The ‘Farogue’ Scandal

Farouk Lawan

Farouk Lawan

Farouk Lawan, Chairman of the Ad-hoc Committee that probed the mismanagement of the fuel subsidy is in trouble after receiving gratification from Femi Otedola, Chairman, Zenon Oil

OLUOKUN AYORINDE/ABUJA

It started as whispers and side talks among members of the National Assembly, just some days before. But by last Wednesday, the $620,000.00 graft scandal involving Farouk Lawan, chairman, House of Representatives Ad hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy and Femi Otedola, Chairman, Zenon Oil and Gas had assumed the dimension of a whirlwind, threatening to consume not only the alleged bribe taker, but the entire leadership of the lower chamber of the National Assembly. There was therefore the need for urgent, damage control measures, especially on the part of the House leadership which was already being linked with the scandal.
This was responsible for the decision of the leadership of the House of Representatives to cut short the one week holiday of members for an emergency plenary session last Friday.
The notice of the meeting sent out by the Clerk of the House, Sani Omolori did not list any agenda for discussion at the extraordinary plenary session. But even the most naïve in political circles knew why the House had to cut the recess. Rather than Lawan, the target of the strong wind, as some lawmakers told this magazine before last Friday’s session, were Tambuwal and his deputy, Emeka Iheodiha. The two top officials emerged as leaders of the House in defiance of the controversial zoning of offices by Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, on which platform they were elected and which also has a clear majority in the House. They are also considered rebels by the party and the executive, given the way they have run the House in the past one year.
The fierce opposition by members of the House to the attempt by the Executive not to make provision for subsidy payments in the 2012 budget and the consequent probe of subsidy payments by the House after government increased the price of petrol in January are clear examples of the refusal of the House members to kowtow to policy initiatives from the Executive based on party affiliation. With no love lost between them, some lawmakers had linked the presidency to the $3m bribe for clearance scandal immediately the news broke last week.
The involvement of Otedola, a constant face in Aso Rock Presidential Villa and one of the financiers of President Jonathan’s election reinforces this suspicion. Thus, some members of the House have been telling whoever cares to listen that the bribe scandal is a well orchestrated plot aimed at tarnishing the image of the House and rubbishing the report of the probe of subsidy payments which indicted some members of President Jonathan’s cabinet. The suspicion that the Presidency wants to leverage on the bribery scandal to get rid of Tambuwal and the entire House leadership began to gain traction following calls by some civil society groups for the resignation of the entire leadership of the House over the issue early last week. There were also allegations in the public domain indicating that the Speaker and his deputy may also be involved in the bribery scandal which runs into tens of billions of naira during the public hearing.
Deputy speaker, Iheodioha, presided over the sitting of the House on 24 April during which Farouk raised a motion that Zenon and Synopsis, two companies owned by Otedola should be delisted from the report. Ihedioha called on Lawan to avail the House of the reasons he wanted the two companies indicted in the report of the subsidy payments probe submitted to the House on 18 April let off the hook. Lawan rose up and explained that it was because the committee had discovered that the two companies were not beneficiaries of subsidy payments since they were involved in importation of diesel, and not petrol.
The rumour making the rounds is that Farouk asked for the deletion after receiving the bribe payments from Otedola and that Ihedioha must have been aware of the deal to have allowed the motion to easily sail through. This magazine gathered that some members and the leadership of the House believe that if such rumours are allowed to fester, the executive and PDP leaders may move in and convince a good number of lawmakers to oust the Tambuwal and Ihedioha over the bribery scandal. The emergency plenary session was meant to protect the leadership of the House against any move to have them sacked over the bribery scandal. Some lawmakers who spoke to this magazine last Thursday said the lawmakers were ready to send a strong message to the Executive that they will not be its rubber stamp.
The House had earlier indicated that Farouk was on his own and that the scandal should not be seen as indicating that the entire House is guilty. “While we await investigation into these weighty accusations, we wish to state without equivocation that this honourable House will never take sides with corruption and we will always stand on the side of the rule of law. We cannot, for whatever reason, support any underhand dealing from any quarter,” Zakari Mohammed, Chairman, House Committee on Media and Publicity said in a statement before the announcement of plans to have an emergency session last week. The Special Task Force set up by Mohammed Abubakar, Acting Inspector-General of Police to investigate the bribery scandal is headed by a Commissioner of Police, Ali Ahmadu. As at the time of going to press it was still waiting for Lawan to come and explain his own side of the issue.
But Otedola, without invitation by the Police, was at the Louis Edet House headquarters of the police to make a statement on the issue last Tuesday. The billionaire businessman was said to have been questioned by a team of police officers. The diesel importer reportedly gave the police a graphic account of how Lawan and the secretary to the ad hoc committee, Mr. Boniface Emenalo, collected $620,000 from him in three instalments as part payment of the $3 million demanded from him to have Zenon’s indictment by the panel’s report overturned. Just like he had earlier told a national newspaper on Monday, 11 June, Otedola told the Police that Lawan had at the beginning of the probe of subsidy payments by the Ad hoc committee he headed approached him saying he would like to have some knowledge of the way things work in the downstream sector of the oil industry, which was the focus of the investigations.
He also said officials of his company attended the public hearings of the House Committee during which they informed members that Zenon and its sister companies should not be part of the investigations because they import only diesel. The businessman, however, said Lawan later informed him that his companies had been included among firms indicted for receiving foreign exchange from the Central Bank without importing products into the country a few days before the report of his Committee was tabled before the House on 18 April, 2012. He added that the pint-sized lawmaker consequently asked him to play ball, promising to remove the names of his two companies from the report.
Otedola said he was angered by the request and that he told the lawmaker it was criminal to so indict his companies when they had not committed any offence. “But Lawan stated that several other marketers were playing ball and had offered members of the committee large sums of money to ensure that their companies’ names were not published in the report,” said Otedola who added that the lawmaker called again the day the report was to be submitted, demanding to be paid. “I, of course, was very angry and asked him to desist from his course of action, but Lawan insisted that I must pay up as other oil marketers had done before me,” said the diesel importer. He added that eventually when the report was released, Zenon, as Lawan had boasted was listed as one of the companies which bought foreign exchange totalling $232,975,385.13 from the CBN but failed to use it to import petrol.
Otedola said he called Lawan after the submission of the report and “reminded him that the amount ascribed to Zenon was wrong as what the company bought was over $400 million for importation of products through the banks – Zenith, UBA and GTB – and that under Sanusi (CBN governor) there was no way anyone could have bought that quantity of foreign exchange and not import the products, having filled the Form M”. He however said the lawmaker persisted in his demands, eventually putting the price of removing the name of his company from the report at $3 million. “As a law-abiding citizen, I decided to involve the security agencies and they advised me to play along, which prompted me to offer to pay part of the money with the promise that I would pay the balance when my company’s name had been removed from the report,” he revealed.
Otedola said that security operatives gave him the marked dollar bills and claimed he had both audio and video evidence of Lawan collecting $250,000 in cash, as the first instalment of the bribe payment on Saturday, 21 April and another $250,000 in cash, a day before the consideration of the report. He added that Lawan’s deputy came to collect $120,000 just before the House commenced debate on the fuel subsidy report.
“He (Lawan) now asked for the balance of $2.5 million, but when I told him that I had no money now, that the money was in Lagos, he suggested that I charter a plane to fly the money from Lagos to Abuja,” added Otedola. Ironically, when the scandal first broke, Lawan had flatly denied collecting bribe in any form from any fuel marketer during the probe of the subsidy payments.
Lawan, who said the accusation was meant to undermine the integrity of his committee and its report, said the manner the committee went about its investigative work and its far reaching recommendations is evidence that its members were not compromised in any way during the assignment. He also said he had called the attention of the public to attempts by some of the marketers to bribe members of the committee in the course of the probe. “In particular, I wish to refer to the front page publication in the Leadership Weekend newspaper of 28 April 2012 captioned ‘Marketers offered subsidy committee plane-load of dollars’ where we alerted the public that a marketer promised to fly in a jet loaded with US Dollars which he intended to share to both the House leadership and members of the Ad hoc Committee’ to influence the report,” Lawan said in a statement he issued on Sunday, 9 June.
He repeated the same claim during a live radio programme in Abuja on Monday morning, insisting that he could not have been the one in the video being referred to. Then, it was obvious he had not seen the exclusive interview granted a national newspaper in which Otedoa detailed how he was given a shakedown. But Lawan, to the disappointment of many who had regarded him as a man of impeccable character began to sing a different tune when his attention was called to the Otedola interview.
In the different documents he made available on Monday night and during meetings with some journalists, Lawan sought to create the impression that it was the Zenon Oil and Gas boss that initiated the $3 million bribe offer so that the Committee could spare his company in its report. According to him, Otedola made a $500,000 down payment, with a promise to pay up the balance of $2.5 million after the release of the report of the committee.
He also said the diesel importer offered his deputy the $120,000 bribe to shield Zenon from investigations while describing as “diversionary”, claims by Otedola that what happened was a sting operation. Lawan said he did not bring the issue of the bribery attempt up in the course of the debate on subsidy report on 24 April so as not to cause any distraction to the consideration of the report.
Also, Farouk, through the series of letters he made available to journalists, claimed that he informed the House and the police of the attempt to bribe him by Otedola. “Attached (to the letter) is the sum of five hundred thousand dollars only offered to me with another promise of two million, five hundred thousand dollars. I had considered bringing this issue up as a matter of privilege on the floor of the House later today, but I felt that the controversy it will generate will dwarf the contents of the report, which needed public attention so that necessary reforms in the sector could be effected,” Lawan said in a letter he claimed to have written to Adams Jagaba, Chairman, House Committee on Drugs/Narcotics, Financial Crimes and Anti-Corruption on 24 April. He also said Emenalo had, in a letter to him on the same day, raised alarm that Otedola offered him $100,000. The letter which was also made available to journalists reads: “I wish to inform you that I was on his invitation, at the residence of their Chairman, Mr. Femi Otedola, in Maitama (Aso Drive ) this morning and he offered me the sum of one hundred thousand US dollars in two bundles of $50,000 each. The money is hereby forwarded as evidence.”
Lawan also said the Acting Inspector-General of Police had on 9 May 2012, based on the interview he granted Leadership newspaper on 28 April, in a letter marked CR:3000/IGP.SEC/STF/FHQ/ABJ/VOL 2/309, informed him that he was directing “a discreet investigation into the matter”. The letter was signed by Amodu, on behalf of the IGP. Also, in another letter on 16 May 2012 with reference number CR: 3000/IGP.SEC/STF/FHQ/ABJ/VOL 2/319, and signed by Amodu, the IGP requested for the money exhibit, names of witnesses and other material evidence from Lawan. But Lawan did not respond to the letter until about two weeks later when he told the IGP that the House leadership was already investigating the bribery allegations.
There are big doubts about the authenticity of the series of letters he put in the public domain immediately Otedola came out to confirm that that Lawan indeed collected bribe from him.
For one, many Nigerians considered it curious that Lawan had written to alert of the plot to bribe him the same day he stood up during the lower chamber’s plenary session to demand that the name of two companies belonging to Otedola be removed from the document. Some television stations were playing the video of that particular event to drive home this point throughout last week.
Even then, Jagaba, Chairman of the House Committee on Drugs and Narcotics had on Monday denied receiving any letter from the lawmaker on the attempt to bribe him.
There was also the curious claim in the purported letter by the Police that it had launched investigation into the “matter”, following a newspaper interview granted by Lawan. The question being asked by critics is which “matter” and when did the Police start scouring newspaper headlines for what to investigate? Even in the newspaper interview and the numerous others he granted the media during the work of his committee, Lawan never for once mentioned the name of a particular marketer as the person who wanted to bribe him. He only spoke of “pressures” from high quarters to compromise him and members of his committee. The Police also refused to confirm the authenticity of the letters or the circumstances which led them to open investigations into the bribe payments. And going by the letters, Lawan did not report that he was offered any money in form of gratification by Otedola to the Police. Rather, it was the Police that on its own initiated the investigations, with the IGP setting up a special task force on the strength of claims in a newspaper interview.
Many Nigerians therefore considered the defence put up by Lawan to the bribery allegations as mere afterthought. It was learnt that Otedola had voluntarily decided to go and make a statement to the Police to fault the claims of the lawmaker. “As my father used to say, an offence committed and denied, is twice committed. As for his (Lawan’s) account on the IGP, it is a cock and bull story. He collected the money on April 24, but waited for 40 days to write the letter only after he discovered that the security agencies had the video and audio recordings of the transaction. He should go and face the full force of the law. I am also ready to submit myself to the law enforcement agencies if I am found wanting in anyway,” THISDAY quoted the businessman as saying after coming out from the police headquarters.
It was gathered that Lawan had attempted to recreate scenes similar to those common during the struggle for third term in the National Assembly chambers just before the lawmakers went on break, by offering to display the dollars he collected on the floor of the House. But he was reported to have been stopped by the Speaker and his deputy who had reportedly watched the stealthily recorded video which showed him collecting the bribe from Otedola.
The Kano State lawmaker has been in the National Assembly since 1999 and has over time become one of the power brokers therein. Members of the House, especially from the North, see him as a mentor and usually relied on him for direction during critical periods of decision making in the lower chamber. Lawan particularly became popular and known to most Nigerians after the inauguration of the sixth National Assembly and emergence of Patricia Etteh as the Speaker in 2007. He had led a section of lawmakers in the House who tagged themselves the Integrity Group in the battle to kick Etteh out of her position as speaker over allegations of corruption.
The doggedness of the group in the struggle to ensure that Etteh vacated the seat made many Nigerians to admire them. But Lawan and his group were also adept at manipulating the media to fight their causes. The group, just like Farouk did last week, circulated tonnes of documents to prove that the former Speaker had indeed soiled her hands in the award of contracts for renovation of her official residence, the object of the corruption allegations while the battle to remove her from the office raged. But the same House gave Etteh a clean bill of health as the House was rounding off its sitting last year, confirming, as the former Speaker had claimed all along, that she did not award any contract for the renovation of her residence.
It turned out that Lawan had embarked on the scheme to get rid of the Speaker because he was not made the Chairman of his favourite Appropriation Committee of the House. Many have also said the silence of Lawan and the Integrity Group in the face of the corruption allegations against Dimeji Bankole who they helped install as Speaker after forcing Etteh to resign from the position, is proof of the hypocrisy of members of the group. Bankole indeed spent over N400 million to renovate the same official quarters, which Etteh had wanted to renovate with just N40 million before they raised hell against her.
Yet, when Lawan was chosen as the Chairman of the House Committee that would investigate payments of subsidy early this year, many Nigerians had hoped he would do a good job based on the image he projected during the fight against Etteh. Nigerians who watched the proceedings during the sitting of the Committee which also had as members Ali Babatunde Ahmad, James Abiodun Faleke, Alphonsus Gerald Irona, Umar Abubakar Sade, Eucharia Azodo, Abbas Tajudeen, and the chairman, House Committee on Appropriation, John Owan Enoh on television, were not disappointed with how the assignment was handled.
In the same vein, the report of the Committee which also indicted many petroleum marketers, the Petroleum Pricing and Regulatory Agency, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC and some importers of petroleum products of fraudulent dealings amounting to trillions of naira in the guise of claims for subsidy, was applauded by many Nigerians. Despite his reservations about some of the recommendations and conclusions reached in the report, President Jonathan announced last month that a copy of the document had been forwarded to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, for further action. The fear of many is that the bribery allegation against Lawan has put the credibility of the report in doubt. “How are we sure that they did not collect money from many other marketers as it now being rumoured,” a marketer told this magazine last week.
Lawan’s claim that he took the bribe because he wanted to nail Otedola with the evidence has been dismissed by analysts who stress that if indeed the intention was to nail Otedola, then the secretary of the panel too shouldn’t have gone to Otedola to collect more money. Many have wondered why a man probing oil marketers will go to the home of one of the key persons being probed at 4a.m. if he was not motivated by unfathomable greed. “It is like a judge visiting an armed robber standing trial in his court,” a pro-democracy activist argued last week
Otedola is insistent that when Lawan is coming with the money he has admitted taking, he should come with the marked notes he got. The insistence is thought to have been bred by suspicion that the money may have been shared and spent, with Lawan reaching out to his friends to source for fresh dollars elsewhere. Lawan’s reluctance to surrender the alleged evidence is believed to be related to this. To observers, even if the money has not been totally spent, a reasonably slice of it is likely to have been. It was Etteh that was having the last laugh over Lawan last week. “Now, Nigerians know who is corrupt and who is not. It is a big shame, it has further ridiculed the image of the House. Basically, what we read in the newspapers does not come as a surprise having had relationship with him for a very long time. He is the leader of the cartel,” Dino Melaye, who claimed to be speaking on behalf of former Speaker said.

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First published by THENEWS Magazine

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