A Botched Dinner that Raised Ethical Questions

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A dinner invitation to members of the National Assembly by the Managing Director of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, Dr. Maikanti Baru, last week assumed an unsavoury twist, writes Damilola Oyedele  

A controversy which seems to have now been quieted played out during the week at the National Assembly. The Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and the 469 federal lawmakers were supposed to meet over dinner at the behest of the corporation. 

“The Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Dr. Maikanti K. Baru, FNSE, cordially request your presence at a special dinner for members of the National Assembly,” the invite read. 

But as the news filtered in for the dinner scheduled to hold at 7pm at the Transcorp Hilton, on October 31st, 2017, it was followed by instant uproar particularly on the social media. The uproar was buoyed by the fact that there was an impending probe of Baru by the Senate, following several allegations leveled against him by the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, some weeks back. 

Kachikwu, in a leaked memo to President Muhammadu Buhari, had accused Baru of unilaterally awarding contracts worth $25 billion, and making appointments of senior executives at the NNPC without recourse to the board, which is chaired by the minister. He also accused the GMD of insubordination and abuse of due process. 

Following the allegations, the Senate constituted a committee to investigate the matter, and also to investigate allegations that Baru gives preferential treatment to Duke Oil (a subsidiary of the NNPC) in oil contracts, even though the company does not have the capacity to fulfill most of the contracts.

Duke Oil, a subsidiary of the NNPC, was registered in Panama in 1989. It has however been named in several NNPC dealings, which are being investigated, including the oil swap (crude oil for refined products) deals and alleged $17billion stolen crude.

Already, there are reports that the presidency is lobbying the Senate ad hoc committee to secure a soft-landing for Baru, and avoid a situation where he would be indicted. Based on this, it is therefore understandable that such uproar followed the dinner invite. 

 

The Story Untold

Indeed, while many prefer to believe that the invitation was just recently extended to the lawmakers, it is necessary to clarify that it was not. According to the NNPC, it was part of an interaction with stakeholders which also included the media, and was supposed to have held in April. It was however deferred to August, but it coincided with the annual recess of the National Assembly, and therefore ‘mutually’ moved to October 31, 2017. 

It was however cancelled at the last minute as the leadership of the National Assembly was billed to also have a dinner with President Muhammadu Buhari. 

 

The Invite and Ethical Issues

For emphasis, Senator Tayo Alasoadura, Chairman of the Committee on Petroleum (Downstream) had already rejected the invitation on behalf of the National Assembly, although the NNPC still claimed the lawmakers were aware and agreed to the date. 

But the development has since raised a critical question on the ethics and morality of such a gathering had it happened. How ethical is it for an institution to wine and dine with a corporation it is probing? It is unclear what time the third invitation was extended or agreed to as claimed by NNPC, but the general thinking is that it was ill-timed and could undermine the credibility of the National Assembly as an institution. 

It is also necessary to emphasise that as stakeholders in the Nigerian Project, there is nothing wrong with the legislature and the NNPC engaging in a discourse over meal. 

The legislature, however, has to take into cognizance its constitutional mandate to investigate and expose corrupt practices or inefficiencies in the institutions, which places a moral or ethical burden on it, to foot the bills for such dalliance with government Ministries, Agencies and parastatals.

It is simple: if the dinner had taken place, what would the atmosphere have been like? Would the lawmakers assume their superior position? Or would they let down their hair, grin and chat all through the (maybe) three course meal with Maikanti and his team, who are being probed by the same lawmakers? How would the lawmakers be able to convince Nigerians that the choice meal, hospitality and other metaphoric components, would have no bearing on the probe?  

Partner at Resolution Law Firm in Lagos, Mr. Olusola Jegede, while sharing his thoughts with THISDAY, said the dinner invite was in bad taste, and would lend credence to the allegations of corruption thrown at both the NNPC and the National Assembly. 

“It’s sad that the National Assembly members were actually warming up to show up at the event had it not been cancelled. Such irresponsible behaviour from the lawmakers is the reason their summons are often ignored by government officials,” Jegede said in an email.  

 Between the Legislature and the MDAs

Quite naturally, the development has begun to interrogate the level of cordiality that is expected to exist between members of the National Assembly and the Heads of MDAs. It bears a subtle reminder to the case in the seventh assembly, where the then Director General of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Ms. Arunma Oteh, had accused the Chairman of the committee on Capital Markets and Institutions, Hon. Herman Hembe, of lashing out at her during the probe on activities of SEC, because of her refusal to fund the probe. 

In the infamous drama which unfolded on live TV, Oteh alleged that Hembe had written to her requesting the SEC to sponsor the probe. She also accused Hembe of collecting a business class ticket and estacode from SEC to attend an emerging markets conference at the Dominican Republic, which he did not attend, and did not return the money collected. 

The point many missed in that scandal was that had Oteh been willing to sponsor her own commission’s probe, would there be an unbiased enquiry? 

According to media report, Oteh was informed about the request to “assist” the Committee on Capital Markets and Institutions by “co-sponsoring” the public hearing, in an internal memo dated March 1, 2012 by a departmental Head, Mr. Hassan Mamman.

“It is our considered opinion doing this will be of immense benefit to the nation’s capital market,” Hassan had written. 

In a subsequent memo, Oteh was informed that the Hembe-led committee had “welcomed this development and accordingly forwarded a budget estimate,” with the department recommending that live coverage of the hearing and secretariat needs be sponsored with N26.2 million and N4.2 million respectively.

Oteh approved the sponsorship with the note: “You may consider” on the memo. So, is it ethical for SEC to have provided the ticket and estacode for someone, who oversights the agency, or for him to have collected it in the first instance? Should this even happen at all?  

There have been allegations that sometimes, when committees go on oversight functions particularly outside Abuja, the affected agencies play host, and sometimes pay for hotel accommodation of the lawmakers. This is in spite of the fact that all monies for the oversight (including public hearings) are provided for by the National Assembly. Isn’t this a form of inducement? 

There seems to be a blurry line between hospitality and duty in Nigeria. It is however time, that efforts were made to make such lines clearer for effective delivery of national duties. Importantly, there is no debating the fact that the invitation was ill-timed, because it showed lack of sensitivity to the prevailing development in the country. It also proved a lack of deep and proper reflection on the part of those, who mooted the idea or at the very least, confirmed that they might have been spurred by the desperation to seize advantage of the moment to clean up their pending mess.