8 July 2012

Nigeria: U.S.$3 Million Bribe - a Secret Probe Divides Reps

ADESUWA TSAN and EDEGBE ODEMWINGIE in this report play up a view being silently expressed among federal lawmakers on the propriety of the secret probe of the latest bribery tale rocking the House of Representatives

Who blinks first?

The past two weeks have been dramatic with the release of audio tapes and a verbal spat between the House of Representative Committee on Ethics and Privileges and billionaire oil magnate, Mr. Femi Otedola. On Tuesday, Otedola who was supposed to testify on his bribery allegations against the former chairman of Subsidy Probe Committee, Farouk Lawan, dared the lawmakers to do their worst and said he will only give evidence in public.

This was classified as an insult by the lawmakers who stated that he had no right to tell them how to conduct their business. With the development, the committee will now go ahead to put together it's report without taking Otedola's case.

Dissenting positions on the decision of the House of Representatives standing Committee on Ethics and Priviledge to conduct a secret in-house inquest into the $620,000 bribery allegation continues to thicken with opposition recorded among lawmakers.

On Thursday, the Lower House was momentarily unsettled when a member Simon Arabo at plenary condemned the secret investigative hearing by the Ethics and Privilege Committee. According to Arabo, a lawyer, there was no section of the House rules which required that it must sit in secret.

Also, raising a point of order bordering on privilege, Arabo questioned the House Ethics Chairman, Gambo Dan-Musa for his use of abusive language in the verbal spat that followed Tuesday's insistence by Otedola on a public hearing against the panel's decision to hold the hearing in secret.

According to the lawmaker, the investigative method and verbal spat that followed was capable of rubbishing the credibility of the assignment before the ethics committee.

Arabo said at Thursday's plenary, "In carrying out an assignment of such magnitude, you do not make such comments. The parliament does not stand to lose anything if the testimony of Otedola is taken in public."

Arabo's protest on the floor forced the presiding Deputy Speaker, EmekaIhedioha, to ask the Chief Whip of the House, Mr. IsiakaBawa, to investigate the matter and report back to members.

The aggrieved lawmaker expressed concern that the committee suddenly decided to sit in camera after the House had already told Nigerians that the hearing would be in the open.

"The modus operandi of the committee is bringing the House into disrepute", he stated.

It will be recalled that the panel chairman, Dan-Musa while addressing newsmen on the sidelines of the failed hearing expressed disappointment over the attitude of Otedola who refused to talk despite entreaties from the panel members.

Dan-Musa said Tuesday, "He (Otedola) went further to insult us one way or the other. Otedola laughed off our threat of the consequences of his action, and simply said that Farouk Lawan had lied four times and in four different occasions over the bribery allegation.

How do you investigate this kind of case when he (Otedola) refused to substantiate his allegation? All he was doing was to laugh at us. It was very stupid of him, and we are not happy."

Allow police, EFCC take charge

Already, Nigerians have begun to question the rationale behind the Lower House to undertake the secret hearing when the Nigerian Police and several anti-graft agencies typically should be in charge of such criminal matters. Civil rights lawyer, Bamidele Aturu last week condemned the Lower House in-house investigations and called for Police and EFCC to take charge.

Speaking last Tuesday night on a monitored interview on a private television, the Lagos lawyer called for "a stop to this unnecessary, embarrassing and nauseating drama" as characterised by the leaked audio conversation on the bribery tale.

Aturu called on Nigerians through the civil society to issue a seven day ultimatum on the Police to release a tentative report on the bribery tale or risk occupation of the Police headquarters and the National Assembly.

According to Aturu, "It is nauseating and highly embarrassing. How can Nigerians be treated to this shamelessly nonsensical drama? How can Nigerians be made to watch the crime by either Mr. Otedola of Mr. Farouk Lawan and yet our security agencies which have been investigating this matter for two weeks now have not been able to come out to tell us what their findings are. We have not seen any prosecution and yet they want us to take the authorities as seriously fighting corruption.

"I think that somebody somewhere has to come out and put a stop to this unnecessary, embarrassing and nauseating drama that is going on. My position on the plethora of investigation being conducted by the House of Representatives is that under section 88 and 89 of the constitution, the powers of the National Assembly to conduct investigation is not at large.

They are circumscribed by the positions of that section. In other words, it must be to expose corruption, embezzlement of public fund and to make a law or amend an existing law. I am not aware that there is any law before the National Assembly that they are trying to amend or make in respect of corruption or anti-corruption.

"We have the Nigerian Police Force that by section 4 of the Police Act are to investigate, apprehend and detect crime. The Nigeria Police Force are supposed to have been on top of this matter, investigating these issues, but nobody has come out to tell us, to give us tentative report of their investigation.

"Why will the House of Representatives be asking its ethics committee to be investigating the commission of a crime. Everything must now be subjected to seamlessly unending comprehensive investigation that is uncalled for.

"Let the Police for God's sake do their job and prosecute either or both of these people, because this madness must stop. I am calling on the EFCC chairman to wade into this matter.

"Nigerians must give the police authorities seven days ultimatum. The civil society must begin to do that. If they don't come out with their report one way or the other I think they should occupy not just the Nigeria Police headquarters but even the National Assembly.

We never put Otedola on trial - Reps

The Lower House spokesman, Zakari Mohammed said that the committee had no issues with Otedola, stressing that at no time was the oil mogul put on trial by the House. Speaking to newsmen in the aftermath of the stalled hearing, Mohammed described as misleading reports that the committee on Ethics and Privileges was trying Otedola.

He said Otedola was only invited as a witness in a case concerning one of their members, and as the person making the allegations. "At no point has Otedola been put on trial by us. He is not on trial and we' re not a court of law", he said.

"People are trying to make it seem like we have turned ourselves to a court of law. Our business is lawmaking. He is not a member of this House and was meant to come as a witness. The House of Representatives has no issues with Otedola as an institution. We only asked him to come as a witness on questions of professional conduct of one of our members, Farouk Lawan."

Zakari also defended the committee's decision to hold the hearing in-camera, basing his argument on their Standing Rules which allow only the Ethics and Privileges committee the right to hold sessions behind closed doors.

Speaking on the audio recordings which have been aired on television stations and reported in national dailies, the chairman of Media and Public Affairs expressed worry but quickly added that it was a calculated attempt to take attention away from the substance of the report of the committee that investigated the rot in the management of subsidy.

He stated, "When films are played in parts 1, 2 and 3, it is to take attention from the main issue. It is a calculated, deliberate effort take a way attention from the rot in the sector." The lawmaker said that the issue at hand was a case of "corruption fighting back", pointing out that the House was paying a price for taking a decision and standing firm on that path.

Political undertones

They are indications that the shenanigans surrounding the bribery scandal has one ultimate motive: To stop the recommendations of the report from being implemented by the executive.

While this has always been sounded by the House of Representatives since news of the scandal broke, recent events show that alarm raised are not misplaced.

During the week, news broke that a court injunction had being obtained to stop the report of the Ad Hoc Committee Investigating the Management of Fuel Subsidy Regime from being implemented by the Executive.

According to the report, a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja on Wednesday stopped the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice from prosecuting one of the companies indicted by the Farouk Lawan Ad Hoc committee on fuel subsidy probe, Integrated Oil and Gas Limited.

It will be recalled that after the report was submitted to the president, it was forwarded to the AGF for consideration and further investigation and to make appropriate recommendation.

But immediately the report was sent to the AGF by the president, the company dragged the AGF, the House of Representatives, Honourable Farouk Lawan, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to court to challenge the report.

The committee had in its report asked Integrated Oil and Gas to refund N13. 2 billion subsidy refunds paid to it by the Federal Government for petroleum products it imported between 2006 and 2011 on the grounds that the amount was not sustainable.

The company was dissatisfied and had through its counsel, Tayo Oyetibo, SAN instituted the suit seeking, among others, to nullify the committee's report because it was not given fair hearing before the committee came to its conclusion.

The company, therefore, asked the court for an interlocutory injunction restraining the Attorney-General of the Federation from acting on the report.

In the motion on notice brought pursuant to order 26 rule 2 and other 28 rule 1 of the Federal High Court (civil procedure) ruled 2009 and the inherent jurisdiction of the court, the plaintiff asked for an order of interlocutory injunction restraining the 3rd to 6th defendants or respondents, whether by themselves, their servants, agents and or representatives from acting or continuing to act on the report of the House of Representatives Ad Hoc committee on the monitoring of the subsidy regime, which was confirmed by the resolution of the 1st defendant or respondent passed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 adopting and or approving the said report, in so far as the report affected the plaintiff or applicant pending the hearing and the determination of the substantive suit.

What an injunction barring the indictment from being acted upon in the case of Integrated oil and Gas Company means is that other companies can now take a cue and go the legal way to stall the system. But analysts have since decoded the unfolding events as a move by the executive to protect the indicted oil thieves who are said to be the people in the corridors of power.

In a recent media chat, President Goodluck Jonathan openly stated that businessmen like Otedola and Dangote are his friends and will continue to receive support of the presidency.

In the same Forum, he went ahead to avoid taking a definite stand on what the fate of the so called businessmen would be if found guilty of involvement in the subsidy scam. With the pattern of things, it could be concluded that the fight against corruption as being propagated by the executive is just mere talk.

Reps vs Presidency

Since the emergence of the leadership of the Seventh Assembly, led by AminuWaziriTambuwal, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the relationship between the green chamber and the presidency could said to be anything but cordial.

Unlike their Senate counterparts, it seems like the two parties are always on a collision course, hence the suspicion that the alleged sting operation between Otedola and Lawan was orchestrated by the presidency to sink the ship of the leadership of the House or at least, discredit its growing reputation.

But the House of Representatives has continued to emphasise its commitment to expose corruption in the country, in spite of the fuel subsidy scandal. According to the House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, "In spite of the problem that has characterised the fuel subsidy probe, the House will continue to expose corruption.

"We will never take side with corruption, we, as Nigerians and Representatives of the people, will ensure that corrupt people do not go free. As a House, we are urging relevant bodies to expedite action on the report. Subsidy report is sacrosanct and should be implemented to the fullest," he said.

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