By Kemi Yesufu
SINCE the 1999 swearing-in of President Olusegun Obasanjo which signaled the return of democracy, the public has witnessed the National Assembly initiating probes into different sectors.
Majority of Nigerians, the unlettered and the educated, without knowing the technicality of the National Assembly being empowered by Sections 88 and 89 of the Constitution which authorize lawmakers to expose corruption, inefficiency and waste in government, simply know that the legislative arm has conducted several sensational investigations. Many still remember how some of the probes that were celebrated with screaming headlines practically went up in smoke, no thanks to allegations of bribery.
Former lawmaker and then chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Power and Steel, Ndudi Elumelu who led the much talked about probe into contracts in the Power sector awarded during former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration, had to go to the court to clear his name over the allegations of N5.2 fraud by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). While Elumelu succeeded in clearing his name, another of his former colleagues, Faruk Lawan is still in court over allegations that he asked for a $620 thousand bribe from wealthy businessman and chairman of Forte Oil, Femi Otedola. Lawan was chairman of an Adhoc Committee constituted to investigate the N1.3 trillion expended by the President Goodluck Jonathan administration for the payment of fuel subsidy in the last quarter of 2011.
But even with what many would describe as disappointments from the National Assembly as only few of the reports from several probes have seen the light of the day, it is safe to say, the public has not lost its appetite for news with the mind boggling figures mentioned as being mismanaged in Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).
It is therefore understandable that the 8th Assembly though not yet a year old has been involved with a number of probes. This is even as history repeats itself with the House of Representatives leading the way with headline grabbing investigations. Hardly does a day in the lower House go by without motions on probes and investigations coming up. Sometimes, observers have criticised lawmakers for seeking easy fame by bringing-up allegations of corruption and embezzlement that fizzle out when brought under scrutiny. Also the House has had to deal with the heavy criticisms from the main opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is targeting only those in the opposition. Once, the opposition lawmakers shot down a motion to investigate the alleged non-remittance of funds by Ministries, Departments and Agencies. In the motion sponsored by Chike Okafor, a member of the APC from Imo State, it was alleged that federal government agencies in recent years have mismanaged issues of tax remittance and engaged in unapproved spending of funds which should have been paid into the Federation Account. First to pick holes in the motion was Edwin Pwajok, PDP, Plateau State. His Point of Order was followed by another one from Minority Leader, Leo Ogor. Relying on sections of the Constitution, Pwajok faulted the basis of the motion moved by Okafor. He sought the leave of the House to have the motion stopped from being read and debated on the floor of the parliament. In the motion as listed on the Order Paper, Okafor sought to bring to the attention of the parliament that allegations have been raised that the sum of $4 billion was paid as taxes and dividends by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Limited (NLNGL) between 2009 and 2014 without the sum reflecting in the account of government during the Goodluck Jonathan administration. In a surprising response, Okafor withdrew the motion mentioning the need to “avoid further controversy”. But despite the initial politicking, the lawmakers haven’t slowed down on motions calling for investigations with PDP lawmakers bringing up investigative motions and this led to the inauguration of a couple of adhoc committees.
To what many would describe as another case of the House showing much anti-corruption fervor, which they hope will lead to a proper inquiry, curiously, just before the House went on recess for the Easter break, it resolved to inaugurate an adhoc committee to investigate the down payment of N50 billion for the N1 trillion fine slammed on MTN by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). The decision was unexpected because already, the House Committee on Telecommunications had commenced an investigation into the same issue. In fact, the Committee chaired by Saheed Fijabi had in anger over the snub of the CEO of MTN, Ferdinand Moolman threatened to issue a bench warrant for his arrest. Though formally invited to the hearing of the House Committee on Telecommunications, on the fine for a breach of the nation’s laws on Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) registration which has been reduced to N780 billion, Moolman, didn’t show up. To the chagrin of lawmakers, the South African company, in the letter sent to them stated that it will not make any comment on the matter, directing the Committee to make inquiries from government agencies involved in the issue.
MTN also urged the Committee to stop its intervention and allow the matter to be amicably settled, adding that ongoing negotiations should be given the confidentiality it deserves. Also summoned were Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation (AGF ), Abubakar Malami, President Muhammadu Buhari’s Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari and the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria ( CBN), Godwin Emefiele to explain their roles in the process leading to the negotiation and subsequent payment of the N50 billion down payment for the fine, but none of them turned up. Kyari, Malami and Moolman’s snub symbolise one of the major challenges to investigations by the National Assembly, (ie, highly placed individuals ignoring invitations). This is even as some have argued that over time, the National Assembly has abused its authority to invite heads of MDAs and the organizations that conduct business with them, owing to the frequency of its invitations.
Another investigation that has received public attention is the oil-swap arrangement that was operated under President Jonathan. There have been claims and counter claims by the former minister of Petroleum, Diezani Alison-Madueke who failed to appear before the Zakari Mohammed-led Committee and ex-Group Managing Director of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). While the ex-NNPC bosses alleged that Alison-Madueke approved lifting of oil without contracts, the former minister who spoke through her lawyers denied the allegations, saying, she always followed due process. This is even as the companies that benefited from the deals were accused of tax evasions running into billions of naira. The House has also commenced investigations on all beneficiaries of Oil Prospecting Licenses (OPL) and Oil Mining Licenses (OML).
Away from the Petroleum and Gas Sector, the House equally set its sights on the over one trillion naira worth of contracts awarded by the Nigerian Railway Corporation for the rehabilitation of the railway lines under the Jonathan administration. Again, the revelations at the hearings of the Ehiozowa Agbonayinma- chaired adhoc Committee were quite alarming. This is as the minister of Transport, Rotimi Amechi during one of the Committee’s hearing held in February declared that the current rail system is only good for cargo transportation. The minister who explained that the sacked Managing Director of NRC, Seyi Sijuade confirmed to him that it takes a little less than 48 hours to travel from Lagos State to Kano on the narrow gauge line said such standard of service was unacceptable to the current administration.
On the issue of contract awards, the minster confessed that he was yet to look through the accounts or study any brief from the NRC as he has concentrated on delivering on the standard gauge line.
However, Chairman of the NRC between 2009-2011, Bello Haliru Mohammed said that under the Jonathan administration, bowing to the wish of the president to bring the railway system back to life in a short time, the corporation resorted to refurbishing the narrow gauge lines despite an earlier contract to replace it with a standard gauge.
Mohammed, a former Acting National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party and Minister of Defence, who was absent when other former chairmen made an appearance, also denied having a hand in the award of contracts while he held sway. Citing Section 22 of the Public Procurement Act which, he said the management of the corporation presented to him to explain that the board of the corporation was excluded from the process of awarding contracts and that contracts went through the ministerial tenders board and in some cases, the Federal Executive Council (FEC), Mohammed absolved himself of complicity.
But under questioning, Mohammed accepted that he signed a $8.3 billion contract to dualise the Lagos to Kano rail line, insisting that he was a mere signatory and would even have to see a copy of the contract to be able to answer questions on it.
Sijuade validated the submission of the NRC former chairman, saying that he did not participate in the tender, evaluation and approval of contracts. He also reiterated that under the Public Procurement Act, any contract above N250 billion has to be presented at the ministerial tenders board, while contracts above N1 billion must be given the nod by the Bureau of Public Procurement even as the Transport minister as supervisor of the NRC presented such projects which are majorly on the installation of gauge lines and locomotives at FEC.
Probably sensing that the public wants more than scandals from probes, the 8th House introduced a Standing Committee on Legislative Compliance. Efforts to get the chairman of this important committee, Abiodun Adeola to explain how the House would get the Executive and the Judiciary to bring those indicted to justice were unsuccessful as he was not on seat when Daily Sun visited his office.
However, chairman of the Committee on Media, Abdulrazak Namdas opined that the 8th House be given time before its anti-Corruption interventions are judged. He said: Namdas stressed that the 8th House is committed to fighting corruption as indicated in its Legislative Agenda and wasn’t only grandstanding to gain the attention of the public.