BETWEEN THE HOUSE OF REPS AND NNPC

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Dan Aibangbe canvasses the need to focus on building institutions rather than personalities

In recent times, the media has been awash with the story surrounding the ‘smoking gun’ found in the centrally air-conditioned high offices of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). The proverbial smoking gun in this case, is the purportedly unremitted 19.25 billion USD revenue from crude oil sales made way back in 2014. That is about seven years down the lane!

At the initial time, the prevailing dollar exchange rate of N168 gave the resulting figure of about N3.24 trillion. In today’s terms, at a worsened official rate of N380 to a dollar, the revised figure would come to N7.315 trillion. This amount would conveniently finance a whopping 50 percent of the highly ambitious and expansionary national budget of 2021.

The monstrosity of this figure would ordinarily explain the aggressive tenacity with which the House of Representatives’ Public Accounts Committee is seemingly pursuing the inquiry. It is pertinent to state here that this matter has been dragging since the seventh National Assembly, four GMDs ago and three Auditors-General down the line.

When this trajectory is put into proper perspective, one cannot but despair at the charade going on. The pertinent question is: how serious or effective is the National Assembly’s over-sight function, regardless of the barking? There have been similar cases of serious national questions being asked at either or both the Senate and the House of Reps about the failure of leadership surrounding the nation’s security ecosystem, for instance. At a point, the House made (what appears to many concerned Nigerians) very feeble attempts at holding the President accountable for the unpalatable security situation in the country. Many suggested that the poor results were the outcomes of incapacity, or fatigue (not the military clothing) or overstaying of the Service Chiefs, whom he had retained against public opinion.

This phenomenon supports the suggestion in some quarters that the oversight arm of government simply carries out its responsibilities perfunctorily or only in advancement of self-interests or both, rather than in patriotic pursuit of public interest as expected.

While the NNPC may have, in the past, suffered systemic failure occasioned by the nature of the ownership and corporate structure, l can boldly affirm that today’s NNPC and its corporate progenies are undergoing pleasant renaissance, which all patriots must commend, support and embrace. For instance, the NNPC has become much more transparent in its accountability and responsibility to the freedom of information tenets. If you visit the NNPC portal today, you will find a lot of critical and vital information that hitherto were hidden in subterranean pandora boxes.

In fact, the NNPC as it stands today, has distinct semi-autonomous companies under the group superstructure. So, one would wonder why an oversight committee will not take advantage of this to obtain better quality information available at the group structure. Why would the committee that is keenly interested in investigating an almost belated matter be wasting further time by being only interested in focusing on the group head?

It is no news that the last investigative meeting scheduled for January 2021 was botched due to the Public Accounts Committee’s insistence on having the NNPC GMD appear in person. Thus, the business and the opportunity had to be kicked down the lane – a sheer waste of everybody’s time, official resources and an avoidable delay.

Bearing in mind that the purpose of the invitation was to shed light on ‘the failure to remit a huge amount of national revenue way back about seven years, I was at a loss as to why the session had to be postponed! Such serious matter, to my mind, does not require the biometrics of the NNPC GMD. By extension, it does not require his physical presence. It does require the presentation of cogent documents by an authorized representative of the corporation. It requires the attendant attention of very knowledgeable senior executive. The group head may be on vacation or indisposed. That should not stall the pursuit of such critical inquiry!

The Nigerian system must necessarily deliberately start to focus on building institutions rather than personalities for the simple reason that systems are more enduring than personalities. Personalities built many impressive national assets in the past, such as rail transport, national carrier, production conglomerates, etc. Lack of supportive systems have ensured that new personalities are rebuilding these same infrastructures today!

The truth is that in reality, the job description of many top executives often require them to be at many locations at the same time (a form of playing God). It is to mitigate such challenges that proxies, agents and representatives are a standard part of everyday business. The agent or proxy is usually nominated by the Principal, but in many cases, the representation status may even be imposed without the express consent of the principal! Such circumstances may arise by necessity, co-habitation, convention or by implication.

The Attorney is acceptable as a representative of an entity in many situations. A Parent is an acceptable representative of a minor. It is for such reasons that we have the House of Representatives in our democratic configuration of today. Each Honorable Member speaks, votes and presents the petition of their Constituents to ensure decorum and minimize the monetary and time costs of having the constituents appear in person. The usual exception to this proxy-agent representation is where biometric and personal details are required. Where an Institutional issue is in contention, I see no real reason to personalize the response.

Having the foregoing background in mind, could the honorable Representatives be engaging on an ego-trip or do they have a personal axe to grind when they insist on having specific personalities attend to their oversight sessions? Could they be operating under innocent but erroneous conception or could they be seeking to blackmail or extort the respondents?

In my private capacity, I have been privileged to witness legislative enquiries in Nigeria and elsewhere. I cannot but help to notice the wide gap in the level of civility and decorum. My impression is that in our local scenario, entrenched personal interests pervade the process. A recent example is the Public Hearing held in respect of the long-overdue Petroleum Industry Bill, where delegates from the South-South, who ordinarily should be speaking with one voice by now had to even exchange fisticuffs!

In the other example mentioned above, an invitation was extended to the President to address the Reps about the delinquent security status of the entire nation. The outcome of this episode becomes cogent once again. The President initially accepted the invitation, but subsequently received expert advice to the effect that the Nigerian Constitution protects him from accepting such invitation against his wish. Needless to say, the meeting had potentials to embarrass the President, the Nation and force unpleasant disclosures of national security issues to the enemies of the nation, rather than yield immediate solutions to the adverse security situation.

In the case of the summon to the NNPC GMD, I was embarrassed by the attitude of the committee members, which made it clear that they were more interested in the person of the GMD than in the presentation of facts and documents. The approach was clearly combative, reminiscent of the general attitude of our law enforcement agents to intelligence gathering. Some will rather beat the ‘evidence’ out of the suspects than to technically gather irrefutable exhibits. Of course, these sham evidences, not surprising, mostly fail to secure convictions as soon as they are subjected to legal prosecution.

Good democratic governance, including the legislature, executive, judiciary and oversight requires mutual cooperation, respect and civil liberties to produce the real dividends of democracy.

At the forthcoming rescheduled hearings on this matter and even others yet to emerge, I advise all stakeholders to adopt more conciliatory approach to unravelling the truth about the status of our ‘missing’ monies and whether the current ‘smoking guns’ really indicate homicide! Every patriot is invited.

Aibangbe, a Media and Public Relations Consultant, wrote from Lagos