by Mohammed Zagga
ONCE again, the House of Representatives is in the storm of another bribery scandal, coming two months after the suspension of the Committee on Capital Markets, led by Herman Hembe. In the latest scandal, the Chairman of the ad-hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy Probe, Malam Faruk Lawan, was allegedly caught on video receiving a $620,000 bribe from oil magnate, Mr. Femi Otedola of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited. The current scandal rocking Faruk Lawan has already dampened the enthusiasm of many Nigerians who had thought that the probe into the N2.6 trillion subsidy frauds would be the beginning of the end of impunity in Nigeria. Alas, we are now left with a sour taste in the mouth.
Although blackmail could be deployed by members of the subsidy cabal to suppress exposure and avoid prosecution, Faruk Lawan himself didn’t help matters either by his equivocation on the issue when the scandal became public knowledge. His discrepancies and inconsistencies lay him bare to allegations and suspicions of insincerity. At a press conference on Sunday, June 10, 2012, Lawan denied either demanding or receiving bribe in the course of the fuel subsidy probe and that the allegation was a set up to discredit his committee’s report.
His subsequent contradictory statements, however, have left even his admires ever confused about who is actually telling the truth between him and Otedola. In a new version of explanation he issued, Lawan finally acknowledged receiving the ‘dirty’ dollars from Otedola but insisted that he collected the money in order to use it as exhibit against the oil mogul for bribing the committee to doctor the report to exonerate his company.
Even this new version of Lawan’s explanation didn’t convince discerning Nigerians that he is altogether whiter than white! Many wonder why Lawan had to keep the issue secret until the cat was let out of the bag and after Speaker Aminu Tambuwal confronted him with the facts, which he had earlier denied. The time it took Lawan from the day he allegedly collected the bribe and the day it became public knowledge leaves his explanation vulnerable to more suspicions and scepticism. His final admission that, indeed, he collected the money as “exhibit” was like trying to make a virtue of necessity. Did he have a choice not to contradict his earlier denial after Speaker Tambuwal reportedly confronted him with the evidence? As a Hausa proverb goes, a chicken thief that conceals the stolen property in his gown cannot tolerate the slightest noise that might announce the presence of the fowl!
Admittedly, Lawan is one of the most brilliant and active lawmakers in the National Assembly. If he was set up, why was he not smart enough to see through the mesh of blackmail as he alleged? By taking himself to Otedola’s house, didn’t Lawan compromise himself? If his intention was to use the bribe money as “exhibit”, why didn’t he lure the business mogul to his own house or any place of his choice and have him secretly recorded as he was delivering the bribe? Was it greed or naivety that made a brilliant lawmaker like Lawan to play into the hands of the cabals?
The SSS operatives that staged the sting operation while he was allegedly receiving the bribe didn’t help matters either. Why didn’t they arrest Lawan at once at the point he was collecting the money, a miscalculation, which gave him the basis to deny the bribe? The credibility of the SSS, despite the video “evidence,” is also weak in this matter. This does not however, diminish the gravity of the allegations against Lawan, who once led the Integrity Group in the House of Representatives, who had worked tenaciously for the impeachment of former Speaker, Patricia Etteh, over a house renovation scandal. By today’s notorious scale of corruption in the House, Etteh’s case pales into insignificance.
When he was elected Speaker of the House, Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, had declared his intention to refurbish the image of the House, which was battered by frequent incidents of corruption and bribery scandals. About two months ago, the Chairman of the House Capital Markets Committee, Mr. Herman Hembe and members of his committee were forced to stand aside to allow an investigation of corruption against them after the former chairman and his deputy demanded and collected gratifications from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In what many Nigerians considered curious, the Committee demanded a government agency they were investigating to fund the probe. Hembe and his deputy are already facing prosecution by the EFCC for allegedly collecting estacodes in dollars from SEC for a conference on capacity building in the Dominican Republic, which they never attended but kept the money to themselves.
In fact, this was not the only incident that tarnished the reputation of the House. The report of the House Committee on Power, led by Mr. Elumelu, died a natural death after the chairman soiled his hands in corrupt practices. The report, which exposed how $16 billion went down the drain in the name of power projects, which were never executed, died along with the reputation of the committee chairman and other members.
It is an open secret that our lawmakers are using their power to elicit financial favours from those they are investigating. Ministries and departments of government have to cough out millions during budget defence or oversight assignments being carried out by the lawmakers. In fact, even the current ill-motivated attempt to whittle down the powers of the CBN under the proposed amendment of the CBN Act by the Senate is targeted at Sanusi Lamido Sanusi because he openly criticised the rapacity of the lawmakers for consuming 25 per cent of our national budget. The CBN governor must also be punished because he wouldn’t give money to anybody in the name of carrying out oversight assignment.
National Assembly members that cannot tame their greed wouldn’t have the moral fibre to demand accountability from others. Intimidating ministries to part with heavy cash in the name of budget defence and oversight assignments has led to a situation where our lawmakers are held in silent contempt by fellow Nigerians. Despite the fact that each of our 109 Senators collect N45 million per quarter illegally and 360 House of Reps members receiving N27 million each every three months, they still find it hard to take their minds off money temptations.
Speaker Tambuwal is one of the humblest and affable gentlemen you can ever meet. However, the seeming untamable greed of our lawmakers is making nonsense of his commitment to restore the mangled image of the House. So far, the House leadership under him has demonstrated admirable courage by saying that it would not shield anybody involved in corrupt practices. The forced decision of Hembe to stand down as chairman of the Capital Markets Committee was itself a tribute to Tambuwal’s neutrality, impartiality and courage.
The passion with which Nigerians identified with the subsidy probe demonstrates the level of their commitment to end corruption and impunity in Nigeria. Professor Wole Soyinka publicly staked his reputation by throwing his weight behind the Lawan-led investigation into the subsidy rip-off. It would be sad, therefore, if the fuel subsidy report dies on the account of the venality of the committee or its leadership. Many Nigerians are unimpressed by Faruk’s account of the scandal. If the greed of the oil cabal is intolerable, the venality of the lawmakers is not defensible either. How can our lawmakers take the moral high ground of holding others accountable and then be found wanting?
If they cannot resist the temptation of corruption, then they morally lack the right to be harassing ministries and departments on accountability issues. You cannot ignore the mote in your own eyes and seek to bring others to accountability. This was never the kind of legislature we had in the First and Second Republics. In those days, lawmakers never demanded nor received bribes to do their jobs. As a result, they maintained their dignity and reputation in the eyes follow citizens. The current crop of rapacious lawmakers is not the democracy of our expectation or desire. The prosecution of the oil cabal would have been a major breakthrough in Nigeria’s anti-corruption crusade. But alas, the lawmakers’ inability to abide by their own moral standards has made this feat impossible to achieve. If these cabals escape justice, our lawmakers’ greed provides them the chance to do so. Denial without credibility is utter rubbish. If these lawmakers are morally weak to contain their greed, cupidity and venality, how would they fight fuel subsidy fraud and win? Greed and principle are diametrically opposed; they can hardly coexist.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija. This article was originally in Guardian newspaper on Thursday, June 28, 2012.