The ‘Esther of Ogoniland’ is making headlines yet again! Months after miraculously rising from the dead (while three other allegedly unpaid staff drowned) when the borrowed luxurious SUV they were in crashed in Mbiama River, Bayelsa – the home state of His Excellency, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and the Honourable Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, the self-proclaimed deliverer of the Ogoni people seems to be in deeper water (no pun intended) within the Ministry of Petroleum Resources where, for many months, she has been embroiled in a power-struggle between the honourable minister and the recently deposed permanent secretary of the ministry of petroleum resources, Ambassador Abdulkadir Musa.
Joy Nunieh-Okunnu, the overambitious National Co-ordinator of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project, popularly known as HYPREP, seemed to have it all… or so she thought. HYPREP was established in July 2012 by the Jonathan-led administration after it commissioned the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to undertake an environmental assessment of Ogoniland after decades of devastation caused by oil spills in the region. However, HYPREP, for most, seems to be the federal government’s diversionary strategy from statutory institutional mechanism needed to address almost 50 years of environmental injustices in the Niger Delta; while for others seems to be a noble cause for the entire people of the region when selfish interests are taken out of the equation. It’s as simple as that.
Meanwhile- the facts remain: Two years after the submission of the UNEP report to the presidency, where an inter-ministerial committee was set up to make recommendations on its implementation, which led to the establishment of HYPREP, it is absolutely bizarre that not a trace of clean-up has commenced in the affected areas despite the massive PR campaign that Nunieh-Okunnu embarked on in Eleme, Tai, Khana and Gokana- the four local government areas of Ogoniland. It is equally bizarre that despite these campaigns, which have been blatant lies and clearly for the sole purpose of self-aggrandizement to further her political ambitions, the most important aspect of the restoration of the land which, according to the UNEP recommendations, is to carry out emergency water measures to all impacted areas. In simpler terms: to provide clean, uncontaminated water to ALL who need it!
In over a year, ALL HYPREP can be credited for is scattering a few EMPTY plastic gee-pee brand-type water containers in some areas of the above mentioned LGA’s. That- and of course- the few (long-since defaced) anti-crude oil theft billboard and signposts warning the communities not to swim, fish, bathe in, or drink from the river. How can this even begin to make sense when the agency giving out these warnings does not provide an alternative? One thing is for sure; these containers make a mockery of HYPREP, the minister and the ministry of petroleum resources, the federal government and most especially the people who themselves are living with the pollution where, according to UNEP’s findings, it shows hydrocarbon pollution in surface water throughout the creeks in Ogoniland and up to 8cm in groundwater which makes drinking wells or boreholes completely useless. Also soils have been found to be polluted in observed sites and benzene, a known chemical which causes cancer, was found in drinking water at levels 900 times above the World health Organisation (WHO) standards.
Did, or does, Nunieh-Okunnu, a card-carrying member and part of the legal team of the Buhari-led CPC party qualify for this job? Granted- she herself is a daughter of the soil of Ogoniland but is that enough? Her only claim to fame has been that she was a lawyer to the late Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9 (surely, that didn’t do them any good seeing as they went to the gallows anyway!), as well as being a contestant in the last senatorial elections in the FCT (which she obviously lost). However, the underlying issues of her lust for power as the boss of HYPREP has since led to a massive fall-out between the Honourable Minister Alison-Madueke who had apparently dished out her ‘execution orders’ (not literally, of course) after she had allegedly publicly declared that as national coordinator she, not the minister, had the sole right to speak publicly for/be the face of HYPREP, and no-one, not even the minister who she reports to, could unseat her as HYPREP’s boss. Of course it goes without saying that the minister, in turn, completely disregards Nunieh-Okunnu and grants her no access to her hallowed offices on the 10th floor of the NNPC tower block.
Since its establishment in July 2012, HYPREP has been befogged with issues; the first of which hammered on the fact that it should be an agency under the ministry of environment for the obvious reasons that they would be dealing with environmental issues or headed by NOSDRA, and not under the ministry of petroleum resources. Next came the propaganda about being unarguably the best and most gratifying bureau that ever was in the history of the Federal Republic of Nigeria simply because all staff were specially recruited (or poached) from abroad. Not only that, all staff had doctorate degrees (and some with several even) therefore the salary structure would be in line with that of the ‘fat-cat’ Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation’s (NNPC), as stated in the appointment letters of the handful that had received them. Surely anyone working within this organisation would walk with much swagger and sangfroid, a broad smile behind their staid looks, singing in their heads sanctimonious platitudes such as “God pass them joor”, that finally they’d gotten the perfect job? Think again.
In the little over a year of its existence, HYPREP has not, and still cannot produce a working budget. It seems that all the so-called professionals have been made redundant because they have a super-boss who knows-all and does all. If so, then why employ anyone at all? Better still why employ 200 persons when one solitary man (or woman, as the case may be) would suffice? Apparently, working in HYPREP is not a bed a roses as the number of man-hours put into the job is astronomical. Practically every working day of the week the closing time is on average 9pm… on a good day. On those days sometimes the lights are put out in the office block by 10:30pm and the lifts are shut down without warning- all in the bid to get rid of staff from the building. Sometimes, staff who aren’t fast enough to gather their belongings together are left to grope their way out of the dark and walk down five flights of stairs to relative freedom before going across to the other side to wait for a taxi cab home- where reported cases of robbery have been made.
As if that is not enough, Nunieh-Okunnu subjects her staff to her residence at weekends (some weekdays too when it is not convenient for her to go to the office) to ‘work’ (‘work’ being a relative term for the constant repetition of the same issues discussed previously) which carries on till the early hours of the morning. One wonders what gets accomplished working with a person who, at the end of the day, achieves nothing. Apparently, every effort that is put in is heavily slated, with insults rained on practically everyone like common criminals; files, crockery, water and anything within reach being flung at the offender of the moment. With all the arduous work conditions one is put through one would want to be consoled by the fact that at the end of the month salaries will be paid. Again, not so!
Month after month has passed by, yet only once in February 2013 were salaries fortuitously paid. Conversely, the way salaries were paid was full of smoke and mirrors. Mrs. Nunieh-Okunnu paid herself every penny of the six months she was owed, not only did she do so; she fraudulently inflated her salary by doubling it. The fraud did not stop there. The minions, whom she distastes, had their salaries slashed. The ones whom appeared dear to her- their salaries inflated. It is quite scandalous as to how this level of fraud, which has since been discovered by the ministry of petroleum resources, without any disciplinary action (or outright dismissal) has taken place. The pathetic state in which HYPREP is being run is a complete disgrace much so that the consummate professional would weep. This is most certainly not in line with International best practices as often heard quoted by this so-called national co-ordinator in the media. Still, promises are being made and broken without qualms.
However, Nunieh-Okunnu ‘seems’ to be highly influential. This is the same lady (that’s debatable) who was given a Two Hundred Million Naira (N200,000,000.00) road construction contract by the government of Rivers State led by His Excellency, Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi and was paid over 75% of the contract sum and to date not even water has been sprinkled on ground to begin the job. EFCC, where are you? How can this same person be entrusted with a one billion dollar ($1,000,000,000.00) Ogoni clean-up exercise? It is a clear fact that one of the reasons staff salaries have not been paid since the one and only payment in February 2013 is because of this fraud carried out by the national co-ordinator. Staff have literally been crying. Wedding preparations have crashed. Relationships have been strained. Eviction notices for most staff have long since been handed out. However, Nunieh-Okunnu couldn’t care less about her employees’ welfare as she emphatically warns everyone that this topic must not be broached. Generally, HYPREP staff have been reduced to becoming serial borrowers. Approval for loans are summarily dismissed or discarded like toilet paper; meanwhile most times while on official duty, employees are forced to pay their way to their various out-of-state assignments without airfare, hotel accommodation, taxi fare, out-of-station allowance, etc. What other ministry in this country does this and gets away with it? If the funds are provided, yet doesn’t get to the personnel its intended for, then pray-tell to whose deep pockets does it go into?
If the fraud that was carried out is not enough to dismiss Mrs. Nunieh-Okunnu and restructure the organization, what of the lives that were lost in a road mishap recently? To be precise, on May 1st, 2013, the popularly celebrated Worker’s Day holiday was marred by tragedy when the grim reaper claimed the lives of 3 members of staff. Ironically that Workers Day- which is ideally meant for civil servants to take a day off and rest- turned out to be a day of eternal rest for them because the national co-ordinator, in her habitual imperious manner, demanded that all key staff members proceed to Bayelsa State via Port-Harcourt for a second ‘opening’ of a branch office, resulting in lives being lost, leaving behind grieving families.
In fact, it turned out that the deceased were not, in theory, actual members of staff- even having worked for several months at HYPREPs Abuja headquarters as they were not issued with employment or confirmation letters! This is a startling revelation, as it is unthinkable that anyone would commence a job without an employment letter? Could it be an employment racket going on in HYPREP? Or did the ministry of petroleum resources deliberately not give out letters because of the sheer number of staff who were being employed outside the approved number by the permanent secretary? It is worthy of note that two of the deceased Drs Labbo and Aguwa, renowned experts in their different fields, were recommended to HYPREP by the Honourable Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon Aminu Tambuwal and his deputy Rt. Hon Emeka Ihedioha respectively. Also, that David the driver (who was NOT in any way a staff of the organization) was a driver of the national co-ordinator’s friend and the SUV that was recovered from the bottom of the river, which was written off after being submerged for close to five hours belonged to this same friend.
After the Mbiama river incident- where only Nunieh-Okunnu astonishingly emerged with only a broken collar bone and half her teeth missing- she was alleged to have resurfaced with her animal-skin handbag in one hand while struggling to swim to shore with the other disabled limb before she was rescued by local divers who literally watched the accident happen! The erstwhile permanent secretary of the ministry of petroleum resources, Ambassador Abdulkadir Musa, was said to have openly wept on hearing the news of the accident. Fondly called the ‘high priest of HYPREP’ by none other than the national coordinator, whom she proclaimed was her ‘rock’ and avid supporter of HYPREP to anyone who cared to listen. However, it is not quite understood how this same person she called her ‘rock’ turned to the first name on her persona non grata list. It seemed that she could no longer tolerate his fatherly warnings about her continuous disregard for the procedures of the Nigerian civil service, especially with staffing issues, non-payment of salaries, and placing non-qualified staff, or worse, staff with very few years’ experience, over others with more than enough experience. All bets seemed to be off with her ‘high priest’ when an investigation into financial misappropriation was set up and soon afterwards began to prove to him that she no longer needed him.
The question remains: why is the ministry of petroleum resources keeping someone who has no inkling of administration in this position? HYPREP was established to function directly under the supervision of the minister of petroleum resources. Today, the organization has a staff strength of approximately 200 (with mostly Ogonis which is rather bizarre for a national agency)… and counting, which is contrary to the agreement with the minister! Currently the organisation is in a deadlock trying to lay off personnel due to over-staffing which the national coordinator was initially warned about but totally ignored.
Known within her small band of Port Harcourt friends as a ‘prayer warrior’, it sure will be a wonder to see how she prays herself out of this mess. At this rate she should be looking for a saviour of her own to deliver her from the ones she was chosen to serve, rather than being the so-called ‘Esther’- who delivered her people. As HYPREP catchphrase goes, “Stop crude oil theft. Start the restoration”. Indeed it is time to stop all forms of theft, deceit, lies, selfishness etcetera. That great saying, “Pride goeth before a fall” springs to mind. The ministry of petroleum resources and the federal government need to get rid of this self-proclaimed ‘Esther’. It is worthy of note (although not a well-known fact) that Nunieh-Okunnu’s position at HYPREP has always been in an acting capacity even though she runs the organisation like her own private enterprise. The Ogoni people do not need a saviour. They need a truly honest person to actually start the restoration. Whoever it may be, it certainly should no longer be Joy Nunieh-Okunnu.
This article was first published in The Leadership Newspapers