Port Harcourt—Chairperson of the Board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Lauretta Onochie, has been insisting on being the accounting officer of the commission against the provision of the Act establishing the commission, Premium Times reports.
The managing director is the chief executive and accounting officer of the commission, according to Part IV (b) of the NDDC Act 2000, and is vested with the responsibility for the day-to-day administration of the commission.
The law gives the board a supervisory role over NDDC management.
Mrs Onochie’s stance has thrown the agency into a leadership crisis that may cripple its operations, at least four sources familiar with the development have told this newspaper.
The chairperson and the Managing Director of NDDC, Samuel Ogbuku, clashed in January immediately after the inauguration of the board over who is the chief executive officer between them, according to the newspaper paper.
“Immediately after the inauguration of the NDDC board, she (Onochie) travelled the following day to Port Harcourt. The MD of NDDC was surprised to see her on the same flight to Port Harcourt.
“When they got to Port Harcourt, the MD realised she was also heading to the NDDC headquarters to take over the running of the commission as if she was the CEO,” a source in the NDDC said.
“There was some kind of drama because she was struggling with the MD as to who would take over the commission, when it is the MD who is the CEO that should take over the commission.
“When the MD advised her that she should allow management to take over and then an agenda could be set for a proper board meeting, she refused to listen.”
The source said Mrs Onochie, without Mr Ogbuku’s knowledge, immediately invited all the board members via text messages for a meeting in Port Harcourt.
“It was at that meeting that she announced she was going to be a signatory to the NDDC account, whereas the accounting officer recognised by the government is the MD.
“Even when she was advised against it by the (NDDC) director of Legal, she went ahead and wrote to the Accountant General (of the Federation), filled the forms, and tried to make herself a signatory to the account.
“She was turned down, which was an embarrassment. No part-time chairman had ever made that kind of move,” the source added.
Another source who corroborated this said Mrs Onochie also wrote to Nigeria’s presidency requesting an “amendment” to the NDDC Act to allow her to take absolute control of the agency so that she could “reform” it.
“When she didn’t get a response, she wrote another mail to the presidency, this time she requested that the commission should be removed from the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, and taken back to the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha,” she said.
The source said Mrs Onochie recently bypassed the managing director of NDDC and made direct approvals to the Executive Director, Finance and Administration, to make some payment as if she was the NDDC accounting officer.
“Of course, the EDFA (Executive Director, Finance and Administration) refused to honour those directives,” she said.
“Within these few months, she has summoned board meetings up to 12 times through text messages, whereas the board meeting should be held once every quarter, according to a government circular. Some of the meetings could not hold because some of the board members shunned them.”
The source said Mrs Onochie and Mr Ogbuku also clashed over the chairperson’s attempt to increase the monthly imprest for the board.
“She made an attempt to review the monthly imprest to be paid to the part-time board, including herself, by over 400 per cent.
“And this would have taken the total amount to over N1billion which is almost equivalent to the salary that is paid to all the staff. The MD said no, that he would only continue with what he inherited,” she said.
The board is now divided, with some members backing the chairperson, while others are against her, this newspaper learnt.
Mrs Onochie did not respond to calls and a text message neither was the managing director, Mr Ogbuku, according to Premium Times .
The commission’s Director of Corporate Communication, Ibitoye Abosede, said on Sunday that, he was outside the country at the moment and would, therefore, not respond to questions until he is back in Nigeria.
Controversy over railway project proposal
Mrs Onochie’s recent attack on the Niger Delta’s railway project proposal is said to be a fallout of the crisis between her and the managing director, Mr Ogbuku.
Mr Ogbuku, last month, signed a $15 billion Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Atlantic Global Resources Inc., a US-based company, to build a railway network to connect the nine states in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.
The agreement signing was done in Lagos, South-west Nigeria, at a one-day Public Private Partnership (PPP) Submit organised by the NDDC.
The project, when it is implemented, would ease the infrastructure deficit in the oil-rich Niger Delta, Mr Ogbuku said.
The NDDC chairperson, Mrs Onochie, in her reaction to it, said the MOU was “illegal, null and void”.
She claimed the agreement was done without the knowledge of the board.
According to reports, a source in the NDDC, however, said last week, that Mrs Onochie was informed as well as invited to the summit but she declined the invitation and dismissed the event as a “jamboree”.
Mrs Onochie said the Act establishing the NDDC empowers the chairperson of the board to sign MOUs on behalf of the agency.
But the NDDC management, in its response to her, said the MOU was a preliminary process and not a contract award.
Apparently referring to the chairperson, the commission’s Director of Corporate Communication, Mr Abosede said some persons may have misconstrued the MOU to mean Engineering, Procurement, or Construction contract.
“What we signed on 25 April is simply the opening phase that will determine how far we will go, but definitely showcases how interested the international partners are in tapping into the Niger Delta region,” Mr Abosede said, adding that the model is to provide alternative sources of funding for key projects and programmes of the commission.
Meanwhile, a former managing director of NDDC, who did not want his name mentioned in the report because of the “sensitive nature of the issue”, said the chairperson cannot be a signatory to the commission’s bank account.
He said the clash between Mrs Onochie and Mr Ogbuku has much to do with a “lack of relationship and understanding”.
“Because the first chairman of the commission, Onyema Ugochukwu, exercised so much power during his time and people didn’t know the power he had didn’t come from the NDDC Act, it came from the relationship he had with the MD,” he said, implying that the chairperson and the managing director need to understand each person’s role and also build a mutual and respectable relationship.
He also spoke about board meetings.
“The chairman calls board meetings, but he has to do so through the MD. The board meeting should be called at least once every quarter, but an emergency meeting can be summoned anytime.
“If the board meeting is reduced to a monthly thing it becomes a joke. The board works mostly through committees, it is not everything that is taken to board meetings,” he said.
It is important to note that for over three years, the NDDC, an agency notorious for corruption scandals, was run by interim management committees or sole administrators until the current board was inaugurated in January, which gave some hope that the interventionist agency could be back on track – to speed up human and infrastructure development in the troubled Niger Delta region.
Some people who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES, over the weekend, said the managing director, Mr Ogbuku, started well by consulting with the people in the region to get their concerns and input on the affairs of the commission and also for suspending the payment on controversial desilting projects regarded as conduits for stealing the agency’s funds.
The NDDC management said they would further evaluate the desilting jobs the contractor claimed to have done before any further payments on the projects, this newspaper learnt.
Kennedy West, the president of Movement for the Survival of Izon Ethnic Nationality in the Niger Delta, said it is right for the NDDC management to keep engaging the people, but that the commission was in dire need of funds to execute its projects and programmes.
“How am I going to assess them (their performance) when there’s no fund? The 2023 budget is not there, 2021, and 2022 budget is not there.
“You have about N500 billion that the EFCC has collected on behalf of the commission, this money and the budgeted funds should be released to the NDDC,” he said.
Mr West said the “internal wrangling” in the NDDC “doesn’t sound healthy”, and that his organisation was worried about it.
An influential group in the Niger Delta, the Ijaw Youth Council, meanwhile, has backed the proposal by the NDDC for a railway line in the Niger Delta region.
The group’s president, Peter Igbifa, who described the project idea as an “answered prayer”, said it would boost commerce in the region.
“The proposal is in tandem with the core mandate of the NDDC. We need to unite to ensure that it is realised. We are in support of the project. We shall not allow anybody to scuttle its implementation.
“We see it as an answer to our prayer for a regional project that will promote development and regional integration,” Mr Igbifa said.