Ms Joi Nunieh dug the ,pit that consumed her, with betrayal inordinate ambition and contesting with a boss that was as greedy for filthy lucre and power
The sack of Ms Joi Nunieh as acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) took many by surprise. It came unheralded but there were enough signs to show that Nunieh should not even have even appointed to head the agency in October 2019. The issues bordered on allegations of fraud, conflict of interest and dodging the mandatory one year national service. The icing on the cake of her integrity issues was her scheme to perpetuate herself in office beyond the time set for the forensic audit of the commission. She obviously did not see it coming because the day she was sacked, sources say, she was holding court and threatening those she saw as opposed to her. It was a scene so common in the NDDC that she had created a toxic environment where anyone who raised as much as an observation on her style was regarded as opposition and branded an enemy of the forensic audit which was ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari. Yet, the breakdown in the alliance between her and the minister of Niger Delta Chief Godswill Akpabio was the major problem for her.
The story starts in October 2019 when she got into an alliance with Akpabio to scuttle the Board appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari in August 2019. Akpabio had hatched the idea of an interim management to supervise the audit and Nunieh had made herself available with a promise that she would head the interim committee. She did this even after she had been announced as a member of the Board to represent Rivers State and had made an appearance before the Police Federal Investigation Bureau for scrutiny as demanded of all nominees. That board was eventually approved by the senate on November 5th of the same year but before then she had played the betrayer by going behind the nominees to negotiate for the job of acting managing director. Somehow, she could not push the needle further when the swell of complaints against her hit the roof and after she had been used by Akpabio. Hers is a case of the classical use-and-dump.
*NYSC discharge certificate*
Her first major problem was proving that she served in the national youth service for which she has to provide a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) discharge certificate or an exemption certificate. Sources say that during the screening of the board nominees after the announcements were made, where they came with their certificates and other relevant documents, she could not present her NYSC certificate and on request she had told the officials that she would make it available subsequently. She never did; rather, she got herself the acting MD job. But that raised red flags and the allegations would not go away. When pressed to produce the certificate, she rather produced a letter from the Council for Legal Education claiming that she was mobilized for national service and had lost her discharge certificate. She was already in difficult waters and NGOs latched onto the allegation to show that she was not fit for the position, asking the president to fire her. For this there was precedence, even though no one is sure what the Buhari government makes of such allegations given that there are similar infractions for which it had either not acted or stubbornly refuse to act. Yet, the resignation of Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun over a similar scandal where she allegedly forged her NYSC discharge certificate put the presidency in a very difficult spot over Nunieh.
If the NYSC discharge certificate issues were bad enough, the fraud allegation was the bomb. The reason that was given for the appointment of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) and the stay of the Board was the need to cleanse the NDDC. So much PR (public relations) capital had been made out of corruption in the NDDC with Nunieh herself not failing to grab the spotlight to highlight one major discovery of the fraud or the other. Yet, issues kept cropping up around her and many were wondering whether she was not building her own nest while shifting attention to her predecessors in office.
While she gave the impression that she was straightforward, it was discovered that no sooner had she come in than she started to look out for her own interest. Reports emerged that she had ordered the commission to pay a company in which she had vested interest at a time the focus was on probity and verifying the contracts of the commission. This company is Cyrus and Jenny Limited, one she used to secure a contract worth N326.3 Million on 29th of November 2016 for emergency repair of Beeri Internal roads in Khana LGA of Rivers State. A search at the Corporate Affairs Commission in December 2019 listed her as a director of the company, two months after she had been appointed acting MD of the NDDC, which is against the public service rule that demands her resignation of any company of which she is a director. Whistle blowers who raised the alarm showed that she ordered the payment even when the company had not shown a compliance certificate and at a time when the NDDC had stayed action on paying contractors pending the verification of their jobs.
She seemed on a mission to make good so early that she ignored even the rules of the public service and a sense of good judgment. Perhaps it was because of her famed backer at the presidency. Unilaterally, she raised her monthly imprest from N40m to N51m and those of the two acting executive directors from N28m each to N40m each. She also ordered payment for several schemes and projects running into billions of naira, all within four and a half months as acting MD of the intervention agency. Many of these payments were done in full knowledge that Akpabio was in on them because even when reports of her approving payment for her own firm were reported the minister did nothing.
Unknown to her, these were being reported to the presidency and her defence wall cracked when it was discovered that she had bought for herself properties in Abuja and was building a war-chest of resources for a campaign aimed at keeping her at the commission after the forensic audit. Her self-succession plan was the icing on a well-baked cake of indiscretion and ambition.
When the Interim Management Committee was announced by Chief Akpabio on October 29, 2019, it was billed to last a few months. In fact, according to a source, while the president’s initial approval on paper was for three months, Akpabio said it would last no more than six months, yet the auditors are only now being appointed with a mandate to work for nine months. It was all part of a grand design by the minister and the committee to give enough time to settle their different pecuniary interests. Aside the accelerated payment of some contracts, the IMC was spending more time in orchestrating public relations (PR) against the Board appointed by the president, and which has been put on standby, in a bid to cut the image that only they (IMC members) can carry out the audit. Though the members of the Board had no link with the commission either as past Board members, as staff or as contractors, the IMC under Nunieh seemed like it was a core objective to paint the Board, which had not assumed office and which represented a broad spectrum of the coverage area of the commission, in bad light in order to stay in office. This may have been informed by the groundswell of public disapproval that greeted the appointment of the IMC, with protests by ethnic and rights groups such as the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC), Vanguard for Transparency Leadership and Development (VATLAD), the Oyom Movement, Urhobo Political Movement and groups from the Isoko, Itsekiri, Ikwerre, Edo and other nationalities making up the commission’s coverage area.
In the heat of the opposition that greeted the IMC, Nunieh seemed to have let off her ambitions unwittingly when she carried on like a politician rather than one engaged to supervise an audit, according to someone familiar with the goings on at the commission.
Indications that she had aims bigger than the initial six months was the decision to set up committees to undertake the verification of contracts and more committees, all designed to elongate the time for the audit. This was seen as dangerous given that the people of the region had settled for an audit by reputable auditors. In fact, one petitioner said that by setting audit verification committee, Nunieh and her colleagues were tampering with potential evidence and would make the work of the auditors more difficult. This point came into full understanding when she stated at a meeting that the verification committee report will be the primary document for the auditors to work with. “It is like tampering with a crime scene”, the petitioner said. That point may have resonated with the presidency when it seized the initiative to appoint a lead manager for the audit. It would have been impolitic to have someone who had self-succession plans and an ambition difficult to fathom to be in place while the audit was going on. It is also instructive that on the day the minister announced the appointment of the lead audit consultant Olumuyiwa Basiru and Co in Abuja, Nunieh was absent. The minister was billed to meet with the IMC and make a public presentation of the selection but only the other two members of the IMC attended. Though no reason was given, insiders say Nunieh who claimed she had more important tasks to attend to, berated her colleagues as bootlickers who have gone to Abuja to play politics when addressing staff who came to see her in her office. The absence of Nunieh got Akpabio livid and marked a turning point in what was clearly a souring relationship.
Nunieh has said nothing since she was sacked yesterday but there are indications that her two colleagues on the committee – Dr Cairo Ojougboh and Bassey Eteng – would take the rap. She had accused them before her loyal staff and others of not working in sync with her and playing politics of loyalty to Akpabio. But the minister could not understand her position when it was clear that they were recruited to do a hatchet job on the Board and further his own interest. If Nunieh failed to honour the agreement with Akpabio after her shameful betrayal of the Board, what promise has Akpabio exerted out of the new team?
As at now, there seems to be a surreptitious design to satisfy vested interests with the new nominees. It is clear that Minister of State for Niger Delta has got his nominee into the interim committee with someone from his home state, as well as Akpabio who has the acting ED Finance and Admin from his state Akwa Ibom.
One problem that plagued the Nunieh IMC which has been carried over into the new IMC with the retaining of Ojougboh and Bassey is the cash-for-contract-verification sleaze that was common in the dying days of Nunieh’s term. The battle between Akpabio and Nunieh on who would collect cash from desperate contractors seeking to be verified before the audit is an open secret at the NDDC and the minister resented the fact that his ‘appointee’ was battling for the spoils with him. It is not clear how the new team would handle Akpabio’s greed. Or, if they are part of the agenda, especially with the other executive directors in the team.
Niger Deltans are restive over the happenings at the NDDC and for many NGOs it is a confirmation of their fears about the agency and why many have been opposed to the IMC since Akpabio set it up. Indeed many believe that it is Akpabio’s scheme to have a hold over the agency and run it like his fiefdom. Their opposition is on two principal grounds. One is that the IMC even at the current number of five is still not representative of all the diverse states and groups as provided for in the NDCC Act for the composition of its Governing Board. The Act provides for representation from all nine states and non-oil producing geopolitical zones. The Board approved by the Senate has 15 members. The second reason is that the IMC has proven to be a complete waste of resources and unable to add value to the people of the region. It is clearly just a sitting committee to collect outrageous allowances without meaningful impact. The story with Nunieh has shown that it does not even have the integrity to supervise an audit.
That these new appointments may not be a merry go round, activists in the region want to see the Board inaugurated and given a clear mandate to fast-track development, while the forensic audit takes place. One analyst said it is analogue to believe that the normal governance institutions provided for an agency must be circumscribed in order to audit its activities and processes, asking that “if that is so, why are other agencies of government not being run by interim management committees?” He believes the Buhari regime should follow the NDDC Act and inaugurate the Board for the commission as the ad-hoc IMC has proven to be both unpopular and ineffective, just like there is a proper board for the North East Development Commission.