The crisis rocking the National Assembly deepens as the House of Representatives adopts desperate measures to redeem its image from the Oil Subsidy Probe scandal
Last week the crisis rocking the House of Representatives deepened as the lawmakers faced the conflict of producing the marked $620,000 bribe money which Farouk Lawan, former chairman of the Oil Subsidy Probe Committee, admitted collecting from oil marketer, Femi Otedola. After detaining Lawan for two days, the police released him on bail with the request that he should provide the money to be used as exhibit. But by the end of last week, the House was yet to submit the money. By Friday, the police were getting upset that Lawan was playing games with them, while the House was getting jittery over how to handle the knotty issue.
Police sources told the magazine that they are working on the theory that some members of the House have shared the money and that is why Lawan is fencing while they try to arrange money to give as exhibit. On Wednesday, Lawan was at the Force Headquarters but the police said he came without the money as he promised. The police say he has put them in an “investigative quandary” from which they are trying to wriggle out.
Lawan allegedly claimed to have submitted it as “exhibit” to Jagaba Adams, House Committee chairman on Drugs, Narcotics and Financial Crimes, for safekeeping to prove that some people were putting “pressure” on the committee. This was the major defence line of Lawan which if successful would have routed the money to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. However, last week, Adams wrote to the Speaker and officially denied knowing anything about the money. The EFCC has also denied knowing about or being part of the operation at any level whatsoever. The commission stated that the only communication it has on the probe was the report forwarded to it by President Goodluck Jonathan for necessary action.
Indeed, the police are now working with the theory that the money has been shared.
While the banks are being combed for traces of the money, Lawan, members of his committee and some other members of the House considered relevant to the case are being monitored by the police. However, some detectives fear this may end up a waste of time as they suspect that the lawmakers may not have taken the money to any standard financial house. Rather, they suspect that the dollars may have gone through the black market and may be difficult to track down.
This puts further pressure on Lawan. The police are running out of patience for him to provide the bribe money as evidence so that the case can move forward. This underscores the weakness of the “sting operation,” which did not follow the standard procedure of springing an arrest at the point of commission of the crime. The implication is that there is no guarantee that the dollars that will eventually come out will be the allegedly marked ones that Lawan and Boniface Emenalo, clerk of the Committee who is a civil servant, are said to have collected. If the marked money is not produced, then it may be difficult to prove the case against Lawan, especially when his image in the amateur video footage has been described as a “caricature.”
Abubakar Tsav, a retired police commissioner, said this much, apparently faulting the method of the State Security Service, SSS, in failing to arrest the suspects immediately after the crime so they could get the marked money from them. A security source had claimed that the legislators were not arrested immediately, because they wanted to determine the veracity in the claim that the bribe was to expunge the names of Otedola’s companies from the committee’s report. However, that happened long ago and so the security sought to have moved fast after the report was submitted. The argument is that had that been done, the marked money would have been recovered. But if the currency cannot be retrieved, a security source said that does not in anyway clear the suspects from the allegations. Rather he said the call logs and the statements made to the police are strong enough to put them on trial.
Meanwhile, more trouble may be in the offing for the embattled House as another allegation of N11 billion bribe involving the Oil Subsidy Probe Committee, now headed by John Enoh, has been raised. Things are getting so rough for the House that trying to quarantine Lawan as an individual virus, which has not infected the whole body, is not working. In the same vain, efforts made to divert attention by engaging the President through extra-constitutional gamble may also not deceive the public, now literarily baying for the blood of the political class.
Last week, Aminu Tambuwal, speaker of the House of Representatives, survived the scare of being impeached for vicarious liability over the oil subsidy probe bribery scandal when the members passed a vote of confidence on his leadership in an emergency plenary session. But that did little to douse the raging corruption inferno threatening to swallow the whole National Assembly, even as the House deployed counter measures.
The desperation of the House deepened last Tuesday when members in an extra-constitutional move summoned President Goodluck Jonathan, Owoeye Azazi, National Security Adviser, NSA, and the security chiefs to brief the House in a closed-door session on the worsening security situation in the country. While the Constitution empowers the NASS to summon the NSA and the security chiefs, they do not have such power over the President. The thinking is that this is a strategy to browbeat Jonathan into submission for “allowing” the House to be disgraced in the famous Femi Otedola “sting” operation that caught the Farouk Lawan-led oil subsidy probe panel in a web of $620,000 bribe scandal. One representative regretted that Jonathan was busy putting the NASS in a bad light instead of solving the insecurity problem in the country. Femi Gbajabiamila, the minority leader, noted that the time had come for the House to go beyond motions and resolutions in addressing the state of insecurity in the country.
The House had considered summoning the President to address a joint session of the NASS but they foresaw difficulty in getting the Senate to agree. They equally considered and rejected a proposal asking the President to begin dialogue with Boko Haram. However, the House unanimously condemned Jonathan’s trip to Brazil for the 2012 Earth Summit while his country faced serious security threats. They regretted that the government has failed to justify the close to N1 trillion allocated to security in the 2012 budget given the increasing anarchy and bloodletting in the country. The National Assembly is also set to probe the payment of N155 billion approved by the President to Malabo Oil and Gas Company, without appropriation by the legislature. All these were seen as trying to get back at Jonathan for the bribery scandal, as Otedola is alleged to be his friend. If that is true, then it further puts a question mark on attempts by the legislature to perform its oversight functions on matters affecting the Executive. Reuben Abati, special adviser on media and publicity to the President, denied that in a statement last week. According to him, the claim that the scandal was a ploy to unseat the leadership of the House is “lame, diversionary, totally false and baseless.” However, the bribery scandal refused to go away, or even be submerged by the Kaduna and Yobe bombings. In a damage control measure, the House, in an emergency session on June 15, suspended Lawan. It was the second special session since the 7th House of Representatives was inaugurated on June 6, 2011. The first was January 8, 2012, when the House passed a motion asking Jonathan to revert to the N70 pump price of petrol and also set up the Lawan subsidy probe committee.
Tambuwal reminded his colleagues: “When we were elected to pursue the entrenchment of probity, accountability and transparency in the conduct of government business as a cardinal Legislative Agenda, we advised ourselves never to expect that it will be an easy task. Accordingly, I have had cause to occasionally sound a note of warning and reminder that our constitutional task is inescapably hazardous requiring total commitment, diligence, transparency, determination and sacrifice.”
He noted, “The Constitution has given the parliament three broad duties, which include Law Making, Representation and Oversight. It is interesting to note that of these three, it is that last function, which gives Legislature the powers to conduct oversight, that has tended to cause conflict between the Legislature and the Executive and remains the most controversial.” He described “oversight power” as “the single most potent weapon that makers of the Constitution put in place to check abuse by those who execute its law.”
He reaffirmed the validity of the subsidy report despite the bribery scandal. “While we consider it preposterous and hasty to dismiss the current bribery allegations, pending the outcome of ongoing investigations, including our in-house investigation just instituted, we reject in totality insinuations being orchestrated in some media to the effect that the allegations have eroded the integrity of the resolutions of the House on the report and rendered same unworthy of implementation…. Let me reiterate that the resolutions of the House over the fuel subsidy regime remain valid despite this recent controversy. We must as a country learn to separate institutions from individuals and we must admit that, in the present case, the alleged conduct of an individual cannot negate the conclusions of the whole House. Let me also reaffirm here that we have not been compromised and we shall never compromise our stand against corruption. The credibility of that report therefore remains inviolable and we stand by it.”
After suspending Lawan as chairman of both the ad hoc panel and the Education Committee, the House re-enlisted Otedola’s two companies – Zenon Oil & Gas and Synopsis Enterprises Limited – on the list of companies that corruptly got subsidy payments without importing any products. The two companies were listed in the probe report presented to the House by Lawan but the House removed them through a motion moved by Lawan. By the recommendation of the report, Zenon was to refund $232,975,385.13 and Synopsis $51,449,977,47 being FOREX taken but not used for importation of fuel as applied for. The playback of the video footage of the session showed Lawan “confirming” that the committee listed the companies in error and that they have been made to understand that the companies did not take part in the subsidy regime. Otedola had argued that his companies did import diesel, which is a deregulated product not subject to subsidy, and could not have received subsidy disbursement.
The House also directed the National Assembly management to investigate and punish Boniface Emenalo, clerk of the panel, if found guilty and equally suspend him as secretary of both ad hoc and Education committees. The House Committee on Ethics and Privileges was directed to investigate the bribery allegation against Lawan and report back within two weeks. Furthermore, the House would “support and encourage the investigations already being undertaken by the relevant security and anti-corruption agencies.”
In reaction to its re-enlistment, Zenon, on Monday, June 18, published a disclaimer to its indictment on April 18 by the Lawan Committee, describing it as “spurious allegation, which is capable of inflicting serious damage (on) our business integrity and reputation.” It affirmed that the company imported Premium Motor Spirit, PMS, in 2010 and that in fulfilment of its supply obligations obtained the necessary Department of Petroleum Resources, DPR, import permits and issued letters of credits from stated Nigerian banks to its offshore suppliers for a total value of $372,207,990, as opposed to $232,975,385.13 in the probe report. According to the company, “We believe that the Ad hoc House Committee on the monitoring of the subsidy regime has not conducted its affairs in a thorough manner and its findings are not only misleading but also damaging to the reputation of established companies like ours.” The company issued a notice that it would seek “legal redress for the incalculable damage that has been caused to our reputation by reason of the publication.”
With the primary evidence in Otedola’s possession, a smart attorney will make mincemeat of the report and the committee that produced it.