Driving into Beeri, in Ogoniland, there is a rustic calmness to the air that touches you. It is part of the unhurried airs about the people as they go about their business. It is in the grasses framing the farmlands on both sides of the road, and the naivete of the landscape that remains largely unspoilt, far from the mad bustle of Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State.
But, as you drive in, this quiet town, flamboyantly announced as Beeri City, comes alive. Her favourite daughter is coming home.
It is Christmas day and we are going to the country home of Gbene Dr. Joi Nunieh, acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, for what one presumed was a reception in her honour.
Driving into her compound, you hear the highlife music, urgent and raw as emotion, pulsing with the dialect of joy, in the language of a people famous for their capacity for industry, tolerance and hospitality.
And then you discover that, while the adults are yet to arrive (I am told that, being Christmas day, almost everyone is in church), her compound is filled with children, ranging from three to twelve years old. And as she alights from her vehicle, they begin to surge towards her, as though a mother had returned home from the market.
She opens her arms to receive them, her face beaming with childlike pleasure, unmindful that most of the people who were coming to spend this Christmas day with her were not yet there.
And then she begins to dance, laughing with the children, whom she calls her own, surrounded by their chatter and wild excitement.
“Dance na!”, she smilingly urges one boy, no more than 10, her tone betraying the popular nuance of the Nigerian. She looks around, her face an advertisement for joy. Slowly the boy begins to dance. Then, he lets go, swallowed by the pulse of the music and that of excitement running through his young body, as utterly trusting of her words as he is comfortable in her presence.
This is not the big woman the whole of Niger Delta – and Nigeria – has come to know, speaking to him; the managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission. This is mother, friend, benefactor, with a familiarity that perhaps he was born into, in this unbelievably tender-footed town.
And one suddenly finds oneself musing: Why would the managing director of an organisation as the NDDC find comfort in the innocence of children, and liberation in their company? After all, NDDC’s mandate compels serious attention, in a region which has suffered untold neglect. And her assignment, clearly spelt out, asks of her to fight against the distractions of corruption and incompetence, which have ensured that, almost two decades after its establishment, NDDC has failed to effectively address the long-standing yearning of the people. How does one who has such a tough assignment easily given to a dance with children? Why do these children love her so much?
And then, in this afternoon of music, dance and celebration – it is Christmas day, after all-, you suddenly understand the enigma of this firm, but compassionate technocrat, otherwise known as the Esther of Ogoni.
In the midst of children – and there are more children here than adults – her inner child, her most primal essence, often masked by the exigent tough mien of duty, the metaphor of circumstance in the corridors of power, danced to the fore.
For someone of whom a few speak with respect bordering on dread, around whom a few people tiptoed in the Commission, this was important insight, indeed. Suddenly, you understand why she is at once feared and loved. You realise that in order to bring the best out of Joi Nunieh, you must first be innocent as a child, pure of spirit and abhorrent of trickery, treachery and such other vices as corruption.
And then the deeper nature of her humanity and humility, of her childlike compassion and kindness, bound with firmness and a great sense of integrity, began to unfurl. Joi Nunieh is at once as quick to offer an easy smile to celebrate innocence as she is with a stern resolve to condemn the untoward and what cannot be justified in good conscience. But she is human, after all, in that simple elegance and boundless energy of her ‘children’.
And you begin to understand why President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a man famous for firmness, chose her to supervise the process of the rebuilding of the integrity of the Commission. She often says that her mission to the NDDC, with her Interim Management Committee, is to supervise a forensic audit of the Commission and root out every vice that had negated an effective implementation of its mandate.
The NDDC was established by an Act of the National Assembly in 2001 to facilitate the rapid, even and sustainable development of the Niger Delta, into a region that is socially stable, economically prosperous, politically peaceful and ecologically regenerative. In almost 20 years, while it has helped to restore peace and social stability in the region, the Commission has been linked to corruption, poorly executed projects and many more which are abandoned.
“We want to assure everyone in Nigeria and indeed the Niger Delta that their commonwealth will be accounted for,” she is quoted as saying. “We will make sure that the audit is carried out properly… The President is very particular about the Niger Delta, so it is important we have to drive the change effectively… He is spearheading the reform in the Commission with a firm order that the Commission must be strong again and fit for the purpose for which it was established.”
In her two months since resumption of duty, Joi Nunieh has already shaken the system. She has made many administrative changes and stopped the payment of N1 billion a month for a consultancy she says was indefensible. Such a courageous act. And she is determined to ensure that all avenues for resource leakages were plugged. And she goes about it with a zeal and firmness that has driven caution and fear in many service and project providers, as well as in staff of the Commission.
And yet, here she is, this Christmas afternoon, in this quiet town, in her simple country home, immersed in the excitement of children, as naïve as a child herself, her face as open as a book, her smile as undisguised as day. Joi Nunieh may be firm. But she is very compassionate and kind.
Soon, the grown-ups begin to join the reception. And as seamlessly she flows from child to adult, to an old women’s musical group who plays with such native, oral minstrelsy. She dances with them while they sing, laughing when they speak about men who sleep with their concubines, and who don’t know their way home. Is there something in this parable that speaks as metaphor of the Niger Delta experience?
There is so much to imagine, about this Christmas day unravelling of an enigma; of the compelling task of developing the Niger Delta region. And, as one seats here, watching the Akuni Cultural Group play the native drums with the gusto and enchantment that inspires a poet, it occurs to me that to work effectively with Joi Nunieh, you must approach your duties, whether as staff of the Commission, as contractor and consultant working for the Commission, as members of the communities, as partners (present and prospective), as youths, women and interest groups, you must first be honest about your intentions, dedicated to accomplishing your task of adding value to Niger Delta development, and unwilling to toy with the destiny of the region, to which she is, herself, dedicated.
And then, Joi Nunieh would “dance” with you. And, if necessary, ask you to dance with her, as she works to strengthen the Commission to meet its mandate.
Chijioke Amu-Nnadi is Deputy Director, Corporate Affairs Department of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC)