We are creating young entrepreneurs in the Niger Delta – Semenitari FeaturedWritten by EMMA OWHONDAH
Mrs. Ibim Semenitari is the outgoing Acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC. In this interview with journalists at the Commission’s head office, she speaks on a number of issues bordering on the Niger Delta region.
Before you came on board, there was a disconnect between the people of Niger Delta and the NDDC. How did you change the narrative for a positive change?
I don’t think it is fair to say that I completely changed it; I think it is a process. What we have tried to do is to open up our books a bit more and try to be a bit more community-based and try to engage everyone in the process. For instance, as we prepare for 2017 budget, the Community Relations Department is going round the communities, saying ‘what do you need’? So, the NEEDS assessment is ongoing and the Community Relations Department has been going to communities to say, what will you like to see? The Environmental Control Department is going around doing environmental impact assessments and involving communities in the EIAs. You find out that whether it is the beginning of the EIA or closing of the EIA, the community involvement has increased and improved. That is bridging the gap; it is completely a process like everything in life.
One is amazed about reports of a situation where drugs purchased by NDDC were kept in a warehouse and it took your intervention to unveil that situation. How is service delivery now for the people of Niger Delta?
That incident happened in December; this is eight months after, we need to move on. What I can say is that there are no more warehouses with drugs any more.
Now, for me to assess service delivery under my watch will be almost incestuous. I certainly cannot be the one to do that. I mean if we deliver better service, I am hoping we have. I am looking at body language, I am looking at comments and commentaries by persons. I am hoping but I can’t say that for a fact. Only the people of the region can assess our service delivery and that is a judgement call and it not mine to make.
Madam, you are finishing strong according to your media aide, Bekee Anyalewechi. What are your regrets?
Again, you know I am a journalist; I have learnt to speak with facts. Finishing strong sounds like an editorial to me. My regrets, to start with, is that I wish I had passes my budget earlier because it would mean that I would have stated work sooner. So that is one thing I wish I could have done and it is actually a critical thing. I wish we had more money; then, we would have paid more contractors and got them to finish their job faster. I wish I had more staff in the Engineering Department, so that they could go out for project monitoring better. If we had more money, we would have bought more cars and some of my engineers won’t have to hit a ride. So, yes, I wish that had happened. I wish I sufficiently reached out to the young people. I wish I had more time on value reorientation. For me, that is key, trying to change the mindsets. That I wish I could have done, going into the minds and re-engineer the mindsets, if not for the short time to attempt that.
Is NDDC structured to run an economic roadmap for the Niger Delta region?
I think it will not be correct to say that the NDDC is set up just for infrastructure. That is not factual. What is factual is that the NDDC is set up to intervene in all of these areas, social, economic, amongst others. You would find, when you pick up the regional master plan, that all of these areas are addressed. Whether it is gender, whether it is youth issues, whether it is employment or wealth creation, they are all part of the NDDC master plan. They are actually issues there; therefore, the NDDC master plan is actually set up to ensure that we address these myriad of issues.
Yes, NDDC can intervene, to answer your question, and it has actually done that severally in the past. More currently, we are working with consultants to be able to match those who are sourcing for income or for credit, to possible people who will give the credit. We are looking at getting people from the region to benefit from the credit facilities available at the federal level. There is quite a few of such credits. Whether you are looking at the rice intervention funds or the agricultural loans, the commission is actually playing its role and this is what we are working on as a catalyst to match seekers of credit to areas of credit.
So whereas we may not have the fund to give the loans, we can intervene and guarantee persons who have a right to credit. As a federal government agency, we can create linkages because we find a lot of states in this region are not accessing these credits. So, we can catalyze it, which is the really why the commission is here. We act as a catalyst and as a bridge to bring development closer to the people of the Niger Delta. This is what we are trying to do. That is one area we are intervening.
Another area is that we are actually sitting down and looking at how we can create wealth. Now, we have a partnership plant proposed for the Ford Foundation and one of the key aspects of that partnership is that we intend to be matching skills with wealth. Ford Foundation is trying to help us do this so that we have a database of the skills that are available in the region and the skill-sets that those who operate in the region need and we find a way to match skills available to jobs available to where there are gaps to train people to fill into available jobs. So, it is a two-prong thing. Matching skills to jobs and also training manpower for available jobs.
That is another area we want to look at because clearly, the big issue today is unemployment.
The other thing we are trying to do is okay, what are the possible areas we can lead young people to think differently. So, we are thinking entrepreneurship and one of the things we will be doing which you will see very soon is that we got a lot of pilot projects around us. One of the pilot projects we are looking at is a recycle hub project. We are working with young Niger Deltans by the way, we got them as consultants. We are going to creare recycle hubs in two cities, Aba in Abia State and Oyigbo in Rivers State. What are we looking at, we are looking at being able to do two things, clean up the environment, but waste to wealth. So, we got young people who will be picking up wastes and selling it to us. It is a recycling programme. We are teaching a behaviour of clean up. We are also teaching a behaviour of waste to wealth. So, you find out that it is a double-edged sword and that is why we selected Aba because of the amount of waste, potential wealth in Aba and Oyigbo also, you could either say notorious or famous. It can either be famous for the wealth from waste or notorious from waste generation. That is what we are trying to do. For our pilot, if works and works well, then, we will translate that across the region.
The second pilot project we are working on is in lottery. I am sure everyone knows that 80% of the funds for the Rio Olympics came from the Nigerian Lottery Commission. If you look in the United Kingdom and several other climes, the funds that cone from lottery go to thd funding of sometimes, education, health, NHIS and things like that. So, we are saying to ourselves that there is money in lottery and we got a lot of young people who got the energy and nerves to go out and be the sales agents. How about we start by creating 50 young persons in the Niger Delta region as entrepreneurs in the lottery business. That is pilot. We are hoping that at the end of their training and establishment, we then mandate these 50 that there payback to the commission will be to create another 50. So, it will become a revolving loan scheme but not in cash, but in kind, you will then be mandated having been trained and established. At the end of one year after establishing you, create for us, replicate yourself. If that works well, we then hope that in two years, we should have about 100 persons.
Now, don’t forget that it is not just about the business owner, it is about the spill offs, it is going to employ staff. But beyond the staff, he or she is going to employ sales agents, who are going to get about 20% out of that business. It is also about the GDP because 20% of what they earn will go back to the National Lottery Commission and therefore fund issues at the national. You then find out that basically we are looking at economies outside oil and that is what is at the back of our mind. How do we begin to take our young people away from thinking oil, oil companies, NDDC and start thinking about fast potentials that I can tap into and I can become my own entrepreneur and make my own money. I will probably be richer than the NDDC.
Is there any hope that the debts owed NDDC will eventually come considering the new image of the commission?
Well, I think that the matter of accessing the debts is a continuous engagement. One of the good things is that the oil companies are beginning to respond better, which is why we have been able to do what we did in a short while. Quite frankly, with amount of barrels of oil we produce reducing and oil prices plummeting, you definitely don’t expect that the resources that we went with so far are resources that came from our 13%. That is not the case. We had a situation where oil companies are beginning to respond; we still have quite a number that are yet to respond. But, we have seen a few respond better. The biggest debt we have in our book is the debt that comes from the federal government, especially as regards the Ecological Fund and even funding appropriately. Those are matters of engagement because they didn’t build up in a year. We have continued that process and I believe that my successors are going to do even better, because there will be a full board and they will be able to deal with this matter.
I think we should be on the side of positive because clearly people see that the money is being deployed appropriately. So, there is the tendency that they are going to be more inclined to supporting the commission and to ensure that we got the funding we need.
One of the ways I know this is that the Ford Foundation said during our meeting that they never considered the NDDC in their interventions because they did think that there were good enough behaviours but now they have seen transparency and accountability, so they are happy to engage. That is really the point. Many people see a big board transparency and accountability and access to information. Then, they know that well, it is not business as usual and therefore if they see that accountability or that access to information, then, it is not that the commission is just doing its business, it is accountable to people. The CSO groups are there and they are monitoring us. There is more stricter external monitoring of what we are doing.
Beyond funding, are there other challenges you face in NDDC?
It is really more of behaviour and values because this is not about the commission alone, it is about our various publics, internal and external. With the consistent years of acceptance of a rent economy, it is difficult to move forward from a rent economy to a productive economy. It is a transition that doesn’t come very easily to anyone and this is not specific to NDDC; it is actually a Nigerian problem. Because our values have plummeted to a point where government was seen as rent. So, it was about rent seeking across all spheres. It is going to take a lot for that to change but we are beginning to see some change on behavioural pattern. We are beginning to see young people who will come and just want some money, coming to us to say ok, Acting MD, we know you won’t give us money but we discovered that there is a water project you have had that hadn’t done so well and we think that if you let us, we can renovate it and you pay us. You tend seeing people thinking productive. You hear people say, Acting MD, if you can help me get financing, I have a piece of land and I will like to be able to farm.
So, the conversations are changing. Is it perfect? No! Will they use all the monies on what the claimed, perhaps, not. But there is a beginning of transition in the mind to say that when I get money, I ought to deploy into productive venture. That is a process and it is a good beginning. So yes, it was a question of culture that of rent and almost sense of entitlement to public funds. That was my biggest challenge because you are having to do with public funds and you don’t have a right to it because you are either from the Niger Delta or you are a big manor small man or middle man from the Niger Delta, therefore, you have a right to the money that is not really yours. It is public fund. That is something bad. I guess if you ask me my biggest challenge, probably it was that.