$620,000 Bribe Probe …Of Privilege Or Ethics, Piety?

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If the House of Representatives’ ad-hoc Committee originally charged with the responsibility of probing the near-collapse of the country’s capital market, under its erstwhile chairman, Hon. Herman Hembe had conducted its affairs in camera, perhaps, the now suspended Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Ms Arunma Oteh would have kept her plum job to date. And Hembe would not have been off his powerful chair. Only perhaps.

But because every business of the Committee, including the near-damaging verbal jabs at those being probed were  transmitted live on national television, none of the key players was willing to compromise defence of ego and integrity. Also, all the claims and counter-claims of bribes would not have come to the public domain as fast as they did, hence too complex to sweep under the carpet.

Sad as it may seem, from the perspective of casualties of the openness of the Seventh National Assembly, the practice has boosted public confidence in both Chambers of Nigeria’s bicameral legislature. That confidence was expressed in good measure during the work of the ad-hoc Committee of the House, appointed to probe the oil subsidy regime with Hon. Farouk Lawan, as Chairman.

For its transparency, openness and indeed avowed incorrigibility, a huge half of the Nigerian progressive Community moved for the immediate implementation of its report, even before hearing and confirmation by the Committee of the Whole. Infact, various groups, including organised labour threatened to embark on a nation-wide strike if the Lawan-report was swept under the carpet by the Executive arm.

That public confidence remained so even when, during plenary, on Tuesday, April 24, 2012, Hon. Lawan caused to be removed from the list of indicted marketers, Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited. That amendment happened on the floor of the House, while the Committee of the Whole was already considering the report of the ad-hoc committee which Lawan himself superintended.

Again, all that was viewed live on national television in line with the Seventh National Assembly’s preference for openness and transparency Were it not so, not many would question the rational for listing and delisting Zenon and tie same to times and places that money changed hands. Were that so, Lawan would still be ad-hoc Committee Chairman on Oil Subsidy probe

Since then, from the graphic details of how Lawan demanded from Chairman of Zenon, Mr Femi Otedola Three Million US-dollars, to delete his company’s name from the blacklist; to how the House ad-hoc committee chairman personally received $500,000  and the Committee Secretary, Mr. Boniface Emenalo receiving another $120,000 making $620,000; how Otedola pre-informed the Security Agencies about the demand and receipt of the bribe and the eventual deleting of Zenon from the blacklist, are all public knowledge.

Also public is the defence by Lawan that the $500,000 he received was to serve as exhibit against Otedola’s Zenon and for which he forwarded the money along with a covering report to the House Committee Chairman on Drugs, Narcotics and Financial Crimes, Hon. Adams Jagaba. Finally, how the same Jagaba denied ever receiving such funds from Lawan and has since failed to honour repeated calls by the Police to help in the investigation, is also public knowledge.

Such is the openness the saga has enjoyed, thanks to the National Assembly, especially, the highly reputable, fearless, incorrigible and patriotic House of Representatives, which leadership has repeatedly assured the Nigerian public that it would not shield any of its own, if found to be culpable in the bribery scandal.

It was in apparent pursuit of the same, that the House suspended Hon. Lawan as ad-hoc Committee chairman and referred the matter to the highly respected Ethics and Privileges Committee, chaired by Hon. Gambo Dan-Musa. And in line with the transparency initiative thus-far demonstrated, the ever House-friendly Nigerian public looked forward to an even more transparent process, if for nothing else, to prove that the honourable House was above corruption and would fight same, ‘… honestly, to the best of my ability, faithfully and in accordance with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the law’…as contained in the House members’ Oath of office.

This is why it came to Nigerians as a huge shock that the Ethics and Privileges Committee could attempt to destroy the same plank of trust which has endeared the House to the public, – its openness, in preference for secret hearing which Lawan as probe chairman denied others. The question is, Why So? Why Now?

Clearly, that recourse to secrecy can undermine, if it hasn’t already, public confidence in the Ethics Committee to guarantee justice, as its move amounts to shifting the goal post in the middle of a game. And if the reason for referring the bribery allegation to the House’s Ethics Committee was to accomplish the facts and insulate itself from the scandal, the Dan-Musa’s Committee’s approach has cast more doubts on its ability to achieve that objective.

The issues for determination may be varied and many but vague, is not one of them. What Nigerians eagerly await the committee to determine include: At what time did Lawan realise that Zenon should not have been blacklisted? How did Lawan get to that conclusion that prompted the deleting of the company’s name from the crop of indicted marketers? If the $500,000 Lawan accepted receiving from Otedola was to be used in evidence, why did he not report the matter to the House leadership and indeed the Police? If the money was exhibit of attempted bribery or indeed bribery, why did Lawan remove Zenon’s name from the blacklist? What other portion of the Ad-hoc committee’s report, after Lawan’s correction expressly indicted Zenon? And most importantly, where is the evidence now, since Hon. Jagaba has denied ever receiving $500,000 from Lawan either as exhibit or for safe-keeping?

The others for determination should perhaps include: If Lawan’s $500,000 receipt indeed went to Hon. Jagaba, which that Honourable member has since openly and repeatedly denied, where is the $120,000 allegedly received from Otedola by the Committee Secretary? If indeed Otedola was desperate to bribe the Oil Subsidy Committee to be spared possible indictment as Lawan imputed, should Otedola involve the security at the same time?

Perhaps, another important issue for determination is, why did Lawan not push for the exposition of Otedola for offering him bribe from April 21, 2012, when, the first installment was paid, through Tuesday, April 24, 2012 when, the final installment was received by Lawan uptill June 11, 2012 when Otedola made the issue public, after alleged repeated insistence by Lawan that the balance of the Three Million Dollars be paid, or be implicated?

These are serious issues, which handling could make or mar public trust on the House. First,as soon as the scandal broke the House caused to be re-included Zenon Petroleum in the list of indicted marketers, as Lawan had allegedly threatened, from Otedola’s accounts and for which the balance left of Three Million dollars was desperately demanded.

Secondly, the House referred the matter to the House’s Ethics and Privileges Committee, which recently jettisoned the open-hearing module that endeared it to the Nigerian public. And for refusing to testify in secret, Otedola has been roundly vilified by the Chairman of the Committee as disobedient and stupid, while describing Lawan’s testimony as splendid.

These are why Otedola may have reasoned that justice might not be served and insisted instead on taking his case to the court of public opinion. But wait, what does the House stand to lose, if Otedola’s request for public hearing is honoured? Methinks none. It instead would have boosted its toga of impartiality .

That is why, I agree with the House member representing Kaduna on the platform of the PDP, Hon. Simon Yakubu Arabo that the Ethics and Privileges Committee’s handling of the bribery probe has done more harm than good to the image of the House. “The modus operandi that the Ethics Committee has adopted in its assignment is bringing this House to disrepute”, Arabo told the House last Thursday, in Abuja.

Beyond that, all the dramatics thus-far played out seem to point to a laboured attempt by unseen hands to save their own. This is what the House leadership had repeatedly preached against and which if not checked could inadvertently shift public sympathy away from both Lawan and the House, in favour of Otedola.

My Agony is that Lawan, of all people, accepted to testify in camera rather than insist on public hearing to openly prove his innocence, not to mention that he has not made public any extra efforts he has made to contradict Jagaba’s claim that the disputed $500,000 Lawan said he gave to Jagaba, is indeed intact.

That’s where Police must focus on. And avoid all privileges.

 

Soye Wilson Jamabo

Otedola And Lawan