By Achilleus-Chud Uchegbu
Senator Emmanuel Paulker may have played the devil’s advocate when he raised a motion for an abridgment o the tenure of the incumbent board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). In raising argument seeking to put an end to the tenure of the board led by Sen. Victor Ndoma-Egba, Paulker, one of the senators representing Bayelsa state, argued that the board’s tenure ought to have ended on the grounds that it was a continuation of the Sen. Bassey Henshaw-led board.
In his argument, leadership of the board ought to now revert to Bayelsa state given that the Act establishing the NDDC did provide for a rotation of its leadership among the nine NDDC states.
Paulker may have intended to make a case for his home state of Bayelsa, but in doing so, he stirred a nest and needlessly troubled some water. He would have been saved the hassle if he had been made aware of a legal opinion by the Attorney-General of the Federation which interpreted the actual meaning of cessation of membership of the board of NDDC, and vacancy, as intended by Section 3(1) of the NDDC Establishment Act.
In the mind of Paulker, the NDDC board ceases to exist on grounds that it was a continuation of the previous board which was sacked by the incumbent government in 2015.
Upon that argument, Paulker argued that vacancy now exists in the leadership of NDDC.
But in the legal opinion of the AGF, titled Re: Clarification on the Tenure of the Governing Board of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), signed by Solicitor General of the Federation, Dayo Apata, and dated October 11, 2017, it was stated that no vacancy exists in the leadership of the NDDC, as yet, as the incumbent tenure had a fresh mandate upon inauguration and ought to serve for four years. Paragraph 2(h) of the letter conveying the opinion marked LE.104/S.1/NDDC.01/25 stated specifically that “…the inauguration of the present NDDC board is a fresh tenure as contemplated by section 3(1), that is, a term of four years which is subject to renewal”.
In interpreting the NDDC Act, the AGF argued that “the proper interpretation of vacancy under Section 5(2) of the NDDC Act going by the ejus dem generis rule is to consider the instances where a board member can be said to have ceased to hold office as provided for under Section 5(1) (a-f) of the NDDC Act. Vacancy as used under Section 5(2) is a general term whose meaning can only come from the specific items listed under Section 5(1). Therefore, a vacancy that requires the appointment of a successor to complete an unexpired term can only occur if the six instances provided for under the Act occur”.
For emphasis, the six instances referred to, as conditions for cessation of membership of the NDDC board include bankruptcy, suspension, conviction, unsound mind, misconduct and resignation. None of these applied to members of the erstwhile NDDC board. What applied to the previous board was dissolution by the federal government. In the mind of the law, dissolution means termination and this indicates an end to the life; in this case, the life of the board. An end to the life of a board also interprets to end of tenure thus empowering any new appointments as having a life of its own, and, on a fresh mandate.
To this end, the AGF specifically argued that “dissolution of the Board cannot be categorized as a vacancy under the Act. Dissolution signifies total extinguishment of the Board, it simply ceases to exist, and therefore there cannot be any remainder of any term which as successor is expected to complete. There has to be fresh composition of the board for a fresh term of four years”.
This was the crux of the argument in the legal interpretation of Section 5(3), signed by Apata, Solicitor General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, which was procedurally upheld by then Acting Secretary to the Government of the Federation, to whom it was addressed. Perhaps, the Senate would not have been led into taking up that motion had Sen. Paulker taken cognizance of the details of the AGF’s interpretation which was premised on Section 5(3), the same section of the NDDC Act upon which Sen. Paulker based his contest.
Sen. Paulker presented his case before the senate in a manner suggesting that the Ndoma-Egba board is a usurping board. That information, as misleading as it was, was capable of rendering the work of the Commission, and also scare off international development partners, whose renewed interest in the NDDC is spurred by the openness and transparent conduct of business of the commission in the pursuit of its core mandate.
It is interesting that the Dr. Bukola Saraki-led senate has realized that there may have been wrongful information passed on to it leading to its entertainment of the Paulker motion and has moved to remedy the situation. Senate’s new move re-assures international development partners of the NDDC of the commitment of the upper legislative chamber to uphold the provisions of the NDDC Act, which itself is an act of parliament. This, the Senate has done by referring the matter to its committee on Niger Delta for review. In doing so, the Senate President said the matter will be resolved in a “gentlemen discussion”.
Commenting on Senate’s action, Senator Ahmed Lawan, who is Senate Majority Leader said “I want to appeal to all of us here that since we have a new SGF (Secretary to the Government of the Federation) who wants to work with us, in the spirit of this season and interest showed by the SGF, that he wants to deal with the issue, I will advise and move that we ask our Committee on NDDC to liaise with the Office of the SGF to look into the real issues so that we can deal with them”. This senatorial position comes in light of the understanding that the AGF interpretation of Section 5(3) of the NDDC Act is appropriate and renders Sen. Paulker’s motion a nullity. That also may be an added fillip to enable the board make a difference.
*Uchegbu, a journalist writes from Lagos