The recent probe by the National Assembly has left millions of Nigerians in awe on the level of corruption in the Niger Delta Development Commission. What are your thoughts on what has been revealed so far?
My take is that the revelations that have come out of this probe are revealing on why the Niger Delta has been undeveloped or, at least, a greater part of the reasons why it has been undeveloped. It shows how the Presidency has undeveloped the Niger Delta because consistently, and I say this with all sense of responsibility, the NDDC has been the patronage machine of successive regimes in the Presidency for their own supporters or those who are good in their books. Recently, it has gone to the next level. You see the impunity with which people are even talking of how they spent public money and nothing has happened because crimes are committed and continue to be committed when nothing happens. So, when people start saying that they took over N1bn to take care of themselves and we are not shocked, the agency responsible for anti-corruption is not shocked into taking some actions, then you will sit down and say this is how down the cliff we have gone. And I am not one of those amused.
Without excusing it, if they say you spent over N80bn within a period of less than one year and you say members of the National Assembly also got contracts, that is not an answer. It is like being accused of stealing and you say that some of those accusing you stole last year. That is not an answer to the question; I am not excusing that. But if members of the National Assembly got contracts and you are responsible for awarding those contracts, did you follow due process in the award of those contracts and did they perform? If they did not perform, what did you people do, as the people who gave out the contracts? Every contract has a penalty clause. Even the ones that local people, not lawyers, in Mushin, Lagos, draft, would also say something will happen if they are not executed. Why have you not activated the penalty against those who got those contracts and did you report to the agencies? These are pertinent questions. The news I saw on television was that students, purportedly scholarship holders, were demonstrating in London that their fees had not been paid. Meanwhile, we heard of hundreds of millions of naira that was spent during the lockdown to attend the graduation of students, and nothing is happening. That the Presidency is silent is more ominous than anything; it's so revealing because I believe the truth of all these matters is that most of those funds have been put into elections or are being gathered for elections.
But the Interim Management Committee of the commission reportedly issued a statement claiming that its embattled acting Managing Director, Prof Kemebradikumo Pondei, has run a very transparent administration. What is your opinion on that?
Transparency is different from a reflection. If you stand in front of a mirror and see yourself and, maybe you are well-dressed, you will say, “yes, I'm handsome. I'm well-dressed,” that is a reflection; you can only see yourself and what you want to see. But transparency means that those who are at the back of that mirror can see exactly what you can see. The rest of us do not see anything close to what they (IMC) can see. And it's an assault on our collective intelligence for them to say that those who spent money in the manner in which they admittedly spent it have been transparent. They are just seeing themselves because if they spent money on themselves and as far as they are concerned, it was transparent because all of them saw was what happening. Mind you, in the life of this administration, there have been almost six managing directors (of the NDDC). Why is it that the turnout of the NDDC is so frequent? Why is it that the law says there shall be a board and it becomes the fashion to circumvent the law to create an interim board? Interim for what? At some stage, even one person will act as a sole administrator for an agency that has such billions (of naira). The names of the board members had been submitted and the Senate cleared them before, all of a sudden, instead of having the inauguration of a board, it was thrown aside and an interim committee was brought in, after another interim one. Why? These are questions that we must ask.
There has been speculation about the genuineness of the probe. What do you think is the real interest of members of the National Assembly in the NDDC probe?
For us, it is what has been revealed by the probe. I mean, without this probe in exercise of their undoubted oversight functions, how many of us would have believed that things like that are happening in the NDDC? So, if it is to throw it out to the public to know how rotten things have been there (in the NDDC), at least, it has served some purpose. Beyond that, I do not believe that anything will come out of the probe.
Why did you say so?
The reason is that, under the law setting up the NDDC, in carrying out its functions, the commission must act according to the control direction and supervision of one person, the President. That means anything the commission does by law, we should say that was the thing the presidency directed, controlled and supervised. So, can the presidency probe itself?
Many may argue that the legislature should be able to carry out its function by checking the excesses of the executive arm of government…
But after that, who executes? If a man came on TV to say they killed, raped and kidnapped, and the police keep quiet until the man walks out of the studio and nothing happens, who do you blame? Is it the interviewer that brought him to come and say so? I'm not excusing the National Assembly but I don't want us to lose focus of what we should do because if there is a problem, we should think of how to fix it. They (IMC) said they spent billions of naira on forensic audit or some trash like that. Why are they spending that money? Doesn't the NDDC have external auditors? And what are the reports of those auditors? Beyond that, NEITI that has the statutory responsibility to publish audits on some of these entities, including the NDDC, has been churning out reports.
As a former chairman of NEITI, what were the appalling discoveries from your audit reports on the NDDC?
I ceased to be the chairman of NEITI in 2015. The audit reports are questioning the fact that the NDDC is supposed to have audits published not later than six months every year and that it has not been doing that, and that some of the contracts are duplicated. The audits revealed that funds had been released for several projects that were not done. Those (audit) reports exist. So, why are we reinventing the wheels? What does a forensic audit mean? You are just saying the place (NDDC) should be audited; to call it forensic is just to give it (audit) some name. If you give half of that money spent on the forensic audit to NEITI, it will be enough for them to not only audit the NDDC but also the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Petroleum Trust Fund and almost all the entities that receive extractive revenue. So, why are we going to now give another job to the 'boys'? So, that is why I say nothing is likely to come out of it. But more importantly, most of these funds, if you track them well, you will find out that they went into elections and those who are going to superintend over the forensic audit are beneficiaries.
Some lawmakers and former governors who were accused of receiving NDDC contracts have denied the allegations. Do you think they were just being blackmailed by the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio?
I'm not interested so much about who got contracts, if you're a former governor and you meet the criteria. But the question I ask is: was due process followed in the award of those contracts to those people? Did they perform? If they didn't perform, why has sanction not been meted out to them? Getting a contract is not a crime by itself, if it was competed for and won legitimately. If a former governor got a contract to tar all the roads in the Nigeria Delta and we all have tarred roads, we will clap for him.
A former acting MD of the NDDC, Joy Nunieh, made several allegations against the minister in the management of the commission and claimed to have followed due process in discharging her duties. What do you make of that and do you think she also has questions to answer?
I have not heard in the whole of these revelations, the ones that throw up that this is how much she took, maybe because the focus has not been there. But I have not heard that so far.
Many Nigerians have argued that the people of the Niger Delta are the architects of their own misfortune, considering that many of those accused of mismanaging NDDC funds are from the region. Do you agree with that?
I don't. Most of the things about corruption are federally driven. If you investigate it well, you will find out that the pool for all these things came from the top. Yes, people from the Niger Delta participated but the architects come from the top. In carrying out its functions, under Section 7(3) of the NDDC Act, the commission is to act according to the control, direction and supervision of the President. The impression is that the actions of the persons there are the directives of the President; they are the representation of the President, who by law directs and controls how they carry out their functions. In any case, how do you check crime? The police, Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission do. Who controls them? Why have all those (anti-crime) agencies been silent when it comes to the NDDC?
Do you think community leaders are also complicit in the underdevelopment in the region?
What have community leaders got to do with what is happening? If community leaders, maybe some of them, are given contracts, did they get their contracts through a legitimate process? Did they perform? If they didn't perform, are they immune from prosecution? So, it is going back to look for how to victimise the victim.
How would you assess the current economic, social and environmental condition of the region, despite the billions of naira allocated for its development?
I think it is a shame, and I must say that, those of us who made huge sacrifices in trying to bring to national and international attention the plight of the region feel betrayed that after those sacrifices, we are still in a worst sort of situation. Unfortunately, attention is being diverted from those core issues. Is the Niger Delta being developed? Have we moved one inch? Why is it that one kilometre of road in the life of this administration has not been done in the Niger Delta? Look at the East-West Road; some parts are completely impassable. Why is it that there is progress on roads in other parts of the country? If you go the Abuja-Lokoja, Lagos-Ibadan roads, there is progress. Why is it that we can't point to one progress in our (Niger Delta) region? That is the question. This is a region where the country's resources come from. Why is it that we cannot make something, at least, to assuage the suffering of the people? It is a sad commentary on our sense of justice.
Do you think the NDDC can ever bring true development to the Niger Delta region?
It cannot in its present form. We must transform it from a patronage outfit as it is to make it less politically driven and less bureaucratic. It should be manned by professionals, not party people, not as an incubator for those who want to contest elections. Positions should be advertised to get the best brains to do the work. I think the Timi Alaibe-led group (of the NDDC) came up with a master plan for the region. All the others (successors) have not even looked at that document; I'm not sure the interim management knows where a copy is. When you want the best, you will go for it and get the best result. When that is done, value will be added to the people of the region.
There are concerns that the underdevelopment in the region will remain as long as corrupt political leaders are allowed to manage its resources and funds. Do you think so?
If left with them, it will remain. But as things happen, it will get to a stage that people will become sufficiently annoyed that things will go the way we don't expect. People will get so annoyed. It is not that the silence means acquiescence in what is going on and it is important that we should be very conscious of that. The next generation might be far more annoyed and impatient with how things are going.
Do you think a revolt by future generations is possible with recent concerns about peaceful protests being suppressed by government agents in Nigeria?
Why not? When the late Ken Saro-Wiwa and I started the issue of MOSOP, we went on non-violent demonstrations, some of us were killed. The next generation used that as a reason why they resorted to some violent means of agitation. What was Nigeria's response? In fact, the late Ken, in one of his final statements, said what would happen in future would depend on what that administration did – if they favoured the peaceful method we adopted, the region would be in peace, and if they didn't, future generations would reject the peaceful means. That is exactly what has happened.
There have been calls for the removal of the minister and the IMC by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari. Do you see that happening?
I do not see it happening. My thinking is that if it were not in this country, with some of the allegations we have heard, nobody would have waited for any person to say they should be relieved of their positions. Some would have stepped aside. Come to think of it, who is going to superintend over the forensic audit? Is it the same people? So, in a good clime, some other people should be in charge to drive that process. You saw what they did to the President of the African Development Bank, Dr Akinwunmi Adesina. They got an independent group and they cleared him. That is how things are done; he (Adesina) didn't preside over his case or set up a forensic audit to audit himself.
What kind of action do you think would have been taken against those culpable in the NDDC scandal in saner climes?
The laws that guide us in this country are full of punishments. Under the ICPC Act, EFCC Act, there are punishments. In this sort of situation, people are prosecuted and if found guilty, you get justice.
Do you think the current governors in the region deserve any commendation in the struggle to improve the lives of the people?
It is difficult to have a blanket assessment of the Niger Delta governors as such because, unfortunately, there is no uniformity in how things are done. There should have been some synergy, which we don't have. For instance, the NDDC on its own is not the only outfit that should develop the area. The federal and state governments need to throw in theirs; even the local governments should do something. So, this lack of synergy hasn't helped matters. But that is the function of the master plan because it came out with what every stakeholders, including communities, international agencies and the civil societies, should do. I was chairman of the Niger Delta technical committee set up by the late President Umaru Yar'Adua, may his soul rest in peace. At the height of what was referred to as the Niger Delta crisis, the committee was set up to come out with a roadmap for sustainable peace in the region. We came up with recommendations that were hailed as a fantastic work done. But nothing has been done. So, it is this haphazard approach that is complicating things.
You called for the removal of the NDDC from the grip of the presidency. Why do you think it will have any meaningful impact, if politicians will still make up its management?
What I mean is that it should not be that the NDDC will carry out its functions according to how Mr President directs and controls. In 1998, former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar (retd.), passed the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission Decree of 1998. That decree charged that commission to develop the oil producing areas according to the priorities set by those communities. So, there was a bottom-up approach by the law, not the top-down approach that the NDDC Act brings. Why should the community not determine what they want? Why should the presidency, for instance, direct the NDDC to spend N1bn for face masks for the police? If they had spent that money to distribute face masks in the Niger Delta, it would get to every person in the region. But what is it doing? It is looking at the police. Have you been to the NDDC and do you know the number of policemen there? The MDs of the NDDC have more police officers than the governors. So, you can now see where the focus is.
Do you think the lingering socio-economic problems in the region are also caused by the failure of different rights groups there to speak with one voice?
I am not one of those who believe in one voice because voices will defer. But if you sum up what all these groups are saying in a single word, they all want justice in the region. Some might focus on environmental justice, rights of women or even pure human rights. But all cannot be under one voice. But of all they have been saying, which one have we done?
What can the affected people of the Niger Delta do to find a lasting solution that will end their suffering?
We will continue to agitate as we are agitating. The National Assembly should know it has a responsibility to address the issues. Also, the law establishing the NDDC should be reviewed to allow the communities to determine for themselves what their development priorities are.