Why Buhari must stop a dangerous action going on at NDDC

President Buhari.

By James Ekanem

Nigeria is gripped in a macabre dance in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) where an ‘interim management committee’ is running the agency when the nominees for the board have been screened and confirmed for over two weeks now. This is without precedence in Nigeria or anywhere else. And it bothers a lot of people, especially considering the promise made by the current federal government to follow due process and the law.

The law governing the NDDC, which is the NDDC Act of 2000, as amended, has no provision for the appointment of an interim management committee. No law in Nigeria provides for that situation. In fact the extant practice is that where an interim management is in office in a state parastatal, it immediately vacates the position and ceases to exist once the substantive management is appointed in accordance with the law governing that parastatal or institution. In this particular instance, the NDDC Act provides that it will be run by a board nominated by the president and screened and confirmed by the Senate.

However, this has been followed in the breach since President Buhari came on board as civilian president on May 29, 2019. When he came in, he dissolved the board and created a record by appointing Mrs Ibim Semenitari from outside the NDDC as acting managing director for close to a year. The NDDC had no board during this period and she operated more like a sole administrator. More so, she hails from Rivers State, which was not due to produce the managing director in line with the rotation of offices as provided for in the law setting up the NDDC. Expectedly, there were outcries over the appointment and President Buhari eventually complied with the law when in 2016 he sent nominees to the Senate for confirmation into a new NDDC board, and in line with the rotation of offices as provided for in the law. That board, led by the former Akwa Ibom State Deputy Governor Mr Nsima Ekere, was promptly sworn into office. When that board was dissolved two years later, rather than follow the law, which provides for the Executive Director Finance and Administration to step in and act as MD, the president appointed an acting MD in the person of Prof. Nelson Brambaifa from Bayelsa State. That illegality reigned till August 2019 when the president dissolved the Brambaifa interim management committee and named a 16-member board, with Dr Pius Odubu as Chairman and Bernard Okumagba as MD, while asking the most senior staff in the commission to act pending the nominees’ confirmation by the Senate. Then stepped in Mrs Anyia Akwagaga, a director in the commission as acting MD.

On October 29, 2019, the Senate President read out the President’s NDDC board nominees for screening and confirmation, raising hope that the interim interregnum was about to be over, especially when he directed the Committee on NDDC to screen and report back to the house in one week. That announcement had hardly settled when the Niger Delta Affairs Minister Godswill Akpabio announced a 3-man interim management committee for the commission, with the rather unusual, if not cheeky, comment that the interim management committee will oversee a forensic audit ordered by the president. Asked what happens to the new board when confirmed by the Senate, the minister said that they will wait to be sworn in after the interim management committee’s work is done. The Senate felt slighted, and rightly so.

Senate President Ahmad Lawan did not mince words at plenary on November 5, 2019, when he dismissed the interim management committee as illegal and asked the new board, 15 of which members were confirmed, to take over the commission in line with the law setting up the NDDC.

Nigerians have been held in suspended animation at the incongruous reality where a legally competent board has to wait on the sidelines as the minister plays corporate games and the presidency seems to be nonchalant.

To permit the argument that NDDC needs an interim management committee to supervise the audit probe can as well apply to every facet of the country, and we may well say all institutions and arms of government be dissolved for interim committees to run them because of their perceived failures. That sounds implausible but that is what the NDDC reality now extrapolates on a national scale. If that is implausible, therefore, what feeds the current situation where a competent board is waiting in the wings for an illegal ‘interim management committee’ to run the NDDC? Only two things can explain this: corruption and administrative confusion.

Groups in the Niger Delta, legal authorities and other stakeholders in the NDDC have questioned the rationale in not inaugurating the new NDDC board, attributing it to a design to compromise the forensic audit by the minister who has been a major player in the commission over the last 18 years since it was  set up.

As Akwa Ibom State Governor, he nominated a chairman, a managing director and several state representatives to the NDDC board between 2007 and 2015, and influenced others too. Given that the commission has been a cash cow for most of the governors through their nominees, what transparency can Akpabio sell?

In the end, the buck stops on President Buhari’s desk. He can decide to bury his head in the sand, while Akpabio plays Russian roulette with his name, as he has done in the last few weeks, peddling the Buhari name to justify his assault on the law and due process. But the people of the Niger Delta are watching with baited breadth the NDDC drama where the law is being trampled on with reckless disregard by the minister.

To those who do not see the danger in allowing the Akpabio magic in NDDC to continue or are nonchalant, imagine where this applies to a situation where a governor for the Central Bank of Nigeria or any other critical major policy and regulation agency is appointed in line with the law and sidelined while an acting interim head is appointed to run that agency. The NDDC illegal interim management committee is precedence that may be taken too far, going forward. The president should do the needful by dissolving the illegal interim management committee and inaugurate the new NDDC board to reestablish order and due process in the commission and the polity.

For his legacy, which should be on due process and the rule of law, President Buhari should as a matter of urgency take back the NDDC from Akpabio and inaugurate the new NDDC board. It is needless to state here that you cannot build something on nothing, the same way you cannot build a proper organisation on an illegal management. It is a lesson the battle on corruption and abuse of due process has exposed over the last few years. And of all persons, for someone committed to due process and transparency, President Buhari cannot ignore the facts. He cannot, and should not, allow the confusion in the NDDC and disregard due process to be the defining attributes of his administration, let alone define his regard for the Niger Delta people.

James Ekanem lives in Calabar, Cross River State