Storm Akpabio

Politics has its limitations, and there is a limit to which class interest gets the better of public interest. That seems what we are getting to see in the ruckus attending ongoing investigations of financial misdealings by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

National Assembly (NASS) members have a tradition of looking out for and cushioning one of their own, sometimes to the point of affronting public sensibilities which may have preferred dispassionate scrutiny and rigorous interrogation of the subject at hand.

That is where the convention of ‘take a bow’ during confirmation hearings on presidential nominees comes from, especially where such nominee is a former NASSist like those conducting the confirmation hearing.

Same courtesy tends to get extended to ex-NASSists who have occasion to appear before assembly plenaries or committees on any account. They typically get handled with padded knuckles, even if rough-handled.

Although Niger Delta Affairs Minister Godswill Akpabio is a former NASSist, he is not being treated to such courtesies in the legislative oversight siege presently mounted on the NDDC, which has become a by-word for relentless sleaze.

Akpabio’s treatment apparently stems from his self-ostracism from the class in course of his imperial dealings over the honey pot agency.

Earlier on, the minister had affronted class interest by ramming in an Interim Management Committee (IMC) arrangement for the NDDC.

This was at the cost of overturning a statutory board that Senate had preferred and approved for office. Akpabio said the IMC was imperative to allow for forensic audit of the agency ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari, while the legislators insisted that the board should take office – even withholding 2020 budgetary appropriation for the agency so long it was at the instance of the IMC.

The minister got his way through presidential stamp on the IMC deal, and the mutual angst over that test of will was yet rankled when he hit the NASS last week like a storm.

Both the Senate and House of Representative committees on the Niger Delta had been digging into sundry allegations of financial malfeasances by the intervention agency.

Among them, the IMC leadership dating back to the time of former Acting Managing Director Ms. Joy Nunieh was being searchlighted over claims that the agency spent about N81billion within seven months; while some N40billion was alleged missing under the watch of current Acting Managing Director Professor Daniel Pondei, who himself admitted having spent some N1.3billion on agency staff as Covid-19 relief fund.

Akpabio opened a fresh flank in his assault on class interest early last week when he said during an appearance before the House of Reps panel on Niger Delta that NASS members were mainly the beneficiaries of contracts awarded by the NDDC.

Responding to interrogation by lawmakers, the minister had argued that the intervention agency shouldn’t be shut down amidst the forensic audit, saying: “If you close it down in totality, all you’ll have will be chaos, and you will have a lot of, not just militancy but a lot of insurrections.

So it is important that people who have gone to court, people who genuinely did jobs should be paid for those jobs.”

He adlibbed: “So for me, I am not against it because, of course, who are even the greatest beneficiaries? It is you people (NASS members).”

Grilled by an infuriated panel member to clarify the purported benefit to the National Assembly, Akpabio responded: “Are you asking me the benefit to NASS?

I just told you that we have records to show that most of the contracts in NDDC are given out to members of the National Assembly, but you don’t know about it.

The two chairmen (House of Reps and Senate panels) can explain to you. I was a member of the NDDC committee, so I know about it.”

While trying to shed more light on his claims amidst altercation with the angry panel member, however, he was stopped from speaking further by the deputy chair of the committee, Hon. Thomas Ereyitomi, who was presiding.

Akpabio’s remarks before the panel rankled with legislators at their next plenary, with House of Representatives Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila giving him a 48-hour ultimatum to provide details of NASS members who got contracts from the NDDC as alleged.

Ruling on a matter of privileges brought by Minority Leader Ndudi Elumelu, the Speaker warned that the minister would face the “full weight of the law” if he failed to provide the information demanded.

To show he was damn serious, the Speaker on Thursday gave marching orders to the House clerk to engage the services of lawyers who would initiate perjury proceedings against the minister for having failed to heed the legislature’s demand for details of members who allegedly got contracts from the NDDC.

“This morning, I asked the Clerk of @HouseNGR to engage the services of legal counsel, and instruct them to initiate a criminal complaint of perjury against the minister,” he said in a tweet, adding: “At the same time, we will instruct counsel to explore the possibility of a civil defamation suit.”

Later on at the day’s plenary, however, the Speaker read out a letter from the Akpabio in which the minister denied alleging 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,” Akpabio said in his letter, adding that: “As a former minority leader of the 8th Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I shall forever hold the ideals of the National Assembly and will not make the entire document public which I got from the lead forensic auditor in confidence.”

Speaker Gbajabiamila made sure to point out that the minister’s new stance was a recant, saying he only walked back his earlier statement.

He nonetheless referred the letter to the House ethics and privileges panel for scrutiny and further legislative action.

Akpabio argued that his allusion to 60 percent of contracts was in response to a question by a panel member and had nothing to do with the lawmakers, only that the panel had not given him an opportunity to explain.

And really, he has a point; because the persistence by presiding Hon. Ereyitomi in cutting him short almost betrayed Freudian anxiety over the minister’s likelihood of spilling undesirable information.

Still, it might help if the House presses its demand for clarification of Akpabio’s claim to a logical conclusion. It is either the image of NASS gets redeemed or the minister comes out vindicated.

Either way, Nigeria would be the better for it given the blight of failed and non-starter projects in the Niger Delta for which huge resources have been layered on contractors.

The minister, in his letter to the House, as well spoke about not making the document he got from the lead forensic auditor in confidence public as a mark of solidarity with the ideals of NASS.

Well, we must hope esprit de corps is not rekindled between him and the legislature, because it is public interest that benefits when class interest self-destructs.

Late last week, the Senate panel on NDDC returned a damning verdict on the agency’s leadership and Minister Akpabio, urging that the IMC be immediately disbanded and the management board installed.

The chamber also called for translocation of the agency from under supervision by the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs to the Presidency as was the case previously.

About time, in my view, since Akpabio’s portfolio isn’t Minister of NDDC as it now seems. But it is also hoped the lawmakers are not motivated by class vengeance against a perceived renegade. Nigeria’s interest must be the core motivation at all times.

Please join me on for conversation.