• Thursday, June 20, 2024
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BusinessDay

Senate in credibility question over wishy-washy probes

Ahmed-Lawan

At the inauguration of the 9th Assembly, Ahmed Lawan, the Senate president, made promises to Nigerians, part of which was to make the upper chamber to be more responsive to Nigerians they represent and make the Senate function better.

Lawan had said the 9th Assembly would be different and characterised by fewer controversies and more positivity.

However, the reverse appears to be the case in the last two years he has been in office. The general belief among observers is that the Lawan-led Senate has not done well in this regard.

Presently, public confidence in probes by the Senate is at its lowest ebb. There is the perception among Nigerians that perhaps, the committees’ findings or reports are compromised and hidden from public knowledge by the leadership of the Senate.

Read Also: PIB: Host Communities Trust Fund divides Senate

To be clear, parliamentary probes are not prosecutorial in nature but expository. They expose things that prosecuting agencies should use. It is said that its probes are to make better laws.

But then, when a probe is not conclusive and the criminals are shielded, it becomes difficult for prosecuting agencies to set in motion necessary machinery to prosecute.

For example, last year, the Senate and House of Representatives set up a committee to investigate how the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) allegedly squandered N40 billion within three months.

Moreover, Nigerians witnessed drama over the probe of the Niger Delta Development Corporation (NDDC) on fraud, even Kemebradikumo Pondei, the acting MD, brought comic relief to the probe when he collapsed during the probe. There were allegations by Joy Nunieh against Godswill Akpabio, minister of Niger Delta, as well as Akpabio’s counter allegation against the Senate.

The Senate set up an ad-hoc committee presided over by Senator Olubunmi Adetunbi (APC, Ekiti North) to look into financial transactions carried out by the IMC on behalf of the commission within the period and to present a report in four weeks.

The Committee had asked the then IMC of NDDC to refund N4.923 billion alleged illegal payments made to staff of the commission and contractors in breach of the procurement process.

The committee became necessary following complaints and a motion sponsored by Senator Thompson George Sekibo (PDP, Rivers East a motion about urgent need to investigate financial restlessness in the NDDC.

The IMC had also been accused by stakeholders and public interest groups of allegedly laying off of personnel and their replacement with unqualified and inexperienced persons.

However, it is interesting to note that more than a year after the Senate committee had been set up, nothing tangible had been achieved.

Observers decry that the fund has not been remitted to the NDDC account, rather more stealing is said to be going on there despite the forensic exercise going on.

Another of such cases is the special job slots allegedly shared to Senators by different agencies and MDAs in December 2019. The issue generated discussion and controversy among Nigerians across the country at that time.

The indicted Senators, including Lawan, had publicly denied the allegation.

The Senate Committee on Federal Character and Intergovernmental Affairs was tasked to investigate the case by grilling the indicted agencies. The chairman of the panel, Danjuma La’ah, had promised to expose all those who had been involved in the scandal.

Interestingly, for more than a year and half, there have been no reports, nor notice of extension of the committee time. The issue appears to have died a natural death in the upper chamber.

The issue had continued to generate debates among Nigerians, with many questioning the leadership of the Senate, while others said it was a general reflection of the failure of the All Progressives Congress (APC) government.

This year alone, and in the first half of 2021, the Senate has probed over 20 fraud-related cases with majority of them inconclusive, dragging towards the end of the year and likely going to end with little reprimand of the culprits.

Today, politicians, government officials, public servants and corporate executives who embezzle funds are not scared of appearing before a Senate probe panel as many of such probes have amounted to nothing.

In April 2021, Umar Danladi, chairman, Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), assaulted Clement Sagwak, a security guard, at Banex Plaza in Wuse, Abuja. The assault, which was captured by camera, went viral the same day.

Despite the efforts and petition brought to the Senate by Senator Istifanus Dung Gyang, from Plateau North, where the security guard hails from, the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions led by Senator Ayo Akinyelure is still expecting reports on the simple case it should have trashed immediately.

Also, in June, the Senate Public Accounts Committee began a probe of Maritime Academy of Nigeria, Oron, Akwa Ibom State for alleged illegal diversion of N1.05 billion.

The Senator Mathew Urhoghide-led panel said the move was premised on two queries by the Office of Auditor-General of the Federation which reportedly exposed the unauthorised withdrawals in its 2018 audited report.

The document indicated that the N457 million released to the academy on December 13, 2012 was diverted, while N608 million was irregularly withdrawn without concrete.

But the probe committee demanded details of the case from Duja Effedua, the rector of the academy, who accused his officials of frustrating the investigation.

For Imohimi Onogie, an Abuja-based criminal expert and law lecturer, the Senate probes have not been effective because they often give culprits opportunity for unnecessary defence.

Citing the Maritime Academy of Nigeria, Oron’s alleged illegal diversion of N1.05 billion, Onogie said that the committees always give culprits opportunity for unnecessary defence.

“Imagine, the Senate committee on the Oron probe asking the rector to go and bring details. The fact that the rector and others parties appeared before the probe panel with little details make them culpable. What other evidence are they looking for, because sending them back means the case will delay and offer room for money to change hands and case possibly quashed for lack of evidence”, Onogie said.

The case, according to the lawyer, will die a natural death or linger till the 10th Senate.

In his argument, Mathias Obikali, a Port Harcourt based public affair analyst, noted that the rector of the academy cannot say he cannot kick-start something he does not have any information about, because the Office of Auditor-General of the Federation have already indicted him in its report and petition sent the senate.

Considering the unperturbed attitude of most alleged culprits, he decried that appearing in senate probe committees nowadays does not scare anyone again because of the little or no result from the probes.

“If the probe committee speeds its investigation process, acquit the innocent, recover stolen wealth, jail culprits and make laws prohibiting any culprit from holding public and political offices, Nigerians will sit-up. But the Senate will not because its members are often involved or may have been compromised,” Obikali said.

Of course, due to weak institutions, corruption is thriving and public funds are being stolen every day, implying more probes for the Senate committees.

Some of the ongoing probes include; the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) for alleged N61.1 billion diversion, probe of N1.8 trillion intervention fund in power sector, investigation of $30 billion alleged revenue leakage from payments on account of foreign currency denominated contracts by companies, to name a few.

“For lack of the right word, I think the Senate is like a toothless bulldog, if not why are people still stealing public fund, the senate can even influence the EFCC to stop its investigations if it goes contrary to their interest,” Nathan Onyeche, another lawyer, said.

His thought is captured in Gabriel Suswam’s outcry during one of his committee’s probe on the power sector.

“You know that the federal government has over the years intervened at various times in different sums: N701 billion, N600 billion and this year there has been N380 billion and N213 billion.

“All of these monies were federal government interventions in the power sector with the intention and hope that the power sector will become efficient and Nigerians will have access to electricity.

“Unfortunately, in spite of these huge amounts of monies that have been expended, the result in what we see today is that the performance is below expectations,” Suswam, chairman, Senate Committee on Power, lamented.

But the irony for Onyeche is that despite the lack of accountability and evident embezzling of the power sector funds, the government kept allocating more, while the Senate kept probing.

“Who is fooling who; the one who allocates, the looter or the probing Senate? The probes are not working, and even the EFCC hunts have not been able to stop public funds from being embezzled even in Buhari’s corruption-fighting administration”, Onyeche said.

Adelaja Adeoye, a public affairs analyst, strongly believes that nothing good would come from the Senate because they were controlled by the executive who put them there.

He stressed that the action of the leadership of the Senate was a clear demonstration of the soft approach by the Buhari’s administration to corruption despite his campaign on anti-graft war.

According to him, “The National Assembly of today is being remote-controlled by the Buhari administration, and the much-talked about anti-corruption is nothing but a gimmick to hoodwink the opposition. Since Buhari came to power, how many people have you seen him prosecute, apart from the opposition that keeps defecting from PDP to his party?

“Recall that Adams Oshiomhole once said that if you are in PDP and another party, once you cross to the APC all your sins would be forgiven. A Senator from Delta, Peter Nwaobosi, who has been accused of several contract padding and refusal to execute the awarded contracts, recently jumped from the hammer of prosecution by crossing to the APC.

“There are so many examples to this effect, but the National Assembly would be sitting and debating over nothing, despite the huge resources at their disposal. We are only hoping that Nigerians will wake up in 2023, and elect a government that can serve them without lies, oppression or vendetta, like we are currently witnessing.”

Seun Lawal, political analyst, said he was not surprised by the turn of events by the Lawan-led Senate, adding that the way the leadership was elected shows they would fail.

“For me, I am not surprised with what is happening there, you can see the way Lawan was chosen by Buhari; so, he could protect him because the 8th Senate gave him a tough time. The failure of the committees shows they are not accountable to Nigerians who they are representing.

“To me, this is one of the worst since 1999; how many bills have they passed in the two years they have been there? That should tell you where this administration is going,” Lawal said.

Today, a lot of people are not taking invitation by the Senate as a serious matter, because they know it is an exercise in futility and just to fulfill all righteousness.

A few months ago, envoys and oil companies’ managing directors shunned Senate invitation, and considered it a sheer waste of their time.

In April this year, the Senate Committee on Local Contents had invited managing directors of oil companies to investigative hearing. The representatives they sent could not give reason for their absence.

It has also come to a point that people would go to the Senate not prepared to face thorough scrutiny, because they knew from the word go that nothing serious would come out of the exercise. They may just flippantly make some statements, which they would later deny. This can only happen in Nigeria’s National Assembly where things are done in a wishy-washy manner.

With the seeming weak handling of probe cases, the Senate appears to lack the credibility, and seems also to have lost the trust of many Nigerians to ensure accountability, encourage development through meaningful probes and make appropriate legislation to check the humongous corruption going on in the system.