Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Nigeria’s House of Scandals

“Integrity is necessary for systems and institutions to be strong. Today, rogues, armed robbers are in the state Houses of Assembly and the National Assembly. What sort of laws will they make?  - Former president Olusegun Obasanjo while speaking at the fourth Academy for Entrepreneurial Studies, Nigeria Annual Conference, held in Lagos in May 2012

On Wednesday June 6, 2012 Nigeria’s Senate and House of Representatives had a low key celebration of the end of their first session in the 7th Legislative Assembly. They commended themselves for having helped to stabilized Nigeria’s democracy. The importance of legislature in a democracy cannot be underestimated or over-emphasized. The parliament is the linchpin on which democracy rests.  Populated by the elected representatives of the people, parliaments make laws for the peace, order and good government of the country; approve annual and supplementary budgets of the government; oversee the performance of government Ministries, Departments and Agencies; approve nominations into key government positions, etcetera. This they do in consonance with Sections 4 and 88, among other sections of the 1999 constitution (as amended).

By the provisions of Section 4(2) of the Constitution, the National Assembly shall have power "to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation ..." Section 88. (1) says “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, each House of the National Assembly shall have power by resolution published in its journal or in the Official Gazette of the Government of the Federation to direct or cause to be directed investigation into - (a) any matter or thing with respect to which it has power to make laws, and (b) the conduct of affairs of any person, authority, ministry or government department charged, or intended to be charged, with the duty of or responsibility for - (i) executing or administering laws enacted by National Assembly, and (ii) disbursing or administering moneys appropriated or to be appropriated by the National Assembly. (2) The powers conferred on the National Assembly under the provisions of this section are exercisable only for the purpose of enabling it to - (a) make laws with respect to any matter within its legislative competence and correct any defects in existing laws; and (b) expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of laws within its legislative competence and in the disbursement or administration of funds appropriated by it.

As highlighted above, the National Assembly has the constitutional responsibility to expose corruption, inefficiency or waste (S. 88(2b).  It is in respect of this power that the Speaker of House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Aminu Tambuwal in January set up Hon. Farouk Lawan Ad Hoc Committee to probe fuel subsidy regime in Nigeria.  The committee tabled its report on April 18 while it was adopted on April 25.  One of the Nigerian newspapers, The Guardian, has this to say about the report: “the lawmakers in their 61-point recommendations, displayed the roll-call of institutions, private enterprises that ran a well-organized corruption regime, where both state officials and their private cohorts denied Nigerians the benefits of the subsidy policy, diverted public funds, over-invoiced fuel imports, and collected rebate for them.”  The highlights of the report included its recommendation of the refund of N1.067 trillion to the federal purse; the call for the unbundling of NNPC to make its operations more efficient and transparent; the request for quick passage  of a well-drafted and comprehensive Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB);   the directive to NNPC to stop any form of deductions not captured in Appropriation Act before remittance to the Federation Account, and the request that the corporation should submit its transactions to the operational guidelines of the subsidy scheme.

Civil right groups, media and the wider Nigerian public have  been pressurizing the federal government to implement the report of the probe report until facts emerged recently that indeed the chairman of the probe panel Farouk Lawan had cut a deal with one of the fuel marketers in order to protect the company’s interest.  It turned out that Rep. Lawan had demanded a princely sum of $3 million from Mr. Femi Otedola, Chairman of Zenon Oil and Gas out of which he had received a cumulative sum of $620,000. Unknown to him, it was a sting operation which was carried out by the men of the State Security Services (SSS) after a formal complaint was made by Mr. Otedola to them. The paid sums were marked currency notes and the whole deal was taped.  

On June 10, Hon Lawan vehemently denied the allegation. At a press briefing in Abuja on that day he said, “I categorically deny that I or any member of the committee demanded and received any bribe from anybody in connection with the fuel subsidy probe and I believe that this is evident from the thorough and in-depth manner the investigation was carried out. The present mudslinging is not unexpected in view of the caliber of people whose actions and inactions were found wanting in the report. I am aware that in their desperation to discredit the report and divert attention of the public from the real issues of large scale fraud in high places established in the report, a video footage displaying a caricature of my person allegedly having a dealing with a marketer, reminiscent of the military era when dignitaries were invited to the villa to watch a video clip of a phantom coup involving Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, is already in circulation.” He was later to confirm that he indeed collected the said amount from Mr. Otedola but that he intended to tender same as bribery evidence. What a volte face!
Who would have thought that Mr. Integrity and a ranking member of the House of Representatives (a Fourth Timer) would be easily entrapped by filthy lucre? This is the same man Nigerians, including myself, see as one of the few heroes of our democracy. Hon. Farouk had in 2007 led the integrity group in the House of Representative that ousted first female Speaker of House of Reps in Nigeria, Patricia Olubunmi Etteh who was accused of wanting to spend a mind-blowing amount of N238 million to renovate and upgrade a set of five buildings. Most Nigerians see Farouk Lawan as bold, courageous, smart, honest and incorruptible. Alas, Ayi Kwe Ameh was right after all when he titled his classic novel, ‘the Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born’. There is no doubt that the corruption allegations rocking the fuel subsidy probe panel has tainted the integrity of the report as there are several other allegations in the media that members of the committee must have collected bribe money in the neighborhood of N11 billion from different oil marketers. It is good that Hon. Lawan is currently telling the police all he knows about this scandal while the House at its emergency sitting on Friday, June 15 did the right thing by suspending the embattled Rep. I do hope he gets fair trial in court.
It is not the first time corruption allegations are being leveled against committees of the National Assembly and indeed House of Reps committees. In 2008, Hon. Ndudi Elumelu’s Committee was widely acclaimed to have done a yeo-man’s job by unraveling corruption in the Power Sector. Shortly after, Hon. Elumelu, Senator Nicholas Ugbane and eight others were accused of involvement in the mismanagement of N5.2 billion earmarked for rural electrification nationwide.  
In 2010, immediate past Speaker of House of Representatives Hon. Oladimeji Bankole was alleged to have been involved neck-deep in N2.3 billion car purchase scandal. Again, the Group of 11 (G-11) who called themselves “Progressive Minded Legislators” led by Hon. Dino Melaye alleged a fraud of N9 billion contract scam against the Speaker. They even went as far as submitting petitions to the chairperson of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on Monday, 21 June and ICPC on Wednesday, 23 June, 2010.  In the words of Dino Melaye, "We have documents to prove that some items approved by the Body of Principal officers of whom the Speaker Dimeji Bankole is the chairman were inflated.”A unit of 40-inch LCD TV set was purchased for N525, 000 each, contrary to the price list by the Bureau of Public Procurement and market price of N180, 000 by Samsung. "While three bullet-proof Mercedes Benz cars were bought for over N50m each, two Range Rovers were bought for N57m each.” The House leadership was further alleged to have bought torch-lights, car seats, fire extinguishers and sundry items for members at inflated price.” The former Speaker has since been charged to court and is currently answering corruption charges.
Also in March 2012, former House Committee on Capital Market, Hon Herman Hembe was accused by the now suspended Director General of the Security and Exchange Commission, Ms. Arunma Oteh of demanding for a sum of N44 million for sponsorship of the probe of Capital Market. She also accused the lawmaker of collecting estacode and other travelling allowances for a foreign trip from SEC but neither went nor returned the money. Hembe subsequently resigned his chairmanship of the House Committee while he is currently being prosecuted in the court.
These are just few of the many corruption charges dogging and trailing different committees of House of Representatives. Let no one be deceived that it is only the House that has dirty linen, even the Senate has previously been embroiled in corruption allegations. There had been N54 million bribe-for-Senate-confirmation allegation by a former Minster of Federal Capital Territory, Nasir El-Rufai against some Senators. There was also the N55 million bribe-for-budget scandal that embroiled the Senate and House of Reps committee on Education in 2004 or thereabout.
Was former president Obasanjo not right after all considering the on-going controversies rocking the House of Reps committee on fuel subsidy? Whatever the development, I do hope President Goodluck Jonathan will keep to his word by ensuring the full implementation of the subsidy report and that House of Reps and indeed our National and State Assemblies will learn from the unfortunate incidences of the past and redeem themselves.