4 November 2012

Nigeria: U.S.$620,000 Bribery Scandal Bounces Back?

The $620,000 bribery scandal that rocked the House Adhoc Committee on Monitoring Subsidy Regime bounced back last week. It generated so much debate earlier in the year but almost became a forgotten case following seemingly endless investigations of the principal actors by the Police.

The latest now is that the report of investigations conducted by the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges is now ready.

The said report will unveil the findings and recommendations of the Ethics and Privileges Committee, which interrogated the then Chairman of the Adhoc Committee, Hon. Farouk Lawan and Mr. Femi Otedola, Chairman of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited.

In case you have forgotten, the House Adhoc Committee on Monitoring Subsidy Regime got enmeshed in the bribery scandal when business mogul Otedola alleged that Lawan solicited for a $3,000,000 bribe from him in order to delete the names of two firms from the list of oil marketing companies indicted in the subsidy probe.

In elaborate media interviews, Otedola alleged that out of this amount, Lawan collected the sum of $500,000 in two installments of $250,000 each while the Clerk of the Committee, Mr. Boniface Emenalo, collected the remaining sum of $120,000 on the instruction of Lawan.

It could be recalled that Lawan gave his testimony in camera when he appeared before the Ethics and Privileges Committee. In his testimony, Lawan admitted to collecting the sum of $500,000 but said that he did so with an intention to tender the money as evidence of the intense pressures on him and his panel to compromise the findings of the subsidy probe. On the other hand, Otedola declined to give evidence in camera when he appeared before the same committee. Otedola had argued that the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges had ulterior motives in their insistence to conduct the investigation behind closed doors.

In spite of Oteola's defiance, the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges conducted the remaining part of the investigation behind closed doors. Apart from Lawan, the Ethic Committee interrogated some members of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Monitoring Subsidy Regime. It also quizzed the Chairman, House Committee on Drugs Narcotics and Financial Crimes, Hon. Adams Jagaba, whom Lawan alleged was in possession of the $620,000 exhibit.

Lawan had told the Police that the $620,000 he collected from oil magnate Otedola was deposited with Jagaba for the purpose of exposing the bribery deal. According to Lawan, the bribery incident was reported to Jagaba and the marked dollar bills deposited with him in his capacity as the Chairman, House Committee on Drugs Narcotics and Financial Crimes.

But the controversy was further compounded the following day when Jagaba vehemently denied any knowledge of the transaction and possession of the $620,000. In a letter dated June 19, 2012, addressed to Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, Jagaba said that there was never a time Lawan kept the sum of $620,000 or any other exhibits in his possession.

The letter was titled "Re-Investigation Activities: Request for Handing Over of Exhibits in Connection with a Case of Criminal Conspiracy Taking Gratification to Pervert the Course of Justice read: "I wish to categorically and unequivocally state that there was never a time I was in possession of the sum of 620,000 dollars or any other exhibits (in my personal capacity or official capacity as Chairman of the House Committee on Drugs, Narcotics and Financial Crimes) relating to the subject matter of the above investigation. "I hope this explanation lays to rest once and for all the claims that I or my committee is in possession of the sum 620,000 dollars purportedly given as bribe to the Ad-hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy Regime".

Jagaba's letter was in response to a letter from Tambuwal directing Jagaba to react to the claim by Lawan that he (Jagaba) was in possession of the exhibit. Tambuwal's letter dated June 18, 2012 and signed by his special adviser on Legal and Legislative Matters, Hon. Chile Igbawa, was in response to a letter from the Police, asking for the reaction of the speaker to the bribery scam.

From the foregoing, it is clear that this circus has been on for several months. Now there are strong indications that the principal suspects may have been exonerated by the House Ethics and Privileges Committee on technical grounds. Insider sources told THISDAY that Otedola may have inadvertently given Lawan an escape route when he (Otedola) refused to give the much-needed evidence to substantiate his allegations.

The committee had demanded from Otedola the audio and video tapes, which allegedly recorded the bribery transactions. Otedola also declined to produce the tapes on technical grounds. The businessman claimed the transactions were recoded by security operatives whom he had alerted to monitor Lawan following persistent pressures from him to have the bribe in exchange for a favourable report on the role of Zenon Petroleum and Gas in the subsidy scheme.

Although, the investigations by the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges were taken with a pinch of salt from the beginning, the public was prepared to give the lawmakers the benefit of the doubt.

The public was encouraged by the initial disciplinary steps taken by the House against Lawan in the wake of the scandal. Even before the investigation commenced, the House had swiftly removed Lawan as Chairman of the Adhoc Committee on Monitoring Subsidy Regime and suspended him from being Chairman, House Committee on Education.

These actions were seen by the public as signs that after preliminary investigations, the leadership of the House was reasonably convinced of the culpability of Lawan in the controversial transaction. There were reports that the leadership had obtained and watched the video clips showing Lawan collecting the bribe.

It was also learnt that the leadership had openly confronted him on the allegations and got him to admit guilt after a prolonged denial. However, if the report that will be unveiled soon exonerates Lawan, it will only mean that the initial fears of the public that the Ethics Committee was a kangaroo court out to protect its own may not have been unfounded.

The truth of the matter is that the curtain is about to fall on the whole subsidy bribe episode. Like every allegation of corruption in Nigeria, investigations are often mirred in politics; soiled in more corruption and then dumped in the dustbin especially when more grievous allegations of corruption sprout everyday, making yesterday's incident, a child's play. Is that how the entire $620,000 bribery saga would turn out to be?

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