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Vol 64 No 10

Published 11th May 2023


Minister sacks oil clean-up boss as graft fears grow

The removal of the head of HYPREP is the latest effort to clear resistance to wholesale plunder of the $1 billion Delta anti-pollution programme

The head of the government agency charged with cleaning up decades of oil pollution by Shell in Ogoniland, Ferdinand Giadom, was summarily sacked without cause by President Muhammadu Buhari's Environment Minister, Mohammed Abdullahi, on 2 May.

This latest development marks the culmination of a decade of corruption and delay by Nigerian governments in cleaning up one of the world's most polluted oil production sites in what should have been a landmark US$1 billion project in coordination with the UN and British-based Shell PLC.

Giadom was removed because he was preventing improper contracts from being issued, impeccable sources told Africa Confidential. With Giadom gone, they added, contracts potentially worth over $200 million could now be issued. The contracts need to be rushed through, insiders said, before President Bola Tinubu takes office on 29 May. Tinubu is expected to appoint a new environment minister, which could disrupt the networks behind the bad contracts (AC Vol 63 No 24, Contractors who clean up).

On 2 May Giadom was summoned from HYPREP's Port Harcourt headquarters to the environment ministry in Abuja where the permanent secretary handed him a three-sentence dismissal letter sacking him 'with immediate effect' (See Box, Flown in for a sacking). No reason was given.

Giadom was appointed head of HYPREP in March last year, shortly before Abdullahi became environment minister, and they have clashed repeatedly ever since, we were told, over Giadom's refusal to let contracts go through on the nod and sticking to procurement rules.

One of the first items on Abdullahi's agenda when he took office in April last year was to sack Giadom, a civil service source said. He was told this was impossible as Giadom had been in post for less than a month, not long enough for complaints to arise, and he could not be dismissed without cause.

Giadom's appointment was part of an effort by Abdullahi's ministerial predecessor, Chief Sharon Ikeazor, to clean up HYPREP and put an end to the contract practices then current at the agency. After Chief Sharon was transferred Giadom had to fight on alone (AC Vol 63 No 21, Grand corruption wrecks Niger delta clean-up).

One of his successes, Abuja sources said, was to hold up 39 improperly drawn contracts for 'medium' level remediation in Batch 1 of Phase Two of the clean-up programme. The contracts are worth 93bn naira (US$201 million). These are the contracts expected now to be rushed through.

Before Giadom was sacked, two other obstacles to improper procedures had been removed. HYPREP's head of legal affairs, Sweet Okundaye, who had been seconded from the Ministry of Justice, constantly pointed out deviations in the contracts from procurement law. She was moved to another job in March this year, as was Benjamin Oyinloye, HYPREP's Director of Support Services, who was also objecting to improper contracts.

Giadom's replacement as Project Co-ordinator is another Ogoni, Nenibarini Zabbey, who was a lecturer at Port Harcourt University.

One commentator who knows both men said Zabbey is 'more pragmatic' than Giadom. Another professional said that Zabbey had worked closely with and was loyal to Philip Shekwolo, HYPREP's controversial head of technical services, whose pollution remediation work has been heavily criticised by the UN Environment Programme. Shekwolo had been interim head of HYPREP before Giadom's appointment.

In one of its biggest ever undertakings, in 2011 UNEP drew up the schedule for an initial five years' worth of remediation, costed at $1bn, to repair the disastrous pollution of Ogoniland, where oil was first discovered in the 1950s and has been in production ever since (AC Vol 52 No 17, Who cleans up in the Delta?).

UNEP described the region as one of the two worst polluted places on the planet, and that Shell's pollution remediation work, which Shekwolo had at times been responsible for during a long career with the company, was extremely poor. Shekwolo has always denied this and flung criticisms back at UNEP.

It was in reaction to the concerns of UNEP and others that Chief Sharon removed Shekwolo and replaced him with Giadom. When Chief Sharon was transferred, Shekwolo was reinstated as director of technical services.

Complaints about HYPREP also focus on Paul Ugbaha, the head of procurement. It was Ugbaha who replaced Benjamin Oyinloye, who was moved out of HYPREP after backing Giadom and objecting to questionable contracts.

Ogoni activists protesting against alleged corrupt contracts and environmentalists critical of HYPREP's work have focussed much of their anger, which has included pickets of the Port Harcourt headquarters, on Shekwolo. Neither Shekwolo nor Ugbaha has been subject to any indictment or law enforcement investigation.

The astronomical sums that may be plundered are approximate since neither HYPREP nor its parent ministry has published accounts, despite repeated calls to do so. One Ogoni activist group obtained a court order for HYPREP to stop work and produce accounts, but the action failed (AC Vol 64 No 5, Court tells HYPREP to come clean).

The contract funds are paid out of the Ogoni Trust Fund, into which the polluting International Oil Companies have contributed an estimated $360m so far, about $100m of which has been spent. They pay into the fund according to their shares in the Shell Petroleum Development Company, a joint venture with the state oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. NNPC has 55%, Shell 30%, France's TotalEnergies 10% and Agip, a subsidiary of Italy's ENI, 5%. NNPC has not paid in yet.

After spending $20m to $30m a year alarms bells started to ring when the 2022 HYPREP budget was set at $296m, a massive expansion taking spending far beyond the capacity, experts said, of the agency to monitor and control. As it was, many allegedly corrupt contracts had been let because their value was intentionally set just below the threshold at which they would be subject to audit by the Bureau of Procurement.

The budget expansion and its timing, just ahead of the February 2023 general election – raised suspicions in the Board of Trustees of the fund, which is composed of prominent Ogoni citizens, the environment and finance ministries, IOC  representatives, politicians and UNEP. But the doubters are in a minority, and the contracts are normally approved.

The chair of the Board of Trustees, Michael Nwielaghi, has been pressuring the IOCs to pay up the next tranche of funds due to the OTF because the Fund is running low, sources said.

Shell is said to be considering withholding further payments to the OTF until proper accounting is made for the money spent to date. Shell is trying to divest all its joint venture interests in Nigeria but the government is preventing this. The company is engaged in litigation over the pollution of parts of Ogoniland at the High Court in London for which a trial date has not yet been set (AC Vol 64 No 4, Shell takes hard line on oil-spill case).

We are told Shell fears that holding up funds to OTF could cause reputational damage and tempt the government into putting further obstacles in the way of its divestment plans and its other business in Nigeria.


UN reaches the end of its rope 

After protracted internal agonising, the UN's flagship global environmental protection agency, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), decided in January to sever ties with Nigeria's Hydrocarbons Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) over the issuing of contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to companies which are not carrying out the work and are not qualified, according to experts who have seen the documents (AC Vol 63 No 24, Contractors who clean up).

UNEP was all set to cut links at the beginning of this year, when its current contract expired, but it has compromised and set the finish date at the end of this year. We hear this followed an intervention from Deputy Secretary General of the UN, Amina J Mohammed, who was the Environment Minister under President Muhammadu Buhari who set up HYPREP for the second time in 2016. UNEP falls under her in the UN chain of command (AC Vol 60 No 14, False starts for the clean-up).

The news that UNEP was leaving trickled out when the current Environment Minister, Mohammed Abdullahi, let it out almost as an aside during an award ceremony in Ogoniland on 17 April. Abdullahi added that the UN's Office of Project Services (UNOPS), which handles large-scale procurement and infrastructure projects, would take over from UNEP in January.

UNEP confirmed to Africa Confidential that its consultancy contract was ending, and UNOPS told us it was 'currently in discussions with the relevant project partners in relation to the future of HYPREP'.

UNEP's growing dilemma over the years, as the corruption grew and the remediation work became more compromised, was whether to stay on and help as much as it could, or make a break because of the potential harm to its reputation.

But UNEP is not passing the buck, we are told. Fully aware of the pitfalls and the history, UNOPS is insisting it will only engage with HYPREP and the environment ministry if safeguards to end contract fraud are instituted and UNOPS's own standards for international procurement are applied. If such measures were in place the frauds could not take place.


Flown in for a sacking 

The Project Co-ordinator of the Hydrocarbons Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), Ferdinand Giadom, would have viewed 28 April with keen anticipation. That day, in a grand ceremony before large crowds in Wiiyaakara, Rivers State, in the heart of Ogoniland, Environment Minister Muhammed Abdullahi was to open, representing President Muhammadu Buhari, three flagship projects: a 100-bed specialist hospital, an electrification project connecting Ogoniland to the national grid, and ground-breaking for a Centre of Excellence for Environmental Restoration (AC Vol 63 No 24, Contractors who clean up).

There was nothing on the day to disturb joyful celebrations, speeches and the giving of traditional symbolic Ogoni gifts, such as fish and plantain. Abdullahi and Giadom were pictured together serenely sharing a sofa and wearing identical suits in traditional Ogoni stylings.

So, the storm that broke on Giadom when he flew in to Abuja to be sacked on the spot must have been all the more surprising. Abdullahi told Giadom the sacking was his 'reward for insubordination', we hear.

Abdullahi claimed he had the approval of President Buhari for his action. Africa Confidential called Olusegun Shogbola, a media aide to the Environment Minister on 4 May to ask why Giadom had been dismissed. Shogbola referred us to the presidency, insisting that the order to dismiss Giadom came from there, not from Abdullahi. He said the President had sent a letter to Abdullahi asking him to dismiss Giadom and appoint Nenibarini Zabbey in his place. When we pointed out that Abdullahi had signed the letter of dismissal, Shogbola insisted it was at the President's behest.

This account has been questioned because Buhari had, less than a week earlier, fulsomely praised the HYPREP projects opened on 28 April in a speech specially composed for the occasion and transmitted to it remotely. He applauded how the projects were restoring a 'sense of belonging' to Ogoni people and took credit for starting the clean-up. Pundits think it improbable that the President would risk the embarrassment of making a special appearance, praising a project to the skies and sacking its leader almost immediately after.

Giadom's removal is unlikely to be as smooth as his enemies hope. Normally, issues that lead to dismissal are preceded by complaints, words of warning, meetings and disciplinary procedures. No complaint had been made prior to the dismissal as far as our sources know.

Giadom appealed to HYPREP's supreme decision-making body, the Governing Council, on 4 May in a letter circulating on WhatsApp asking for due process and for the reasons for his dismissal to be set out in the hope, presumably, of being allowed to serve out the rest of his four-year term as Project Co-ordinator.

By the time that process is under way, however, the contracts will have gone out and the money spent, a commentator remarked.

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