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NDDC and the imperative of Buhari’s intervention
By Victor Oseni
President Muhammadu Buhari’s handling of the two issues currently simmering at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), which may soon blow into a crisis, is going to be the first test of the degree of independence of the legislature and the nature of its relationship with the executive in the current dispensation. It may also, to a large extent, serve as proof of his much vaunted commitment to accountability, due process and rule of law.
Before he jetted out of the country late October for Saudi Arabia for the Economic Forum of the Future Investment Initiative, which ended with a private visit to the United Kingdom in November, the president nominated a 16-member board for the NDDC and submitted same to the senate for screening and confirmation as required by the law that set up the commission.
But while attention was focused on the exercise by the upper chamber of the National Assembly so as to get a substantive board in place for the smooth running of NDDC, Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, set up a three-member interim management committee to run the commission. Not only that, the management committee is to oversee the planned forensic audit the president announced he would carry out on the interventionist agency, indicating that it may be in office for an indefinite period.
The minister’s action has raised legal questions as well as the question of intent. The NDDC Act of 2000 as amended makes no provision for an interim management committee for the agency. The Act recognizes that there may be circumstances that may warrant the commission not a having a managing director for any length of time, and therefore provides for the executive director, finance and administration to hold that position in an acting capacity pending the appointment of a substantive managing director and chief executive officer. It was the reason Timi Alaibe, then executive director, finance and administration, held the position of managing director at a point during his stay at the agency.
Whatever necessity there was for any interim arrangement has been eliminated by the nomination and confirmation of a substantive board for NDDC as stipulated by the Act. This much was said by no less a personality than the president of the senate, Ahmed Lawan, after 15 members of the board were confirmed by the senate following the absence of Dr. Gbene Joi Nuneih, President Buhari’s nominee from Rivers State who Akpabio appointed as head of the interim management commitment.
“With the completion of this process, I am sure that any other structure that exists in NDDC is vitiated”, Lawan said. “I don’t think we have anything to worry about, because this is one thing that is clearly established by the law”.
Observers describe as awkward and inexplicable a situation in which the interim management committee is still in office long after the board of the commission was confirmed by the senate (on November 5). And, considering the statement by Akpabio that the board will begin to function after the committee has seen to the conclusion of the planned forensic audit of the commission, there may be no indication of when it would be inaugurated. This is more so because the audit has yet to begin, and it is not an exercise that would be carried out overnight.
“President Buhari has returned to the country from his UK trip; he must do the needful by stepping in to clear this confusion so that NDDC can function properly, “said Cletus Uwakwe, a Lagos-based legal practitioner. “The president nominated the board before he left the country; the senate confirmed the board while he was away. And now he is back. What is holding inauguration of the board”?
He said the transfer of NDDC from the office of the president to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs merely by a letter written by the president’s chief of staff was itself an act of illegality since the law that placed the commission under the presidency had not been amended to reflect that change.
He said the NDDC Act recognizes a board and a management committee that is an internal organ in the commission, not an interim committee to be appointed from outside. “The Management Committee mentioned under Section 10 in Part III of the NDDC Act of 2000 as amended is what major organizations call Executive Directorate, which is an internal structure and the highest management organ that is subordinate to the board, not a replacement for the board”, Uwakwe said.
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He wondered about the necessity of nomination of a board by Buhari and its confirmation by the senate if the members were going to wait for the completion of an audit that has not yet begun before assuming office. “Is Akpabio saying that if an audit that will cover a period about 18 years takes one year or more to complete the board members will wait for so long to be inaugurated to commence work”? He asked. “Why were they nominated and confirmed in the first place? In fact, if one may ask – who is in charge here? Is it the president or the minister? Why would the president nominate a board and the board is duly confirmed by the Senate and then a minister says the inauguration of the board must wait indefinitely”?
Sola Oyelade, a businessman and public affairs commentator, says the NDDC issue will prove the independence or otherwise of the legislature during Buhari’s second term. He said with the general pessimism about the independence of the judiciary and legislature in the current dispensation, what finally plays out in the NDDC leadership crisis will either vindicate or prove pessimists wrong. “On the day he was inaugurated as senate president, Senator Ahmed Lawan promised to run an independent legislature that would not be a rubber-stamp of the executive”, Oyelade said.
”But the same Senate over which he presides looked the other way when Buhari’s chief of staff wrote a letter to practically amend the law that placed NDDC under the presidency and transferred it to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, and action they know is illegal. It is also instructive that more than two weeks since Lawan said with the confirmation of the NDDC board the interim management committee had ceased to be relevant, the committee is still functioning, while the board the senate confirmed is still waiting to be inaugurated”.
He described as untenable any argument to the effect that the board cannot be in place while an audit of the commission is being carried out, and drew attention to the fact that it is not the tenure of the incoming board that is to be probed, and so the question of interference does not arise.
“Former president Goodluck Jonathan carried out an audit of the NNPC with a board in place”, he said.
“That exercise was carried out by the internationally reputable firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers, but that did not stop the board of NNPC that was in place at that time from functioning”.
He said if the audit of NDDC is to be carried out by one reputable audit firm for each state and one for the commission’s headquarters as promised by Akpabio, then there was no way its board could interfere in the exercise.
The audit promised by Buhari is one exercise in which Nigerians will show more than a passing interest. With shocking revelations of trillions of naira that were spent by NDDC which do not reflect the level of development of the Niger Delta region, coupled with allegations of high level corruption that may have involved top shots in the agency as well as influential people in the region, the audit may well be an acid test of Buhari’s sincere commitment to accountability. That is why it must be handled by reputable audit firms and supervised directly by the presidency, and not an illegal interim committee set up by a minister. “Buhari cannot be an onlooker in this all important exercise, as the actions and utterances of Senator Akpabio would seem to suggest”, said Oyeleke.
Oseni, a public affairs commentator, lives in Abuja.
NDDC and the imperative of Buhari’s intervention