Opinion: Subsidy probe – Now that the bubble has burst

by Ayodeji Seriki

Since last month when the ‘secret deal’ between billionaire businessman, Femi Otedola and members of the House of Representatives ad hoc committee on oil subsidy management, especially its Chairman, Farouk Lawan, became public, my mind has not been at rest. I’m particularly touched because the scandal or allegation, in a way, had vindicated millions of Nigerians, who have always maintained that no arm of government or individuals at the helm at both private and public sectors can be exonerated from corruption, which has ravaged our system like cankerworms.

However, if there is anything that spurred me to write this piece, it was the article I first wrote in The PUNCH on the subject matter titled, ‘Where are the cabals?’ when I drew the attention of the public to the behind-the-scene drama going on over the probe. Imbued with a clear understanding of the Nigerian system, I had dismissed the whole exercise and predicted with confidence that the report of the probe would either be doctored or dumped into the dustbin of history like others before it. Among other observations, I made it known in the said write-up that I was aware that the big players, who had money to throw around had started lobbying the who-is-who in President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, including members of the National Assembly, to make sure their names didn’t appear in the report.

While this was going on, people who had strong hopes that Nigeria would one day get it right and probably saw the probe as one of the ways through which the administration would show to the world that it was serious about fighting against corruption, didn’t see any sense in the alarm. One of such people sent his reaction to my mailbox. The writer, like many optimists, had cited the pedigree of some of the members of the committee, as his major reason why he was sure the composition would do wonders. As a result of this, he described me as a pessimist and armchair analyst, who probably didn’t like the face of the administration. But with the revelation that his cherished Lawan collected $620,000 as bribe, the writer and others in his class, who believed the probe would bring positive report must have known better by now.

Much as the outcome of the whole exercise bothers me, my major problem is whether the new twist would frustrate the good intention the House had in mind before embarking on the probe. Also, as is being rumoured in some quarters, does it mean that the big players in the oil and gas industry ­the so-called cabals, had actually settled their way out? Whichever way, major actors in this new drama have again opened Nigeria to ridicule before the international community. And for the companies, whose names have suddenly jumped to the prominent positions in the report, the report will go down into record as a major onslaught against entrepreneural spirit of investors. I conclude this way because there is no sign of fairness in the way the small oil concerns were treated, compared to the unnecessary respect being accorded the giants of the industry. Though I am not in a position to speak on behalf of either the cabals or others, my argument is that all the indicted firms must be treated equally without fear or favour.

The story became interesting when it was stipulated in some quarters that the party at the centre must have sponsored Otedola and his co-travellers to discredit the Farouk committee’s report. Two reports have so far lent credence to this. One, media reports claim that a police source has established that Lawan initiated the contact with Otedola and demanded a bribe in exchange for removing two of Otedola’s firms from adverse reports that would beam searchlight on the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars in oil subsidy funds. The police also confirmed that the SSS worked with Otedola to videotape the bribe and also snooped on several phone conversations between the Zenon executive and the legislator. The police went further to state that they believed Lawan contacted them to report that he was in possession of the bribe money, only after he realised that the currencies were marked.

Following Otedola’s statement, the police authorities, have tagged Lawan as the ‘prime suspect’ in their investigations and are expected to make their move anytime soon.

Otedola said he can’t be accused of being a bribe giver because the money in question was handed to him in its entirety by the State Security Service. In what looked like more troubles for Lawan and his committee members, police investigators had revealed that the lawmaker and some of his colleagues were suspected of soliciting and receiving bribes from oil marketers amounting to over N11bn. This amount is not part of the $620,000 Lawan allegedly received from Odetola. Details on this report came in as reactions poured in on the $620,000 bribery scandal.

The police said recently that it had launched a new investigation into a fresh allegation that an additional N11bn in bribes had changed hands. Though information was still sketchy as at the time of putting this together, a source from the police had revealed to the media that a member of the committee had told police investigators that some members of the committee solicited bribes totalling N11bn from some oil marketing firms. Before the drama ends, Nigerians will be interested in knowing why companies not indicted by the Farouk committee have now been indicted by the Aig-Imoukhuede-led committee. From any angle one chooses to look at it, this has clearly shown that there was no transparency ab initio. The recent findings and the fallout of the bribery saga spoke volumes of the insincerity of Lawan. It shows that he did not do justice to the issues he was assigned to tackle, rather his focus was on the amount of bribe he could get from operators who are guilty.

If this is the situation, one can then conclude that it is clear that Lawan and other members of the committee did not set out to do what was expected of them and that they were people with little integrity because the new revelation has shown that the names of the organisations that paid were removed cleverly from the report.

Everything becomes a thing of concern to members of the public because millions of Nigerians watched the sitting of the probe and saw how some operators could not say anything reasonable to defend their involvement in the entire misappropriation.

From any angle one chooses to look at the whole scenario, this latest corruption saga has drawn the attention away from the initial fuel subsidy probe into the behind-the-scene of how money changed hands, especially issues related to the whereabouts of the money involved and the recorded conversation between Lawan and Otedola.

However, Nigerians, and indeed the international community, are eagerly watching to see what will be the outcome of this and the effort the Jonathan administration will make to ensure justice.

* This piece was originally published in Punch.

** Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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