EMMANUEL ONANI asks why Femi Otedola, the giver of the $620,000 bribe for which a member of the House of Representatives, Lawan Farouk, is standing trial, has become the sacred cow?
As the trial of the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Ad hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy regime, Farouk Lawan begins, the question agitating the minds of most concerned Nigerians is: Where is Femi Otedola?
The poser became necessary against the backdrop of the fact that both Otedola and Lawan are the dramatis personae in the absurd theatre of bribe-giving and taking. Nothing could be farther from this in view of the fact that both men had admitted to have given and taken $620,000 as bribe.
While Otedola alleged that he offered the said sum to stave-off pressure (knowing full well that he was not complicit in subsidy fund mismanagement), Lawan on the other hand, said he collected the money to use it as exhibit.
Perhaps, in response to the allegation of impropriety that characterised importation of fuel, the House of Representatives set up an Ad-hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy regime, with a mandate to among others; identify those oil companies that may have defrauded the Federal Government of billions of naira. Interestingly, the leadership of the lower chamber looked in the direction of Lawan, as chairman of the committee.
The choice of Lawan may not be unconnected with a reputation which he had built for himself over the years as a lawmaker. Lawan was once referred to as “Mr. Integrity” by his colleagues. He, through the instrumentality of the Integrity Group, which he led, played a leading role in the removal of Patricia Olubunmi Etteh as Speaker of the House as well as the emergence of Dimeji Bankole as the former’s successor in the last Assembly.
It was, therefore, not difficult for the Speaker Aminu Tambuwal-led House to entrust him with the onerous task of probing the disbursements of fuel subsidy funds to importers, with a view to establishing the level of compliance with due process or the absence of it. The embattled lawmaker and his committee members hit the ground running by inviting and demanding documents from relevant agencies of government as well as oil firms that benefited from the subsidy funds. As a matter of fact, the public seemed to have more confidence in the House’s ad-hoc committee then than the panel set up for the same purpose by President Goodluck Jonathan.
The initial confidence could be traced partly to the more than passing interest displayed by the Green Chamber, when it sat on a Sunday to denounce moves by the Federal Government to remove subsidy on petrol. But during submission of the committee’s report at a plenary presided over by the Deputy Speaker, Emeka Ihedioha, Lawan had sought for the removal of the name of Zenon Oil and Gas, leaving not a few to wonder aloud why the sudden decision.
The much-awaited report had hardly been laid for consideration, when businessman, Otedola, jolted Nigerians with the claim that he was subjected to unbearable pressure from Lawan to part with $620,000, in order to clear his company, Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited from culpability in the mismanagement of the fuel subsidy funds. Otedola had claimed that both the Police and the State Security Service (SSS) were notified of the “transactions”, as a way of demonstrating that he probably parted with the alleged bribe under duress.
This development, in security circled, is referred to as “sting operation”. The businessman released some audio and video clips, which he claimed chronicle the entire “episode”, that is obviously one of the many cases of political corruption in the country. Although, the suspended chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education had refuted Otedola’s allegation.
He later admitted, when he claimed that he wanted to also use the money as exhibit. Besides, he said he informed the House Committee Chairman on Drugs and Financial Crimes, Adams Jagaban of the development. Jagaban denied knowledge of it.
When he addressed journalists in Abuja, Lawan had this to say: “I categorically deny that I or any member of the committee demanded and received any bribe from anybody in connection with the fuel subsidy probe and I believe that this is evident from the thorough and indepth manner the investigation was carried out. “The present mudslinging is not unexpected in view of the calibre of people whose actions and inactions were found wanting in the report.”
How the Kuje experience began
The ding-dong drama continued until February 1, when the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) arraigned Lawan and the secretary of the ad hoc committee, Emenalo Boniface on a seven-count charge of violating the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000.
On January 31, Prosecuting counsel, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN) sought the leave of a Federal Capital Territory High Court to prefer a seven-count charge against Lawan and Emamalo.
Answering Awomolo’s prayer, trial Judge, Justice Mudashiru Oniyangi held thus: “Upon careful consideration of the application and attached documents in support of same filed by the Complainant’s Counsel…Leave is hereby granted to the Complainant/Applicant to prefer criminal charge under section 185 (b) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). “The case is fixed for February 1, 2013 for arraignment,” the judge stated.
“That you Hon. Farouk Lawan (M) and Mr. Emenalo Boniface (M) sometimes in April 2012 or thereabout at Abuja within the Federal Capital Territory under the jurisdiction of this honourable court while acting in the course of your official duties as Chairman and Secretary (respectively) of House of Representatives Ad Hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy Regime conspired between yourselves and with each other to corruptly obtain the sum of $3,000,000 for yourselves from Mr. Femi Otedola, Chairman Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd as inducement to remove the name of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd from the House of Representatives Ad Hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy Regime’s Report and did cause the House of Representatives to remove the name of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd from the said list and you thereby committed an offence contrary to Section 26(1) (c) of The Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000 and punishable under Section 8 (1) the same Act.
“That you Hon. Farouk Lawan (M) while being a member of the House of Representatives and Chairman of the House of Representatives Ad Hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy Regime sometimes in April 2012 or thereabout at Abuja within the Federal Capital Territory under the jurisdiction of this Honourable court did, acting in the course of your official duty corruptly asked for the sum of $3,000,000 for yourself from Mr. Femi Otedola Chairman Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd on account of intention to afterwards show favour to the said Mr. Femi Otedola by removing the name of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd from the report of the House of Representatives Ad Hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy Regime and you thereby committed an offence contrary to Section 8(1) (a) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000 and punishable under Section 8 (1) of the same Act.
“That you Hon. Farouk Lawan (M) while being a member of the House of Representatives and Chairman of the House of Representatives Ad Hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy Regime sometimes in April 2012 or thereabout at Abuja within the Federal Capital Territory under the jurisdiction of this Honourable court did, acting in the course of your official duty corruptly agreed to accept the sum of $3,000,000 USD for yourself from Mr. Femi Otedola Chairman Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd as an inducement to remove the name of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd from the report of the Ad-Hoc committee on monitoring of fuel subsidy regime and you thereby committed an offence contrary to Section 17 (1) (a) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000 and punishable under the same Act.
“That you Hon. Farouk Lawan (M) while being a member of the House of Representatives and chairman of Ad hoc committee on Monitoring of fuel subsidy regime sometimes in April 2012 or thereabout at Abuja within the Federal Capital Territory under the jurisdiction of this honourable court did while acting in the course of your official duty corruptly obtained the sum of $500,000 for yourself from Mr. Femi Otedola, Chairman, Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd as an inducement to remove the name of Zenon petroleum gas ltd from the report of the House of Representatives Adihoc committee on Monitoring of fuel subsidy regime and you thereby committed an offence contrary to section 17 (1) of the Corrupt practices and other Related Offences Act, 2000 and punishable under section 17 (1) of the same Act.”
After pleading “not guilty” to the charges, lead counsel for the accused, Mr. Rickey Tarfa (SAN) moved the bail application, which he said was brought pursuant to Sections 95 and 96 (5) of the constitution of Nigeria (as amended), as well as sections 340 and 341 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). Supported by a 26-paragraph affidavit, the motion prayed the court to grant the accused persons bail on “self-recognition”, even as it reminded the court that Lawan has been a member of the lower chamber of the National Assembly since 1999.
According to Tarfa, the fact that the accused persons never failed to report to the Police in the course of investigation into the criminal offence, coupled with their numerous trips abroad and back, were eloquent testimonies that they will not jump bail. Tarfa concluded by reminding the court that grant of bail was the sole discretion of the judge and that it was the responsibility of the prosecution to show why bail should not be granted.
“The burden is on the prosecution to show how the accused persons will not be able to appear to stand trial…We urge your lordship to grant the accused persons bail on very liberal terms and on self-recognition,” Tarfa submitted.
In opposition to the bail application, however, Awomolo argued that the offences which the accused persons were charged for “are not ordinarily bailable,” stressing that sections 10, 17 and 23 of the corrupt practices and other related offences act 2000, prescribes two to seven years prison terms, as punishment.
Awomolo reasoned that, “An application for bail is an application for equity, which requires your Lordship to exercise your discretion judicially and judiciously.” The prosecutor further submitted that the accused persons, in their affidavits, did not make an undertaking that, if allowed to go back to the House and to head committee, they will not ask for another bribe sum, or even higher than the one with which they were standing trial.
“What prompted them to demand for $3 million bribe may still prompt them to demand for $10 million bribe… The right of liberty given to Nigerian citizens by section 35 of the constitution is not absolute. I urge your lordship to refuse the accused bail,” Awomolo emphasised. The presiding judge ordered that Lawan and Emenalo be remanded in Kuje prison. Expectedly, many members of the House paid solidarity visits to Lawan while in Kuje prison.
After spending a week in Kuje prison, Oniyangi, on Friday February 8, admitted Lawan and his co-accused to bail “in the sum of N10 million and two sureties each in like sum”. Also, the judge ordered that the accused “deposit their international passports with the Registrar of the court and shall not travel out of the territorial boundaries of this court without permission.” Oniyangi noted that the offence upon which Lawan was charged was “ordinarily bailable”, moreso that “the discretion of the court to grant bail must be exercised judicially and judiciously, upon presentation of material facts.”
Justice Oniyangi further held that, “Judicial discretion is not exercised by mere figment of facts…, it will be granted upon circumstances necessitating it. “When facts deposed to in an affidavit have not been contradicted, such facts must be taken as true,” Oniyangi stated. While noting that the prosecuting counsel, Awomolo, did not file any counter- affidavit to the accused/applicants’ averments, Oniyangi maintained that, “The averments satisfy the requirements for grant of bail”.
“Consequentially, therefore, I have come to the conclusion, after considering the facts, that this is a proper circumstance where the court can exercise its discretion judicially and judiciously. “Finally, I hold that the application succeeds and I therefore overrule the objection by the prosecution,” the judge concluded.
However, while Lawan’s trial on a seven- count charge begins in April, mum is the word from the Federal Government or any of its anti-graft agencies (at least for now) on the fate of Otedola, who confessed to offering the contentious money as bribe.
Clearly, the position of the law is that, both the “giver” and the “receiver” of bribe are culpable. In the face of this, however, it appears that the law gives the Attorney General of the Federation, who is the Chief Law Officer of the country, by virtue of section 150 of the 1999 Constitution, the sole discretion on who to try, in the event of a criminal offence.
The AGF, in the circumstance, also reserves the right to use an accomplice as Prosecution Witness (PW) against an accused person. In any case, many Nigerians are asking why it took close to a year for the government to arraign the embattled lawmaker.
They suspect that Lagos lawyer, Festus Keyamo’s letter to the AGF, Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN), seeking leave to commence private prosecution, may have been the catalyst for the ongoing trial.
Demanding fiat to begin prosecution, Keyamo had written: “Last week, I gave a seven-day ultimatum to the Police to commence prosecution of one Farouk Lawan, a member of the House of Representatives and his accomplice, one Boniface Emenalo, for agreeing to and actually accepting gratification from one Femi Otedola in order to doctor the report of the House ad hoc Committee on fuel subsidy.
“From reports I read in the media after issuing my ultimatum, the Police have passed the buck over to your office for the inaction so far, claiming it has finished the investigation and that your office has just refused to file charges for reasons unknown to the public.
“It is for the above reasons I have prepared a charge (attached herewith) for the purpose of private prosecution.” Could it be a coincidence that Lawan was arraigned just a day after Keyamo’s one week ultimatum elapsed?
It is apparent that such seeming lukewarm attitude is casting a slur on government’s fight against corruption. As such, commitment to the anti-graft war must be manifestly seen and felt. That way, critics will no longer conceive it in the framework of rhetoric.
Apart from Lawan, Herman Hembe and Ifeanyi Azubuogu (suspended Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the House’s Committee on Capital Market) are also facing trial before a Federal High Court, over allegation that they “misapplied” estacodes provided for them to travel to Dominican Republic for a conference by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
The Director General of the SEC, Ms Aruma Oteh, made the claim. All said and done, the public wait with understandable interest for the commencement and conclusion of the trial of the Kano-born lawmaker, while also expecting the Federal Government to make public its stand on Otedola.
But while Nigerians wait with trepidation on what fate would befall Otedola, the giver of the $620,000 bribe, the businessman continues to strut the corridors of power in the Presidential Villa as he continues to participate in the Economic Management Team meetings and other meetings strategic to the economy of the country.
Stakeholders and analysts argue that in other climes, if he was not relieved of his roles, Otedola would have honourably resigned pending when he clears his name in the bribery saga. But then, this is Nigeria, where everything goes.