Of course, it is scandalous. Of course, it is embarrassing. Of course, it is painful that our common wealth continues to be stolen in a manner that gives the word brazenness a new macho meaning.
You may shrug your shoulders and say, so what? There is nothing unusual about the scandal and the corruption being unearthed daily in the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC. There is nothing shameful about the fact that some of our wealthy legislators were made by NDDC armed only with contract papers that entitled them to hefty mobilisation fees they did not have to account for to anyone. They are smart men, that is all. The scale may be larger but it is an established pattern in the thieving network that has impoverished the people and the nation and arrested our national development. There is no government agency, federal or state, that is not a cesspool of corruption. Forget the irony of a nation fighting corruption with all its financial and other resources getting more corrupt. No nation can escape paying the price for its ambivalence.
A scandal always makes for fun and entertainment. It exposes the exposed truth that the big men are also thieves, willing to steal the feeding bottle of the poor man’s baby. Few things are more entertaining than seeing some pretenders to moral higher grounds hoisted on the petard of their own lies, dishonesty and duplicity. We may be amused at the discomfiture of members of the National Assembly who have been named to be shamed as contractors to NDDC but at the end of this season of allegations and denials, nothing would change; they would be let off the hook and remain favoured contractors to the commission. And, of course, the corruption will continue until one thief squeals on another again and we are invited again to the market place for a new round of entertainment by our well-heeled cheats supported and protected by the system.
Still, I think the rest of us should stop laughing now and take greater interest in the problems and the continued deprivation of the Niger Delta and what they portend for our country. It is a peculiar region with every imaginable peculiarity. The rest of us living inland appear to know very little about the inhospitable conditions in the region in which the struggle for a pittance for many is a daily titanic battle. Polluted water that kills fishes and impoverishes fishermen? An environment polluted by oil spills? You name it and you can picture the people in their daily struggles to make some sense of the irony of their region producing our national wealth and yet, in some ways, worse off than some of the poorest communities in other parts of the country. It is not nature’s way to starve the goose that lays the golden egg, I think.
Her Majesty’s Government appointed the Willink Commission in 1957 “to enquire into the fears of the minorities and the means of allaying them.” Representatives of the Ijaw ethnic group appeared before it and made the point that “their difficulties were not understood at headquarters in the interior.” We still do not fully understand their difficulties. We do not generally think they are any different from the difficulties that afflict other communities by reason of history, environment or bad policies. We are wrong.
The commission noted that the challenges and the peculiar problems of the Niger Delta required “a special effort and the co-operation of the federal, Eastern and Western governments; it does not concern one region only. Not only because the area involves two regions but because it is poor, backward and neglected, the whole of Nigeria is concerned. We suggest there should be a federal board” for the area.
That recommendation, made when the exploitation of crude oil in the area had not yet added to the existing difficulties among the riverine communities, led to a series of half-hearted measures by federal and regional governments that eventually resulted in the setting up of OMPADEC by the Babangida administration and now, NDDC, by the Obasanjo administration. I confess that I have not read the legal instruments that created these agencies but I think it is a safe bet that the mandate in each case was the same, to wit, treat the Niger Delta as a special case and ameliorate its crippling deprivation.
The real scandal goes well beyond NDDC having been turned into what some people call ATM for the privileged. For me, the real scandal is that the people of the region who man the commission are criminally indifferent to the historical and continued plight of their own people. They are roundly and profoundly complicit in the naked theft of the funds of the commission that denies their own people schools, hospitals and potable water; they are complicit in the projects abandoned by dubious contractors who were paid hefty mobilisation fees and relish their smartness at the expense of the people.
Ken Saro-Wiwa, must be turning in his grave, wondering why his people have abandoned the struggle for justice and fairness in the hands of the Nigerian state to end the neglect and the deprivation of their own people. And he must be wondering too, if the dead are so permitted, why the life he gave in his struggle for a clean and liveable environment appears to matter less to his own people than their greed in joining others to use NDDC as ATM.
The commission has become famous for one thing: juicy contracts. Each day, officials of the commission receive pieces of paper introducing one yeye contractor or the other to them from someone high up in the political system, for the award of contracts whose execution stops at the collection of their mobilisation fees. Cheating the people has become the easiest way to make money in our dear, dear country.
The Niger Delta region, as the Willink Commission noted, presents the Nigerian state with peculiar problems whose effects are not felt in the region only but in the country as a whole. Attending to those problems does not begin and end with the setting up of the commission. To make the commission exist just to service the network of well-heeled thieves is to pile up the twigs for the fire next time. We cannot forget so soon, can we, what damage the militants did to our main revenue source when they took up arms to arguably fight for fairness and justice? Thanks to the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, the guns are silent now but the Nigerian state would do well to see the current scandal in the commission as a golden opportunity to rescue NDDC from the clutches of contractors and put it back on the path of serving the region and its people in accordance with its legal mandate.
Those who have called for a judicial commission of enquiry into NDDC are, of course, offering a solution that solves nothing. Check the archives, if you will, and see how many judicial commissions of enquiry have been instituted in the face of a scandal such as this that took the country nowhere either in the resolution of the particular problem or in righting the wrong. I am old enough and have seen enough to know that when the current howls of impotent rage are over and when we stop laughing at the discomfiture of the men whose lavish life style is funded by NDDC, it would end as one more embarrassing story about the rich stealing the feeding bottles of our babies in a nation never short of embarrassing stories that delight the news media.
Nothing will give. A new set of helmsmen; a new set of contractors. That is the way the Nigerian cookies crumble. Don’t say amen to that, brother.
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