Ijeoma Nwogwugwu: The House’s Trump Card

Watching events unfold over the past few days, I have come to conclusion that there is more to the House of Representatives’ subsidy probe report than meets the eye. I might be weaving a convoluted conspiracy theory and probably have an overactive imagination. But then again, Nigeria is one place where what you see, is completely different from what you get.

When the ad hoc committee of the House of Representatives set up to probe the fuel subsidy scheme submitted its report last April, I must admit that I was terribly disappointed in its findings. Given my insight into the oil and gas sector, it was easy to discern that the committee had only scratched the surface. In all our years of doling out subsidies to marketers in the government and private sector, never had the federation spent anything in excess of N1 trillion in one fiscal year to meet its subsidy obligations. So, the fact that 2011 was an election year and the subsidy bill had more than doubled to well over N2 trillion, made it more compelling for the committee to ascertain the degree of mind boggling corruption that had crept  into the subsidy regime not only for petrol but also kerosene. This, unfortunately, was sorely missing in the report.

Expectedly, the committee did indict government agencies such as the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency and Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation but left out the kingpins whose names and companies should have featured prominently as having abused the subsidy scheme. In their place, what it served up were the usual suspects who were going to be used as scapegoats, rather than the actual perpetrators of the crime.

If truth be told, NNPC and PPPRA were easy fodder for the House’s committee. They are, after all, government institutions that belong to the Nigerian commonwealth with a long history of inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption. Indeed, it would have been ridiculous if either organisation had not been indicated by the subsidy committee. Save for Mobil Nigeria Plc and Total Nigeria Plc, which obviously had reconciliation issues that needed to be sorted out, other private companies that featured in the report, were of little known repute and obviously the fall guys that had not played ball with the committee.

My worst fears were confirmed last weekend when the story broke that one of oil companies, Zenon Oil and Gas, belonging to Mr. Femi Otedola, had allegedly been solicited for a $3 million bribe to have his company’s name expunged from the list of firms contained in the subsidy report that did not abuse the subsidy scheme or make false subsidy claims, but procured foreign exchange from the Central Bank of Nigeria for the purpose of importing petroleum products but did not do so. The report concluded that the companies that fell under this category would have to account for the foreign exchange they had procured. While the jury is still out as to whether the companies (so classified) had committed any form of infringement and if they should have featured at all in the subsidy report, since the mandate of the committee was to ascertain the fraud in the subsidy scheme, what is not in doubt is that in possibly going outside its remit, the committee had touched the tiger’s tail.

What is more interesting is that since the bribery allegation broke and Mr. Farouk Lawan, after initial denials, eventually admitted that he and the clerk to his committee Mr. Boniface Emenalo, did respectively take $500,000 and $100,000 (or $120,000) purportedly offered by Otedola, is that the House of Representatives has scrambled very quickly to preserve the sanctity of the fuel subsidy probe report.

Under normal circumstances, the report should have been considered damaged goods. The damning revelation, after all, that the committee’s chairman – Lawan – had allegedly solicited for and received a bribe to tamper with the report, and possibly had been paid by other oil marketers whose names did not feature in the document, should have consigned it to the rubbish can. But that the lower legislative chamber is holding on to it for dear life, is the surest indication that it is the only trump card that it has over the presidency which might want to move against its leadership.

Let no one be in doubt; the fact of the matter is that the entire subsidy probe carried out by the House and the report is mired in a high stakes political tussle which started in May last year. In May 2011, it will be recalled that the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, shortly after the general elections, announced the zoning of leadership offices in the National Assembly. With the president and his deputy representing the south-south and north-west geopolitical zones, respectively, the PDP had zoned the senate presidency to the north-central zone; the post of deputy senate president to the south-east; the speaker’s post to the south-west, while the north-east zone was supposed to produce the deputy speaker.

In defiance of the party’s zoning formula, however, the House of Representatives threw up other candidates – Aminu Tambuwal and Emeka Ihedioha – from the north-west and south-east, respectively, to contest for the posts of speaker and deputy speaker. To succeed, both men needed the backing of opposition lawmakers in the lower chamber from the Action Congress of Nigeria, Congress for Progressive Change and All Nigeria Peoples Party. Without their support, Tambuwal and Ihedioha would probably not have pulled off their victory.

Shortly after the election in the House of Representatives, and despite the outward platitudes and apologies by Tambuwal and Ihedioha to the PDP leadership for defying the party, some of its stalwarts remained aggrieved by their temerity. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, for example, never hid his displeasure that the south-west, which had voted overwhelmingly for President Goodluck Jonathan in the presidential stanza of the elections, had been short-changed in the larger scheme of things. The presidency, on the hand, was possibly more accepting of what had transpired in the House and was ready to live with it, insofar as its leadership towed the line.

The House, however, being the more rebellious and impulsive arm of the legislature, did not read the hand writing on the wall. Six months after it defied the PDP zoning formula, it held an emergency seating on of all days a Sunday to consider and pass motions on the removal of subsidy on petrol that had been implemented by the federal government a week earlier. The move was unprecedented and angered the presidency to no end.

What was more befuddling was that the House, which is controlled by the PDP, was not in lock step with the presidency on a key policy plank of the federal government. Instead, it chose to tow the popular path and score points by passing a motion that the federal government reverses its decision to withdraw the subsidy on petrol. It also set up the ad hoc committee to probe the subsidy regime.

I can imagine that a lot of readers must be wondering why I have taken umbrage with the House of Representatives for refusing to serve as a rubber stamp on the federal government’s policies. Some might even remind me of the doctrine of separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary to serve as a check and balance in democratic governance. My response is that in countries where democracies are truly practised on the basis of party manifestos and political ideology, it is a rarity to see a legislature and presidency (even under a parliamentary system of government) that is controlled by the same party publicly moving out of sync, especially on key policy issues. Besides, politics by its nature is very fluid, so for anyone to harp on the separation of powers, then that person fails to recognise that the doctrine is more theoretical and is easily jettisoned when reality bites. Even in Nigeria, members of the legislature have been known to side step the constitution to find a political solution to matters of national importance. One perfect example that will suffice for now was the resolution on the Doctrine of Necessity passed in 2010.

Accordingly, it was not surprising that when Otedola, allegedly acting in conjunction with security agencies, entrapped Lawan as far back as April this year, and yet the latter was not immediately arrested as should have been the case. Rather, the security agencies sat on the purported evidence and only showed it to the presidency and Obasanjo, which prompted his blanket declaration last month that the National Assembly was a den of corrupt politicians.

For the presidency, however, this was the joker it needed to whip the House of Representatives into shape and possibly move against what it deemed its recalcitrant leadership. Moreover, in spite of its promises that it would implement the subsidy report, the presidency was reluctant to do so, as letting the law enforcement agencies loose on the small oil marketers that had been fingered in the report, could unleash a maelstrom it might have no way of controlling. The possibility that these marketers could end up singing like canaries, thereby exposing the big guns in the subsidy scam, was a risk it was not prepared to take.

But what the presidency did not bank on was that the House, although disgraced by the alleged action of one its members, will see through the ploy. Is it any wonder that they decided last Friday to tenaciously hold on to the subsidy report, as tainted as it is, as the solitary trump card it has to keep the presidency at bay?

What the House forgets, nonetheless, is that the onus of implementing this blemished report actually lies with the executive. There is only so much it can do to whip up sentiments from the public by insisting that it must be implemented. As it stands, a move it considered popular last January when it held an emergency session on a Sunday has sullied the House of Representatives and the larger National Assembly. Just like the fuel cabal it set out to expose, the legislature got ensnared by the allure of the subsidy scheme.

This whole saga goes to buttress my long held argument that the fuel subsidy scheme, though well intentioned, is a policy fraught with pitfalls and a cesspit of corruption capable of enticing even the saints among us. That the federal government, which budgeted N253 billion to settle outstanding 2011 subsidy claims, has already spent 451 billion and still has not finished settling claims for last year, is a sign that no amount of probes and prosecutions can plug the leakages in the system. The only way of permanently plugging them is to stop all subsidies on petroleum products.

 

This post was first published in Thisday http://www.thisdaylive.com/articles/the-house-s-trump-card/118207/

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