Yesterday, we brought you the first part of this interview with Onyema Ugochukwu, accomplished journalist, former Managing Director of the Times Group, economist and now Chairman, Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, who was a guest of Vanguard last Monday, September 22. Today we bring the concluding part of the interview.
Some people have expressed fears that there is the risk of duplication of projects between the Commission and the oil companies, what are you doing to harmonise such risks?
In terms of duplication of projects especially in Akwa Ibom, when I talked about the Ibeno road, you will find that some people wrote protest letters about us building that road. They didnít want that road to be built because the people in Ibeno go through their area whenever they want to come out and some people thought that this will give these people a new freedom that will make them independent of them and the Ibeno people themselves have also reacted. They have written to the President and the Governor to express their appreciation about what has been done for them. The issue in Ibeno, regarding the road itself, the Akwa Ibom State government itself encouraged us to start this road because of the impact it is going to have. Since we awarded it we have had a meeting with the executive governor and he came to commend the NDDC for undertaking this road. But the only request he made at the time was that we should shift a bit of it because the state government wants to build a university in that area and he didnít want the road to cut through it. The consultants are currently looking at it. We try to match what the state government is doing and that which the oil companies are doing. But these roads are in places where nobody has built a road before over the decades. There have been proposals in the past to build roads but they never take-off. Building in that area is somewhat expensive, maybe that is what has discouraged others from going ahead to build in the past. But we are committed to doing it and we are doing it inspite of the cost because we know that it is in the interest of the people to have such facilities because it would lead to an improved life.
Mobil had in fact disclosed that they discovered that your commission was embarking on the construction of projects they were already working on, so the question is how do you plan to harmonise this?
We have been meeting with the oil companies on a quarterly basis to harmonise our activities . We have also set up a working group that meets more frequently than quarterly to harmonise activities. We advise the oil companies to let us have their own plans for these areas. Donít forget that the NDDC has a monitoring role in respect of activities of other development agencies in the Niger Delta area. Weíve also asked them to suggest what they think we should be doing in their areas of operations. We have received all these papers and we will try and accommodate those we can in our project. There have been attempts by some companies to claim credit for projects done by the NDDC. People make a proposal, I am going to build a road for you, they put it in a budget and they roll it over, every year, it never gets built and when somebody does it , then the original proposer says I was going to build that road. To the beneficiary, what is important is receiving the service that has been promised .
We expect that by now large donor agencies from Europe would have started working hand in glove with the NDDC to develop the area but that does not appear to be happening. What has been responsible for this?
This is an important area that has not received adequate attention from us but we are refocusing on partnering. So far we Ďve had partnerships with the UNDP, with the FAO. With the FAO for instance we have an agricultural programme that will cover the nine states. The FAO is bringing in $15 million and in order to bring in that money they needed government or a counterpart agency to pay another $15million and we have committed to pay this amount. What this project will then bring will be in the region of $80 million in agricultural development for the area. This is the kind of partnership which one looks for. We are also in a project with the Federal Government and the Cassava programme. You know about the Cassava mosaic which could wipe out our entire cassava crop if it isnít checked . The NDDC is paying 20 per cent of the $16.5 million dollars required for that project and the Federal Government is contributing, the state governments will contribute about 12 per cent each and the IITA is bringing in its own. We have had talks with the World Bank for a long time. During negotiations the first funding we were to get from them did not go through because for you to get money in the government you have to pass it through the ministry of finance and the economic planning commission.
How transparent is the NDDC? Have the accounts of the commission been audited since it commenced operations?
We have a very strict financial guideline prepared for us by KPMG. We try to follow it. In any case that was why we were able to detect what was going on in the case involving the MD - our financial guidelines are very strict. Under this procedure, we try to pay contractors through banks, not by cheque, to reduce the blackmail that could arise from mixing files and so on. We insist that all our contractors must have an account. They must provide a bank guarantee for any money we pay to them. We also involve the banks in monitoring the projects. Initially we restricted it to their being involved up to the amount paid as advance payment. But now we thought it was better to let them monitor the implementation of projects to completion level . So it is not just us alone monitoring the contracts, the banks have a stake. Because if the job is not done we recover our money from them. In spite of our very strict procedures, there may be things that go wrong. Considering that we operate in nine states, we have nine state offices and it is not unlikely that there will be leakages and things like that. But what we try to do with the first set of contracts we awarded was to run it through the state offices so that the people, the indigenes of the area will be involved in the execution of the contract. I do get a lot of petition from people who claim that either the NDDC officials or government has awarded the contract to themselves or their relatives. I am not ruling out the possibility that this has occurred in some cases. But again the great majority of projects, I think up to 80, 90 per cent, people who were not related to directors and staff got the jobs. I make bold to say that because I have checked and it is not always that you can find out when something has gone wrong but we insist on publishing every now and then all the projects that we are doing, their location, the local government, the name of the contractor, the address of the contractor, stage of completion so that if there is anything untoward, people can draw our attention to it.
Our accounts for 2001 was audited and the report submitted to the National Assembly through Mr. President. The second audited report is ready and is awaiting onward submission to the National Assembly through Mr. President.
Is it possible that some of your staff have pocketed interest which accrue to the commissionís money deposited with the banks?
If you hear stories of anybody pocketing interest, do not believe it, our system is computerised. And the NDDC, by the way, is the most monitored organisation in this country: We are monitored by the presidency, there is a minister of special duties now who supervises the monitoring committee, made up of outside consultants and they have access to our books, they can come any time and look at these books. We have the Senate Committee on the Niger Delta that monitors us, the House Committee on the Niger Delta, they monitor us, they have access to our books and they can check. If Federal Government is paying money they pay through the Central Bank and you can not take that money and deposit it in a bank to earn an interest. You can only take the money out for projects . We have a policy of committing 100 per cent on any project that we start. We have that policy because when people talk of OMPADEC having failed, and that infact why projects are not completed in this country, why there is a large number of abandoned projects, it is because people start projects that they donít have funds for and along the way they can not continue. So we waste our national resources scattered all over in abandoned projects and we said we were going to avoid that . When we then provided 100 per cent funding for this project, we deposit this in the bank that has issued a guarantee with contractor and we make the bank pay an interest on it. Our audited account has also been reviewed by the Public Accounts Commission and the Senate. Our 2002 accounts are ready. We had a finalisation meeting with auditors (KPMG) last week and we should be forwarding it through Mr. President to the National Assembly. We havenít completed three years.
Some of the governors have complained that the commission does not carry it along in the implementation of projects in their states, how do you react to this? How forthcoming have the oil companies been with payment of their three per cent contribution?
The oil companies are not paying the full amount they should pay, that is the truth. They argue that an annual budget is a proposal, you do not always fulfil all of it. You may have a budget of N10 and you may only be able to perform only N8 in a year. And so they want to pay on the basis on their operating budget, what they are able to do, which means that should be lower than the total annual budget. Although in one case it has actually been higher. They also insist on deducting monies they claim to have spent on community development efforts. They also want to deduct amount they have paid as gas flaring penalty. We did not agree of course with the deductions. We have been holding meetings with them although it hasnít produced a solution. First of all you can not allow a company that is being penalised for creating an environmental problem to compensate itself by taking money from the agency that should remediate some of those consequences. We have been very careful bearing in mind the volatile nature of some of the areas we have been working and we have been anxious not to provoke violence like the oil companies. But we need to get this money. Mr. President is looking into it and I believe he will soon call a meeting between the oil companies and ourselves to resolve this issue.
In respect of state governments, my own belief that we do have a good relationship with the governors, we inform them about what we do. You know that there are state representatives on the board of the commission who are fully involved in the decisions that affect their states and I have always encouraged them to go back and brief their governors at every stage and I believe they do that.
But sometimes, for political reasons, people want to make comments about things that are not really the situation. Weíve had governors who say they do not see anything the NDDC is doing and the same governors have seen these projects and have said the NDDC is doing wonderfully well. So from time to time, people for their own reasons will want to make adverse comments but I think that is perfectly natural.
If involvement means that the NDDC will hand over its project for implementation by the state governors or the state government I think that is an unfair demand to make . Yes we involve them but they do not implement our projects. Some governors had wanted us, when we come up with our projects, to bring the list so that they tell us the contractors and that is not why we are there. We work for the commission which is under the presidency, and while we are seeking to include everybody - including everybody - we do not intend to surrender the mandate given to us but people donít seem to like that.
You had said that the commission is going to embark on the rehabilitation of the East-West road, but today it is sad that the road is still in a deplorable state of disrepair. What is your reaction to this development?
On the issue of the East-West road, I can assure you that recently we had to go to Warri from Port Harcourt and we left by 6:30 in the morning before 9am we were there. That obviously shows that the road is motorable. Anybody who has used that road in the past will agree with me that the road is in a better shape than it has ever been. You know what happens to that road during the rainy season or at this time of the year, they get washed up. This road has remained motorable during this period and the contractors, now that the dry season is on, are going back to work on some portion of the road. In Bayelsa there are two bridges, one has caved-in near Mbiama, the bridge across the Sobreiro. We have asked Julius Berger to go and work on it and this wasnít part of the original contract. We had insisted on using Julius Berger to do this job which by their standard was a small contract. They are going to handle it because at the same time we were also pushing for the dualisation of that road. After meetings between the President, the then Minister of Works and I, it was initially agreed that the NDDC should undertake the design of the road and it was agreed in principle that Julius Berger will be given chance to make a quotation provided it was competitive with other quotations, that was why they got the job . But we were using the best to work on that road. We are continuing with the maintenance until the dualisation project. Unfortunately, we are not doing the design, the Federal Ministry of Works is the one handling that and for some reasons the job has been delayed.
The criteria for the determining of payment or citing of projects in the communities favour those communities which produce more crude oil. But there are communities which used to produce much of the oil and their wells have dried up. These communities are now arguing that the commission should adopt a more encompassing policy to take care of their interest since their wealth had been used to develop the other parts of the country. What is your opinion on that?
You see we operate under a law which requires us to pay attention to the oil production level of every state. The figures we have to use are those provided by the presidential advisory committee which are fairly current and so we have to act with what we have. In the beginning we were conscious that we were a regional development commission and we believe that every local government within that region should have our attention. While the oil producing communities should get the lion share, nobody should be left out entirely and so we have a formula for allocating project funds to each state which provides 20 per cent to equality of states and that is to ensure that nobody starts complaining, there is another 60 per cent to oil production, 10 per cent to pipeline crossing the area, even if you are not oil producing and you have pipeline crossing your area, sometimes you suffer pollution or damages and so on, and another 10 per cent for capped wells and other oil activities. So we try to give the lion share to oil producers but we make sure that the others get something. Even within the state there is a formula that acknowledges everybody in that area.
There is a bill in the National Assembly for the amendment of the NDDC law, it would be nice to know what input the commission is making?
The NDDC amendment bill has actually been withdrawn by Mr. President following the suggestions made by stakeholders in the area.