By Ignatius Chukwu
Many have started clamouring for an economic plan for the Niger Delta region, expecting the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to lead the way.
Now, for once, perhaps, such a plan is coming into view. The present managing director, Dr Samuel Ogbuku, held held an interactive session with the media for once in a long time.
The NDDC has unveiled what looks like an economic agenda for the nine oil states. This is as the Commission is waiting for the approved copy of its N876Bn 2023 budget which has N100Bn to begin payment of debts to contractors.
These were revealed by the managing director/chief executive officer of the Commission, Dr Samuel Ogbuku in the week.
Over 12,500 youths and women who had waited for the budget to start their agric and entrepreneurship scheme under the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) project in partnership with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and the NDDC may now smile as the $30m fund trapped for years may be freed.
The CEO said the Commission is also set to float its HOPE scheme which would support 1000 youths in each state as well as a grant to businesses under the newly set up Niger Delta Chamber of Commerce. Participants would be expected to show success by employing a certain number of persons. Sources said this may create 45 direct jobs in the first year in the region in addition to the 12,500 under the IFAD scheme, making about 58,000 jobs.
At the media interaction, the MD made it clear that those going about opening websites in the name of the NDDC were crooks, saying the Commission does not charge any fee for registration.
Dr Ogbuku said the Niger Delta Chamber of Commerce has been formed and they would help to verify businesses of their members. He said the focus is on agric, IT, etc and others. “We want to show that our youths are not militants.”
He said the Commission would not take back the money (grants) but each beneficiary would have to employ a certain number of workers (many say its five). We want to help build back the confidence of the entrepreneurs in the region so they can take responsibility in many areas.”
He said part of the scheme is to rebuild public buildings starting from painting to roofing, etc. “Scoping is going on. We will thus grow the youths into big contractors: painting, roofing, etc. No more free money. We want to change the narrative. We want people to respect the dignity of labour.”
He said the Commission is just getting a budget since his team was appointed in December 2022 and took office in January 2023. “Now, we have got one and we are just waiting for the approved copy of the budget to begin implementation. People have been urging us to start action, wondering what we have achieved so far, but we cannot work without an approved budget.”
The CEO said the team has been building confidence in the region to prepare the ground that would carry the activities to come.
On the N100Bn for debts, he said the management has the mandate in the budget for old debts, saying it has been made a law so it is no longer at the discretion of a CEO. He said it is the same thing with de-silting jobs awarded in the past, but noted that verification of the debts was being done. He said court judgments fly into the Commission every day ordering the Commission to pay one contractor or the other.
He assured that state governments, international oil corporations (IOCs) and other stakeholders were involved in drawing up the present budget.
Ogbuku revealed reason for abandonment of projects in the Commission, saying it is due to pittance budgeting system whereby very little amounts are approved in the annual budgets for very bid projects, making it to take many years to gather funds to complete any big project. “When a new MD is appointed, he may award his own contracts and the old ones become endangered.”
He however said some big projects including the Okrika Bridge awarded in 2012 at N16Bn would be executed this time around. “We urge the media to run with us, follow us from next week. We want to run on a right track. We want to change the narrative.”
Leading the NDDC team including Rtd-General Charles Airhiavbere (Executive Director, Finance/Administration), Dr Ibitoye Abosode (Director, Corporate Affairs), Dr Pius Ughakpoteni (Director, New Media), Mary Nweke (Asst Director, Head, Media), and Willie Etim (MD’s special assistant, media), the CEO said the team came at a time when anxiety was high in the region for a board. “So, people rejoiced all over the region”.
He however said the jubilation and joy brought fears and challenges over huge expectations. “We tried to calculate their expectations and summed them up as empowerment, development, and change of style.
“We also interacted with the staff and listened to them. We found it was a Herculean task because we saw low morale, non-payment of allowances. We thus decided that charity must begin at home. To change the mood in the Niger Delta, it was important to change the mood in the Commission. This is because, staff must be happy. We saw there has been no condition of service for staff over the years. So, we got one done and it has been approved. We paid allowances. In fact, we have met 99 per cent of condition of service.”
The MD said they met some form of nepotism going on in the Commission. “The Act approved 11 directorates and the then president (Olusegun Obasanjo) approved two more, making 13 all, but we met 30. We saw that over the years, people have been squeezed in and directorates have been carved out to accommodate kinsmen. We have returned it to 13 directorates.”
Merit, our watchword:
Ogbuku said his team found a way out, merit. “Only merits decide what anybody gets here. We merged the directorates and made the most senior to head each directorate.
“We know that the Niger Delta is united in its challenges. I represent all of the region. So, you only get anything by merit.
“We aim at sustainability of whatever we do. We have contacted KPMG to design self-regulation. There are different perceptions about the NDDC. So, we want to design an auto-pilot system that would be difficult to sidestep. So, nobody can beat the system.”
Expanding funding frontiers:
To ensure that projects were completed, the MD went on, they went in search of other sources of funding and chose the partnership (PPP) approach. He admitted that huge debts owed contractors were an issue. “The Commission is owed by IOCs and the FG. So, PPP can fund some projects. It is now our core policy.
“Now, many organisations at home and abroad are eagerly contacting us, and we are studying them to see their seriousness and financial capacity to avoid being deceived. Dividends of PPP are coming.
“We want to change the story of the region. We want tell the true story to the world. Truth is, many projects have been executed. There has been huge spending so far.”
He said the team has launched Project Hope (Holistic Opportunity for Programme Engagement) to restore hope to the Niger Delta after many years of lost hopes and ravaging underdevelopment.
“HOPE seeks to train 1000 youths in each state. Focus would be in Agric, technology and others.
This is to create sustainability. There is no more youth training without database to help the Commission plan: need to know how many youths are in the region; their skills gap, etc. At any time in point, the Commission will know those who need every type of skill.”
He said data is the hope for Project Hope. Transparency, accountability, and equal opportunity were indicated as the new values at the Commission and said the end has come to training youths that are not ready to work with the training. “Such youths go and sell the packs and return to the unemployment market.”
Answering further questions, the MD explained the source of enthusiasm in embarking on the N16Bn Okrika Bridge expected to be delivered in two years despite the budget pittance limitation. He said there some window and some free hand.
On recovered funds from the CBN/EFCC, he said they were doing reconciliation. He also said corporate governance system is being enthroned to change the game. He also said Key Performance Index system is coming to guide how the Commission does things. He also said they were setting up Due Process unit.
On flooding, the CEO said their resolve is the dam construction option. “The dam is to control flooding in the Niger Delta. The first step is to do the design; second is to meet partners.
“The approach is to change liability to ability (asset). The dam is to generate power and do other things. We will construct transit comes for now. It will have schools, sick bay, etc. When flooding is over, the camps will serve as retreat centres. It will be ready by November which is peak period of flooding. Targeted areas are Bayelsa, Delta, Rivers states.
On food security, he said the NDDC is to intervene in the agric sector. “