Ijeoma Nwogwugwu: What the House of Representatives needs to know

by Ijeoma Nwogwugwu

Like a lot of men of means, Femi Otedola is not liked by quite a few people. Depending on what side of the fence you choose to sit, the manner in which he made his money could even be deemed unethical. A few years ago, his dominance in the importation, distribution and sale of diesel had some of us shaking with fury at the cut-throat and anti-competitive tactics he employed to keep his competitors at bay. His proclivity for flaunting his relationship with those in power, though a conscious effort on his part to raise his personal brand equity, might also be off-putting for people with a more conservative outlook.

Still, his handling of his appearance before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Ethic and Privileges last week had many of us doffing our hats for his courage and temerity. It was a well-thought out strategy by Otedola and his lawyers that gained him the admiration of the public that had grown tired of the scandal-prone National Assembly, especially its lower chamber.

For its latest assignment, the Ethics and Privileges Committee of the House had been directed by the chamber to investigate the bribery scandal involving Otedola and one of its longest serving members, Farouk Lawan. Prior to his appearance, Lawan’s lawyers, led by the rather loquacious Mike Ozekhome, had thrown down the gauntlet with their own version of the sequence of events of what might have transpired between their client and Otedola when money passed hands. They also dared Otedola to bring out the so-called recorded evidence he had against their client, if any.

But what Ozekhome and his colleagues did not bargain for was that they were dealing with a man with an ego the size of a mountain. You do not throw up that kind of challenge to a man of Otedola’s disposition without getting a bloodied nose for your efforts. He is the type that would cut his nose to spite his face.

Expectedly, he took up their challenge with relish. By Tuesday, on the day he was expected to appear before the Ethics and Privileges Committee, Otedola or the State Security Service had responded by releasing two audio recordings of the purported conversations between himself and Lawan. It was the stuff of Hollywood legend and had all editors rubbing their hands with glee at the dirty details of the alleged transaction between the Otedola and Lawan.

Unable to read the handwriting on the wall, the members of the Ethics and Privileges Committee lay in wait for Otedola. They had even leaked their intention to issue a warrant for his arrest should he fail to turn up at the probe panel. He didn’t give them that pleasure. He marched into the House with his retinue of lawyers and aides before the allotted time for the panel to sit and waited patiently for the lawmakers to start their interrogation.

As the questioning began, Otedola’s aides released a press statement to the hoard of pressmen waiting anxiously outside the meeting room that their principal would not be a party to a secret interrogation. His statement made it abundantly clear that he would rather face his interrogators in the open and in a transparent fashion, as he had nothing to hide. Inside, his interrogators did all they could to make him talk, away from the prying eyes of the public, but he maintained his position that the probe had to be open.

At the end, a stalemate ensued, compelling his interrogators to voice their frustrations, in the most indecorous manner, with Otedola for refusing to submit to the questions of the panel in secret. Instructively, the chairman of the committee, Gambo Dan-Musa, when speaking to the press, harped on the fact that his committee was a standing committee of the House backed by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In consonance with the constitution, he said, the committee was within its rights to conduct a secret probe if it so wished.

Sadly, Dan-Musa and the House missed the point and effectively closed the tiny window of opportunity Otedola had handed them to redeem the image of an already battered legislature. By attempting to throw the book at Otedola, what the House failed to understand was that the businessman was not violating the constitution. He had complied with the tenets of the constitution and was within his rights to demand for an open probe. In fact, his position not only conformed to the spirit and letters of the constitution, it enhanced the all important document, which the legislators are in the habit of falling back on when it suits them.

Instructively, even after its Ethics and Privileges Committee had so spectacularly bungled this all important assignment, the House still embarked on an exercise in futility the next day and the day after. By Wednesday, its chairman in charge of its Committee, Media and Public Affairs, Zakari Mahommed, made a hollow attempt at defending the conduct of his inept colleagues. He also made the unfortunate mistake of stating that men of means cannot dictate the way an institution should conduct its affairs. Not done, he dismissed the audio recordings as a grand plot to distract the public from the fuel subsidy report of the House. The last point was reinforced by the deputy speaker, Emeka Ihedioha when the Human Rights Writers Association visited him on Thursday.

Again, the utterances of the lawmakers show that they have failed to read the mood of the public. Contrary to the House’s perspective on Otedola’s position, he was not, as a man of means, attempting to dictate to the legislature how it should conduct its business. He was simply trying to assist the probe panel carry out its work in a manner that would leave no room for doubt. More importantly, he was instinctively ensuring that his interrogation was not misrepresented by a panel that might have been working towards a predetermined conclusion.

But what is more bothersome about the events of last week is that the House has failed to read the body language of the executive, or rather, the presidency, whose responsibility it is to implement their so-called subsidy report, if any. As it stands, the House report, which it so erroneously believed it could hold on to as the joker in the pack, has been irredeemably destroyed.

Anyone with an inkling of the way the government works should have known that when the Federal Ministry of Finance in May quietly set up a technical committee headed by the CEO of Access Bank Plc, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, to verify the subsidy claims and the payments made thereof for the fiscal year 2011, the executive was sending a clear message to the legislature that it had no confidence in its public hearing on the management of the subsidy scheme.

In contrast to the Lawan-led committee of the House, the Aig-Imoukhuede committee conducted its investigation with professional restraint and was devoid of the public shenanigans that charactersised the House probe on the same subject. It entailed the sequestering, for weeks, at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, a retinue of Central Bank of Nigeria examiners, experienced bank auditors and chief compliance officers of banks who scoured through piles and piles of documents before arriving at their conclusions.

No member of the Aig-Imoukhuede made a spectacle of being pressurised by oil marketers and importers to influence the outcome of the probe. And to boot, their work was carried out in record time and was devoid of fanfare. What was more interesting was the near-thoroughness of the committee’s findings, which contrasted sharply with that of the House. The Aig-Imoukhuede committee painstakingly highlighted the infractions committed by oil marketers and importers, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and Petroleum Products Price Regulatory Agency, and listed all the marketers and importers that had purportedly committed the infractions without fear or favour. Indeed, no marketer was shielded from the embarrassment of having to clear its name from the findings of the committee.

Interestingly, it is the report commissioned by the finance ministry that President Goodluck Jonathan may have chosen to take seriously. The president, though reluctant, is obviously under pressure to clean up the fuel subsidy scheme and prosecute erring marketers. Accordingly, if the House would only spare a moment, it should be clear to anyone but the blind that what the president has been doing for weeks was to mouth the right platitudes about prosecuting the marketers indicted by the House report, while waiting for the real McCoy. The minute he got what he wanted, the president swiftly set up a presidential panel to verify and reconcile the subsidy payments unravelled by the Aig-Imoukhuede committee, a measure he never took when the House report reached his desk as far back as April.

Effectively, the House of Representatives has no one to blame but itself for trying to play politics with the subsidy issue and the shameful conduct and inconsistent tales of the chairman it appointed to oversee the subsidy probe. It has a very bad case on its hands and must stop beating about the bush. The only thing expected of a House that wants to salvage whatever is left of its image is for it to handover Lawan and others who may have been bribed alongside him for prosecution by the law enforcement agencies. By clutching so desperately to a report that is effectively dead on arrival and trying to cover up the scandal, it is sinking deeper and deeper into disrepute. Long and short, the House should stop grasping at straws by doing the needful.

*This piece was first published in Thisday

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