Another reps probe gone sour

Another reps probe gone sour

The House of Representatives has again returned to its familiar path in the wake of the $3m bribery scandal involving the deposed chairman of its Ad-Hoc Committee on Monitoring of Subsidy Regime, Mr. Farouk Lawan.

The latest bribery allegation took the leadership and the entire House aback, considering the confidence reposed in Lawan to do a thorough and clean job.

But for the bribery scandal, which has stained its work, the Lawan-led committee had produced a report that was applauded by Nigerians.

After over three months of careful investigation, Nigerians were availed of the dirty transactions in the subsidy regime. The nation lost N1.070tn in subsidy payments to fraudulent government agencies and oil marketers.

The House was unanimous in passing the recommendations of the report and challenged the executive to prosecute the subsidy thieves.

Then, the lid was blown off the bribery scandal, which now threatens to rubbish the report. The celebration of the report seems over even before it started because of the action of one man.

What went wrong? An oil mogul, Mr. Femi Otedola, whose firm, Zenon Oil and Gas Ltd, participated in the subsidy scheme, alleged that he negotiated a $3m bribe with Lawan. He claimed that Lawan wanted to extort money from him and he had already paid the lawmaker $620, 000.

Otedola claimed it was a sting operation by security agencies in which marked dollar bills were given to the lawmaker. Lawan, however, claimed that he played along with Otedola and accepted the bribe because his intention was to expose the businessman. He claimed the money was offered to remove Zenon from the list of indicted firms by the ad hoc panel.

By its decision of June 15 to relieve Lawan of all chairmanship positions in the House, the legislature appeared to have admitted that one of its own had dented its image.

It was the case of another probe gone sour, coming in succession to the N44m bribery allegation that rocked the House Committee on Capital Market and other Institutions last March.

The committee, which was headed by Mr. Herman Hembe, was investigating the near-collapse of the Nigerian Capital Market. Like the fuel subsidy probe, the investigation took off successfully, only to be halted by the allegation. The suspended Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ms. Arunma Oteh, made the allegation.

Oteh had alleged that Hembe demanded the money from the commission to support the investigation. The former DG accused Hembe and his deputy, Mr. Chris Azubuogu, of collecting $4,000 estacode each and a first class air ticket from the commission.

They were billed to travel to the Dominican Republic to attend a conference on Emerging Capital Markets, but she alleged that they neither travelled nor returned the money to the commission.

The House waded in the matter after Hembe withdrew as the chairman of the committee. It set up an ad hoc committee to start the probe afresh, while Hembe was referred for investigation by the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges.

The ad hoc committee under the headship of Mr. Ibrahim El-Sudi, conducted the capital market probe in April, but till date nothing has been heard of its report. The Committee on Ethics and Privileges has not started the investigation of Hembe either.

On June 6, 2011, when the current seventh House was inaugurated, it promised Nigerians not to repeat the mistakes of the sixth House such as the several scandals it experienced.

While rolling out the legislative agenda of the new House, the Speaker, Mr. Aminu Tambuwal, had said, “We acknowledge that the dignity and integrity of this Honourable House have been called to question. We must possess the humility that commands introspection.

“We accept responsibility for our failures and ask Nigerians for their forgiveness. Mindful of lessons of the past, we will open a new chapter.

“We will commence a new era of responsibility. This House will act responsibly in all its endeavours. We will be responsive, transparent and accountable in all we do.

“We must recognise one common truth –we are the people’s representatives. This is their House of Representatives and we are here as their trustees.”

The House had struggled to keep faith with this promise until the subsidy probe came. However, the bribery allegation has raised questions on why probes in the House appear to be doomed. Is the House returning to its past so soon?

The House argues that the Lawan incident is an individual matter that must not be blamed on the whole legislature.

“As a House, we remain on course; we have promised the Nigerian people never to condone corruption. We have kept this promise. That is why the House did what it did on Friday.

“We are solidly behind the ongoing investigation by security agencies and anybody found wanting should be prosecuted,” House spokesman, Mr. Zakari Mohammed, had said.

Like Tambuwal, Mohammed disagreed that the entire subsidy probe had been rubbished by the bribery scandal.

“The bribery allegation is an issue on its own and should be tackled on its merit. That allegation does not diminish the subsidy report; it is our position that the executive should not use it as an excuse not to implement the report,” he added.

In recent years, the House has always raised the hopes of Nigerians with each high-profile probe it conducts.

The probes usually start on a promising note, but the ending leaves a sour taste in the mouths of the electorate.

One of the most followed probes conducted by the House was the Power Probe in 2008.

The House Committee on Power and Steel, then under the headship of Mr. Godwin Ndudi Elumelu, was mandated to probe the $16bn the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo reportedly spent on the power sector from 1999 to 2007.

The probe generated much interest because in spite of the alleged huge spending in the sector at the time, the House said that not a single megawatt of electricity was added to the National Grid!

Like the Lawan panel on fuel subsidy, the Elumelu committee uncovered a power contract fraud running into billions of naira.

The Elumelu committee recommended the prosecution of several firms and individuals found wanting in the alleged shady contract deals.

A few days to the date Elumelu was to lay his report, there were allegations that some members of the panel collected N100m bribe from a power contractor in Port Harcourt.

The allegation could not be substantiated and Elumelu went ahead to lay his report.

Thereafter, a member of the committee, Mr. Muraina Ajibola, an Obasanjo protege, presented a minority report disowning the main report.

In the wake of the confusion, the House, rather than consider the main report, opted to constitute another panel to review Elumelu’s work.

The review committee turned in a surprising report, which more or less watered down the work of the main report, short of recommending that the report should be discarded.

Contending “political and parochial interests” were said to have joined forces to prevail on the House to abandon the power probe report.

There are other examples. The House had probed the award of oil bloc contracts between 1999 and 2007. It also looked into the contracts for the importation of petroleum products by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation within the same period.

As a matter of fact, the NNPC has been probed by nearly every session of the House since 1999, but hardly has anyone been called to account.

In the sixth House, an ad hoc committee headed by Mr. Igo Aguma, a former Chairman of the House Committee on Gas Resources, which conducted the investigation, was mandated to probe the various contracts for Turn Around Maintenance on the country’s refineries.

Although Aguma laid parts of his findings before the House, they were never listed for consideration before the 2007-2011 tenure wound down on June 4, 2011.

This implies that all those indicted by the committee are still walking freely, doing business as usual.

The fate of the investigation into the operations of the Nigeria Customs Service was not different. The committee, which conducted the probe, discovered for example that Nigeria lost over N300bn to import waivers granted by government officials between 1999 and 2003.

A former Comptroller-General was found to have awarded several fictitious contracts running into billions of naira, while the official residence of the CG was allegedly sold to a private individual under his watch.

The Yakubu Dogara-led Committee on Customs laid the report of the probe before the House, but that was where the story ended. There were more that went the same way.

However, the seventh Tambuwal-led House insists that the setbacks caused by the Lawan saga do not change the focus of the House to be accountable and to fight corruption.

On June 15, Tambuwal called on the Executive to draw a clear demarcation between the bribery allegation against a member of a committee and the report of the fuel subsidy probe.

The Speaker noted that while security agencies were investigating the incident, anti-graft agencies should go ahead and prosecute the infractions established against many firms and individuals by the fuel subsidy report.

Tambuwal spoke further, “While we consider it preposterous and hasty to dismiss the current bribery allegations, pending the outcome of ongoing investigations, including our in-house investigation just instituted, we reject in totality insinuations being orchestrated in some media to the effect that the allegations have eroded the integrity of the resolutions of the House on the report and rendered same unworthy of implementation.

“Let me reiterate that the resolutions of the Hose over the fuel subsidy regime remain valid despite this recent controversy.

“We must as a country learn to separate institutions from individuals and we must admit that, in the present case, the alleged conduct of an individual cannot negate the conclusions of the whole House.”

Events in the days ahead will tell whether the Speaker’s position still mean anything to Nigerians.

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