That patriotic act by the lawmakers strengthened the bond of friendship that came in handy for Nunieh and her team. This was evident from the convivial atmosphere that suffused the committee room and more or less smoothened out the rough edges, as the senators asked questions on the NDDC budget.

Appearing before members of the National Assembly for a budget defence could test the wits of many and push their adrenalin into overdrive, more so, if one has to defend the activities of his or her predecessors.

That was the case of the acting managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Gbene Dr. Joi Nunieh, who leads an Interim Management Committee (IMC) inaugurated on October 29, 2019 by the minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio.

Nunieh, a veteran of the Niger Delta struggle, eagerly embraced an invitation by the Senate Committee on Niger Delta Affairs to defend its 2019 budget, christened: “Budget for the Repositioning of NDDC.” She was supported by the acting executive director, Finance and Administration, Chief Ibanga Bassey, the acting executive director, Projects, Dr. Cairo Ojougboh and other directors of the Commission.

The NDDC boss, known in the Niger Delta region as the “Esther of Ogoni land,” was spared what could have been an unpleasant meeting with the lawmakers. A truce was necessary to water the grounds because the Senate had on November 26, 2019, indicated that only those it screened and subsequently confirmed as board members of the NDDC would be allowed to defend the budget of the Commission.

From all indications, the deadlock was broken when President Muhammadu Buhari wrote the Senate this year, stating that the forensic audit which was set to begin at the Commission, had made it imperative for the Interim Management Committee to hold sway, pending the composition of a new board.

It was not surprising, therefore, to witness what seemed like a romance between the Senate leadership and the NDDC Interim Management, a love affair that paved way for the defence of the 2019 budget estimate of N346,388,921,000 for the foremost interventionist agency.

Nunieh was apparently relieved to have secured a soft landing from the senators, who had earlier distanced themselves from the IMC. By opening its doors to NDDC, the Senate invariably threw its weight behind the Committee put in place to oversee the management of the Commission and prepare it for the forensic audit ordered by President Buhari.

Up until the birth of the IMC, which is a child of necessity, the NDDC had enjoyed a cordial relationship with members of the National Assembly.

The rapport between the NDDC and the lawmakers came to the fore in 2017 when the legislators facilitated the expeditious passage of the amendment to the NDDC Act. In many respects, the amendment of the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Act was a turning point.

The new law includes a clause that the LNG and other gas-producing companies must pay not less than three per cent of their annual total budget into the coffers of NNDC as their contributions to its funding. It also included that the percentage should be fixed by the minister of Petroleum Resources as he may deem fit.

That patriotic act by the lawmakers strengthened the bond of friendship that came in handy for Nunieh and her team. This was evident from the convivial atmosphere that suffused the committee room and more or less smoothened out the rough edges, as the senators asked questions on the NDDC budget.

Nevertheless, members of the Senate Committee were firm, probing and yet polite. The NDDC management, on the other hand, was forthright with answers.

The Committee chairman, Senator Peter Nwaoboshi, affirmed the Senate’s support for the forensic auditing of the NDDC, stating that the upper chamber of the National Assembly was not against the IMC running the affairs of the Commission.

He remarked: “We are here to consider and approve the agency’s budget proposals for 2019 as forwarded to the Senate by President Muhammadu Buhari in December last year.

“However, in doing that we shall be guided by the policy thrust of the government on budget proposals, implementation and performances.”

He said the Committee was closely monitoring the budget spending of the Commission, saying that what happened at the NDDC before now was very sad.

“Mr. President addressed the National Assembly on October 2, 2019 and he was very clear on his position about MDAs, particularly on project execution.”

The Committee demanded the documents in relation to emergency projects, which they said would not receive further appropriation. They insisted that no further allocations would be made for emergency projects, as they described it as a drain pipe.

Nwaoboshi said: “We did request for a list of emergency projects and we can’t see them. In order not to stop the budget defence, if you can’t avail us the list, you would be allowed to defend your budget, but we are going to conduct (a) public hearing.”

The NDDC boss assured the Committee that the documents would be made available latest by next week, stating that the Commission was being guided by the Next Level agenda of the Buhari administration in terms of transparency and accountability in its projects execution.

Nunieh said: “I take responsibility for not providing the list of emergency projects. We can’t lay hands on the documents now, but latest by Wednesday, the list would be made available, distinguished Chairman.”

She lamented that that the IMC was under enormous pressure from those she described as fake contractors, stating that: “I have been under so much pressure and blackmail to pay contractors quickly. Everyone has complained that the people in our region are hungry. But we belong to those communities and the communities must take ownership of the projects.”

She, however, assured the Committee that the Interim Management would not bow to pressure: “I assure you that we are not going to pay contractors that have not performed. We have started a verification exercise. A lot of embarrassing things have happened,” she said.

Nunieh admitted that there were many misplaced projects being handled by the Commission, observing: “I know that there are a lot of misplaced projects in this budget and that’s what we are trying to correct in this new position.

“We are calling on NGOs, the local government chairmen, members of the CDCs and communities to be alert during the assessment exercises.

“In submitting the list of our projects to the governors of the nine states, we have found out duplications. People have collected contracts for the same roads from the state governments. They have collected from FERMA and then they come to NDDC and collect the same road project.”

Nunieh stated that all projects below 20 per cent completion have been cancelled, noting that most abandoned projects were awarded under what she termed a deceitful guise of emergency. According to her, the projects were awarded to friends without evidence of registration. “Some contractors got awarded contracts before their companies were registered. Some of them are not registered. They have so many fake IPCs,” she asserted.

Nunieh told the Senate that the Interim Management had stopped medical assistance, which she explained was being abused, as up to 5,000 medical requests were already waiting to be attended to when they assumed office. What was intriguing, she said, was that the requests were not from poor people in the Niger Delta region.

Similarly, Nunieh said that instead of giving 200 postgraduate foreign scholarships to those who do not deserve them, the management team had resolved to give the scholarships to candidates in every ward in the Niger Delta region.

Speaking on the award of water hyacinth and desilting contracts between 2017 and 2019, she observed that the budget for the project was N800 million, but N10.3 billion was spent. She added: “For distilting, N2 billion was budgeted but what was spent was N37 billion.”

Nunieh said: “I know that there are lots of misplaced projects in this budget and that is what we are trying to correct in this new position. Now, we are trying to ensure that there is proper assessment for projects to be taken to various communities. We are particular about the environmental impact assessment.

“The pressure and the blackmail, that I have refused to pay money quickly, is getting embarrassing, but I know that the community stands with us. The communities are waiting for the assessment. I want to assure this Committee that history will never repeat itself. For scholarships, we have decided that instead of giving 200 scholarships to people that don’t deserve (them), who have connections, we would rather have scholarships within Nigeria for Master’s degree in every ward. One person per ward for every first class student. We have also stopped medical assistance. When we came, there were 5,000 medical requests, not by any poor Nigerian.”

Nunieh denied a report which alleged that NDDC awarded 300 different contracts to a serving senator. The report had claimed that the contracts were awarded with 150 out of 300 fully paid without execution.

She said: “Let me make this clarification before the Senate Committee on Niger Delta Affairs that there was nothing like that. I am not denying because I am here for the defence of the agency’s budget for 2020, I have no knowledge of such contracts.”

A member of the Committee, Senator Matthew Urhoghide, representing Edo South, said that despite the Senate’s concern about the financial infractions at the NDDC, the Upper Chamber was willing to partner with it to ensure progress and development in the Niger Delta.

Urhoghide remarked: “I will just go straight to the 2018 budget performance. It is good you get to know our observations so they do not get to repeat themselves. Even if it is in the new thinking that you want to reposition NDDC, we are concerned but we want to be partners in progress with you.

“There are too many things here that we cannot adjudge as good enough when it comes to spending public funds. Let us start from recurrent expenditure. Virtually all the releases that were done, we are recording 100 per cent. The same amount that was given was exactly what you spent. This is wrong.”

Ifeatu Agbu, a public affairs analyst, writes in from Port Harcourt, Rivers State.