By Vincent Obia
Nearly six months after news of the Farouk Lawan bribery scandal broke, it has taken the threat of a private citizen to make the federal government interested in bringing the dramatis personae to justice. Lawyer Festus Keyamo had on January 16 given the federal government a week’s ultimatum to commence legal proceedings against Lawan or he would himself bring the lawmaker to court. Lawan was alleged to have demanded and received $620, 000 from chairman of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited, Mr. Femi Otedola, while serving as chairman of a House of Representatives ad hoc committee on fuel subsidy, to give Otedola’s firm a clean bill of health.
The lower chamber had instituted a probe into the fuel subsidy regime spanning three years, 2009 to 2011, following the federal government’s controversial New Year’s Day removal of petrol subsidy. On April 24 last year, after a long wait by the citizens who were eager to see how those who made their living by fleecing the whole country might be punished, Lawan released details of his committee’s findings in a 63-page report containing many high profile indictments. Fifteen oil marketing companies – including Zenon Petroleum & Gas Limited owned by billionaire oil magnate, Otedola, and Synopsis Enterprises Limited – were indicted for siphoning about N2 trillion in subsidy funds.
As the House of Representatives debated the report, Lawan, in a curious U-turn, requested the acquittal of Zenon and Synopsis, saying his committee had discovered the companies never received the over US$284 million subsidy money they were charged with taking illegally between 2010 and 2011.
It later emerged that a US$620, 000 bribe from Otedola might have been behind the decision to strike off his company and Synopsis from the list of the indicted.
It was one of the dirtiest scandals in the heat of the fuel subsidy scam that shock the country to its very foundations.
The world looked up to Nigeria to crack the case, but it merely got more complicated as it became the subject of mutual diatribe between the Nigeria Police and the State Security Service. The shilly-shally lasted nearly six months.
Then on January 16, Keyamo threatened to take the case to court if the authorities refused to prosecute the Lawan within a week.
Despite Lawan’s admission that he received the said sum from Otedola, Keyamo said, “Till today, Farouk Lawan is yet to produce the said money before the police investigators, fuelling speculation and suspicion that the money has been spent. The case is as simple and straightforward as this.
“However, what ought to be a simple and straightforward matter has since assumed an absurd dimension.”
In apparent response to that pressure, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohamed Adoke, SAN, filed a seven-count charge against the former chairman of the House Ad-Hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy Regime and his erstwhile secretary, Mr. Emenalo Boniface, for allegedly demanding $3 million in bribes from Otedola and actually collecting $620, 000. The charges filed on January 29 at an Abuja High Court were brought under the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission Act.
Lawan and Boniface were on Friday remanded in prison custody by the court until February 8, when their bail application is expected to be determined. That the attorney-general decided to take up the subsidy bribery matter for determination in court – even if owing to pressure from outside the government – is cheery news. Yet this intervention is late in coming and the belatedness has tended to convey the impression that the federal government is only reluctantly involved in the anti-corruption campaign. But what would burnish the negative image is ultimately an honest and conscientious prosecution of the case.
Already, there is an array of court cases brought by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission against persons indicted for varying degrees of involvement in the fuel subsidy scam. But the case this time against Lawan and Boniface, many believe, would be a mirror of the federal government’s seriousness in the prosecution of the subsidy fraud.
This is more so given the wide insinuations about the relationship between President Goodluck Jonathan and some of the persons involved in the subsidy scam. Besides, the world would also expect to see the prosecution of Otedola, in line with the time-honoured fact that both the giver and receiver are liable in any bribery case.