The ongoing investigation into the administration of the fuel subsidy regime in Nigeria has taken several dramatic twists. The leader of the national review committee has been accused of accepting a bribe and others have taken the committee’s findings to court. Yet another commission has been instituted into an increasingly murky area. But Nigerians fear that the outcome of the probe may be swept under the carpet, despite assurances by President Goodluck Jonathan, due to the big personalities involved, writes Frederick Mordi, who has been following developments.
It is a classic example of the hunter becoming the hunted. The hunted in this case is Hon. Farouk Lawan, who is Chairman of the Federal House of Representatives ad hoc committee set up to review the administration of the fuel subsidy regime in Nigeria, following the nationwide strike that crippled socio-economic activities in the country in January.
But in an ironic twist of fate, Lawan himself appears to be fighting a battle to save his political career. When oil mogul and chairman of Zenon Oil, Femi Otedola, who had been summoned by Lawan’s committee to answer questions over the role his company had played in the fuel importation scheme, suddenly turned around and accused the outspoken lawmaker of demanding a bribe of $3m (N480m) from him to strike off the name of his company from the list of defaulters.
This created a huge national uproar. A series of altercations between Lawan and Otedola followed. Explicit transcripts of their purported conversation before money changed hands was broadcast on national television tarnishing the parliamentarians’s hitherto spotless image. This revelation, which also went viral on social media, caused the House no small embarrassment.
The House was still smarting from an earlier indictment of one of its members, Hon. Herman Hembe, by the embattled Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Arunma Oteh, who had accused the lawmaker of demanding bribe from her office. Hembe was Chairman of the Capital Markets Committee of the House of Representatives before he was suspended pending the outcome of an investigation to unravel the veracity of Oteh’s claims. Oteh has been exonerated and is back in the saddle.
Lawan, a veteran lawmaker famously led the Integrity Group, a coalition of lawmakers that forced a former Speaker of the House, Patricia Etteh, to resign over a financial scam. The rumour is that he was himself fingered in a sting operation that was allegedly masterminded by the security agencies.
How it all began
Lawan allegedly asked for and received $620,000 (N99.2m) from Otedola as part payment of a $3m bribe to clear the businessman and his firms from indictment in the ongoing probe into the subsidy sleaze allegedly perpetrated by oil importers.
Though he had earlier denied collecting the bribe from Otedola, Lawan suddenly made a volte-face, following the widespread condemnation that greeted this revelation, and admitted that he had indeed received $620,000 (N99.2m) from Otedola. But he was quick to add that what he received was ‘money’ and not a bribe. He said that he took the money after Otedola approached him, adding that he brought the matter to the attention of his fellow lawmakers and the police.
But Otedola, the man in the eye of the storm, has insisted that Lawan, and the secretary of the committee, Boniface Emenalo, collected $620,000 (N99.2m) from him. He pointed out that if he was on the wrong side of the law he would not have alerted the security agencies at the early stages of the operation.
Otedola said he was peeved when the lawmaker first approached him to solicit the bribe as his companies import diesel, which is regulated and not petroleum. He alleged that his explanations to Lawan that Zenon has never made claims for subsidy payments from the Federal Government, as the company was engaged solely in the importation of diesel, a deregulated product, fell on deaf ears.
According to Otedola, he reported the matter to the security operatives, who advised him to play along, when he could not make a headway in the matter. He said he had more than a dozen tapes to prove that the transaction indeed took place. The balance was to be paid when the committee expunged Zenon’s name from the list.
After watching the secret video of the transactions, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is believed to have taken Otedola under his wing when he was in power, labelled the lawmakers a “bunch of rogues” in his characteristic manner. The statement did not go down well with the members of the House. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is believed to be investigating the videotape of the deal. The police had earlier quizzed Otedola and Lawan separately over this incident with a view to establishing their degree of culpability.
Stung by this revelation that cast aspersions on his ongoing fight against corruption, President Goodluck Jonathan set up a 15-member committee headed by the CEO of Access Bank, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, to verify and reconcile the findings of the Technical Committee earlier set up by the Federal Ministry of Finance to conduct a detailed review of all subsidy claims and payments made in 2011.
The Aig-Imoukhuede Committee, which has since submitted its report, still indicted most marketers with foul play in the fuel subsidy scheme, noting that there were significant gaps in the report of the Lawan committee’s findings. The Aig-Imoukhuede Committee was given the mandate of properly identifying all cases of overpayment and/or irregular payment, and to accurately identify all likely fraudulent cases for criminal investigation.
The Technical Committee had earlier submitted its findings to the Finance Ministry and the Presidency and had uncovered overpayments of $26m (N422bn) to the oil marketers in 2011. The report allegedly indicted the Nigeria National Petroleum Company (NNPC), the Petroleum Products Pricing and Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) and some oil companies and recommended that they refund money to the government’s coffers and the prosecution of those involved in the illicit transaction. But marketers have picked holes in the new report, insisting that it was still largely inaccurate.
No sacred cows
Jonathan is expected to bring the full weight of the law on those indicted, now that he has the final report. This may well prove to be a test for the President, who has been accused of being too soft on corruption. He has assured the public that he would not spare anyone indicted. Following criticisms, he had explained that the setting up of the new committee was in line with his pledge to Nigerians that no one found guilty, no matter how highly placed, would be spared.
The President, who spoke through his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Dr Reuben Abati, added that law enforcement agents were carefully investigating the report.
He said: “The EFCC is working on the report, so we must give them the chance to do their job. We have to build watertight cases if we hope to get any conviction for any wrongdoing, and the law demands proof. No person or organisation guilty of fuel subsidy fraud or corruption will escape justice.”
However, Abati’s statement that the whole affair was part of a plot by the executive arm of government to unseat the leadership of the House of Representatives was described as utter baloney by a section of the media.
Abati had said: “For the benefit of unwary members of the public who may be deceived by the political innuendoes now being woven into the subsidy probe bribe affair, President Jonathan wishes to affirm that he has absolutely no reason or desire to meddle in the affairs of the House of Representatives and its leadership.
“Neither the President nor anyone acting on his request or order has anything to do with the scandal that has sadly engulfed the House ad hoc committee on fuel subsidy. The attempt to drag the Presidency into the matter is entirely speculative and without factual foundation.”
Some analysts believe that Jonathan’s neutral stance on the issue demonstrates that Nigeria has started to practise the principle of separation of powers between the three arms of government – a development they say is good for the fledgling democracy. Meanwhile, a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja had in early July restrained the Federal Government from acting on the report of the Lawan ad hoc committee, following a motion filed by one of the indicted oil companies, Integrated Oil and Gas.
According to the committee’s report, the company, which allegedly collected petroleum subsidy funds from the Federal Government, was liable to refund N13bn ($80m) into the federation account. But the company, which denied this allegation, had gone to court to challenge the report. Presiding Justice Gladys Olotu ordered all the parties to maintain the status quo, pending the determination of the case, which has been adjourned until 18th October.
The presence of the high-profile personalities involved has given critics cause to believe that the report, just like others before it, may well end up in the dustbin. They argue that some of those indicted are too comfortably close to government, which might be powerless to sanction them.
But the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke, has also assured the public that the report will not be swept under the carpet. He said the EFCC has been mandated to study the report meticulously to enable proper prosecution of those indicted to take place.
Given the national interest that the Otedola-Lawan case has generated, and the government’s avowed commitment to stamping out corruption, the final resolution of the subsidy probe will go a long way in strengthening Nigeria’s evolving democracy. If, that is, there is a final resolution. In Nigeria, such things can never be for granted.