Onwuka Nzeshi in Abuja
The House of Representatives Committee on Ethics and Privileges may be forced to change its modus operandi in the ongoing investigation into the $620,000 bribery allegation levelled against one of its members, Hon. Farouk Lawan by an oil marketer, Mr. Femi Otedola.
But the committee appears not favourably disposed to the option.
Some its members believe it would set a dangerous precedent and constitute an infringement on the constitutional rights of the National Assembly to regulate the conduct of its affairs.
Indications emerged at the weekend that the leadership of the House was “thoroughly embarrased” by the last outing of the Ethics and Privileges Committee during which the Chairman, Zenon Petroleum and Gas, Otedola, appeared before it but refused to give evidence unless the investigation was conducted in the open.
Following the verbal war that ensued at the encounter, it was learnt,
the public opinion rating of the House dropped drastically with widespread speculations that the investigation lacked fairness and transparency.
THISDAY checks revealed that some influential members of the House have since then prevailed on the leadership of the House to direct the Committee on Ethics and Privileges to throw its doors open for the remaining part of the investigation in order to erase the suspicion created about the committee after the Otedola encounter.
Indications of discontent on the issue also manifested at the plenary sitting of the House on Thursday when Hon. Simon Yakubu Arabo took to the floor and condemned the insistence of the Ethics and Privileges Committee to conduct the investigations in secret.
Arabo who brought the issue as a matter of privilege expressed disgust at the method adopted by the committee in the said investigation. He also expressed reservations at the utterances of the committee regarding witnesses that had appeared before it.
The motion prompted the leadership of the House to mandate the Chief Whip, Hon Isiaka Bawa, to liaise with the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges to resolve the issue.
It was learnt that the Ethics Committee may be compelled to change tactics and invite Otedola for a second time to give his testimony and substantiate his allegations.
Chairman, House Committee on Ethics and Privileges, Hon. Gambo Dan-Musa, was not available to respond to the development as his phone was constantly switched off.
However, a member of the committee and Deputy Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon. Victor Ogene, denied knowledge of any directive to the committee to conduct its investigations in the open.
According to him, such a directive would be dangerous as it would amount to succumbing to the sentiments of some persons who do not understand the laws guiding the proceedings of the parliament and its committees.
Ogene said he was aware of the motion brought to plenary by Arabo but cannot confirm if there had been an interface between Dan-Musa and the Chief Whip of the House and its outcome.
“I do not know about any such decision or directive that the Ethics Committee should conduct its investigations in the open. But if that happens it will be dangerous to our democracy.
“The House of Representatives as a constitutionally empowered institution should never allow itself to be blackmailed into bending its rule(s) simply to please any individual or interest - and for whatever reason.
“It will be a case of bending the rules because of one man. Femi Otedola is not on trial before the House. If anyone is on trial, it is Hon. Farouk Lawan, our member who was accused of a misdemeanour. Otedola is only a witness and I have not seen a case where a witness dictates the method through which the court extracts testimony from him. When he appeared before the Police and the State Security Services(SSS) why did he not insist on giving his testimony in the open?
“Some people including some lawyers are shouting that we should have yielded and made it open but it shows a clear lack of understanding of the issue and the position of the law,” he said.
Ogene said that the outcry that Otedola should have been treated differently was an attempt by some individuals to ridicule the institution of the legislature in the public sphere by their conduct and utterances, especially concerning the on-going investigation by the Ethics and Privileges Committee.
According to him, the Ethics and Privileges Committee, remained the moral banner of the House, and one of the seven Standing Committees of the House saddled with investigations into allegations of breach of privilege or contempt of parliament.
He argued that contrary to the position of certain persons, the decision by the committee to hold a private hearing was in consonance with Order XV11/112(2) (b), of the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives.
The relevant section states that: “No member may be excluded from non-participatory attendance at any hearing of any Committee or Sub-Committee.
With the exception of the Committee on Ethics and Privileges, unless the House of Representatives shall by majority vote authorize a particular Committee or sub-Committee, for purposes of a particular subject of investigation to close its hearing to members by the same procedures designated in this subparagraph for closing hearing to the public…”
Also, Sections 62, 88 & 89 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, gives legal backing to both the House and its Ethics Committee's decision(s) regarding the procedure it adopts in the conduct of its business.
For instance, Section 60 of the Constitution states that, “subject to the provisions of this constitution, the Senate or the House of Representatives shall have power to regulate its own procedure..."
Section 89 (1) (b) goes further to state that “for the purpose of any investigation under section 88 of this Constitution and subject to the provisions thereof, the Senate or the House of Representatives or a Committee appointed in accordance with Section 62 of this Constitution shall have powers to procure all such evidence, written or oral, direct or circumstantial, as it may think necessary or desirable, and examine all persons as witnesses whose evidence may be material or relevant to the subject matter".
Ogene argued that going by the provisions of the law, Otedola's refusal to cooperate with the House Ethics Committee when he appeared before it, was not only unnecessary but simply “a crass display of gross disrespect to a constituted democratic institution and a dangerous anti-democratic precedent” to others who may have cause to appear before the Committee in the future.
“It is obvious that this irresponsible drama is part of a devious plan by undemocratic elements who parade the corridors of power to ensnare the House into an ugly controversy and by so doing seek to pitch the public against the parliament.
“It should be apparent to all Nigerians that all Mr. Otedola seeks is to court public sentiment. This is so because should the Committee base its report upon the evidence at its disposal - as given by Hon. Lawan - it runs the risk of being accused of bias; yet it should be noted that in reality, while a witness, in a court situation, is at liberty not to answer a question put to him, the Judge simply takes judicial notice of both the action and the demeanour of such a witness and both comes in handy in arriving at his judgment,”Ogene said.
He also debunked the insinuations that the investigation by the Ethics and Privileges Committee was unnecessary, explaining that while the nation's security agencies were busy handling the criminal aspects of the bribery allegations, the House had a duty to investigate the conduct of its member and any other person linked to the bribery saga.
It could be recalled that Otedola accused Lawan of collecting the sum of $500,000 in two installments of $250,000 each to influence the report of the House Ad-Hoc Committee on Monitoring Subsidy Regime. Otedola also accused the Clerk of the Ad-Hoc Committee, Mr Boniface Emenalo of collecting the balance of $120,000 for the same purpose.