30 July 2012

Nigeria: Our Stand - As Prosecution of Suspected Oil Thieves Begins...

Photo: Vanguard
Fuel Subsidy

When will President Jonathan prosecute the N2.6trn thieves? The first attempt to answer that question, which this newspaper has asked everyday for five weeks, was made last week: the EFCC arraigned the first batch of suspects in a Lagos high court. The trial could not start on Wednesday because the attorney-general of the federation and minister of justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke, was absent in court. On the following day, however, the following 12 individuals were charged: Mamman Nasir Ali, Christian Taylor, Mahmud Tukur, Ochonogor Alex, Walter Wagbatsoma, Adaoha Ugo-Ngadi, Fakuade Babafemi Ebenezer, Ezekiel Olaleye Ejidele, Abubakar Ali Peters, Jude Agube Abalaka, Abdulahi Alao, and Oluwaseun Ogunbanbo. Seven firms belonging to them were also arraigned: Nasaman Oil Services, Eterna Oil and Gas Plc, Ontario Oil & Gas Plc, Nadabo Energy Limited, Pacific Silver Line Limited, Axenergy Limited, and Fago Petroleum & Gas Limited. All the suspects are facing trial for advance fee fraud (otherwise called 419) involving over N13billion because they allegedly claimed to have imported 237 million litres of fuel which the EFCC couldn't trace.

All the suspects pleaded "not guilty" and all but one or two have been granted bail. The trial continues this Thursday.

The EFCC investigations were inspired by the report of the House of Representatives ad-hoc committee on the implementation of the subsidy regime. Set up by the House following the January nationwide protests against the removal of subsidy on petrol, the panel led by Hon. Farouk Lawan submitted the report on April 18. But the Lawan panel's report contains a longer list of suspects: 72 out of 140 companies that "imported" fuel in 2011 alone, excluding the NNPC, PPPRA and two auditing firms, were listed for investigation. Among them was Zenon Petroleum & Gas Ltd owned by Femi Otedola, who later kicked up a scandal when he revealed that he had offered $620, 000 bribe to Hon. Lawan and co (to delist his company from the report) in a "sting" operation involving the State Security Service. It was when the Otedola/Lawan affair was diverting the nation's attention from the main issue that we started asking the question meant to remind the powers that be that we have not taken our eyes off almost N2.6trillion stolen under the guise of "fuel subsidy".

Even as several attempts to discredit the Lawan report and consign it to the dustbins of history seem to have failed, we urge the anti-graft agencies and the federal government they represent never to lose sight of the big picture: N2.6trillion is more than a half of the annual budget of this nation of 167 million people. The actual figure that the Lawan panel found was N2. 587, 087trillion, which was ascribed to "fuel subsidy" payments in 2011, a year only N245billion was appropriated for fuel subsidy. What this means, in the layman's language, is that more than 50 per cent of all the money the federal government spent in 2011 went into payment of subsidy on imported petrol (since the subsidy on diesel had been removed), while Nigerians continued to pay N65 or more for a litre of the commodity. No lie could be bigger than this. And that was what prompted the January protests, which led to the Lawan panel that gave birth to the EFCC investigations and even the Presidential Committee on Verification & Reconciliation of Fuel Subsidy Payments headed by Access Bank MD Mr Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede. Also last week, the Aig-Imoukhuede panel announced that N382billion might have been stolen and should be recovered from the marketers. Perhaps it differed from the Lawan panel only in the size of looted funds: the latter could not find over N1trillion!

Since we are not a court, we have no reason to convict any individual or firm for stealing public funds. Nor can we point fingers at the suspects so far arraigned in court as the actual culprits. Every Nigerian's worry concerns the justice system in this country. An incontestable fact is that money has been stolen - between N380billion and N2trillion - but there are fears that the thieves may never be caught or receive appropriate punishment. Some 31 former state governors that stole their states blind are still walking freely. Even the few cases in court could last till eternity because Nigerian thieves are known to always share their loot with some senior lawyers who would talk them out of trouble in the courts. One unlucky exception has been former Delta State governor James Ibori who ventured out of the country and got caught by the London police. He is currently serving a 13-year jail term in London and many of his assets in the UK have been seized. Ibori had been discharged and acquitted by a Nigerian court for the same offences!

What more evidence of judicial failure is better than the fact that, in spite of the constant looting of the nation's resources, nobody is in a Nigerian jail today on account of corruption? The most prosecuting agencies have been able to do is arraign suspects - as the EFCC has done in the present case. And even in this current case, not one government official has been charged yet. Is it possible for trillions of naira to be stolen without the connivance of some "big men or women" in government?

Now that the government of President Jonathan has taken the first step forward in unravelling the mystery behind the missing N2.6trillion, it must not take another step backward until the end. The EFCC should quickly conclude its investigations so it could arraign the second batch of suspects, and then the third batch, fourth batch and maybe the fifth batch. [We are pleased with the progress the agency is making with former civil servants accused of stealing N32billion pension funds.)

The judiciary must not fail Nigerians this time round. We expect their lordships in the temple of justice to dispense justice faster, especially as the first woman chief justice of Nigeria has just been sworn in.

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