BY FEMI ANJORIN

The reports coming the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) in the last few weeks have been embarrassing, to say the least, where they are not clear examples of a dysfunctional government.

If that were not so, how can one explain a situation where President Muhammadu Buhari sends a list of board nominees to the Senate and barely five hours after the senate commences the screening of the nominees, the Minister for Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, appoints his own 3-man interim management committee for the commission who, even after the Senate has confirmed 15 of the president’s 16 nominees, have refused to vacate the offices of the NDDC for the duly-confirmed board to resume?

Interestingly, President Buhari who was away while the minister took this action has since returned and, characteristically, takes a complacent approach to the assault on law and due process. In my opinion, the recent events concerning the leadership at the NDDC indicate a dissonance at the federal executive level that does not speak well of our seriousness, not only to the people of the Niger Delta, who are being shortchanged by a management that does not represent their broad interests, but to our development partners and the oil multinationals that have a tangential relationship with the NDDC. This is not to talk of what it says of our governments’ respect for their own laws.

For the benefit of those who may not know, the NDDC was established in the year 2000 as a development agency for the oil-bearing areas of the Niger Delta states, which are Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo and Rivers states, after years of oil exploration, neglect and environmental despoliation. However, it has been plagued by allegations of corruption, abandoned projects and ineffectiveness, like all Nigerian institutions. Since it was set up, it had been managed by the predominantly PDP governments in the Niger Delta Region up till 2015 when President Buhari was elected president from the opposition APC.

One of the expectations from Buhari’s government was a commitment to exorcising the evils of inefficiency and lawlessness that pervaded the operations at the NDDC, among other ministries, departments and agencies of government.  However, the president employed ad hoc management committees at the NDDC in his first term and the result was a disastrous failure. Now, he seems to have set on this path again. An interim committee is the stuff of militaristic regimes which rule by decrees, not a democracy where the operative expression is the rule of law and due process.

There can only be one reason why the illegality in the NDDC subsists, which is that the vested interests pushing the interim management committee have either gone rogue in the administration or that the Buhari regime has been held hostage by these interests for whatever reason, because the argument for the committee is illogical if not nonsensical, which is that it will supervise the forensic audit ordered by the President.

If the president is truly serious about this audit or probe, all he should do is directly appoint the auditors to carry out the audit, not some appointees of a minister who was a major player in the NDDC since 2007. Therefore, there must be more to the interim madness in NDDC when there is a confirmed board on the ground waiting in the wings!

It is disastrous for the President and his close aides that his regime, which rode to power on the mantra of due process, is perceived to be held captive by various interests which have found clever means of distorting the legal and due process framework of government for their own ends.

These politicians and vested interests have found ways of riding the anti-corruption sing-song to get their bidding in Aso Rock. It is said in certain circles that if you want to get anything done in Aso Rock, get a fine scheme, drape it in anti-corruption garb and probity mumbo-jumbo. Voila! You have your scheme sealed with presidential approval, even when the evidence and the law do not support the proposals! This is the stuff of a dysfunctional government, not one that says it is together, and it is a serious worry for anyone who understands operations and the workings of institutions because there are laid down rules and regulations guiding the operations of governing boards of MDAs, by which they operate and on which they are assessed.

One of the unfortunate touchstones of our peculiar democracy is the impunity of government officials, expressed in the commonplace parlance that the government has spoken.

Yet, contemporary evidence tells us that this is the reason our institutions have failed to make progress. It is not just about the common mistakes of placing square pegs in round holes when constituting the boards and managements but about having the deer run with the hyena; that is, the tendency to make illegal appointments, clothe them in the garb of legality and expect them to fly as legal and lawful actions. In the end, institutions are weakened. In this case, this is what the Presidency is doing by not dismantling the illegal interim management committee at the NDDC for the duly confirmed board to get to work. It is in effect putting a veneer of acceptance on what is clearly an illegality.

We are fortunate (or unfortunate) to have the benefit of contemporary experience that should get the Presidency serious about law and due process, in the case of the P&ID matter before the UK courts, for which Nigeria has been slammed with a $9.6 billion judgment.

That case is indicative of what the failure of due process can result in. Basically, P&ID, we are told, obtained a contract with the federal government, without going through the Federal Executive Council, and, based on the terms of the agreement, sued the federal government in the UK for violations. Eventually, it won a judgment in the sum of a whopping $9.6 billion, an amount higher than our annual federal budget. Suddenly, the government and everyone is wondering what happened? Of course, it happened since we always ignore even the laws and agreements that we sign because government is complacent.

The complacency on the NDDC Act and due process is one that President Buhari must not encourage. The government needs to understand why there are laws for institutions and why they must be followed.

Arguments such as the need for a forensic probe as basis to ignore the law are simply nonsensical. Interestingly, an NGO has sued the federal government on this matter of appointing an interim management committee for the NDCC because the law is clear on the matter.

Whatever way the argument is made, and this is without regards to the fact that a governing board has been confirmed by the senate and is in the wings to be inaugurated, the NDDC law has no provision for an interim management committee for whatever reason. If that were necessary, the makers of the law would have provided for it because the Act is the instrument that governs the operations of that institution.

Therefore, whatever that committee does, as indeed every illegal interim management committee not backed by the law anywhere, can be challenged and reversed in the courts if judiciously pursued. That is not a route the government should take at this time. Indeed, the dangers are many, especially after the Minister Mr Akpabio said the committee will oversee the forensic audit of the NDDC. Let us ask ourselves, what if an indicted company or agent pursues the illegality of the committee after billions of naira may have been spent on auditing charges?

I have heard people say that as President and Head of the Executive Branch of Government the president can appoint whomever he deems fit to run any institution as an agent. It is uninformed commentary and I dare say that it holds no equivalent position in Law; else Nigerian institutions will not have laws governing their operations. That saying is a typical Nigerian acquiescence that the law can be held in breach by government but, as the P&ID case shows, there are dangers in executive complacency.

President Buhari has promised on different occasions to stick with due process and public accountability, perhaps more than any other Nigerian president before him; he risks a worse legacy by ignoring the law and due process. He should wean himself of the vested interests that sell contrarian positions on due process. The President can redress the executive complacency toward the NDDC by inaugurating the new board and disbanding the illegal interim management committee. It is the right thing to do to rebuild confidence in the laws that guide our public institutions and save the country from avoidable errors.

…Anjorin, a public analyst, lives in Akure_

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