The sitting, yesterday, in Abuja by the House of Representatives committee probing the alleged misuse of N81bn by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) witnessed dramatic scenes.
The drama unfolded when the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Apkabio and the acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Prof. Kemebradikumo Daniel Pondei took turns to testify.
Pondei was the first to testify.He mounted the stage and was grilled over alleged extra-budgetary expenditure by the Commission under his leadership. The exercise turned tragic as Pondei suddenly slumped.
Pondei, who appeared before the Mr Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo led committee last week, had walked out on the lawmakers on the excuse that Tunji-Ojo lacked the moral grounds to chair the panel. He was first to arrive at the venue of the hearing about 10.30 a.m.
Other members of the NDDC Interim Management committee, including its Executive Director, Project, Dr Cairo Ojuogbo, arrived about 11.15 a.m. The Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, who was also summoned to appear before the committee arrived with aides.
The proceeding commenced at 11.30 a.m.
Pondei looked unruffled as he presented his case. He disclosed that contrary to notions that he oversaw the expenditure of the sum of N51.1billion from February to date, he explained that N38.6bn was spent on capital expenditure, while the sum of N20.5bn was expended on recurrent expenditure during the period.
Making reference to newspaper publications which captured how the money was utilised, he cited payments on training of the NDDC personnel, hotel accommodation in both Port Harcourt and Abuja, and arrears of money owed contractors.
He however began to lose his composure when the lawmakers queried him on the expenses he made without the approval of the National Assembly.Further enquiries by Ben Ibakpa (PDP: Delta), Wole Oke, who chairs the House Committee on Public Accounts (PAC) on the discrepancies revolving around payment of students scholarship, the NDDC headquarters building and the COVID-19 palliative expenses further unsettled Pondei.
Pondei, who admitted approving payment for the NDDC headquarters, denied ordering payment for the Lassa fever treatment. He also disclosed that the sum of N38.6bn was paid for various projects before the House resolution to probe into the affairs of the NDDC.
He was further scrutinised by Ben Kalu (Abia APC), as to whether payment of the sum of N1.9bn for COVID-19 palliatives was in tandem with the 2019 budget. Pondei in his response said the money expended was N1.32bn.
When asked to show evidence of the expenditure, Pondei was not forthcoming as he responded repeatedly, “I will provide answers because I don’t want to lie under oath.”
Asked how much he had received since he assumed office at the helm of affairs of the NDDC, he disclosed that he got N72bn, adding the N2.4bn approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC), the sum of N350m was approved for forensic audit before the 31st of last year.
Asked to explain monies paid to Clairpoint Consulting Media, he explained that it was meant to pay coordinators in the 129 local councils in the nine NDDC member states as part of the audit.
That, he said, was aimed at engaging locals to identify the locations of NDDC projects.
But Pondei suddenly collapsed as he was further asked to explain the payment of the sum of N336m to Save Life Campaign in the Niger Delta. NDDC officials, including Dr Ojuogboh, promptly attended to him; one of them was sighted fanning him with a white handkerchief amidst the confusion that that followed.
Within a minute, Pondei regained ‘consciousness’ and he struggled to put on his shoes, which were removed as part of efforts to revive him.
One of the officials was overheard saying repeatedly: “Let’s take him to the hospital.”
The development forced the lawmakers to adjourn abruptly for 15 minutes to enable them ascertain whether to go ahead with the hearing or not.
THE drama heightened as Akpabio, in his presentation, accused members of the National Assembly of having 50 per cent of contracts awarded by the NDDC.The claim by the Minister angered members of the committee who prevailed on him to name beneficiaries of the projects in the National Assembly.
Boma Goodhead (Rivers PDP), who was livid over the accusation said such claim equally implied that Akpabio who was Senate Minority Leader in the 8th Assembly must have benefited from such projects immensely.
Shehu Koko (Kebbi : APC), who noted that there was such a pending allegation, demanded from Akpabio to clarify if Tunji-Ojo was one of the beneficiaries of the projects.
Akpabio, who remained adamant on the issue, however, said such contracts were usually given piecemeal to fall within the NDDC threshold. He said he could not lay his hands on specific facts at the hearing.
The minister assured the panel that he would change the ugly trend in line with ongoing efforts to reposition the NDDC.Akpabio insisted that the forensic audit approved by FEC was an ongoing exercise, adding that contract for the COVID-19 palliatives was executed in line with rules and regulations.
Admitting that he initiated the forensic audit in line with the President’s directives, he said he left the issue to the IMC after the approval of N4.5bn for the exercise and a certificate of no objection from the BPP.
Akpabio insisted that his ministry was empowered to oversee the NDDC in line with the powers conferred on the President. He justified the decision to relieve Joy Nunieh of her appointment as acting MD IMC, saying it was based on insurbodination and the discovery that she falsified her NYSC certificate.
MEANWHILE, the NDDC has said its acting Managing Director, Professor Kemebradikumo Pondei, collapsed because he had been sick for two weeks.
NDDC said it was however delighted that the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on NDDC, Mr Olubunmi Ojo, had recused himself from the hearing.
The Director, Corporate Affairs, Charles Odili, explained that Pondei’s condition deteriorated yesterday and his doctors advised against attending the hearing which he ignored.
“He ignored his doctors’ advice because of the realisation that his traducers will use his absence at the hearing to soil his name and reputation. He thought he could make it through the hearing and take care of his health later. As it turned out, his doctors were right. Prof Pondei is in a stable condition at a clinic in Abuja” he said.
In a related development, 20 Civil Society Organisations have urged President Muhammadu Buhari to direct anti-graft agencies to investigate the financial and procurement activities of the Niger Delta Development Commission.
The groups also suggested that the NDDC Act be amended to clarify the mandate of the intervention agency and state penalties for non-compliance with the provisions of the Act.
The positions of the CSOs were contained in a communiqué it sent to the President. It was jointly endorsed by Vivian Bellonwu-Okafor (Social Action, Nigeria); Harry Udoh (Akwa Ibom State Civil Society Organisations); Osazee Edigin (Edo State Civil Society Organisations, (EDOCSO); Torki Dauseye, (Bayelsa State Non-Governmental Organisations Forum (BANGOF); Peter Mazzi (Anti-Corruption Network, Rivers State); Jaye Gaskia (Take Back Nigeria Movement) and others.
The CSOs said contract frauds, procurement law infractions, non-budgetary and extra-budgetary spending, audit violations, cronyism, fiscal recklessness and flagrant disregard for procedural rules in the NDDC should spur the President to completely overhaul the commission.
Citing recent events in the NDDC, the groups said the Commission had undoubtedly become a cesspool of corruption for which many of its past and present leaders had not only been complicit, but had been indicted (in both past and present probes and investigations), but were neither prosecuted in a court of law nor made to refund misappropriated funds.
They claimed that the National Assembly had failed in its oversight function of conducting regular assessment of the Commission to prevent the infractions. They lamented the lack of internal or external controls to monitor the operations of the NDDC and prevent the diversion of funds and other corrupt practices.
In another reaction, a group, Global Coalition for Security and Democracy in Nigeria, yesterday, called on President Buhari to immediately suspend Godswill Akpabio as Minister of Niger Delta over the ongoing probe.
In a statement by GCSDN, jointly signed by Frederick Odorige, Global Coordinator; and Edmond Ikeh, Secretary; the group held that the revelations made by Joy Nunieh, former acting managing director of the NDDC, on how Akpabio used his position to order some persons to unlawfully remove some files out of the commission’s office should not be overlooked.
The statement read: “These actions are punishable offences and they will definitely impede the work of the investigative panel. This is a resemblance of the report that some persons attempted to break into the computer of the EFCC to steal sensitive information.
“The unlawful attempt to arrest Joy Nunieh in order to prevent her from testifying before the panel further, confirms that some persons are very desperate to frustrate the forensic audit which you set up but eventually hijacked.”