Anti-graft agencies now have another opportunity to prove that Nigeria is not yet “a paradise for maggots” (the title of a new book on Nuhu Ribadu, EFCC’s first chairman) by getting all the actors (and actresses) in the latest corruption scandals prosecuted in good time. After the Farouk Lawan-led House of Representatives ad-hoc panel had exposed the N2.6trillion fraud in the fuel subsidy regime, early this year, many officials of the federal government attempted to discredit the panel’s report. No action has been taken against the oil thieves, as Nigerians expect. Now, what is at play is a case of the hunter becoming the hunted: Lawan and other panel members have been accused of collecting $600, 000 out of a $3million bribe promised by oil marketer Femi Otedola to free his company, Zenon Petroleum & Gas Limited, from any blame in the panel’s report. Lawan has denied the charge, saying he had hinted of marketers pursuing the committee members with “a jet loaded with US dollars” in April. Otedola, on the other hand, has alleged that Lawan requested the $3million bribe from him and that he (Otedola) got security agencies involved to catch Lawan and his team.
It’s up to the security agencies to seek the truth in a convincing manner. And the truth can only be determined in a competent court of law where the alleged video tapes, voice records, phone calls and other evidence would be put under the klieg lights. Lawan and his co-panel members, aided by lawyers of their choosing, should also have the chance to prove their innocence. Until the court decides, every account of the deal would be in the realm of speculation.
Since the matter is not yet sub-judice and is in the public interest, however, we can make intelligent guesses:
* In a statement issued this Sunday, Hon Lawan said, “I wish to categorically deny that I or any member of the committee demanded and received any bribe from anybody in connection with the fuel subsidy probe”. But the secretary of the House panel he headed, Hon. Boniface Emenalo, had written a letter showing that they collected $100, 000 from Otedola.
* Even if Lawan had told the House leadership about the “bribe”, as he claims, he couldn’t have meant to tender it as evidence 40 days after the panel had submitted its report.
* Mr Otedola is known to be a close friend of the president. Could this have been a scheme meant to scuttle implementation of the Lawan panel’s report that indicts oil marketers and other influential Nigerians from the very top?
Until the truth emerges, we advise that the allegations of corruption brought against the Lawan committee must not be used to discredit the report of the panel already submitted to the House and to the executive branch of government. The report holds that a whopping N2.6trillion was shared by oil marketers (probably fronting for top government functionaries) under the guise of fuel subsidy. Everyone but the oil thieves has accepted that Nigerian taxpayers have been ripped off; the only contention is in the size of the loot. Therefore, all the alleged thieves -- including Zenon Petroleum and Gas – must be thoroughly investigated and brought to the temple of justice.
After justice has been done to the oil thieves and their collaborators, we shall also expect the law to take its course in the case of bribe taking and giving. Here, too, the court should determine if Otedola and the government are guilty of entrapment. Already, some legal experts have stated that Otedola and the security operatives, going by Otedola’s account, are guilty of entrapment. Indeed, it is curious that the Goodluck Jonathan government would seek to entrap members of the investigating panel rather than go after those suspected to have stolen N2.6trillion in the name of subsidy payments. The N2.6trillion theft is still the bigger issue. If found guilty of entrapment, Otedola should be punished, just as Lawan should face the music if found guilty of taking a bribe. Both the giver and taker of a bribe are culpable.
This scandal has been following a familiar path. Four short years ago, a House of Reps panel on power exposed the looting of $16billion in the power sector. Rather than implement the panel’s report, agents of the law went after the panel’s head, Hon. Ndudi Elumelu, on bribery charges. Nothing was proved. Elumelu is still in the House. The reports of several other panels that unearthed monumental frauds have been rotting in the archives or lost. Stories of how a gang of six stole more than N32billion pension funds are still fresh in people’s memories, even as the accused are having their days in court. A few convicted for wrecking banks or stealing state funds were given very light sentences or freed based on a fraudulent “plea bargain”.
As we have stated in the past, we cannot continue to live this way. Until the cankerworm of corruption is rooted out in our psyche by a justice system that works, the nation cannot make progress. Fraud exists in all nations, but Nigeria’s case is pitiable because thieves have been emboldened to believe that they cannot be punished. That’s why, in spite of the thievery going on every second, nobody is in a Nigerian jail today on account of corruption. Now, the nation has reached a critical state, with the scale of theft reported these days. Imagine what N2.6trillion can do in a nation’s life! We should end corruption before it ends Nigeria’s existence.