SUPPORTERS and opponents of Senator Godswill Akpobio, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, are currently on each other’s throat over the current allegations of corruption and misappropriation involving Niger Delta Development Commission (NDCC). While his critics allege multi-billion naira misappropriation, his supporters accuse the opponents of plot to stop the minister’s initiative to sanitize NDDC.
As a result of the crossfire, some Niger Delta elders and other stakeholders have expressed concern over the socio-political ripples trailing the development. Last week, Gen Ebi Eregbene and some others called for a truce, warning that Akpabio’s fall will not impact positively on the Niger Delta region. According to Eregbene and the others, the culture of ‘pull him down’ has been a bane to the socio-political development of the oil-rich region.
Outlining cases of many popular political leaders that have fallen because of similar petitions, and how the Niger Delta region has lost out in the wider national political calculation, Eregbene and his group said Akpabio’s fall will not benefit the sub-region.
Already, the former governor of Akwa Ibom State and the Interim Management Committee of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDCC) were, this week, summoned by members of House of Representatives over petitions alleging multi-billion naira corrupt activities in the commission.
The lawmakers, among others, want Akpabio to respond to the allegation that the commission spent N40bn without yielding commensurate result.
The Deputy Majority Leader of the House, Peter Akpatason, in a motion, said the NDDC had been inundated with plethora of petitions calling for a probe of the commission.
As he puts it: “The House is further aware that the Committee on NDDC is inundated with petitions from contractors, stakeholders and public interest groups regarding alleged personnel layoffs and replacement with unqualified and inexperienced persons to man strategic offices in the commission, thereby hampering the efficiency of the commission.
“The House is alarmed that in the wake of COVID-19, a contract was allegedly awarded for the supply of Hilux vehicles/medical consumables to the tune of N4.8bn in clear breach of Sections 19, 25, 41 and 42 of the Public Procurement Act, 2007.
“The House is also worried that the trend, if not arrested, will worsen an already pathetic situation in the Niger Delta region post-COVID-19.
“The House is also concerned that the forensic audit for which the Interim Management Committee was set up is most likely to become a conduit for forensic looting.”
The Nation reports that it was after listening and debating on the motion moved by Akpatason that the House resolved to invite the supervising minister, Akpabio and the commission for possible explanation.
Meanwhile, the House has also mandated its Committee on NDDC “to investigate all issues relating to misapplication and misappropriation of funds, especially the N40bn allegedly spent under two months by the Commission and report back to the House.”
We also gathered that the committee was mandated “to conduct a comprehensive investigation into all procurements and financial transactions of the commission for this fiscal year to ascertain compliance with relevant provisions of the law and as well investigate adherence to the Act setting up the Commission, in the layoff and engagement of key management personnel.
The minister and the committee members are also expected to explain to the House the plan of the commission to ameliorate the effect of the present economic situation on the region.
Recently, there has been overabundance of petitions, commentaries and media write-ups, alleging indiscreet spending of financial resources against the current management of the Commission.
A source close to the commission also said “aside the recent allegations of financial recklessness against the commission before the House of Representatives, Akpabio’s and the committee’s travails can be traced to several protest letters and memos from contractors, stakeholders and public interest groups alleging personnel layoffs and replacement with unqualified and inexperienced persons into strategic offices in the Commission.”
The source also said the alleged layoffs and questionable replacements have been going on since the coming into office of the new members of the commission.
This is not the first time Akpabio would face allegations of financial misappropriation, corruption and other misdeeds. As a very flamboyant politician, he had been at the centre of many controversies both as a governor and as a senator.
As is the case in the present situation, his loyalists and supporters have always said his accusers are sponsored by political rivals out to pull the top political leader down.
For example, when President Muhammadu Buhari was about to constitute his cabinet in August last year and insiders revealed that Akpabio’s name had made the list of ministers, a group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) called for his arrest and investigation due to alleged corruption while he was in office as a senator. In his defence however, a media project group, De-Bongos Media Project, described the call as “mischievous and politically motivated.”
Mr. Leo Ekpenyong, the Managing Director of De-Bongos Media Project, who made the assertion in a statement in Abuja, said the call was “ill-motivated and should be totally ignored by meaningful Nigerians.”
Responding to numerous media reports and commentaries on the matter, Ekpenyong said: “It should be noted that these incessant calls and smear campaigns against Akpabio started shortly before his nomination by President Muhammadu Buhari as a Minister-designate and was amplified immediately thereafter. An in-depth but independent investigation into the false allegations of SERAP, reveals that they are not only economical with the truth, but have become an appendage and willing tool in the hands of vendetta-seeking, dubious and desperate politicians.”
It would be recalled that Akpabio first came under investigation in late 2015, following allegations that he diverted over N100bn from the oil-rich state between 2007 and 2015. He had denied the allegation. Even when the EFCC wrote letters to Zenith Bank, Keystone Bank, First City Monument Bank, Skye Bank, and United Bank for Africa demanding information on the state’s accounts, nothing came out of it, at least to the general public.
Also, it would be recalled that the anti-graft agency stretched its investigation when it approached the Accountant-General, the Auditor-General, the Speaker and the Clerk of the House of Assembly of Akwa Ibom State.
Describing it as a witch-hunt, the Akwa Ibom State Government refused to cooperate with the EFCC and instead, dragged the commission to court and obtained an interim injunction, restraining the EFCC and other Federal Government agencies from probing the finances of the Akwa Ibom State Government. However, months later, a judge lifted the injunction, paving way for full investigations on the matter. As a result, the matter was taken to the Appeal Court. Though not much is known of the outcome of the matter, an interim report by the EFCC, as at 2018, alleged that the former governor gave a bank N1.4bn for unknown reasons. That same year also, EFCC insisted that the commission had not closed case against Akpabio.
But Akpabio debunked that claim when he said he was a man of peace that had no case to answer with the EFCC, adding that the young man who petitioned him before the commission could not prove his case.
“Those petitions to the EFCC have been sorted out. As I stand today, I have not been charged to court because nothing was found against me,” Akpabio said.
When asked if Akpabio was still under probe, the EFCC spokesman, Mr Wilson Uwujaren, said then that “EFCC does not close cases or give clearance to anybody.”
It would also be recalled that few weeks after he emerged the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Akpabio was involved in another controversy when his critics accused him of usurping the statutory powers of President Muhammadu Buhari to enable him annex and have a firm control of NNDC.
This followed the allegation of N1.9 billion hyacinth contract fraud.
It was for example, alleged by some that the payment for the contract was done without raising any voucher or recourse to any “tender, due process or proper documentation.” As would be expected, that sad development pitted the minister with some top NDDC management staff and stakeholders in the region.
Up till date, some stakeholders are still concerned with the realities of the transfer of the Niger Delta Development Commission to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, a step by the Buhari administration his supporters say helped to unearth some underhand deals in the commission.
It would be recalled that at the peak of the transfer controversy, the late Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari, had, through a memo, reportedly delegated the effective control of the Commission to Akpabio. Some reports quoted a restricted memo dated 2nd of September, 2019 to the Honourable Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, where the Chief of Staff stated, “The President had delegated the powers conferred on him by Law to the Honourable Minister”. But the memo, according to reports, also quoted an initial letter written by Akpabio on August 22nd requesting that the powers of the President be transferred to him.