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By UKPONG Ukpong

President Mohammed Buhari has barely nine months to make good his electioneering promise of taking serious steps to develope the Niger Delta region. He pledged to chart a new course for development of the region, but that first he would conduct a forensic audit of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), to get to the root of the Commission’s inability to achieve its core mandate after over 6 trillion Naira has been appropriated in 20 years and to prosecute those found culpable for financial crimes in the Commission during this period.

He also pledged to set up a board for NDDC, clean up of communities affected by decades of crude oil exploitation and set a new template for developing the region which remains largely underdeveloped despite contributing the most to Nigeria’s economic sustenance.

Eventually, the forensic audit reportedly covering a total of 13,777 contracts awarded from 2001 to 2019 at a final contract value of N3, 274,206,032,213.24 was completed and handed over to Office of the Attorney General of the Federation. What should follow is an extensive reform within the Commission. Specifically, it should rid of unproductive interference from political actors, making it strategically independent and focused on delivering its core mandate.

As the supervising ministry, whose responsibility includes overseeing implementation of the roadmap for development activities in the region, the onus is on the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs to actualize President Buhari’s promises to people of the region. Manifestly, the recently held two-day management retreat for staff of the ministry and NDDC at State Banquet hall, Abuja, was a step in the right direction and should be consolidated with more progressive steps.

Speaking at the event, which was meant to streamline goals and build synergy for the task ahead, Mr. Umana Okon Umana, the minister, re-echoed President Buhari’s policy thrust for the region, appealing for cooperation from stakeholders to actualize set development objectives. Considering the herculean task before it, within a very limited time frame, this call for support is apt and shows readiness to work with stakeholders to achieve goals.

Furthermore, demands of stakeholders were captured on the ministerial action plan laying a solid foundation for trust. It follows therefore that the most important move forward right now is not to hastily constitute the NDDC board rather it is to reorganize and retool the NDDC to deliver. Then as well, it is about time political players, community leaders, indigenous pressure groups and indeed every stakeholder realize that after over two decades of failing to attain the dream of developing cities within the region like Abuja and building a sustainable regional economy, NDDC needs to be fixed and made to deliver its core mandate.

The consensus should be on changing the perception about the NDDC; that the Commission is not a cash cow for few strong men neither is it a staging ground for political ambition. Then, there must be a collective effort to ensure that the process of appointing board members for the commission is rigorous, with every sense of patriotism and devoid of excessive politicization.

Granted that funds allocated to the Commission are grossly inadequate and not released on time, but allegations of corruption and graft give traducers of the region ground to sustain the systematic deprivation. As such, if NDDC must not fail like its predecessor, the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission, OMPADEC, structural defects and inequitable distribution of resources, which prevent the Commission from addressing root causes of rural underdevelopment must be corrected.

Also, care must be taken not to repeat past mistakes of filling the board with politically exposed persons or politicians’ agents whose sole interest have over the years been to embezzle funds for the next election. Those agitating for constitution of the board ‘now now’ should relent and allow the ministry duely follow the plan to clean up the mess and reorganize the Commission before appointments are announced. Hastening to constitute a board while the Commission is drowning in administrative quagmire would be counter productive at the long run and those rushing the process now must be ready to hold themselves accountable for failure in future.

Lastly, actualizing President Buhari’s plan for the region hangs on the proficiency of those he will appoint into the NDDC board hence the need to support the ministerial action plan which sets an agenda of realizable goals within nine months, some of which are to review disproportionate recruitment of staff, address petitions over irregular promotions and deployment of staff in the NDDC, publish list of all completed projects in the NDDC awaiting payments, organize a stakeholders’ meeting to review existing templates for project delivery. For a board that will carry on the legacy of this administration, no effort should be spared in paving way for it to hit the ground running.

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