-East commission scaled through, is motivated by the desire to corner federal resources and replicate the Niger Delta Development Commission, which was set up in 2000 to address obvious development gaps that exist in the oil-producing region. Decades of the region’s marginalisation by the Nigerian state – environmental pollution from oil exploration and exploitation by the oil companies – made a strong case for its establishment. The situation bred communal frustration that morphed into armed militancy.

To get the NEDC to take off, N10 billion was provided in the 2019 budget, just as Buhari, in May, inaugurated its 11-member governing board. The North-East development agenda is one that resonates in the international arena. Nigeria had in 2016 secured $575 million World Bank facility for this project. It won’t be the only Federal Government funds for the construction, re-settlement and reintegration of the IDPs. Some foreign donations and pledges have been made, including the North-East Safe Schools project, which a former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, acting as a United Nations Ambassador, came to launch a few years ago. The zone’s interventionist development programme on the shoulders of the Federal Government should have a time limit; otherwise, the country will get into a cul-de-sac.

There is no crisis in the North-West to warrant the setting up of a development commission to address. Jibrin may have mistakenly compared banditry and its concomitant cattle rustling by hoodlums in the region with the Islamist campaign that has ravaged the North-East for a decade. The conditions are incomparable. If the South-East, devastated by Nigerian Civil War for nearly three years, rose from the ashes of that tragedy and rebuilt itself without a federal-sponsored development commission, the quest for such initiative elsewhere flies in the face of all logic and common sense; it ignores the principle of equity.

However, no matter how serious the challenges in the North-East might be, they are patently self-inflicted wounds and upshot of governance deficits. At a point when Boko Haram’s attacks on schools, markets, motor parks reached an alarming level, some governors that dared to repudiate its atrocities had to issue rebuttals after the group threatened them.

It is an aberration in a federal system of government for the federating units, in this circumstance states within a zone, to rely on a Federal Government-sponsored initiative for them to develop. Every state is an economic unit and should be run accordingly. Beneath the soil of each of them are vast solid minerals waiting to be exploited, arable land and human capital yearning for development.

Despite the good reasons for the birth of the NDDC, its operations since inception and recent developments give it away as a monumental misadventure. In October, leaders of the South-South zone, led by their governors, visited the President to express their disappointment with the commission’s failure to deliver on its mandate. Evidently, the agency has been a conduit for looting the treasury, creating emergency billionaires among some indigenes who oversee its affairs and execute most of the contracts.

As a result, the zone today plays host to 1,796 NDDC abandoned projects, according to official figures. These misgivings informed the President’s directive for a forensic audit of its finances from 2001 to date, a development that has put on hold its governing board from assuming office after its members were appointed and cleared by the Senate.

Further insights from the office of the Auditor-General for the Federation are, indeed, worrying. While appearing before the House of Representatives ad hoc committee investigating this anomaly in September, the AGF’s office revealed that the NDDC paid N70.4 billion mobilisation fees to contractors who never visited their contract sites. Besides, the office recommended that N614 billion be recovered from contractors who abandoned their projects after they had substantially received part of their money. Therefore, a corruption-ravaged, development-stymied mechanism like the NDDC should not be replicated in any other region.

It is paradoxical that a Senate that is in the process of reducing federal agencies with overlapping functions, thereby reducing cost of governance, is at the same time making conscious efforts to create more cost centres. The Ahmed Lawan-led Senate should be aware that there is a limit to selfish and ill-conceived legislative engagement.

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