FEATURE ARTICLE

Wednesday, July 14, 2021
chigachieke@yahoo.co.uk

NDDC AND EMERGING CONCERNS

Introduction

he Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is on the cusp of a major crisis unless the Federal Government urgently addresses the vexatious issue of non-implementation of staff conditions of service. As federal civil servants, workers in the payroll of the agency are qualified for promotion and severance packages. Their emoluments and benefits are also protected under extant labour laws.

It simply means that in the event of an infringement by management, the National Assembly and Head of Federal Civil Service can call for investigation. This has not happened and the anger is swelling.

The NDDC has had up to five Acting Managing Directors, AMDs, in the past two years. Preceding that was a period of instability where no substantive Managing Director, MD, lasted the four-year tenure. One unintended consequence of erratic regime change is neglect of workers' benefits as it is not feasible for an MD with less than five months in office to properly address the huge backlog. Locating a simple file is even a herculean task as none is sure of which MD handled it last. The rot is deep.

Staff retired in 2011 and 2012 still have their severance packages outstanding as no MD will take responsibility. This can be excused on ground of paucity funds. But in a situation where the agency's budget adequately covers this provision, only corruption and crass ineptitude best explain such maladministration. Similar scenario plays out with active staff yet to access their promotion salary arrears for 2016-2021. Whatever happens to the agency's statutory allocation for recurrent expenditure?

A disgruntled workforce is a danger for any organization and that is what President Muhammadu Buhari must avoid, among other obstacles, in his sincere efforts to turn around the region for good. Incessant change of management boards is a fundamental problem as it negatively impacts on worker's efficiency. Equally so, the long-awaited inauguration of a substantive board is a contentious knot begging for attention. The commission is stalled, completely grounded, and in need of stability.

The reform stimulated by President Buhari, and midwifed by the Minister of Niger Delta, Godswill Akpabio, must not be limited to the forensic auditing of the commission's accounts with external contractors. It must also be seen to upgrade and update workers' rights and privileges as obtained in the North East Development Commission, NEDC, Presidential Initiative on the North East, PINE, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, and other federal interventionist agencies and parastatals.

The Great Debate

The year 1999 was epochal for Niger Deltans as two great thinkers, independent of each other, presented two papers on the proposed NDDC by the newly elected President Olusegun Obasanjo. One was for the establishment of the NDDC while the other was against it. It is important to state that the two advanced strong reasons for their respective arguments.

On 8th April 1999, in Yenagoa, eminent Professor Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu delivered a lecture, "Developmental Strategies for the Niger Delta." Deep in subject matter and range, Professor Ekpebu's paper was reduced to a booklet by popular demand. The booklet, in turn, influenced the contents of the Niger Delta Master Plan developed by the NDDC.

Professor Ekpebu encouraged Obasanjo to go ahead and create the NDDC for the development of the region. A people long neglected deserved relief-oriented projects to see the light of tomorrow. That developmental projects could only be meaningful when the power to implement and fund them were managed by Niger Deltans "who wear the shoe of underdevelopment, and who are therefore committed to, and are not likely to be bored by or distracted from, their execution or implementation."

As if seeing the future, and this is relevant in understanding the plight of NDDC staff at the hands of the regional elites, Professor Ekpebu harped on the need for local politicians to look beyond party loyalty and work for common good, "…I would like to direct a special message to all elected officials of the Niger Delta. Together and without prejudice to their different party affiliations, they should approach the development of the Niger Delta with a sense of urgency.

"While one is not advocating disobedience to their respective political parties, the realities of the sufferings which people of the Niger (Delta) have had to endure for several decades, deepened by the conscious neglect by successive Nigerian administrations, both civilian and military, dictate that the first concern of our legislators should be their constituencies. The onus is on these legislators to convince their respective political parties of the need to adopt the plight of the Niger Delta's development agenda as their (parties') priority," the erudite scholar advises.

Dredging, erosion control, communication, roads, improved river transport, international airports, air strips, sea ports and model cities for the region were among specific projects favoured by Professor Ekpebu. Obasanjo bought into this argument and handpicked him to wind up the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission, OMPADEC; in addition to serving as Chairman Presidential Monitoring Committee on the newly created NDDC.

The opposing side, that is, those opposed to the establishment of the proposed NDDC, was led by no less an intellectual than Honourable Barinua Moses Wifa, SAN, OFR, DSSRS. His stand was informed by history; and contained in his 1999 paper, "The Nigerian Federalism and the Niger Delta Crises: Echoes of The Minority Question."

Emmanuel C. Utaka maintains that Wifa rejected "…the Niger Delta Development Commission Bill, in other words, he rejected the establishment of the NDDC. He also rejected the institution of a Sovereign National Conference as he was of the view that it will serve no useful purpose for the Niger Delta people-classified by him as a minority" (Emmanuel C. Utaka, SAN, FCIArb, "The Nigerian Project and the Minority Question: Lessons and Expectations," 24th June 2021, Port Harcourt).

Till date opinions are divided on what Wifa really meant. The popular one is that he questioned what possible magic the NDDC could do that other agencies before it failed to achieve. Every agency established for the development of the region was riddled with corruption. Secondly, Wifa was completely disenchanted with the anti-Niger Delta dealings of the regional elites who exhibited no empathy for their less fortunate kith and kin. For him the real enemies of the Niger Delta were obvious.

Rather than the NDDC, Wifa favoured state creation on viable political grouping and urgent measures for the remediation of the devastated Niger Delta environment. He also advocated for a return to the 1963 Constitution that promoted fiscal federalism as the regional minorities were entitled to a reasonable share of the oil wealth created from their territories.

Writing in the wake of the Uche Okwukwu-inspired Ikwerre Rescue Charter of 1999, the Kaiama Declaration of 1998 and the Ogoni Bill of Rights, Wifa agreed point by point on resource control with the leading thinkers of the region like Ray Chindah, Bright Ndah, Felix Tuodolo, TK Ogoriba, Asari Dokubo, Chris Ekiyor, Ihunwo Obi-Wali, etc.

The much misunderstood Wifa could not alter the course of history as the interventionist agency was created. Today, however, in the face of the general outcry that the regional elites entrusted with the management of NDDC were sacking workers, in addition to denying them their severance packages and entitlements, the minorities remember Wifa.

Getting it Right

Every revolution must be internal more than external. First reconcile your internal contradictions before looking beyond your borders. Put differently, you must first liberate yourself from those oppressing you in your own community and place of work before you can liberate yourself from the faraway enemy.

The Niger Delta struggle failed to gain traction because the emphasis has always been on fighting the majorities while seeing no fault in the local elites who do the region greater harm. Carefully go through Professor Ekpebu's booklet and you'll detect his disaffection with our local leaders. Same can be said of Wifa. He opposed the creation of the NDDC believing that the local elites would reduce it to a cash cow.

It simply means that if the commission is to see the light of tomorrow, the regional minorities who suffer the brunt of maladministration and monumental corruption must demand for vertical change in how board members are recruited. Any agency that has its board members recruited through political patronage/nomination, rather than competitive examination, will never survive. When a board member is put there by a godfather, he can only do the will of his benefactor.

Horizontally, due process must come to play in personnel recruitment. Over the years, the commission is flooded with new workers recruited without NEEDs assessment, open advertisement and formal application. Grade levels are arbitrarily apportioned in manners inconsistent with standard best practices.

To end ineptitude in NDDC, management and other positions must be advertised and people allowed to apply with their CVs. Written and oral interviews must be conducted and successful candidates recruited on the bases of previous engagements and competency. Reputable consultants like Anderson & Anderson LLC can handle this crucial exercise.

Conclusion

It is wrong to place a critical agency like NDDC under the control of a ministry. Why not allow it run independently without interference? The MDs of the past two years all pleaded that their hands were tied as pretext for not paying staff severance and promotion packages. President Buhari should now push for internal reform to untie the hands of future MDs.

Anything emanating from ignorance is not excusable but illegal. Non-payment of staff promotion salary arrears and emoluments is illegal and can never be excused, especially as successive board members and "favoured" Directors remembered to scope out all their entitlements ahead of their exit. That is unjust and discriminatory.

The regional elites are at the root of the looming crisis. Reverse this through federal intervention. If we get it right incessant change of management boards, corruption, non-payment of workers' entitlements and emoluments will cease to be. Interventionist agencies are run in such a way that their positive impacts are felt. Why is the NDDC different? So we must get it right or stop deceiving the people.

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