IbimSemenitari was appointed acting managing director/CEO of Niger Delta Development Commission (NNDC) five months ago. In this interview, she discusses new story of the commission on her watch, her working relationship with ex-Governor RotimiAmaechi and the politics of Rivers State, among others.
How did you receive the news of your appointment?
It came as a shock because I didn't solicit; I wasn't expecting it. So, that is why I said it came as a shock. It was also a pleasant surprise because the news was first broken to me by my boss and my leader. He called me and asked if I have received any letter and I say no. He then told me, and this was about two, three days before I got a call asking me to pick up a letter. It was a shock and it was also a very pleasant surprise.
Shortly after your appointment, many groups, especially one from AkwaIbom, petitioned the president, that the state had been cheated out of the job? Do you think you got the job out of turn?
I’ll try to be very careful in my response to that, the reason being that there is precedence to this. I will be the fourth acting managing director; so, it won't be the first time. When an acting managing director is appointed, it is not necessarily to complete the tenure that was already existing. It is important to make the point. Having said that, you must understand that asking and making demands is a fundamental right of every human being and people would ask, if they think so, that they would have preferred it this way or that, you know. They are not saying that out of spite and it is important, too, to know that, because when you understand that people are not being spiteful, they are just asking because they believe it is their due, then you come to this with a bit of a different mindset. The only thing to say is that it won't be the first time - there is a precedence.
What role, if any, did former Governor RotimiAmaechi play in helping you get the job?
The truth of the matter is that in terms of political leadership, he is my political leader. The president will not just appoint me from Rivers State without asking questions and he has no reason to do so, quite frankly. So, if he thought, oh, we need somebody in the NDDC and who do you think will be there? He will speak with critical stakeholders of whom Rt. Hon. ChibuikeRotimiAmaechi is chief. So, I think that it is clear, it is evident and I served under him as commissioner for information. It is clear, it is evident that he would have made submissions to Mr. President to say, ‘oh, in line with your vision, in line with the things you want to do, I believe that Mrs. Semenitari is someone who could be useful.’ I am sure that once he made that presentation, don't forget that the right to appoint resides with Mr. President and Mr. President could listen to him and say, ‘no, no, no, I don't agree with you’. But he will definitely understand that this gentleman would only wish him well. So, if he (Amaechi) makes recommendations, he (Mr. President) would take another look at it definitely. I think, without a doubt, he was very critical to my appointment.
How would you react to suggestions that the position of MD NDDC was one of the key positions parceled out to former Governor Amaechi for his role in getting President Buhari elected?
I think that will be an uncharitable thing to say because I don't know how much you can reward anything. I think former Governor Amaechi wasn't seeking reward. Politics is over but it is important to put it on record that he worked. He is someone that if he believes in something he does it, and he believed that Nigeria needed a different person as president. He believed that the man, MuhammaduBuhari, had all it took to change the trajectory and he envisioned Nigeria that was heading in a different direction. For him, having MuhammaduBuhari there was great for the integrity of the country, and also to pull back the country from the brink. That was why he did what he did. I worked with him closely, so I know he didn't do what he did for a reward. So, I really think that it will be quite uncharitable to look at the whole of this through the prism of reward. I don't think that is a fair way to describe what happened.
There appears to be too many agencies/departments dealing with issues in the Niger Delta. There is the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, the Amnesty Programme and, of course, the NDDC. Do you think they should be streamlined?
I guess if you take another look, each of them comes with an Act. The NDDC has an Act. What I can say and what is probably important is that the three agencies are working together. There is plenty of collaboration happening now amongst the three of us. The Amnesty Office, the NDDC and the Ministry of Niger Delta are working as a team. So, we are all on the same team; we don't have situations where each person is doing a different thing. That might have happened in the past, but that is not the situation as we speak. Would it be nice to have everyone in one good bunch? Yes, that will be ideal and I am sure that, as government looks at it, they will find ways to ensure that it is one neat nice bunch.
What real impact are these agencies/departments having on the life of ordinary people in this region?
It won't be an easy question for me to answer, the reason being that one is the head of one of these agencies - whatever I say might be seen as self-serving; definitely, it might not be objective. I think that question should best be answered by people who observe what we do.
You have been five months now in the chair. What three top-drawer issues have you been dealing with?
The big one is perception. There is a perception challenge. The second one is a huge backlog of debts. Our debts situation is really bad. The third is insufficient fund and the fourth is a challenge in service delivery. So, those are the troubles on my head; they are my top-drawer issues.
We noticed that you are trying to streamline the contract-awarding process. What are the major changes you are trying to introduce?
The first is that we are insisting on greater probity, accountability because that is very critical for development agencies, such as ours, which rely heavily on support and funding from others. Using the word, donors, could be strong but quite frankly,our funding comes from donors in a manner of speaking. So, it is important that we are able to show probity. In streamlining the contracts, the other thing is that we must be able to deliver service to our people ultimately. That is also very important; not just that we are giving them projects, not just that we are giving them infrastructure, but that we are giving them good, quality infrastructure at the best price and, therefore, the communities are getting value for money. The third, and even more important, is that matter of wealth creation and human development in the communities. As you go round the communities, you discover the level of poverty; our people are quiet unable to take care of their needs. That is because a lot of their livelihood has gone with oil pollution and environmental degradation. So, many of them are left without too many options. And that is why, without making excuse for criminality, sometimes you see that the huge levels of criminality you find in the region is due to poverty and lack of access to wealth.
Share with us the kind of system you hope will be in place when the changes are done?
A transparent process, a transparent system, a system that is almost on autopilot in the sense that people, for instance, know that they have worked and will get their payment without having to know anybody. They know that they can bid and win a contract as the best for the job. They know that if it is the NDDC, then there is a standard because, for instance, we are working on a standardisation manual that says if you are building a road for the NDDC, this is the basic minimum that we will accept. So, just as the talk about the Shell standard, they can begin to talk about the NDDC standard and we hold people to the highest form of ethical conduct.
How can the commission be made more transparent and accountable?
You know the thing is that there are already processes that enable it to be so. For instance, the NDDC Act insists that we present a quarterly report to Mr. President. That is one of the ways to be more accountable and we’ve got the Partners for Sustainable Development (PST) forum; we got the independent oil companies (OPTS) forum. These are levels of checks. Of course, we got the regular presidential monitoring committee and other things. The fact of the matter is that government and bureaucracies will be transparent only in so far as the communities, the stakeholders demand that they are transparent. So, rather than leave it at the behest of whoever sits as CEO, the people must begin to demand for greater accountability. The media, for instance, should be asking the NDDC at the end of each quarter, have you submitted your quarterly report? That should be an issue; it should be a question. It should begin to ask government agencies as they begin preparation for budget what they did with the previous budget, how did you spend it? We must begin to demand accountability because, otherwise, no one is going to give it to you; no one will hand it over to you. The media must be the first of the people to demand accountability of all of us who are in public office. Communities that the NDDC serve must begin to demand greater accountability from the NDDC.
Will you support the publication of its audited accounts, for example?
I think that will be a great idea. Our quarterly report, for instance, will be made public. Once we have submitted to Mr. President, we will upload it on the commission's website and it will be available to everyone.
You are the first woman, though not the first journalist, to occupy the chair. Any indications so far that some people in the system are trying to take advantage of your being a woman?
First thing is that I am not the first; there were two females before me, Dr. Mrs. Christy Atako and Mrs. Asako. Now, the difference is that they were from within the system. I am the only acting managing director who has come from outside the system. Whether male or female, I am the only one who has come from outside the system. So, I just want to correct those facts because, sometimes, that could be an issue. Do people want to undermine me? Believe me, I tend not to notice some of those things. The reason is that I think that every time when you think, oh, there someone there who is undermining me, I just focus on doing the job. Get the job done, and as long as you are doing your job and people are trying to undermine you, they won't succeed if you are focused. Just stay focused. Quite frankly, it is hard for me to notice. It is like someone who is running a race; you are doing a 100-metre dash and you are spending time looking around to see if they crowd is cheering or not. It is not about the crowd, it is about the finish line. So, you just focus on getting to the finish line; I don't need to worry about who is watching me, who is cheering me on, who is not cheering me on, what my opponents do, what do they say? No, you got a race to run, you got a 100-metre dash to focus on.
You have toured the states covered by the NDDC. What peculiar problems, if any, have you found in the states?
There are lots of them; it is had to pick one thing. The big issue is infrastructure - connecting of communities. You know that many of our states are in difficult terrain, and so you can say the infrastructure gap is huge. That is a major issue. The other one is the matter of poverty; it literally stares you in the face from community to community.
How can the impact of the commission be felt more in the states? Give examples, with projects and project ownership.
This is why we are working the way we are working. What we want to do is to make sure that the communities feel our presence; to make sure that the developments we need to make do happen. If you have the road that you need in your community, if you are connecting, for instance, I keep talking about the Ogbia-Nembe Road, that connects so many communities, or if you are talking about the Barigolo Road that connects Ijaw communities that had never before seen a road, or the road to Bomadi - all those kinds of critical needs - or the shoreline protection in Ayeto; so that people in the communities can relate to a government.
And make no mistakes about it; in some of these communities, the NDDC is the only government they know. There are many communities that the only government they know, it might seem, is the NDDC.
What legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your tenure?
I would like to leave behind a commission that is more effective, more efficient in service delivery to the peoples of the Niger Delta. I would like to leave behind a commission whose processes have been streamlined and whose vision is quite clear. I would like to leave behind a stronger, more vibrant commission and one that doesn't carry the baggage of negative perception of being unable to deliver service to the people.
What in your previous political or professional experience prepared you for this job?
I think being a journalist prepares you for everything and anything. But, most specifically, I come from the Niger Delta region. Apart from the fact that I am a journalist, I was also in activism. So, my activist background meant that I was involved very much in a lot of the Niger Delta struggle. I engaged in it at different levels; I was very much involved. So, I understood some of the issues, plus, when the NDDC began, I was part of those who were engaged in some of the works as regards the master plan, etc. So, I had an idea of what was going on in the commission and what the commission stood to achieve. Again, my background is Financial Journalism. It deals a lot with matters of public spending. I trained journalists in that area - public spending, budget monitoring. Therefore, public sector reporting was something I am very used to, and if it is the public sector, you see it from the prism on the other side. You kind of, when you sit on this side, know what the public expect from you. Do you always do it right? Possibly not. But do you know what the public expects? Yes, you do. So, I also had that as additional help. Then, of course, politically, having the benefit or privilege of serving under Rt. Hon. ChibuikeRotimiAmaechi for six years definitely prepared me for this, especially because I served under a governor who was development-oriented, literally hungry for and passionate about driving development in the rural communities. So, you couldn't help but to be bitten by the bug of wanting to develop every nook and cranny the best you could.
As commissioner for information in Rivers State, you were often the target of political attacks. Once your house was invaded and your car burnt. Did you feel like quitting at any stage, honestly?
Several times. I mean, I am human. If you talk of quitting as commissioner, yes, but changing my views, no. Again, I come with an activist background; I have been to all kinds of fight. We fought the military, we fought for June 12. In my Students’ Union days, we fought. I come from an activist background, so that is not a problem. When I believe in something, I stand by it. Are you human? Yes. When it gets dangerous, when bullets are shot at you, do you think it might make more sense to quit because you are a mother and you’ve got kids to worry about? Yes. When you have to go through a lot of stress and literally find out that your friends and family are holding the shorter end of the stick, because you are giving so much of yourself to a cause you believe in, do you have second thoughts? Yes, you do. That is a natural feeling. When people cast aspersions on you and are most uncharitable with the things they say and with the way they view you or few your actions, does it bother you? Yes, you are a human being; it will bother you, it will trouble you. But, it's life, you get up, you move on. Even Jesus who came to die for us, people said things about him. Quite frankly, for human beings, you can never get it right.
What did your husband say to you at the height of the attacks?
He prayed for me.
PDP's victory over APC in Rivers State at the last election was a massive blow to Governor Amaechi and those of you who worked hard to prevent it. In hindsight, do you think that things could have been different?
Some of these are matters before the court of law and I will be very restrained in my response. I would say that, ultimately, posterity will prove us right.
Do you think Amaechi took some things for granted?
I hope that you recall that the election was not about Governor Amaechi. He wasn't running for office and it is important that you remember that. Other people were running for office and not Governor ChibuikeRotimiAmaechi. Rivers people have their destinies to worry about; who wins or who loses is not an Amaechi problem. It is about us, the electorate in Rivers State. It is important we domicile things in the right place. Of course, Rt. Hon. ChibuikeAmaechi, as a Rivers son, will have an interest as someone who sat as governor for eight years; who drove development and he would like to see the development continue. Was the election about him? No, it was not. It is important that people understand this. I say that because always dragging him into conversations, I think, is reducing the influence of the man who served as governor for eight years and is now a minister of the Federal Republic. He is a Nigerian statesman, not just a Rivers man.
You worked with him for eight years. How would you describe him?
Passionate, visionary, committed, determined, focused, resolute, gentle, kind.
In what way has your schedule changed when you compare your position as information commissioner with your current post?
It has changed. As commissioner for information, I thought I didn't have a life; now, I know I don't have a life. As commissioner for information, I still managed to find time to catch my breath, but as acting managing director of NDDC, I have to worry about nine states. I still have to go to Abuja repeatedly; I still have to report to those I must give report to. I must be accountable to the communities. It is a lot of work; it is a lot of activity; it is a lot of being pulled in different directions. But, it is an opportunity to serve a lot more people than I served as commissioner for information in Rivers State.
Journalists are often thought to be poor managers. Do you think it's an exaggeration?
Again, this will be me assessing myself. I don't think I should assess myself; I think my work should speak for me. I would like to hear your views when I am done here. I served in Rivers State for six years; I managed the Rivers State Ministry of Information and I like to know what journalists like you think: did I do a good job?
Often members of the public on the receiving end complain of unfair or outright misleading reports by the press. Have you felt that way in the last five months?
I have felt that way in the last six years and four months. It happens all the time but it is important we also situate this. It happens when people are less than professional in how they handle their work. It is not everyone you deal with that is a journalist. Is the person trained? Is the person a professional? However, have there been media reports that are less than honest, less than fair, less than accurate? Yes. Do we throw away the baby with the bath water? No, because just as you don't refuse to see a doctor because you saw a doctor that did the wrong thing, does it make every journalist a bad professional?
Who are your role models? And why?
I have a lot of them, different people for different reasons. Catherine Graham, the founder of the Washington Post. She is a woman I admire greatly. She is a newspaper womancharacterised. I literally read her like a book, like a Bible. My grandmother is one of the strongest influences on my life. She is a strong woman and one of my role models. My mum and my dad. Politically, there is something about Madeline Albright that I like. It is not just her strength of character, but the fact that she rose through the ranks and she understands politics and governance in the United States. Like I said, it is a long list. When you talk about passion, commitment and focus, Rt. Hon. ChibuikeRotimiAmaechi stands out. I think that one could learn one thing or two from his passion and commitment.
Many people have said former First Lady Patience Jonathan was a misunderstood woman. Your paths crossed a number of times, especially in your years as commissioner in Rivers. What do you think of her?
I don't know about crossing paths with the former First Lady. I think that might be some bit of exaggeration. However, do I happen to know Mrs. Jonathan? Yes. I am well acquainted with her. We actually had a relationship that was quite cordial at a time. We had what I would have considered a very close relationship. How would I describe her? Again, I am very wary of throwing descriptions out but I would like to say that she has a very beautiful face.
Political tension in Rivers State still appears high, even after the Supreme Court judgement on the governorship elections. What do you think needs to be done to calm things down?
I think it is important that all political actors realise that the people are more important, and that for every life people don't care when it is taken, I think they are going to account for it very seriously to God and to society. You can't be in political leadership and not be worried when you’ve got people being mowed down in communities. As someone who has earned the title of political leader in my own small way, it bothers me. I hope that it bothers every person who is privileged to be called a political leader of a sort. However, what can we do about it? The security agencies do have to think again about their mandate and fact that it is important they secure life and property. It is important they think about that. Communities need to ask themselves what really matters to them. Do they want the young children being mowed down or do they want to come together and say ‘that’s enough; enough of the killings’. The electorate have to ask themselves, today it is Mr. A's turn, tomorrow could be my turn. So, you have to sit down and say to yourselves, no more. These are very important things that have to be done, because, ultimately, security is not just about the leadership, it is about the followership as well. What are they willing to accept? What they are willing to refuse? So, all of us must come together and say, ‘we can't continue to kill ourselves and mow people down in broad daylight. It doesn't sound nice’.
You have left Rivers State government, yet you seem still very actively involved in the state's politics as seen in the last election. Why?
Because I am a politician in Rivers State. I left Rivers government as commissioner for information; that was a job. What I do as a politician is what I chose to do. I won't stop being a politician because I am no longer commissioner for information or because I am no longer the acting managing director of the NDDC. Politics doesn't work that way.