Mr Nsima Udo Ekere, the Managing Director, Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), has been in the saddle for some time now in the agency created by the Federal Government to address the concern of people of the oil-producing communities. Ekere, who is former deputy governor of Akwa-Ibom State, speaks on the various challenges at NDDC and how far he has gone to accomplish his vision and mission for the agency since he took over, in this interview with some journalists. BOLA BADMUS brings these excerpts:
How has it been being at the helm of affairs at the NDDC?
Very challenging, very engaging, but also very interesting. It (NDDC) is well intentioned by government to help the region deal with some of the effects of exploration of hydrocarbon. So, it is a very good platform that could adequately address the challenges of development of the Niger Delta. And it has actually been doing that. Could it have done more? Probably. The greatest challenge I would say we have been facing is the overtrading that the NDDC has been involved in. Before we came in, the balance sheet of the commission was overbloated. It was so huge. We have contingent liabilities.
Infact, the last auditor’s report for last year; we used to say it was N1.3 trillion but it took it to N1.7 trillion contingent of liabilities. Of course, in the course of last year, we had to terminate some non-performing projects in two tranches. The first tranch was about 624 projects, the second one was over 400 projects. And the first one we terminated was worth about 200 billion. We have been able to remove those from our balance sheet. So, we have actually been able to reduce the balance sheet now by about N300 billion, which is one of the four tranches that we articulated as our reform agenda when we came on board.
We called them The 4Rs. It was brought to restructure the balance sheet of NDDC because it was so huge and part of that is to reduce the number of new commitments, that is new liabilities we create. That is why we dedicated 70 per cent of our budget to ongoing projects so that we can try and complete them, and only 30 per cent is for overheads and new projects. And that is deliberate, because there is no point creating new liabilities for the commission when probably there is no money.
The second R, talking about the reform agenda that we came with, is to restructure the governance system of NDDC. We want NNDC to be known as an organisation that respects laws, respects government policies and follow due process in whatever we do. Before now, virtually anything could happen in NDDC. That is why we said we must improve the governance system and bring in technology to run things there. The third plank of the reform agenda was to restore the commission back to its core mandate and get NDDC to concentrate on projects that will lead to regional integration, build a regional economy, and stop competing with local governments. That is why for the first time, you will see that we have started doing projects in collaboration with state governments. Some weeks back we were in Ondo State where we flagged off the construction of a 51 kilometre road from Araromi side to Lagos. It is a collaboration with the state government. We also have another collaboration with Edo State government. We also have collaboration with Shell to do the Oria-Nembe road. It’s a new way of thinking in the NDDC.
The fourth is to generally rededicate ourselves to what is good at all time. To let everybody rededicate himself or herself to doing things right for the good of the commission and the region. I am pleased to announce that we have gotten some positive results.
Are we where we want to be? I will say no. It’s still work in progress. A lot of work still has to be done. My prayers are that subsequent administrations in NDDC will see the need to continue with the reforms anytime that we leave.
What will you say are the greatest challenge at NDDC?
The greatest challenge, to us as a management, I will say is the attitude of the people. There is this sense of entitlement. They (people) have been spoilt for so long, so they are used to getting things done in a particular way and getting certain kinds of gratifications.
Right now, they may not get what they are used to getting. In fact, about two weeks ago, I got a threat from some groups. First of all, they went online in the media and posted something, like ‘This is the worst management of NDDC ever’ and they were calling on the president to dissolve the board and set up a new one.
A friend of mine decided to call them and they said, ‘He (me) is supposed to give us some things but we never get them.’ So, I said they should talk to them to find out what they need and at the end of the day, we found out they wanted money. And how do you take government money and handover to someone just because they have gone to the internet and said things about you? The day you pay him the next day another group will go and do the same thing. So, the attitude is one of the greatest problems that we have faced and we are hoping we will keep working on their attitude.
Do you usually have interactive sessions with the people in determining the kinds of projects you site in specific places?
We decided to adopt the bottom up approach in project conceptualisation. We gather all kinds of representations from the communities. They write letters demanding projects, but we made up our mind that we must work in collaboration with the state governments. Before now we had a situation where there were lots of conflicts with the state governments. You’re doing a road here and the state is also doing a road in the same place, you’re doing a water project, you will discover the chairman of local government is also trying to do a borehole in the same place.
So, what we did was, we set up States Project Committees for the nine states of the region. They also serve as the budget committees, so the state representatives on the board of NDDC chair those committees. So we tell them, go to your states, engage with the state governments and agree, from all of the requests coming in from different communities, on which projects NDDC should take on board. That is how we get the projects that we input into our budget and send to the National Assembly. So, we don’t just sit down at the head office and choose projects.
Of course, I can’t say there wouldn’t be political interference in terms of project locations. Some input from the political class came in, particularly from the National Assembly, because when you send in budget proposals, the budget belongs to the National Assembly. Whatever they return to you is the budget. And so, some of the projects you see there are not the projects we suggested. So that is where the political interference comes in. So, you end up doing projects that are not necessarily within your vision, but as management we have a vision, but because of things like this you end doing things you originally didn’t envision doing.
Is funding also part of your challenges?
It is a very huge challenge. I have a friend who was MD of NDDC sometimes ago. When he took over, he met a balance of N130 billion. That was what he used to start work. When we came, we met about N2 billion. Meanwhile, the salary bill of NDDC in a month is over N800 million. By the time we paid the first salary the thing dropped.
So, we can’t really do anything but we have been working with the oil companies to get their contribution to the NDDC fund and also the Federal Government contribution too has been coming in. There is a huge deficit in terms of what we get and what we are supposed to get from the Federal Government cumulatively. Over the years, we have a deficit of almost N1.8 trillion, that’s the debt that the FG is owing NDDC from inception till date.
How do you go about retrieving such fund?
We have engaged the Federal Government. We wrote to the president. Fortunately, we got the sympathy of the president. He directed that the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Budget and Planning should sit down with NDDC, do a reconciliation, agree on the exact amount that the shortfall has become cumulatively over the years and then agree on an acceptable payment plan so that the money can be paid to us.
Unfortunately, I will say we are not getting the kind of support we expected from the Ministry of Finance because till date, we are on it but we haven’t agreed on anything yet. Let me tell you the truth, we are hoping and putting pressure on them to try.
Most of the fundings we have used have been from the oil companies.
Most of them are paying. Of course, there are still some that are outstanding. But the Senate and House of Representatives have been outstanding in helping us retrieve the money.
People are complaining that NDDC is doing more in infrastructural development and not doing much in the area of poverty reduction among the people. How do you react to that?
Let me say I share the concern you raised. We believe it is good to build infrastructure, but it is very necessary to build human capital as well. NDDC, over the years, have done a lot of capacity training; specialised training, skills and acquisition training in different areas. The last time we graduated some people that we trained on home finishing skills, I think that brought the total to almost 23,100, the number of people we trained in different skills, ranging from like the home finishing skills that we did. We trained people on welding, catering, agricultural and all kinds of skills. But when I came, I discovered that one of the challenges that we had is that there are these boys that usually stay at the gate of the NDDC and some of them have been there for 15 years and they are still there. We discovered that even some of them have been beneficiaries of some of the training that NDDC had done over the years. They get involved in the training and received starter packs at the end of the training for the trainees to use to go and start a trade or life basically. But these people will go for the training, collect the starter packs and sell it and go back to the gate. That is what has been happening. So, I believe that we must look for sustainable development model that would keep our people permanently involved and engaged for a sustainable period of time.
And that is why we thought of the Enterprise hub. We are doing two things right now. We first of all in partnership with a bank, set up N5 billion export oriented agricultural scheme. The idea is to help farmers in the region in their agricultural value chain targeted specifically at export from shipping, fishing and even cassava. We will help people depending on various states and areas that have comparative advantages at certain products. So, we identified those products and we are now working together with the bank to help them, fund them and mentor them so that the products that come out will be exported. That is one of the programmes that we are working on.
Secondly, we are also partnering with Small and Medium Scale Enterprise Development Agencies of Nigeria (SMEDAN) in setting up an enterprise hub. SMEDAN has what they called Industrial Development Centres (IDCs) all over the country.
It was set up in the 70s and then we discovered that in the Niger Delta region, they have about five or six IDCs that are not functioning. So, in partnership with SMEDAN, that is specialised in helping small and medium scales enterprises to come up, we are setting up now the pilot scheme. The first one is in Akwa Ibom State in partnership with a private sector organisation, BHIIP business hubs incubation centres will be setting up the first enterprise hub for new businesses and start up. The advantage and the difference between this and the normal training that we used to give is that in normal training, you just trained people and at the end we give them starter packs and tell them to go. But with the hub, the people that you trained are empowered and you actually keep them within the hub, so that you can mentor them and supervise them and make sure that the businesses stand and do very well. It is only after the businesses stand two, three, four years that you see that they are standing and employing people and the guys have really mastered it; that is when you can now gradually take them out of the hub centres to the outer world. I am very passionate and enthusiastic that this particular hub will help the region.
But has it taken off?
We signed the MoU in November with SMEDAN and the private sector people and then in February, we signed the agreement with them for the hub to take off. We are also doing something specially for the disable people. Over 200 persons with disabilities will be trained in the next few weeks in different skills. We believe that one of the things to make training succeed is monitoring. You must monitor the trainees; close monitoring of the trainees so that it will actually work and so that people will not just collect the starters pack and go and sell them. So, these are some of the things that we are doing to build human capacity so that it will not just be about building roads, bridges and boreholes. We are also helping the people to build sustainable livelihood for themselves and to grow the economy of the region in a sustainable way.
Could the problem in the region have been because the youth see their leaders living large from proceeds of oil and believe that they too must have their own share?
It will help you to better appreciate what we go through. I will tell you what it is. People grew up seeing that resources that is been used to sustain the national economy is coming from their backyards. They just feel that this oil is our own. They need a serious reorientation.
But the notion seems to be rampant among the men because the women are more hardworking.
It is not about men alone; we also have female agitators. I have heard of female Generals. You will hear somebody saying I am ‘General School Boy’ or ‘General Gold;’ all of them are ‘Generals,’ you won’t see a ‘Colonel.’ They will say they are ex-agitators. But relatively, it is among the young men.
What is the balance sheet like now?
I am sure it would even be less than that now because since we came in, we have paid some contractors. If you recalled under the Federal Government’s new initiative for the Niger Delta, which Mr. President launched and the Vice President is chairing the inter-ministerial committee, one of the first directives that was handed over was that all contractors should go back to work; so a lot of our contractors went back to work. And so, we have been able to pay a lot of contractors. So, I am sure by the time the account of last year will come out, the amount will drop. But what that has done for us positively is that in last year alone, we were able to complete about 371 projects within one year. It is a record; it never happened in NDDC to complete that number of projects within a year.
Are they capital intensive projects?
A mix-grill of everything; roads, bridges, solar and other projects. They are the kind of projects that NDDC does.
Is it true that NDDC don’t pay contractors mobilisation fee again?
Yes. I inherited that policy and I decided to keep it not to pay mobilisation to any contractor. We pay on milestone. As contractors work and raise Interim Payment Certificate (IPC), that is when we pay them. So by that way, what used to happen before when contractors will collect money and go away has stopped. You know one of the problems of NDDC then is that they say contractors collect money and run away; that has stopped in NDDC. We stopped it because we don’t give anybody mobilisation and that way you know that you are dealing with credible contractors who have capacity. Before they used to pay mobilisation sometime 20 or 30 per cent and a contractor will just collect that mobilisation; look at the entire project and say even if he finishes, what percentage profit will he make; maybe 30 per cent. He will just abandon it and take the money and go and make his money upfront.
So, this policy of actually stopping advanced payment has helped to sanitise our projects; so you don’t have contractors collecting government money and abandoning sites, this helped us first of all to ensure that we are dealing with credible contractors.
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