The ongoing defence of the 2020 Appropriation Bill by Ministries Departments and Agencies has thrown up a lot of issues. In this brief chat with the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Chief Godswill Akpabio, he tells ONWUKA NZESHI that there is not enough money to execute all the projects earmarked for the Niger Delta region
What’s your reaction to the rejection of your budget?
The budget was not rejected. The senators feel that there ought to be completion of major projects that are ongoing across the states of the Niger Delta. I agree with them but unfortunately, we are working under a very tight envelope. The ministry was allocated about N23billion and 60 per cent of that sum would go to already existing projects in the region and forty percent will probably go to new projects.
So if you look at it very well, it’s not possible for you to capture all the projects with that amount and it is not possible to even complete one kilometre of road in the region. So, I think that instead of saying that the budget was rejected, I think that the distinguished Senators should collectively make an appeal to the Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning to expand the envelope and improve upon our budget a little so that it can capture substantially most of the yearnings and aspirations of the good people of the Niger Delta.
They should take into cognisance of the outstanding projects that we have already conceptualised since 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 which are yet to be paid for up till now. Again there is nothing we could have done about the 2019 because we are yet to receive even one naira for the capital projects.
The fund is still being processed at the Ministry of Finance Budget and National Planning and like we explained to them (lawmakers), once the fund is released we will fund part of the budget for the current year. Until then, we have no option than to roll them over into the 2020 budget. They’ve given us till Monday and we will go and work with the Ministry of Finance Budget and National Planning to see whether we can get capital releases for this year.
Minister but you’ve told them there is nothing you can do, are you not going to return with the same document on Monday?
We should also note that if we are to capture all the projects that our colleagues have asked us to capture we will be allocating a very paltry amount of money to all the projects and it will neither make sense nor favour anybody at the end of the day. It will then be a budget designed to fail like one of the Senators said. If we have 300 projects and we have money that can capture only 150, why should we allocate all the projects and allocate amounts of money that will not make any difference at the end of the day?
So, we have chosen very carefully some projects based on need, based on spread and so on and so forth. We have included 60 per cent of old projects to be rolled over and forty percent for new projects based on the demands of the people.
Having seen the enormity of the problems in the Niger Delta, what are you going to do differently to tackle them?
Well, I don’t think that the Federal Government alone can handle the entire problems of the Niger Delta. That is why there is the Ogoni Clean Up which is being funded outside the federal budget. Outside the multinational oil companies making contributions other international partners are going to come in with fund to assist in driving the process. Then we are going to handle a lot of the mediation as a result of the exploitation and pollution that have taken place over a long period. These oil exploration and exploitation activities have destroyed the ecosystem and the land mass over the years.
But it is not going to be possible for the Federal Government to channel all its resources to the Niger Delta alone. The terrain is difficult and the region needs a lot of infrastructural development. Maybe the Sukuk Fund and other international finding instruments that are coming into Nigeria may need to be channeled into the Niger Delta region?
What about the NDDC and its mandate of developing the region?
We also need to reposition the NDDC which is supposed to be the major intervention agency in the Niger Delta region. We have to distinguish between the Ministry of Niger Delta and the NDDC. What we are discussing now is the Ministry of Niger Delta and not the NDDC. On its own, the NDDC has almost 12,000 abandoned projects, hence we have advertised for capable firms to conduct a forensic audit not just on these projects but also on the finances of the organisation right from 2001 when it commenced operations to 2019.
The intention is that we will now be looking at those that could be completed, those that could be merged, those contracts that could be terminated and those that could be suspended. It is not just a question of carrying all these projects on paper and at the end nothing is actually achieved. The intention of Mr. President is to ensure that we have projects completed in the Niger Delta and commissioned for the benefit of the people.
People are talking about the challenge posed by water hyacinth and if you go to the waters of the Ni ger Delta, the aquatic life is almost destroyed because some of them have witnessed a total invasion of these weeds. In some places you wouldn’t even know it is part of the river or sea, you’ll think it is a forest. The result of it is that in many places, oxygen is not going down the water bodies and the fishes are dying. Even the movement of children going to schools in boats and canoes has become almost impossible in some of these riverine communities.
Clearing these weeds is going to cost a lot of money and it is not something that can be handled by the NDDC alone. We need international partners to support us in that direction. Of course the flooding that has occurred shows that the embankments and chanelisation programmes have failed. These are things that have become key issues in the region.
In some places, bridges have collapsed like the one at Elebele in Bayelsa State where a trailer that was about to cross a bridge went down with the bridge. The problems of the region are many but I assure you that now that we are not just over-sighting but supervising the NDDC, our job is to ensure that we leave legacy projects behind at the end of the day. We need to refocus the agency to enable it meet the aspirations of the people.
If it is in the area of healthcare, we need to have major health facilities in the region. Both the Ministry of Niger Delta and NDDC must begin to plan for the post-amnesty era. In other words, we must have a post-amnesty initiative since amnesty cannot last forever. It cannot be in perpetuity. It is Mr. Presidents intention that this forensic audit will throw up a whole lot of issues that may even result in recoveries. Those who are genuinely being owed would also have opportunity to receive by getting back their funds. Whatever we recover from the process would be re-injected into the system to make sure that the existing projects are completed and even new ones initiated for the benefit of the people.
However, one thing you can be certain is that things can no longer be the same. Things must change for the better. I share the sentiments of the senators that we should go and put all the projects ever initiated in the Ministry of Niger Delta from inception but they have not also asked us where we are going to get all the funds to do it. So they’ve said, go back and rework it and put all the projects.
One of the Senators said 10 projects from his constituency are missing from the budget and wants all back but he has not taking into cognisance the funding implication. Will they also give us 10 bags of money to add to what we have? It is a Catch 22 situation. Yes indeed, we will come back on Monday to meet the distinguished senators but first we would go back to the Ministry of Finance Budget and National Planning to appeal that because the Senators want a lot of projects, from their states inside the Ministry of Niger Delta, we also need more money to be able to match up their demands.
But as at today, somebody is asking what would you do differently? There is nothing we can do differently. If you see where we have N12 million that means there is an outstanding job of N12 million. It’s not as if we are going to spend N12 million to do a project of N1 billion. The reality is that we must settle the person who is being owed N12 million. It’s a difficult budget and very tight.
As it is, the Federal Government must take cognisance of the 36 states and the FCT as well as the security issues of Boko Haram, militancy, amnesty program , IPOB and other challenges. So it is not easy. As for me, I was amused but impressed that the senators want development in their areas and they will like me to go and work out something in an uncommon way.
I don’t know whether you can assist me to get uncommon funds to meet the uncommon demands but we would try our best. If there is any change you will see it. If there is no change then it means there is really nothing we can do differently.