BusinessDay

Farouk Lawan, Otedola-gate and chameleon faeces

Too many scandals have rocked this country of ours in recent times that have been swept under the rug or simply dumped in the trashcan or even incinerator of history. And they have almost always followed the same pattern. First, they would filter in as newsbreak, then the trickles would form a deluge and explode into Armageddon, then the “self-appointed activists, the idle and idling, twittering collective children of anger, the distracted crowd of Facebook addicts, the BBM-pinging soap opera gossips of Nigeria” (apologies to Reuben Abati) would feast on it, then the mainstream media would devour it with gusto for a week or two, then we suffix a “gate” to the name of the man or woman or institution at the centre of the storm, then everything would fizzle out and we return to our normal lives – we forget. We behave like a typical village mother hen which grandstands and shouts to the high heavens each time she loses a chick to a roving hawk and thereafter retreats to nurse her pains, without internalising the lessons of that encounter, only to repeat the futile exercise when the episode recurs.

There is the Halliburton scandal, for instance. Furthermore, the probe by the Ndudi Elumelu-led House of Reps Committee on Power into the massive investment made in the power sector under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration (1999-2007) opened putrefying cans of worms, as did the Senate probe into the operations of the BPE in 2011 which made mind-boggling revelations on how public corporations were sold at rock bottom prices, the probe on the management contract of the Nigeria Telecommunications Limited (2002), the Petroleum Technology Development Fund probe (2007), the pension fund administration probe (2012), and the fuel subsidy scam probe (2012).

The BPE probe, for instance, revealed that while the Aluminium Smelting Company of Nigeria, established at a cost of $3.2 billion, was sold for $130 million, the Delta Steel Company, which was set up in 2005 at the cost of $1.5 billion, was given away for $30 million. The pension probe uncovered how Abdulrasheed Maina, chairman of the pension task force set up by the Federal Government to reform the dysfunctional pension system, turned out to help himself and his cronies with the pension fund.

But apart from the publicity, funfair and razzmatazz that accompanied these probes and their entertainment value, many of them were inconclusive, and the reports of those that were concluded are gathering dust in the shelves.

But one scandal that has refused to go away is that involving Farouk Muhammad Lawan, a renowned stalwart of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) who represented his Bagwai/Shanono Federal Constituency of Kano State in the Nigerian House of Representatives for a whopping 16 years (1999-2015).

Lawan, a graduate of Bayero University Kano, who was a registrar at the Kano State Polytechnic until he won election in 1999, served as chairman of the House Committee on Finance under Aminu Bello Masari’s speakership. Regarded as one of the power brokers in the House of Representatives, he played a key role in Patricia Etteh’s emergence as speaker in 2007, and also during the corruption scandal that rocked her boat later that year, he was the leader of the Integrity Group that was at the centre of Etteh’s ousting. He became known as Mr Integrity and was even then touted as a strong candidate for the governorship of Kano State. But Mother Fate had other plans for him.

Read Also: $620,000 bribe: Farouk Lawan, Emenalo’s trial continues today

In the wake of the January 2012 protests against the attempt by President Goodluck Jonathan to remove fuel subsidies and fully deregulate the downstream sector of the Nigerian oil industry, the House of Representatives set up an ad hoc committee to investigate alleged fraud in the Federal Government subsidy regime. Lawan was appointed to chair the House Ad-hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy. In April of the same year, the committee released its report uncovering a huge scam in which Nigerian oil marketing companies were being paid hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies by the government for fuel that was never delivered. The scam was estimated to have cost the country $6.8 million.

A big dent

It was all very mind-boggling and Nigerians looked in utter bewilderment, mouth agape, as the revelations tumbled in. But in a quick twist, the hunter became the hunted as Femi Otedola, billionaire oil tycoon whose companies Zenon and Synopsis were allegedly earlier indicted in the committee’s report, accused Lawan of accepting $620,000 from him as part of a $3 million bribe Lawan had solicited from him in order to have his companies removed from the list of companies implicated in the committee’s report.

It opened like a typical blockbuster full of theatrics, intrigues, accusations, denials and counter-accusations. Lawan, Otedola and Boniface Emenalo, secretary to Lawan’s committee, were the key players; the House of Reps, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Nigeria Police were the supporting actors, while the generality of Nigerians were the spectators in what was quickly baptized Otedola-gate or Lawan-gate depending on your perception of who was guiltier.

Otedola alleged that he had paid Lawan bribes on April 21 ($250,000), April 23 ($250,000), and early morning of April 24 ($100,000) to have Zenon and Synopsis removed from the list of companies indicted by the committee, but claimed it was a sting operation and that he acted with law enforcement agents who planted visual and audio devices to trap Lawan after he had pestered him to pay bribe.

awan admitted receiving the amount, but insisted it was meant to expose the businessman and to convince the House of the pressure the committee faced. He said he had communications with the chairman of the House Committee on Financial Crimes and the Inspector General of Police, alleging that Otedola pestered him to accept bribes in order to influence the outcome of the investigation.

“I think it is important to note that I have been a member of the House of Representatives for the past 13 years, of course together with several other colleagues of mine past and present, and we have done so much to build the House of Representatives. It means to show that I should enjoy the respect and confidence of Nigerians,” Lawan had told reporters in the wake of the allegations.

“As far as the issue relating to me is concerned, I believe ultimately, I will be vindicated. I believe in the end Nigerians will come to believe and see that for the 13 years that I have invested in championing good governance, responsibility and probity in this country that this last trial is a trial from God and I believe in the end we shall prevail,” he had said.

The House hit back at Otedola, saying they were not convinced the procedure that caught the lawmaker was a sting operation and that Otedola was as guilty as Lawan.

“The giver [of bribe] is as guilty as the taker,” said a spokesperson of the House.

On the morning of April 24 during the House Plenary Discussion on Subsidy Report, the House had reportedly voted to have Otedola’s companies delisted from the original, but quickly re-listed Zenon Oil for investigations after the scandal broke, a decision Otedola described as a “celebration of corruption”.

A scandal that won’t go away

There is a line in the late Kofi Awoonor’s poem ‘Songs of Sorrow’ that reads: “The affairs of this world are like the chameleon faeces into which I have stepped / When I clean it cannot go”.

Lawan-gate or Otedola-gate may have faded from the consciousness of Nigerians, especially because too many others have happened since then and Nigerians have lost count, but this is one scandal that has left a permanent scar. Regardless of whether Lawan is eventually found innocent or guilty, he has clearly stepped into Awoonor’s chameleon faeces which he cannot easily clean off.

After initial attempts to prosecute Lawan, the fireplace apparently grew cold and nothing was heard again. Even Nigerians weren’t listening anymore because they had in the past watched such high-profile cases end in futility.

But like an angry ghost that won’t rest in the grave, the case has recently been reopened by the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC). The case appeared before the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Lugbe, Abuja, on February 2, 2016, but the presiding judge, Justice Angela Otakula, adjourned till February 9. On February 9, the case was again adjourned till March 7 and 8 to enable the first prosecution witness, Boniface Emenalo, to conclude his evidence.

Emenalo was initially charged along with Lawan with respect to the bribery charge. Both of them were first arraigned before Justice Mudashiru Oniyangi, then of the FCT High Court on February 2, 2013. But a later amendment to the charges by the ICPC saw Emenalo’s name removed as a defendant. Lawan is now the sole accused person in the case, while Otedola is scheduled to testify against Lawan as the second prosecution witness.

The case was reassigned to Justice Adebukola Banjoko after Justice Oniyangi was elevated to the position of a Justice of the Court of Appeal. The case was further reassigned to Justice Otakula of the FCT High Court, Lugbe Division, following the withdrawal of Justice Banjoko from the case in November 2014. The amended charges, comprising three counts instead of the previous seven, now indicated that Lawan corruptly asked for $3m from Otedola and did corruptly collect $500,000 from the businessman. The offences are said to be contrary to sections 8(1)(a) and 17(1) (a) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000 and punishable under sections 8(1) and 17(1) of the same Act.

When the case reopened on March 7, Emenalo told the court that he collected $100,000 from Femi Otedola as part of the alleged $3 million bribe promised to the then chairman of the committee, Farouk Lawan.

Emenalo, testifying as the first prosecution witness before Justice Angela Otakula, said he collected the sum of $100,000 from Otedola in $100 bills.

“I came across Femi Otedola during this assignment on April 24, 2012. I received persistent calls from Mr. Otedola in the morning and reported to Lawan and he asked me to play along with him, that he was with him (Otedola) the previous night,” he told the court.

“When Otedola called again, he asked me to come over to his house. He gave me the description (of his house). When I got there, he also confirmed that he was with my chairman the previous night. He gave me two bundles of dollar bills in $100 denomination. Each bundle was $50,000 making it $100,000 that were not converted. When I got back to the office, I wrote a memo forwarding the money to my chairman that same April 24, 2012, which he took from me,” he further said.

A copy of the memo was tendered before the court and marked Exhibit PW1 C. The defence, led by Mike Ozekhome (SAN), did not object to the admissibility of the document. However, Ozekhome sought an adjournment to serve the prosecution with a notice to produce an additional statement made by the witness as contained in the prosecution’s proof of evidence. The case was adjourned till April 12 and 13, 2016 for continuation of trial and cross-examination.

At the resumed trial on April 13, the case was again adjourned to May 18 following the prosecution’s failure to produce its witness before the court.

End of a political career?

Farouk Lawan’s gubernatorial ambition might have been scuttled by the bribery scandal, but it could not prevent him from seeking and obtaining a ticket to make a fifth bid for the House of Reps, notwithstanding the eyebrows raised by PDP stalwarts in his constituency.

But his people of Shanono/Bagwai Federal Constituency of Kano State thought differently. And they showed Lawan the door by choosing a greenhorn, Sule Aliyu Romo, instead. At the March 28, 2015 presidential and National Assembly elections, Lawan went home with 18,864 votes, while Romo, who was until the election the secretary of Bagwai Local Government Council, got 48,548 votes.

Whatever happens hereafter, analysts say the 2012 bribery scandal may yet be the end of Lawan’s otherwise sterling and promising political career. They add, however, that he will always be remembered for bringing the name of his constituency to limelight as well as for his quality contributions in lawmaking processes at the lower chamber.

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