Credibility is a bullish virtue. It holds sway in of forthrightness that brooks no compromise by way of imputations of ulterior motivation. Where such imputations are made and they find legitimate grounds to stick, no matter how tenuous, credibility gets mortally dented and pitched in existential battle for resonation with its audience. Ultimately, it may never win.
By Kayode Robert Idowu
The National Assembly (NASS) is at the moment locked in credibility battle with the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) under the watch of Niger Delta Affairs Minister Godswill Akpabio. At the last count, it wasn’t faring too well with getting the upper hand. The legislature has been searchlighting the intervention agency to expose a sleazefest that has made it incapable of attaining its founding objective of redressing acute degradation of the region – the golden goose where Nigeria derives nearly all of its sustenance. The consistent tack of both Minister Akpabio and NDDC’s Interim Management Committee (IMC), however, has been to question the motivation of NASS. As it seems, the genie of doubt is out of the bottle, leaving the legislature in credibility deficit. Though it is fighting hard to regain a foothold on credibility, it’s been a tough call.
Akpabio, himself a former lawmaker, had penultimate week rubbed the doubt balm in the face of NASS by alleging its members were awardees of NDDC contracts. During an appearance before House of Representatives Committee on the NDDC, he told the lawmakers that the biggest beneficiaries of the agency’s contracts were “you people.” Earlier, before his theatrical fainting fit before same panel, NDDC Acting Managing Director Daniel Pondei had alleged ulterior motivations on the part of members – particularly citing panel chairman Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo as an interested party and demanding he recuse himself. When Akpabio spoke, it was to similar if less adversarial effect. The minister’s allegation expectedly riled the lawmakers, who demanded swift substantiation. House of Representatives Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila gave him a 48-hour ultimatum to provide details of NASS members who got NDDC contracts. At the expiration of that ultimatum, he signalled plans to drag Akpabio to court, saying he had asked the House clerk to “engage the services of legal counsel and instruct them to initiate a criminal complaint of perjury against the minister.” He also mentioned that the possibility of a civil defamation suit was being explored.
Later same day at House plenary, the Speaker read out a letter from Akpabio in which the minister denied having alleged that 60 percent of NDDC contracts were awarded to lawmakers. “I never referred to members of the 9th House of Representatives as beneficiaries of NDDC contracts as the NDDC is yet to fully implement any NDDC budget since the commencement of the 9th National Assembly,” the minister said, adding that as former minority leader of the 8th Senate, he held the ideals of NASS and would not “make the entire document public which I got from the lead forensic auditor in confidence.” At that plenary, Mr. Speaker stressed the point that the minister’s new stance amounted to a recant. The curious part was: he did not disclose there was an annexure to Akpabio’s correspondence by which the minister proffered names of serving and former lawmakers connected with some NDDC projects – never mind the relevance or otherwise of that connection. It was like the annexure never existed.
But since there was a credibility battle at issue, it didn’t take long for the said annexure to get in the public domain anyhow. A group named the National Youth Council of Nigeria made it available to journalists in Abuja, saying it was sourced from NASS and explaining that Akpabio held back from making it public himself because he obtained it in confidence from NDDC forensic auditors. If you asked me though, I would tell you assuredly that document was not obtained from NASS; it was Akpabio’s camp that leaked it upon perceiving reluctance on the part of the House to make total disclosure of the minister’s correspondence.
In the annexure, Akpabio named Peter Nwabaoshi, senator representing Delta North senatorial district and chair of Senate Committee on the Niger Delta in connection with 53 projects; Matthew Urhoghide, senator representing Edo South (six projects); James Manager, senator representing Delta South (six); and Samuel Anyanwu, former senator who represented Imo East in the 8th Senate (19). Others include Nicholas Mutu, representing Bomadi/Patani federal constituency in the House of Representatives and former chair of the House panel on NDDC (74 projects); and others in connection with those the minister identified simply as Ondo and Edo representatives. Regarding NDDC’s 2019 budget, Akpabio in his letter cited Rep. Tunji-Ojo as having allegedly insisted that the IMC pay for 19 old contracts amounting to about N9billion before the year’s budget details would be released to the agency.
What was the nature of named lawmakers’ connection to projects credited to them? The minister didn’t clarify. But he sufficiently shifted the onus of credibility to put NASS on the spot. All named NASSists denied they were NDDC contractors, saying the most that could link them with identified projects was that they lobbied for locating these in their respective constituency as part of their representation functions, not that they were executors of the projects. Nwabaoshi described the contracts claim as an attempt to deflect attention from demand on NDDC and its leadership to give account of how the agency spent N81.5billion within five months. The narrative was more pointedly articulated by Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions chairman, Senator Ayo Akinyelure, who said: “Senators (by extension, also Reps) are representatives of the people in the legislature and we have the power of appropriation. Projects allocated to us are put in the various ministries and agencies of government where they can be fully executed. Those of us from the Niger Delta region can lobby for some projects to be put in their various constituencies. That does not mean the money for execution was given to (them).”
For his part, House NDDC panel chair Tunji-Ojo denied insisting on NDDC paying contractors for 19 old projects, saying even though it was nothing illegal if he did, “I never made such request and I have challenged them to bring evidence that I told them to do that.”
The House of Reps corporately has since rebuffed Akpabio’s correspondence as falling short its demand for a list of current lawmaker-awardees of NDDC contracts. Spokesman Benjamin Kalu, in a statement last week, said what the minister provided was “an ineffectual spreadsheet of only 266 projects out of which about 20 projects were attracted by past members of the National Assembly as constituency projects, not as contractors, but in furtherance of their representative mandate.” He argued inter alia that the annexure had “no relevance to what was requested from the minister because it was outside the scope of his claims…The House is mindful of a letter currently before it where the minister also applied to attract several projects to his senatorial zone during his time at the Senate, does it mean the contracts were awarded to him?”
NASS is plying a strong and, in my view, valid case of graft against NDDC under Akpabio’s watch while the agency is throwing nails to punch holes in its credibility. The contending narratives thus far are stalemated. There is no question, though, that NDDC grossly fails the accountability test: it is neck-deep in sleaze and ruinously so for the region it was created to serve. Only it won’t be NASS that will give the evident verdict because its credibility is fatally flawed. While we wait to see if the touted forensic audit delivers results, a lesson to learn is that powers, even when statutory, must be prudently exercised. The legislature’s power of appropriation is often exploited to lobby for constituency projects in budgets, but that now poses the death bed of its oversight authority on NDDC. He who comes to equity, as they say, must come with clean hands.
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