Honourable Farouk Lawan, member of the House of Representatives, is no stranger to political intrigues and tales of bribery. He has seen quite a few in the lower chamber in the last 13 years. As a young man of 37 in 1999, he witnessed the unmasking of the then speaker of the House, Salisu Buhari, who claimed credentials he did not have.
That was in the early days of the return to civil rule. And when in 2007 the House decided they did not want the Speaker imposed on them by the Executive, Lawan was at the heart of the amorphous team of legislators tagged, “The Integrity Group,” which stampeded Patricia Etteh, the first female speaker of the House, out of office. She was accused of single-handedly awarding a contract to renovate her official quarters. For that “misconduct,” the Lawans of the House did browbeat her into a corner until she had no option but to resign as speaker. But the allegations against her have since turned out to be nothing more than a red herring as the House in its final sitting in 2011 gave Etteh a clean bill of health. By that action, the honourable members confirmed that Etteh’s only offence was her impudence not only to aspire to become speaker, but that against many odds actually becoming one. Thus she was a marked man (woman?) from day one. Etteh who did not return to the House must be quite amused at the current bribe drama in the House, at the heart of which is her chief nemesis, Farouk Lawan.
The now 50-year-old Lawan presided over the fuel subsidy probe recently conducted by an Ad hoc Committee of the House. And there is no doubt that many Nigerians think he did a fantastic job. He held court with much candour to the admiration of many. And with that outing, his profile as “Mr. Integrity” got a further shot in the arm. The report of that probe, in spite of what some people say are its several short-comings, opened a can of worms that stank to high heavens. Some N1.7 trillion is said to have been stolen in the course of the subsidy regime for one year. The Committee’s laudable job is about to be overshadowed by the mess in which Lawan has now found himself. Many were ready to give the legislator the benefit of the doubt when he denied that neither he nor any member of his Committee received or demanded for a bribe. Against the scenario that normally takes place in a matter of this nature, many would have advised Lawan to only vouch for himself. Thus it was a stunned nation that witnessed Mr. Integrity doing an about turn 24 hours after his denial.
He actually met and collected $500,000 from Femi Otedola, chairman of Zenon Oil Company, in what the latter described as a “sting Operation.” Otedola claimed it was the State Security Service that provided the “marked dollars” used for the operation to prove that Mr. Integrity is nothing but a dim-witted fraud. For now, the only other person who has been fingered as Lawan’s accomplice is Boniface Emenalo, the secretary of the Committee. The bribe giver claimed he gave Emenalo $120,000, thus bringing the total collected to $620,000. Shortly after that sum was paid, Lawan moved a motion on the floor of the House to remove Zenon’s name from the list of companies found culpable in the fuel subsidy saga.
Going by what Otedola claimed he gave and what is being claimed as received by honourable Lawan, there is an outstanding $20,000 that seems to have developed wings in this sordid deal. Emenalo is yet to state his own side of the story, may be because he was carrying out his principal’s directive. Other members of the Committee are distancing themselves, nay the House, from the scandal. Many legislators, aghast at the latest scandal, are taking with a pinch of salt Lawan’s claim that it was Otedola who tried to bribe his Committee. So far, the much information in the public sphere on the sordid details of the Lawan/Otedola bribe saga shows that our Mr. Integrity solicited for this bribe. If Otedola was the one offering him a bribe, why should it be Lawan going to pick it up in his residence? Would it not have been more “dignifying” for Mr. Integrity for the giver to bring the bribe to him? Rather, he and Emenalo went on different occasions to pick up the bribe in four instalments.
In his initial reactions to the bribe scandal, Lawan tried to play smart by claiming that the said video recording of his transactions with Otedola must have been manipulated. He equally compared it to video recordings of the Abacha era in which a former head of state was said to have been involved in planning a coup against the late military dictator. He was asking Nigerians not to take the Otedola video seriously because it was a farce. He also tried to hoodwink Nigerians by his claim that he involved the police in the bribe saga. What we know for now is that it was the police which first wrote the lawmaker, asking him to throw light on the bribe scandal. And after listening to Otedola’s side of the story, the police are still eagerly awaiting Lawan’s counterclaims.
Those claims are not going to be different from what Lawan has served the public so far, that it was Otedola who approached him. And he took and kept the money for more than a month without informing any of his colleagues on the Committee, except Emenalo, a clerk of the House who is his co-conspirator. But Lawan was gracious enough to inform in writing legislator Jagaba Adams Jagada, who is the chairman, House Committee on Narcotics and Financial Crimes. In fact, newspaper reports quoting from the so-called letter were to the effect that he even handed over the bribe to Jagada. The latter is believed to have denied receiving any such letter and exhibit. That means the letter only exists in Lawan’s imagination. However, while the police wait for most honourable Mr. Integrity to honour their invitation, nothing stops them from interrogating Emenalo who is a civil servant. With the latest wheeling and dealing in the House, a man looked upon by the public as an icon of moral decency has shown that the trust has been misplaced. Yet when former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, recently lampooned the nation’s legislature as an Assembly filled with questionable characters, the lawmakers rose in stout defence of their integrity. Lawan is the latest in the line of lawmakers who have betrayed not only his colleagues, especially members of his Committee – Ali Babatunde Ahmad, James Abiodun Faleke, Alphonsus Gerald Irona, Umar Abubakar Sade, Eucharia Azodo, Abbas Tajudeen and John Enah – but the generality of Nigerians.
This great betrayal however should not in the least be an excuse to jettison the recommendations of the fuel subsidy committee. In fact, just like moves are being made to get to the root of the bribe saga, double quick efforts should be made by the relevant agencies to deal with those who short-changed Nigerians in the fuel subsidy scam. If the Executive gives more attention to the bribe saga as opposed to the subsidy scam, it would only be confirming the speculation making the rounds that the “Otedola Sting Operation” was a set-up to divert attention from the subsidy scam. President Goodluck Jonathan has a golden chance to put a lie to that speculation. Thus the nation awaits with bated breath his implementation of the subsidy committee’s recommendations in spite of its imperfections.