A subtle suggestion by Mr Bernard Otti, a member of the Ribadu-led Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force (PRSTF) and now Director of Finance, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), has turned out to be the albatross to the daring and far-reaching report.
The caveat reads thus: "Due to the time frame of the assignment, some of the data used could not be independently verified and Task Force recommends that Government should conduct such necessary verifications and reconciliations."
An insider on the task force told Sunday Trust that Mr Otti made the suggestion on the last day of the panel's meeting (Thursday, November 1). It was meant to soften the panel's report, which was considered to be too hard on the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and the entire petroleum industry.
A member to the task force explained what happened thus: "At that meeting on that Thursday, the draft was re-arranged, and Bernard Otti told the panel that the report was too hard on the NNPC and that it should be toned down. He suggested that we include a clause that would say the data was not independently verified, and that government could verify them. What data did we refer to? They are documents from the NNPC, the CBN, the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). These agencies had representatives on the task force, so we didn't need to go back to them to cross-check every item. To do so would take over one year. We didn't know why he demanded for that clause to be included, but because we felt the agencies cannot dispute the figures they provided, we agreed to include it. We didn't foresee how it could compromise our report."
Corroborating on this view, Lagos lawyer and member of the panel, Dr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, told our correspondent in an interview that, at the last meeting, the task force wanted what was considered as the hardline position of Nuhu Ribadu softened, so that instead of going ahead to prosecute oil thieves, government could be given the opportunity to decide on how to handle the situation.
Agbakoba explained it thus: "We all agreed that there was a lot of money owed to government. Nuhu's approach was immediate action because he is an investigator. We can see that these people have stolen. But I am a lawyer; I believe in Rule of Law. I said, look, why don't we finish our report and then we can say these are the people we have found liable. Nuhu's response was, 'who have we ever caught?! We keep doing Rule of Law and people who stole keep walking free.' He is right. Our position is also right. And it didn't cause quarrel, although there was a disagreement." It was under this circumstance that the caveat was added to the covering letter to President Jonathan.
The insider told Sunday Trust that some of the committee members didn't consider the clause in the letter as damaging, until Mr Steve Oronsaye began to capitalise on it, to say the process which led to the conclusion of the report was faulty. According to our source, the task force did a thorough job, and in spite of his irregular attendance, the final draft copy of the report was forwarded to Oronsaye, expecting that he would make his own contributions, but he never did.
Sunday Trust learnt further that the Minister of Petroleum, Mrs Diezani Allison-Maduekwe, who promised to make input to the report in five days didn't make any two months after she was given the final draft and she gave no reason for her silence.
In his interview, Agbakoba told our correspondent that if the report is implemented, government would earn, at least, N20 trillion annually, instead of the current N5 trillion accruing to it as oil revenue.