EXCLUSIVE: Why NDDC interim chief was sacked

Mr Godswill Akpabio, Ms Joy Nunieh at the VIP lounge of the Port Harcourt International Airport in January
Mr Godswill Akpabio, Ms Joy Nunieh at the VIP lounge of the Port Harcourt International Airport in January

The Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, may have pushed for the removal of Joy Nunieh as the acting managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

Mr Akpabio’s ministry supervises the NDDC.

Sources close to both Mr Akpabio and Ms Nunieh said the relationship between the two individuals became rancorous lately to a point that the former NDDC chief refused to pick the minister’s telephone calls.

President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday named Kemebradikumo Pondei, a professor of medicine, as a replacement for Ms Nunieh.

Mr Pondei is to serve as acting managing director of the troubled NDDC until the completion of a planned forensic audit of the agency.

Besides Cairo Ojougboh and Ibanga Etang who remain acting director (projects) and the acting director (finance and administration) respectively, Mr Buhari also expanded the interim management committee to include a former Vice President of African Development Bank, Cecilia Akintomide, and one Caroline Nagbo as members.

Mr Akpabio’s relationship with the sacked NDDC chief was fraught with mutual suspicion and powerplay, according to people familiar with the matter.

“The expected cooperation was not there (between the ministry and the NDDC),” a source close to Mr Akpabio told PREMIUM TIMES.

Some sources said Ms Nunieh stayed away from the first tripartite meeting between the NDDC interim management, the lead forensic consultant, Messrs Olumuyiwa Basiru & Company, and the ministry of Niger Delta Affairs in January in Abuja.

The two other directors in the NDDC attended the meeting, the sources said.

“Some people in government suspect that she may not give the needed cooperation for the forensic audit to be done timeously.

“You know the government does not want the interim management to drag on with the forensic audit for too long,” the source said. “If you don’t cooperate with them and they don’t conclude the work on time, it means your tenure will continue.”

One source said the relationship between Ms Nunieh and Mr Akpabio remained frosty for several weeks.

She said the former NDDC chief later tried to break the ice between her and the minister when an uncomplimentary story about her surfaced in some newspapers in January.

PREMIUM TIMES could not verify the authenticity of the allegations against Ms Nunieh in the publications.

Ms Nunieh was said to have reached out to Mr Akpabio at the Port Harcourt airport sometime in January while the minister was on his way to a sporting event at the Federal Government College, Port Harcourt.

Inside the VIP lounge at the airport, the former NDDC chief was said to have requested a peaceful settlement of her conflict with the minister.

“It had nothing to do with contract-award,” the source said of the disagreement between the minister and the former acting managing director of the NDDC.

“The interim management committee is not supposed to be awarding contracts, their job was to supervise the forensic audit,” she said.

“No comment!” Says Ms Nunieh.

When PREMIUM TIMES contacted Ms Nunieh’s media aide, Ibanga Isine, for comments, he said the former acting managing director of the NDDC had no comment for now and that she would issue a statement at “an appropriate time”.

However, an official in the commission who did not want his name mentioned said Mr Akpabio fought Ms Nunieh because of her principled and uncompromising position on the affairs of the NDDC.

The source corroborated the claims that Ms Nunieh did not answer or return Mr Akpabio’s telephone calls at times rough that she stayed away from a tripartite meeting with the lead forensic consultant.

“The woman stayed away from the meeting with the audit firm because she was insisting that the World Bank and the National Financial Intelligence Unit should be involved to supervise the forensic audit since the firm handling it was handpicked by the minister,” he said.

Ms Nunieh is a longtime political ally to President Buhari but it is believed that Mr Akpabio may have contributed to her appointment in the NDDC.

Efforts to reach Mr Akpabio for this report were not successful. Calls to his known telephone number did not go through and he is yet to respond to a message sent to him,

Mr Akpabio, a former governor of Akwa Ibom State, said last year that the NDDC was bedeviled by corruption, so much so that the commission was being seen as an automated teller machine (ATM) where people could just walk in to pick cash.

Mr Akpabio later made a shocking revelation claimed that the NDDC ‘abandoned’ $70 million in a bank for 13 years, while hundreds of its projects remain abandoned and uncompleted across the oil producing states, partly due to non-release of funds.

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