Last Saturday the Independent newspapers delivered to Chief Godswill Akpabio, Minister of Niger Delta Affairs an award as Minister of the Year. That white garment of honour seems to be a fitting reward for a man who has for the past several years been in the eye of a tornado. The Niger Delta Affairs Ministry which he heads supervises the Niger Delta Development Commission, a commission which had built a detestable reputation for itself for the wrong reasons. The twenty something year old Commission has been the butt of jokes, attacks, venom and vitriol for failing to actualise the mandate for which it was created. The mission of the NDDC is “to facilitate the rapid and sustainable development of the Niger Delta into a region that is economically prosperous, socially stable, ecologically regenerative and politically peaceful.” These objectives have remained largely unfulfilled because of both internal and external roadblocks, lack or loss of vision by the dramatis personae, corruption, political ineptitude, youth discontent and disruptive upheavals within the region. Because of these reasons the growth of the region has remained largely stunted, its people restive and restless and its parent, the Federal Government, has been at the receiving end of barbed shafts for the region’s backwardness. At the height of the dissatisfaction of the poor state of affairs in the region the nine Governors of the region asked the President to set up an inquiry to audit the affairs of the Commission. This request culminated in the setting up of a forensic audit which submitted its report to the President last year. At the point when the forensic audit was ordered the NDDC was like a school for scandal: thousands of unexecuted contracts, inflated contracts paid for but not executed, contracts awarded only on paper with no execution whatsoever, huge debts owed to contractors and vendors of various hues etc. Chief Godswill Akpabio had a daunting task of levelling this mountain of problems and bringing confidence back into the affairs of the region. He rose to the occasion swiftly and faced the daunting task with the ferocity of a lion. Sometime last year when the whole region seemed ready to burst into flames Akpabio braved the odds and travelled into the lion’s den meeting the King of the activists whose nickname is Tompolo and other militants right inside their dreaded habitat. Many feared for his life but Akpabio displayed exemplary courage, held meetings with them and their traditional rulers and came out with a winning smile that accompanied a winning formula. He wrestled the problem to the ground and dimmed the growing flame of discontent.
One of the major challenges that Akpabio faced was to recover some of the important projects that had stood still for decades like a mannequin. The most important one was the headquarters office of the NDDC which had remained on the drawing board for 26 years since the groundbreaking was done in 1994 by the authorities of OMPADEC, the forerunner of NDDC. For all of this time the Commission was using a rented building for which it paid a yearly rent of 300 million naira. During this period there were five Governments at the Centre and 17 Chief Executive Officers of the Commission. None of them thought it meet and proper to put the building of the Headquarters office on the front burner. Amazingly, for 15 of those years the management failed or refused to connect their building to the national grid. They were in a mood of happy vulgarity awarding fabulous contracts to diesel suppliers. Besides, since 1996 no Minister or Chief Executive of the Commission bothered to visit the site of the proposed headquarters. When the 13-storey building was eventually completed and commissioned I crowed in my column titled Now, NDDC’s face looks pretty: “The organisation that seemed to be perpetually in the eye of a tornado has turned a new leaf. There sprouted from the bowels of the marshy area of the Marine base in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, a 13-storey piece of architectural splendour that kissed the skyline of the congested oil city and smiled at anyone who gave it a smile of satisfaction at its magnificence. The beauty of the building partially compensates for the long period of its residence on the drawing board. It is owned solely and wholly, brick and roof, by the NDDC. By its armpit is a side kick, a four-storey affair, equally beautiful, meant to house a canteen, a hospital and a bank.” Since then the Commission has built a 1050 bed space hostel at the University of Uyo and donated it to the University. That facility, delayed for more than 15 years, has provision for 24,000 gallons of water per day, a 1,200 KVA standby generating set and a 500 vehicular parking space. That is a big relief for students and their parents who have had to deal with the exorbitant cost of accommodation facilities provided by shylock landlords.
Sometime last year, the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo commissioned on behalf of the President the Special Protections Unit Base six barracks in Omagwa, Rivers State built by the NDDC for the Nigeria Police Force. There is the 122 KVA electricity sub station being built in Ondo State which is to provide electricity to five local government areas that have been in darkness for 14 years. There are also nine skills acquisition centres in the nine states of the region. This will drastically improve the capacity of our youths.
Of utmost importance is the East-West road which has been on-going for years. Now the NDDC has taken over. There is every likelihood that the road will be completed before President Muhammadu Buhari’s government calls it quits in 2023. Many other uncompleted projects are being pushed feverishly in various parts of the region. This frenetic pace of work is indicative of the President’s desire and the Minister’s ambition to leave a lasting and favourable impression on the minds of Niger Deltans before their departure in 2023.
Before now development came to the region in drips and drabs. That is why the people of the region were thrown into the abyss of grief particularly when they learnt of the billions of naira being voted every year for development. When people learnt of these humongous sums of money voted for the region they always painted a canvass of possibilities and when these possibilities never came to reality they often fell into a dark feeling of being abandoned by the managers of the Commission.
Akpabio has acquitted himself creditably despite the odds. That is why the award is eminently merited. Several times activists had massed up at his office in Abuja with placards complaining of various issues. At the NDDC office in Port Harcourt demonstrators have also appeared from time to time, ventilating their grievances with placards. Chief Akpabio has also been carpeted on social and mainstream media for all sorts of problems in the NDDC. He has remained unfazed and has continued to focus on his assignment like a lazer beam.
The problems of the NDDC, especially problems of corruption and unaccountable governance cannot be solved overnight. The hope is that with the forensic audit completed it will be possible to detect the loopholes and block them. It will also be possible to build a management template that will put in the shade most of the problems that hobbled the Commission.
On one of the occasions that Chief Akpabio spoke to the staff of NDDC in the former head office of the Commission he had said: “When I enter a place I must leave the place better than I met it.” For the NDDC he has moulded the blocks; he is laying the blocks and it is obvious that by the time he leaves, the edifice will wear a new and pleasant look. It will no longer be the gratuitous piece of irritation that it has been for many years. It will no longer be a place where people think of as the equivalent of putting money down the rathole. It will no longer be a place where people wrestle with sorrow everyday. If it becomes a place that people speak of with chin-jutting pride, it will be largely because Akpabio approached his job with the messianic zeal of a new convert.