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NDDC: A GAME OF POWER PLAY

By NBF News
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As President Goodluck Jonathan settles down to work after constituting his cabinet, one of the agencies upon which he naturally hopes to realise his set goals is the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

The commission was established in 2000 with the mission of facilitating the rapid, even and sustainable development of the Niger Delta into a region that is economically prosperous, socially stable, ecologically regenerative and politically peaceful. The Niger Delta is literally the heart of the nation's economy with enormous resources that contribute about 80 per cent of Nigeria's exchange earnings and 70 per cent of government revenue.

Before the establishment of the NDDC, the Niger Delta wallowed in neglect, crumbling social infrastructure, social deprivation, abject poverty and endemic conflict that resulted in destruction of lives and property. But as a response to the deplorable situation in the region, the Presidency established the NDDC as an interventionist agency to help give the oil-rich region a facelift and succour to people of the area.

So far, every critical observer would attest to the fact that with the NDDC and other interventionist agencies, the federal government has been able to substantially address the Niger Delta crisis even though much effort is still required to consolidate achievements recorded since the establishment of the commission.

It will be recalled that several agencies had earlier been put in place by successive governments to address the situation but for reasons bordering on too much bureaucracy, politics among others, they all failed to achieve the aims for which they were set up. So, when NDDC came, the first hurdle it faced was that of cynicism as many saw it as another white elephant programme to deceive the Niger Delta people and a conduit for siphoning the people's wealth.

Largely, this perception has not fully given way with reports that despite efforts of the management of the commission led by Chibuzor Ugwoha to prove that it is not out to give free meal, some still do not see why it should not be business as usual.

So, noble as the role of the commission is, the question is: how far would the ideals for which it was established be realised. For critical observers, the question gains potency considering that for some time now, the NDDC has been enmeshed in a power play by a cabal in the commission. The situation is a replay of what transpired in the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) when a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Olabode George was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the money spinning parastatal. The Board members then were pit against the management of the parastatal and literally paralysed its activities.

Today, just like what happened in the Olabode George-led Board, there are reports of an ongoing travesty of public service rules within the NDDC as desperate and coordinated onslaughts are directed against the incumbent Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of the organisation, Chibuzor Ugwoha.

The latest in the barrage of attacks were allegations of fraud against him, an online campaign of calumny against his office, his unauthorised suspension by the commission's Governing Board and instigation of rumour of his sack by those believed to be his traducers who did not mind dropping the name of President Jonathan as the person who assented to the imaginary suspension.

But what really is the problem in the NDDC? One source attributes it to power play, mischief and deliberate ignorance by some self-serving people. He explained that the Board and two management team members do not understand their limitations as they see themselves as first among equals with the MD/CEO. Yet, in the event of a breach, the law squarely places responsibility on the MD/CEO and no other. It was gathered that many board members do not see themselves as part time members and are in the habit of writing memos making one demand or the other.

One disgruntled state Coordinator explained: 'When things are to be done, these people insist on being involved in the scheme of things whereas they are part time members who are not supposed to be involved in the day-to-day running of the Commission. Their involvement should stop at the policy level but because they see the Commission as a cash cow, they continue to mount unnecessary pressure on the management seeking to be involved in purely operational matters.

'The ideal thing is that when a board member feels something should be done in his state, he should go through the state Coordinators who will raise a memo and see to its implementation. Ironically, the Board members personally struggle to be part of operational issues, which should not be their business. They do not understand that memos are administrative instruments, especially in day-to-day running of organisations. The law makes the MD/CEO, Chairman of the tenders Board with the heads of departments as members. There is no role for board members in contract awards but they insist they must decide which projects to be awarded in their states. The public service guidelines are clear on this'.

But what are Ugwoha's sins?
Recent allegations levelled against him border on fraud. In a letter written by the Executive Director, Projects (EDP), Arc Esoetok Etteh, and forwarded to the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) by AVM Koinyan (rtd), the petitioners claimed that Ugwoha opened a foreign bank account for the Commission in a Nigerian bank based in the United Kingdom without appropriate authorisation. They also claimed that he deposited $20million to the 'illegally opened account' and that in the process of opening the account, he forged a Governing Board resolution in collaboration with the Ag. Director, Finance and Supply, Jimoh Egbejule and the Director of Legal Services, Harrison Onwo.

But Daily Sun learnt that the petitioners failed to conduct due diligence as existing Public Service rules do not require the resolution of the Governing Board of a government agency in the opening of a bank account. This is clearly laid down by the provisions of Paragraph 701 (i) of the Financial Regulations of the Federal Government of Nigeria 2006. The procedure requires only the approval of the Accountant General of the Federation (AGF) to open any account by a corporation such as the NDDC.

What is important to establish is whether the intention of the MD/CEO in opening the new account appear noble. It was learnt that before his move, the Commission had maintained only one foreign account with a Nigerian bank based in the UK but the bank was among the institutions that were branded unhealthy by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and whose shareholders' fund was in the negative as at the period. The bank is said to offer little prospects essential for such patronage as recent banking institutional assessments and reports showed the bank to be an unworthy competitor and alternative to the new bank.

The MD/CEO was said to have ordered the transfer of $20million from the old to the new bank account, to safeguard a chunk of the Commission's money in the event of the untoward. According to records, the account is not an interest yielding one and no withdrawals have been made from the account till date. The awareness of the advantages seemed to have rested insinuations that the transfer was ordered by the MD/CEO in anticipation of benefits.

Power play
The battle in NDDC is between Ugwuoha on one hand and the Executive Director, Projects (EDP), Arc Esoetek Etteh, Executive Director, Finance and Administration (EDFA), Pastor Power Aginighan and their acolytes on the other. According to sources, the power tussle is all about personal benefits rather than the development of the region for which the NDDC was established. There are insinuations that while the MD insists on due diligence, accountability and best practices in the day-to-day administration of the NDDC, his opponents in the struggle want business to continue as usual. In the estimation of many, the radical approach by the new MD/CEO to change the status quo drew the ire of its promoters who usually put themselves before the region.

Also, the permutation is that the realization that the incumbent MD/CEO is younger than they are, among other things, goads the EDP and EDFA to believe that they cannot be under his office as contained in statutory administrative provisions of the commission. The battle started on August 10, 2009, the day he assumed office. On August 6, when the new board was inaugurated in Abuja, the former acting Managing Director, Power Aghinigan, was said to have informed Ugwoha of his readiness to hand over. The day was Thursday and he was reported as having said he wanted the new MD/CEO to move to Port Harcourt the next day.

It was learnt that Ugwoha had a meeting on that same day and told him that he would assume duty the following Monday, which was on the 10th. Ugwoha was said to have left Abuja on Sunday evening and got to Port Harcourt, only to discover that there had been no preparation made for his arrival. According to sources, on Monday morning when he had to resume at his duty post, there was no vehicle to convey him and he called a colleague in his former company, Total E&P Nigeria Limited, and requested for a vehicle but when he got to the NDDC office, he did not Aginighan. Finally, both men connected and after a tour of the Commission, Ugwoha requested that they carry-out out the handover process.

It was learnt that at that point, Aginighan left. Ugwoha had to wait for him for over three hours before he (Ugwoha) sent someone to him at about 3 pm to tell him that if the handover process was no longer feasible that day, it could be done the next day. Thereafter, Aginighan was said to have come with a lean file at about 5pm and Ugwoha expressed surprise and said that he expected to see a more comprehensive file of details of activities at the NDDC so that he could understand how the place was run. Aginighan told Ugwoha that there was nothing other than what he had brought. Contrary to expectations, at the inaugural meeting of the 3rd Governing Board, Mr Aginighan (former Acting MD/CEO and current EDFA) handed over to the Chairman instead of the current MD/CEO. The battle lines appeared drawn when the incumbent Managing Director protested the gross breach of procedures.

Other issues
Since the Procurement Act came into force in 2007, the commission has never adjusted its operation to conform to it but has stuck to the Operational Manual which in the wisdom of those in authority then, is superior to the Procurement Act. But the question is: Does the NDDC Act supersede every other Act? Whatever the assumption by various divides, the truth is that two executives cannot exist in the same place.

Though the NDDC was established for the whole of Niger Delta, many believe there are those including members of the executive management who feel that the commission must be controlled by a particular ethnic group. There is no gainsaying that part of the problems also is the vaulting ambition of some who have been in the system for a long time, having worked in different capacities. One of those being fingered here is a Minister who is said to have been trying to sideline the managing director in collaboration with other people. But many argue that there is no reason for the NDDC Board to quarrel with the executive management.

But an officer who spoke to Daily Sun on condition of anonymity put it thus: 'it is about personal ambition if you look at the people who are in the board. When people get into the board as part of political patronage, they want to say, this is my expectation and they must be met. They see it as a place where people can make money and then set some target for themselves to be able to get so and so thing before the period is over. Any attempt to stop them from doing that will be resisted and one way to do that is to award contract. So, everybody wants to award contract, because if you don't award contract or award it to yourself or to whoever, how do you get the money? The result is that people feel that they must struggle to see that they actualize their expectations and dreams'.

But in constituting a board, the questions to ask are: 'Who are the people? What is their pedigree? What do they have to offer? What is their understanding of development as in the case of the reason for establishing NDDC? And what is their commitment to development?' .

According to Ugwoha, the NDDC MD, 'There is usually no clear procedure on how things should be done. Sadly, the truth is if you have a clear procedure, you will be able to know where to start and where to end and what to do. But they don't have procedures purposely, maybe so that they can just do anything underground.

'The people are just there exploiting the system, making the system favour how they want it to go and not ordering their own actions as to what should be done for better results. And people are used to that system. An attempt to now say let us do things in the right way will be challenged because doing the right thing will not increase the flow of funds into their pockets.

'There is an organizational chart and there is no way you can have the man who is initiating the project, be the one to award the contract, be the one to supervise. So, where is the check and balance? The usual practice should be that if somebody conceptualizes, designs and implements, somebody else should monitor how the project is being carried out to ensure quality. But putting everything under one man's control is not the best because nobody can be a judge in his own matter and lose that case.

'In the past, there was no clear procedure on how contracts were to be awarded. By rule of law of consultancy, you just give to whoever you like. There were cases where somebody who read Civil Engineering was asked to design electrical work. There have also been cases of somebody who studied Biology being asked to go and supervise shore protection work. How does it work? What does he know about shore protection? It is just a way of patronizing friends. Quality and professionalism were relegated to the background. They just did whatever they liked as if it was personal business.

'When you look at all these issues, the question that would rightly be asked is: from the onset, was this commission set up to succeed or it was just set up as a way of settling political interest? If the idea is for political patronage, then that is different from development and you will also notice that if the people are interested in development, then they should have put together a development team not civil servants or bureaucrats who do not know what development is all about. So, the composition, employment, even the engagement of staff itself is a problem, a big challenge. The recruitment is based on the sitting of the board, the loyalty is not to the head of the commission. Their loyalty is somewhere else.

'But that is not what a development agency should be. It should look at performance, how a person has been able to achieve his target. And if target is product-driven, then those who are contributing to the success of the commission by meeting their targets are the ones that should be promoted. Reward should be for efficiency and not for tenacity'.

Sunday Sun learnt that before the emergence of Ugwoha on the saddle, contracts were just being awarded without referring to the Public Procurement Act with the feeling that the NDDC is a commission not an agency and should not be subject to government extant rules and regulations. Explaining the situation, Ugwoha said, 'There are instances where the chairman of the board wants to see himself as the board but in the Public Procurement Act, there is no place where the role of the board chairman was defined. It is only that of the board that is defined, meaning that it is the board as a group of persons not the board as an individual.

'The members of staff of the commission find it difficult to differentiate between the board and the management. The staff write me memos and copy the chairman of the board as if the chairman is the boss of the managing director. The chairman himself writes memos to staff to hold meetings with him not knowing the limitation of the board. But if you look at organizational chart, it is the MD reporting to the board not reporting to the chairman who is just a member of the board. But unfortunately, as it stands today, the chairman sees himself as the board and then can direct orders to people, inviting contractors to his office or one thing or the other. This should not be at all.

'In the Act, the chairman is assigned a role of signing agreements and that is not very clear. The implication is that even contract award, agreements for contract award are being signed by the chairman. The issue of contract award normally is an operational issue but if the chairman has to endorse every contract, that means, he is being encouraged to perform an operational function which is against the spirit of board anywhere in the world. He should sign agreements on for instance, occasions when the commission wants to buy a property, which does not occur regularly'.

According to him,' the NDDC is a contract awarding institution, if I may call it that way. It is a procurement entity that churns out a number of contracts. If you have 300 agreements to sign and the chairman has to sign all of them, how can you say he is a part-time chairman? There is no way you can synchronize such responsibility of signing agreements of contracts that should have been left to the managing director and, if possible, the secretary of the commission. Maybe, that would come under a legal director, which is obtainable elsewhere. But in this case, it is the MD and the chairman that sign, no legal person or staff, they just prepare the agreement and push on to the MD and after that, to the chairman. This in itself is a challenge since there is no legal person'.

'Due to the voluminous nature of the agreements and personal interests, nobody has time to see the differences in the agreements because each agreement is tailored towards the benefit of the people and the contract involved. The issue of people not meeting specifications due to unprofessional or unqualified people who engage in this makes the commission prone to low quality and substandard work and variation.

When the design is not good or correct, the assignment goes with him. You find out that what is on paper is not what is on ground. You ask for professional variation. There is the issue of the people not understanding how jobs are to be done. Take the issue of budgeting for instance, there is the planning department that should organize how the various units will make up their budget for a year. But what we notice today is that those who are in charge of the planning don't even understand how budgeting should be done'.

He added, 'When I came, there was nothing like budget implementation plan. This led to people awarding contracts anyhow, put the budget at any amount that they like. The implication is that the commission gets anyhow results, which is detrimental to the commission. By making a project of one year circle to last five years, you don't care for the fact that by the fifth year, the cost would have changed and some of the projects would have been abandoned. The problem here is that you keep spending money without value for the money'.

Many believe that for there to be efficiency in the commission, proper planning must be done with the entrenchment of a supervisory mechanism to monitor the contractors to do the jobs.

In the case of the NDDC, a major problem is that of political patronage in the award of contract. When contracts are awarded to pacify politicians, it then becomes difficult to monitor them.

The situation often leads to collection or mobilization and abandonment of the contract. So, the right professionals must be involved to carry out the right design and supervision. There should not be any interference and the board should stick to playing its role of making policies that will enable the managing director to achieve the overall target of the commission. And when everybody plays his role, there is a way forward. Many argue that the reason for establishing the NDDC is to reposition the Niger Delta region and that means that those appointed to work in the organisation must be selfless.

Based on the challenges facing the NDDC, there is high public expectation from the panel of inquiry into its affairs. The panel is headed by former Head of service of the federation, Mr Steve Orosanya.