RE-VISIONING TO TRANSFORM THE NIGER DELTA
It is time NDDC moved from retail welfare to wholesale development of the Niger Delta, writes INIRUO WILLS
A new governing board was sworn in for the Niger Delta Development Commission on the 16th of November last year, with Chiedu Ebie, a former Secretary to the Delta State Government, as Chairman and Samuel Ogbuku, an erstwhile Chief of Staff to the (then) Governor of Bayelsa State as Managing Director. Also in the board as executive director in charge of Finance, amongst other experienced members, is a former Commissioner in the Government of Rivers State, Boma Iyaye. Between the new helmsmen, thanks to their previous assignments, it is fair to assume the board is possessed of considerable understanding of the Niger Delta which has for the longest time been the poster region for the paradox of poverty amidst plenty, and that they can also boast a mix of insights on how to solve the sad riddle of the Delta.
With projections ranging between 30 and 40 million people and state governments historically performing below par, the development trajectory of the coastal region may turn more on the vision and vim that can be brought on board by the fresh team, at least in the foreseeable medium term. Yet, the Ebie/Ogbuku Board inherits an underwhelming institutional structure and an unflattering brand that must be radically revamped to fulfill purpose.
As a presidential candidate for the 1999 general elections, Olusegun Obasanjo’s straightforward answer when asked what he would do about the then raging Niger Delta crisis could be paraphrased thus: the people of the Niger Delta are demanding development and justice. I will give them development and justice. Upon assuming office as President months later, the bill to establish NDDC in place of the comatose OMPADEC (Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission) which had failed spectacularly to deliver on its promise, was one of the first two bills he sent to the National Assembly to pass into law. The resultant NDDC was President Obasanjo’s silver bullet for ‘giving development’ to the region, hence the omnibus scope of functions that form its statutory mandate.
Despite daunting challenges that robbed the Commission of a near perfect start, it recorded a considerable project footprint, quantitatively, especially in its earlier years. Due to the widespread misery index and vivid lack of the most rudimentary social amenities in member states, the agency started out with a welter of small quick impact projects (QIPs), while keeping an eye on the long term by initiating a master planning process.
QIPs ranged from basic stuff like mobile free medical services that relieved thousands of rural folks of years-long ailments, hundreds of classroom blocks that moved pupils from learning under trees into classrooms, electricity step down transformers, community internal roads, and commuter buses and boats to kickstart micro enterprises through cooperatives. Lately, the agency has been lighting up numerous communities with solar power installations.
Loftier projects included infrastructure like the Ogbia-Nembe Road that part-connected some of Nigeria’s highest oil producing and the Delta’s typical island communities with mainland Nigeria for the first time, in some cases after 60 years of colonial-era conception of the road.
Still, NDDC should translate to a clearer special advantage as the first institutional coordinator of regional development in contemporary Nigeria. It was understandably expected to give its catchment region a discernible head start, comparative to other regions, within six to 10 years of its advent at the turn of the millennium. A whole 23 years afterwards, there is a compelling quest to evaluate progress and net impact relative to the funds and tools it has been handed, and then to rediscover, reimagine and re-vision the agency towards instigating a historic transformation.
The public perception is that the Commission has been stuck more in retail projects with incremental social dividends than with a regionally transformative vision, besides other lethal shortcomings. Illustratively, the Niger Delta Regional Development Masterplan that it eventually produced came unstuck, dumped into oblivion by successive managements of NDDC. It is time to pivot from retail welfare to wholesale development.
To proceed on this next phase, NDDC needs to adopt an internal no-excuses strict-liability posture where it “accepts” substantial responsibility for the apparent development deficit or human (in)security profile of the Delta and introspects deeply on the region’s evolution since the body’s arrival: across competitive literacy and skills, infrastructure, security, ecology, poverty, peace building, tangible hope, the creative economy and other thematic lines. This entails a corporate re-psyching that says to the man in the mirror: if we had delivered on our wide and nuanced mandate, maybe there would have been no need for some of the other Niger Delta-focused interventions like the Presidential Amnesty Programme and even the anomalous setup of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP, a.k.a. Ogoni Cleanup), as we would have done the job ahead.
But there have always been serious external constraints too: epileptic funding, excessive political interferences (causing top management to be in Abuja almost every week), a labyrinthine network of pipes by which influential National Assembly members have steadily sucked contracts and funds from the Commission, and other distractions. With resolve and imagination, these can all be managed and minimized.
To start with, NDDC can begin winding down its public persona as a dispensary for contracts. Ironically, it is by so re-imaging itself that it can create ultimately multiples of the number of contracts it has dished out thus far – but not always directly. It is doubtful that contractocracy, especially in the direct dishing style prevalent in Nigeria, has ever been a successful exclusive model for developing any society. The Commission needs to start running as a proper development agency whose main capital consists of the tools for ideation, sustainable development planning, systemic capacity building, efficient execution, and catalytic coordination for regional transformation, facilitated by ample financial flows and the crucial support of a broad spectrum of local and international partners.
Some of the big themes to put a laser focus on would be to serve as an enabler or fission for massive job creation and enterprise support, to co-lead an infrastructure revolution, to co-resolve the environmental ravage that inherently inhibits the region’s potential to come into any reckoning, to tactically synergize on peace building on a healing scale, and to set itself as a benchmark for development best practices and innovation. The new board will earn the Commission an acquittal and itself a legacy if it sustains this pathway through its term.
A positive signal in this direction would be to review with partners (member state governments, the BRACED (Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo and Delta) Commission, big donors and development funders, credible CSOs and community reps, etc) NDDC’s project selection and social appraisal templates, if any. Making them publicly accessible and interactive, and adhering to them in crafting and implementing budgets will win the agency vital social licence.
Another indispensable move would be to commission a fresh Regional Sustainable Development Masterplan that is truly multi-stakeholder driven, co-sponsored by a wide pack of partners and legally entrenched by way of both national and state legislation.
Urgently required also for enacting a new dawn is an amendment of the NDDC Act to allow the Commission breath some and focus more on the region than on Abuja, enhance its funding, instil better corporate governance, and accentuate its ecological mandate.
NDDC should be a darling partner of DFIs (development finance institutions), the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission, the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) and their likes. That it is not yet so is a big question mark that requires addressing. Committing to allocate at least 30% of its capital budget to collaborative projects that will adhere to agreed project preparation and governance principles will guarantee a successful paradigm shift in this sphere. The Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board has a similar framework by which it partners private capital to co-create projects that can deepen domestication of the petroleum industry.
Besides the mega funding pools it will thereby stimulate, the body can also spawn an infrastructure concession/PPP wave via a rapid multi-year regional capacity building phase in all round PPP preparedness. There is a surfeit of continental and global infrastructure preparation platforms that will be handy here. But the necessary skills, institutional mentality and behaviour modification have to be instilled into and diffused across relevant echelons of both the agency and the region for the deployment of appropriate infrastructure financing tools on a multiplier scale. It must be possible, as part of the reskilling/upskilling and deal making agenda, to draw the African Development Bank to host in Port Harcourt or thereabouts a biennial mini edition of the Africa Infrastructure Investment Summit which it initially domiciled in Johannesburg. Especially with the visionary boldness of its current President, Akinwumi Adesina.
A regional joint economic intelligence unit, perhaps domiciled with BRACED Commission but with partner-wide support and resourcing, can serve as a brain box for the area and make regional economic integration feasible.
One big bang begging NDDC to happen is an ambitious partnership with the Rivers State Government and institutional investors to give the region a mega city by way of actualizing the stalled Greater Port Harcourt City vision. That could also be a grand opportunity to explore a green (sustainability) review of the proposed city’s design to introduce and test some urban renewable energy and circular economy concepts that may have taken root elsewhere, e.g. in (mass) transit and waste management. Again, combined with other conducing factors, it could be a prime demonstration candidate for climate financing.
There is much to do, both in little steps and in big leaps. Either way, the overall reNEWed vision for NDDC and the Niger Delta region must be refreshing, bold and exponential. NDDC & Partners can and should be the game changer in the Delta.
Wills is a lawyer and governance advisor, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org