26 June 2012

Nigeria: Moral Burden of the Subsidy Probe Report

Lawan allegedly collected $620,000 as bribe from Otedola to expunge the name of his company from the list of marketers that procured foreign exchange from the Central Bank of Nigeria but failed to import products.

Though Lawan has admitted collecting money from Otedola, he was also quoted in recent media reports as saying that he would be vindicated. The once revered lawmaker, who made a brief appearance at the National Assembly last week, told reporters that as a member of the House of Representatives for the last 13 years, he and his colleagues had done so much to build the House as an institution that should enjoy the respect and confidence of Nigerians.

He said the decision taken by the House of Representatives to strip him of his chairmanship positions was meant to safeguard the credibility of the institution, adding that the institution was bigger than each and every member.

Investigators and prosecutors, as well as Lawan's accusers will no doubt have a tough task explaining to a trial judge why Lawan was not arrested at the point of collecting the bribe, even when the currency notes used to bribe the lawmaker were said to be serialised.

Perhaps, except Lawan, nobody is known to have ever been given marked money as bribe and allowed to go home to spend the money over a period of six weeks before being apprehended. The whole saga is increasingly becoming intriguing as Lawan is being asked to produce the same money he was allegedly given over six weeks ago, as if the money was given to him to keep intact. But how the once respected law maker would extricate himself from the web of the scandal remains unclear as mounting evidence contradicts his public claim of innocence.

That the chairman of the ad-hoc committee prevailed on his colleagues to remove the name of Zenon from a report he had submitted was enough to arouse suspicion, but his associates would argue that mere suspicion is not be enough to convict an accused. However, it should be pointed out that Lawan and members of his committee had worked on the report for several months and this period was sufficient for them to have established the guilt or innocence of the company before submitting their findings to the plenary. It was therefore suspicious for the committee to seek clearance of a purportedly indicted company after they had submitted their report.

Doctoring the Report

Many analysts are now curious as to why members of the House quickly cleared Zenon, without raising questions to challenge Lawan and his committee's new position. A Lagos-based lawyer, who spoke to THISDAY on the issue, argued that Lawan's behaviour was akin to that of a "judge who set a convict free two days after sentencing him to prison without the court sitting to obtain fresh evidence."

"The question is: what happened after the report was submitted that made Lawan go to the floor of the House to say that he has new information showing that the two companies were not guilty? Did the committee sit after submitting the report and collect fresh evidence from Zenon and the second company? No matter how we look at the issues, it is evident that Zenon was cleared because Otedola paid the bribe and this has undermined the credibility of the report," he said.

He noted that stories had been flying around that many marketers allegedly paid bribe to the committee to be cleared. "The marketers, who were finally indicted, were just unfortunate ones, who probably, could not reach out to the lawmakers," he added. He acknowledged the need to investigate oil marketers, who allegedly stole money from the federal government.

Ulterior Motives

He, however, maintained that the motive behind the subsidy probe was not to bring to book, looters of the government treasury but to put pressure and instil fear into the marketers, so as to extort money from them.

On the fate of the report of the committee, the lawyer wondered how the country could move forward with the report of what he called a tainted committee. "In as much as I appreciate the need to investigate those people, who have been stealing subsidy money from us, it is not right for the report of a tainted committee to be relied upon," he said.

"How can you go forward with the report of a tainted committee? If push comes to shove, you will find out that every member of that committee was involved in this bribery. The bribe has destroyed the credibility of their report. That is my view and that is the view of most people," he added.

One of the marketers, who appeared before the committee during the probe told THISDAY that the panel adopted a faulty method of investigation, which also questioned the motive behind the probe. "I was ashamed by the type of questions some of them asked. They did not seek expert opinion and consultants to guide them in their investigations," he said.

"They should have engaged forensic auditors, instead of just inviting people and behaving like a customary court," he said. He stated that the bribery scandal involving the chairman of the committee was an indication that the members of the committee compromised themselves, adding that "a fish rots from its head."

Presidency's Involvement

Speculations that the presidency used Otedola to set Lawan up were also debunked by both legal and oil industry experts, who attributed Lawan's predicament to greed. One of the experts told THISDAY that it would be insulting for Lawan to blame his predicament on the presidency.

"If somebody is trying to set you up, you will tell some people and also set a trap for the person. Recall that Nasir el-Rufai accused Senator Ibrahim Mantu of demanding N54 million as bribe from him before he would be cleared by the Senate as the Minister of Federal Capital Territory.

"Who did Lawan report to when he was being enticed with bribe? The essential ingredient at play here is greed. When someone is greedy, he can fall for anything, once it can bring money. I think he should blame no one but himself," explained one of the oil industry experts.

Moral Dilemma

As the law enforcement agencies try unravel the truth surrounding the bribery saga, the scandal has no doubt tainted the credibility of the report of the ad-hoc committee. The scandal has not only left the image of the lawmakers in tatters but has also questioned their motives in conducting this and several other probes.

The fact that a member of the committee collected bribe does not necessarily mean that the marketers and institutions indicted in their report are innocent. But clinging on to such report in the face of this weighty scandal will pose a serious moral burden to the lawmakers, no matter how they maintain a straight face that all is well with the report.

It is against this background that stakeholders have called for a fresh probe of the subsidy regime. A marketer, who favours this option, told THISDAY that though many of the lawmakers in the National Assembly have soiled their hands, there are still many of them, who have resolved "to sin no more".

A rather optimistic marketer stated that recent developments indicate that the National Assembly lacked men of impeccable credentials, alleging that corruption had tainted even the saints among them. He, however, acknowledged that after soiling their hands in several national assignments, some of them had resolved to work for the country for the remaining part of their legislative tenure. "These are the people who can conduct a fresh probe and give us a credible report," he said.

This is also the position of one of the lawyers, who aligned his view with the position of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Adoke, that the work of the subsidy probes committee was mere fact-finding. But with the bribery scandal, he said the report of the committee would not be regarded as fact.

According to him, the House of Representatives should disband the ad-hoc committee, confine their report to the dust-bin and set up a fresh committee of members of proven integrity, incorporating reputable Nigerians and forensic auditors. Until this is done, he said the image of the House of Representatives, which is badly dented, and is clinging to the report of a tainted committee as evidence of fighting corruption, will not assuage the feelings of most Nigerians.

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