Henry Boyo: Is the subsidy probe report still viable?

by Henry Boyo

Nigerians may laugh and cry at the same time at the unfolding bribery giving-taking drama involving the oil magnate, Femi Otedola, on the one hand and the consummate lawmaker, Farouk Lawan, on the other. The contest is presumably about integrity; others would say it is all about money, but for now, it is rather early to pick the ultimate champion. The Lawan group altruistically positioned itself to catch a thief, but somehow, the chief hunter appears to have been caught in the trap planted for the hunted.

While Nigerians demand that all the truth be unearthed, a number of issues still remain unclear from the revelations so far in the public domain. For example, why did Lawan initially deny that he collected money from Otedola and why did he denigrate the recording of the ‘bribe-taking’ as a poorly contrived “Nollywood film” to discredit him because of his unshakeable stand in sustaining integrity in the investigations of the House of Representatives Committee on Monitoring of the Fuel Subsidy? Why did his response later change to admit that the bribe was actually taken to expose Otedola?

Lawan urgently needs to clear the air, if he must prove his innocence. It is unusual for cash collected as evidence in a sting operation to remain in the hands of the collector for close to two months, rather than the Police, without further apparent action to bring the villain to book!

If the Otedola/Farouk show was the theme of a Nollywood movie, the storyline may be considered unlikely, but the film would have been amusing all the same, because of the unexpected twists and turns.

Otedola, on his side, also claims to have acted in concert with the security agencies in a sting operation to expose Lawan’s demand for bribe. If this was the case, the lawmaker should have been picked up immediately he stepped out of Otedola’s residence with the marked dollar notes in his stuffed pockets and “cap” as some account said.

Incidentally, it is not yet clear if the Secretary of the House Committee, who was also alledged to have collected another sum of $120,000 from Otedola did so as part of a sting operation similarly conducted with the Police as associates.

If this was so, why did the security agencies fail to act until the news of the bribery scam filtered into the public domain? Many questions begging for answers, but the million dollar question certainly must be, why did Lawan, in public glare, advise the House to delist two companies (including Otedola’s Zenon?) from the list of alleged fuel subsidy scammers after he collected $500,000 for this purpose?

Lawan’s excuse for removing the names of the two companies from the list was that both companies did not actually collect subsidies, but rather misapplied their forex allocations. Again, this raises a number of questions: in the first place, a customer’s purchase of forex is ordinarily tied to an existing invoice, letter of credit or bill for collection by the vending bank. Companies, such as Otedola’s Zenon would be expected to make payments for their diesel or petrol imports through appropriate money deposit banks rather than from, for example, the liberal outlets of a street side bureau de change.

In this event, Lawan will need to identify the banks, which provided the millions of dollars, which Otedola is alleged to have misapplied. The Central Bank of Nigeria, on its side, will need to investigate the forex transactions and practices of that bank, and explain why and how such serious infractions escaped its notice.

It is difficult to understand why the other members of the House Committee on Fuel Subsidy accepted the excuse of forex misapplication for condoning the removal of two companies from its prima facie list of alleged subsidy scammers. Curiously, as apparent from TV broadcasts of the hearing, there was no single voice of dissent from any section of the House against Lawan’s plea. Could this be indicative that Lawan did not take the decision alone, or was their acquiescence out of respect for their perceived integrity of, possibly, the longest serving member in the House of Representatives? Once again, many more questions begging for answers!

On the other hand, if Otedola acted on his own, without the complicity of the security agents, many Nigerians would be inclined to believe that his belated ‘exposé’ was either an afterthought or a politically motivated scheme to discredit the subsidy report; otherwise, it makes no sense that he should yield to pressure to pay an advance of $620,000 as part of a $3m bribe, when he had nothing to hide. Or, could Otedola’s belated ‘exposé’ be a strategy to renege on the payment of the balance of the $3m bribe to Lawan after his company’s name was removed from the list of alleged subsidy thieves?

In the light of the foregoing, there is now a vibrant public debate on the validity of the House of Representatives’ subsidy probe report; the thinking is that the list of alleged subsidy scammers probably contains the names of those companies, that refused to pay bribes to members of the committee, while the names of companies, that are guilty of illegally collecting subsidy may have been left out of the list because of the bribes they may have paid.

In reality, the House report is a product of a quasi-administrative panel of enquiry; thus, the companies on the list cannot be automatically adjudged guilty and sentenced by it, while those companies omitted cannot be adjudged innocent until they have been cleared after a thorough criminal investigation has been completed. This same procedure would be followed in apportioning blame and punishment in any country governed by the rule of law.

However, in those countries where they place a high premium on accountability, the ministers of Petroleum and Finance would have penitently stepped aside for their gross (possibly criminal) negligence in allowing an extra budgetary expenditure of over N1tn above the approved budget provision of less than N300bn for fuel subsidy in 2011. But this is Nigeria, where the lower cadre of management will ultimately be sacrificed as scapegoats, while the real subsidy scammers will sadly, ultimately get away with a mere slap on the wrist from a regrettably pliant judicial system.

*This piece was first published in The Punch

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