Chief Joe Omene, the indefatigable President-General of the Urhobo Progress Union, UPU, is on the news again. This time around Omene x-rayed the activities of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, especially the recent deluge of criticisms and allegations of fraud against the Interim Management Committee, IMC and the ongoing effort of the National Assembly to probe the IMC. He spoke with journalists, in an interview in his Mosogar country home recently.
Chief, the activities of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, a Commission set to intervene and fast-track the development of the region, has come under serious attacks in recent times. There have been a deluge of criticisms and allegations of fraud against the Commission by members of the public. As a result, the National Assembly have decided to probe it. What is your take in all of these?
You see, the moment the President announced that the activities and performance of the NDDC be audited and the setup of an interim management committee, people have been opposed to it. Why are they opposed to it? They say it is not within the law for the president to do that. If it is not within the law, what do you do? You go to court. There is separation of power in this presidential system of government. You have the executive, you have the legislature and you have the judiciary. The NDDC is within the purview of the executive. And the interference of the legislature is getting too much. Why? Now, if the president said that a forensic audit should be carried out on the commission, then let the executive do that. If that is not within the law, you go to court and challenge it. You did not challenge, you criticize and sit down there, whereas there is provision for all these things.
You see, as far as I know, all these allegations of fraud and corruption is because the people whom the National Assembly wanted to be there are not there. They also want to dictate to the executive who should be appointed into any arm of government. All government intervention agencies and parastatals they want to put people there. And as long as they don’t put people there or they did not have their inputs then it is wrong.
Even when these people have sat down to work, oh it is corruption. They have embezzled so much money. If you are talking about corruption, it is not the National Assembly that should be pointing at people that they are corrupt. They themselves are more corrupt than the people they are accusing. How much did they budget for the renovation of the National Assembly? How many billions? Is there anybody talking? How much they have allocated to themselves and their allowances is alleged to be the highest in the world. How much does Nigeria have? With all the cries from the public that our economy cannot sustain it, have they done anything about it? No!
If possible the National Assembly still wants to control the judiciary, as they want to control the executive. The President has said, for God sake, that a forensic audit be carried out on the Commission. Just leave the President to do that. How long is it going to take? The President has just extended the tenure of the IMC to December. Why don’t they just wait for December to come? And because they want their own person to be there so that they can be getting contracts. That is the cry. And don’t forget that this forensic audit will expose some of their members with skeletons in their cupboards, that is why there is this fight.
If you want to summon the IMC members, summon them. If you have any query, query them. If they are guilty publish it. Nigerians will see it. They said that within few months the IMC has embezzled N40 billion. How can? It is all about power tussle. It is very likely. Some of the members have soiled their hands. So, if they allow the audit to go on, some of them will be exposed. So what do they do? If they just sit down and allow the audit to go on, they will be exposed. So, they engage some members of the public to fabricate some lies. All these fighting is for their pockets. Not for the interest of the average Urhobo man, not for the average of the people of the Niger Delta. Come to look at it, the members of the IMC are not from the north; they are not Yorubas, they are people from the Niger Delta.
Now, if you look into the eyes of our Senators and some members of House of Reps from the Niger Delta, you will find that the near liquidation of the NDDC was caused by these people. This is because they don’t want to be exposed. That is why they want to plant their people into it who will now cover for them. So, in my own opinion and the position of the UPU is that they should allow the executive to carry out the forensic audit. And the President has just extended their tenure till December. But if the National Assembly so feel that within this short term they have embezzled so much money, they should come out publicly, invite them and prove it.
I think that is the essence of what they are doing right now. Are you saying that the National Assembly don’t have the right to carry out oversight functions?
They have the right as part of their oversight function to investigate the IMC. But what I’m telling you right now is what is behind the outcry why they instigate different persons to criticize and write against the activities of the IMC. And they say, okay, let’s rubbish them before we investigate them. If they have anything to say, they can say it and we will investigate them.
Assuming the National Assembly, in carrying out their investigations, they were able to establish that the IMC actually defrauded the Commission, what will be your take on that?
Then let them publish it. And if the people feel that they are being maligned, they will go to court. The judiciary is there. You don’t just wake up and say this man is guilty without you proving it.
…But that is the investigation going on now?
I agree, it is the investigation going on. But have they concluded? If they have not, then they should keep quiet and let the people continue to do their job. The moment the IMC said that contracts worth several billions of naira were given to a particular Senator, that was when their trouble started. They said, “if we allow the IMC to go on they will rubbish us. We better stop them now.”
Now take a look at the activities of the NDDC for the past decade, would you say that the commission has actually impacted positively on the Urhobo ethnic nationality?
I would not say that Urhobo has not benefited. Urhobo has benefited. The NDDC is there for all tribes in the Niger Delta. We have various projects completed and ongoing, carried out by the NDDC, in Urhobo land. Urhobo man was at one time the head of the Commission. We also had an Urhobo man as the Executive Director of Projects in the Commission. You see, if these people were unable to do anything while there, to impact on the Urhobo, who are you going to blame? You see, if you put somebody who is incompetent and he is unable to do something, you blame yourself. You could also praise the tenure of this IMC because even contracts that were awarded before they took over, they did not terminate them. They allowed them to go on. What they will tell you is that go and perform. We see roads being tarred everywhere in Urhobo land by NDDC even more than the State government. So, you will not say that Urhobo has not benefited. Our problem is that when our person is not there, anything the other man has done is rubbish.
Initially when I learnt that a non-Urhobo is an executive director in the Commission, I almost wanted to talk. But when I later looked at his performance, even his aides are Urhobo. He is so detribalized. And these are the kind of people we want in Nigeria. But if you say everything must be Urhobo, it is also not good. Either in terms of appointment or projects, if other people benefited more, it is because their people who were there were very proactive. Now, if a new board is to be put in place after the forensic audit, our people have to be there because it is now the turn of Urhobo. It is only if it is your turn and other people were appointed that you can now cry out of marginalization. So, as far as I’m concerned the IMC has not fared badly. They would have fared badly if they have said all activities of the NDDC should stop; all contracts awarded should stop. What they said was that if you have a contract which is not completed, you will not be paid. Go and complete your work. After you have executed your contract you come for payment. So, if you are a genuine contractor who would not run away, you then go and complete your job. You see, we have the separation of power. You have the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. Nobody should dabble into the activities of the other. The National Assembly could carry out their oversight functions. And the oversight function is that if you see anything the executive is doing that is not correct, then you summon them to give reason. But you are not to provide who should be there. And if they know that the IMC is an illegal body then let them go to court.
You have just harped on the power of the National Assembly to carry out oversight functions. Is the investigation they are doing now not part of their oversight functions?
I agree, but the noise is more than action.
But it is not the National Assembly that is actually accusing the IMC of fraud. It is the members of the public – individuals, civil society organizations, etc.
I have been in politics before. If I want to say something against you and I don’t want people to know that I said it, what politicians do is to call some people, give them money and ask them to go and say what I wanted to say. There are hired writers and when you check very well these group of people who have been criticizing and accusing the IMC are not even registered bodies with Corporate Affairs Commission. They just call themselves Concerned this or Concerned that. If these people are so serious about it and that the IMC is illegal what stops them from going to court? It is a question of either bruised ego or stomach infrastructure. If the President says tomorrow that yes, the forensic audit must go on but the IMC could be terminated and that the National Assembly should bring three persons to be appointed to replace the IMC, all the noise will stop. It is because those who are appointed in the IMC now cannot be manipulated by them. This is because the National Assembly did not contribute to the IMC appointment, that is why there is problem.
Do you believe that the Act setting up the NDDC must be complied with considering the fact that no provision is made for the setting up of an Interim Management Committee?
If the National Assembly or anybody feels that the law is deficient, they could come and work towards amending the Act to correct it. If the National Assembly feels the Act needs amendment, they can do it without wasting time. Look at the Infectious Disease Bill which they hurriedly passed through first reading and second reading and how it was criticized. They have to reverse it due to the criticisms. When you go to equity, go with clean hands. The money they required for the renovation of the National Assembly is in tens of billions, whereas the money budgeted to some ministries are not up to that. Look at education, look at our health care system. Nigerians have been complaining about salaries and allowances of Senators and House of Reps members and they say they are too high. What have they done about it? So, why do they want to do something about NDDC IMC?
The president’s idea to set up a forensic audit for the NDDC was borne out of the complaints of the governors of the Niger Delta. It was not the idea of the Legislature. So, why are you now blaming the National Assembly for carrying out their oversight function to investigate the IMC?
Why have the governors not come out to defend the presidency that oh, the President is right? They are afraid of the National Assembly too. Their hands are also very dirty. For me, as far as I know that my hands are clean, I can accuse anybody. I have been accusing the Delta State government over the years of so many things, but I was in government. When I became President-General of UPU, I did not sign cheque one day, whereas the constitution says I can be signatory. When you go to equity, you go with clean hands. National Assembly should demonstrate more patriotism.
At the inception of the Covid-19 disease, you spoke to Nigerians, especially your Urhobo people advising them to abide by the precautions spelt out by the government. We are in the third month of the spreading of the virus now. How would you assess the compliance of Urhobo people to these precautionary measures?
Actually, I spoke to our people at the beginning of the spread of the virus. And one of the precautionary measures is to stay at home during the lockdown. Unfortunately, the government who ordered that people should stay at home did not provide any reasonable palliatives to the people who were asked to stay at home. Instead, they came to town and gave out a few cups of rice and garri to some people and asked them to stay there and they took pictures. That was all. If government really wanted to provide palliatives to the people, they should have removed politics out of it and gone through the different kingdoms. The people of the kingdoms would have known how much foodstuff and money were brought. It is now left for the kings and their chiefs to do the distribution. Instead, they gave the few palliatives they brought to their political chieftains yet they said that what they were going to do will be apolitical. However, my appeal to the Urhobos is that they should try to be their brothers’ keepers. If you have and in your neighbourhood there are fellow Urhobos who don’t have, try as much as possible to help them. Otherwise, if they hope and rely on government’s palliatives we will not get anywhere.
Then, on the issue of the order to stay at home, I also said that there are certain activities that do not warrant the order to stay at home. If you are a farmer and you go to your farm, that will not expose you to any infection of the disease. I however advised that the Urhobos should comply by wearing their face masks and wash their hands. They should also keep social distance and stop shaking hands with people. They should cover their mouths with their elbows when they cough and report to the nearest health care centre whenever they have any symptoms of the disease. They should comply with all government’s precautionary measures. The government knows better than any of us.
I also appeal to our big men to be our brothers’ keepers. We must be able to demonstrate Urhobo patriotism anywhere. And that is what the UPU is doing. Take for example, the issue of PTI, Effurun, it is the UPU that made it possible for the principal to be there. And since he came it he has been able to wade into some of the challenges being faced by Urhobo employees, as well as others, and resolve them. Only recently, about 18 professors vied for the Vice chancellor of FUPRE. UPU waded in and at the end of the day, our man got it. And the man is appreciative. This is because, no matter how brilliant your person may be, for him to go higher, he needs a push. But the one whom Okowa has been forcing into the throat of Urhobo, did he know when we were doing all these things? While struggling for the VC position, some traditional rulers from other ethnic nationalities travelled to Sokoto, others went to Katsina. Did any of our traditional rulers make any move to make sure that Urhobo have it? No! If not for the UPU what would have happened?
Recently, even when the former chief of staff to the president, Late Abba Kyari died, the Olu of Warri commiserated with the President. Did any Urhobo traditional ruler did that? But the UPU also sent consolatory message to the President.
After about a month lockdown of the country to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, the government decided to ease the lockdown about two weeks ago to allow Nigerians come out to carry out their normal activities. However, it has been observed that one week into the easing of the lockdown, the rate of infection of the disease is increasing rapidly and now there are contemplations that there will be another total lockdown again. What is your take on that?
You see, Nigerians just want to destroy their own economy. This thing is not anything more than high fever. When you listen to those who tested positive and were treated and they recovered, ask them what kind of medication was given to them, pure malaria medicine. You see, we are copycats. We copy what the white man is doing without knowing the implication. However, our people use it to siphon money, government money that belongs to all Nigerians. My take is that government should open everywhere, allow the people to go about their normal daily economic business. Anybody who has fever, let him go the native way if the orthodox malaria medicine did not work for him. You can imagine, they say almajiri got infected with the disease. Where did almajiri come in contact with all these big men who brought in this disease? Who imported Covid-19 to the country? Is it not the big men who travelled out of the country? The disease can kill the white just like malaria killed them in those days. People like Mongo Park and other white adventurers who came to Africa what killed them? It is the malaria they contracted from mosquito bites. Mosquito can kill the white man easily because of their kind of immunity. Our body is hot, the disease cannot rest there. But the white man’s body is cold.
Take the case of Delta State, so far only 27 have tested positive. Out of that figure, about five have died. Since that time, how many people do you think had died of malaria fever? Maybe, over 50. And because of the five deaths in this period of two months, you want to destroy your economy. Whereas, in the white man’s country where the disease is still prevalent and people are still dying in their numbers, they are easing the lockdown and opening up their countries. Because of this disease, those in government are now claiming that they spend over N700 million daily to feed school children who are in their homes with their parents. Can you imagine the kind of society we are? The National Assembly will not see that. Instead they flex their muscles against NDDC. That is why I said that those fighting against the IMC do that using their proxies who are hired writers. But the truth is that for the few months the IMC has been in operation, there has been some kind of sanity and orderliness in the affairs of the Commission.
Okay, if we are to take a que from your conclusion in the performance of the IMC in the NDDC, would you also recommend that the same should be applied to our local DESOPADEC?
DESOPADEC is worse than NDDC. And nobody will set that up to manage the affairs of DESOPADEC because it depends on who is at the helm of affairs in Delta State. If President Buhari had a personal interest in the affairs of NDDC and his boys or agents are feeding fat from it, do you think he would have been bold enough to set up the forensic audit to investigate the Commission from its inception in the year 2000 and also Interim Management Committee? In Delta State, they use DESOPADEC money to fund some private tertiary institutions in the state. They use DESOPADEC money to fund the construction of palaces and town halls. Is that the spirit for which the Commission was set up? When people like Chief Okirika started the Commission, though they spent money, but we were seeing laudable projects being executed by the Commission everywhere. When the Commission gave vehicles – Toyota Hilux and Jeeps to the Ijaw man UPU, how many of such vehicles were given to us? Did they give me jeep? Did they give late Chief Aziza jeeps? When one legislator in Delta State or one big man in government can afford to book for a five-star hotel suite in Abuja for 4 of 5 years and put different girls in them, where does the money come from? Is it not DESOPADEC?
Now that President Buhari wants to expose them by setting up forensic audit and IMC in NDDC, everybody is fighting against it. As far as we, exco of UPU of Urhobo which is part of the ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta are concerned, we have not seen anything wrong in the IMC. The existence of the NDDC is a function of the executive. They should allow the executive to do its work while they exercise their oversight functions. In the course of their investigations, if they indict the IMC with proof of fraud or corruption, they should be made to face the EFCC. More so, if the President has breached the Act setting up the NDDC, by setting up the IMC, then they should go to court.
It is expected that the ravaging Covid-19 will end one day and people are speculating that there is going to be food shortage crisis in the country. What is your message to your Urhobo people?
When you look at the ant, in dry season, they prepare for the rainy season. They store their food and when the rainy season comes, they feed on what they have stocked. That is how a wise man should behave. You see some Urhobo politicians, the money they made from politics would be enough to feed a whole village for a very long time. But they squandered them. They behaved as if that political tenure will not end. By the time it all end and they have nothing left, they become political sycophants. My advice to the Urhobos is that they should watch the way of life of the ant, and save for the rainy day.