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The fuel subsidy imbroglio and EFCC’s nonchalance

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By Oscarline Onwuemenyi
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, arguably the nation’s most prominent and most recognizable agency in the fight against wanton graft and economic crimes sure has its hands full.

On a daily basis, reporters’ email boxes are clogged with press releases from the Commission, detailing its actions against all sorts of criminals, from its persecution of ‘petty’ internet crooks to prosecution of oil thieves in the creeks.

And a good dose of the releases deal with on-going cases in the law courts against politicians, some of which have been going on for several years due to legal maneuvers by the defendants’ lawyers or poor handling of the cases by the prosecution. A recent one describes the order by the Court of Appeal in Abuja for the retrial of a former National Coordinator of the Police Equipment Fund (PEF), Chief Kenny Martins and three others in respect of the embezzlement of N7.74 billion belonging to the PEF. This might be considered a ‘victory’ for the Commission given the apparent mishandling of the case in 2008.

Otedola and Farouk

But for an agency which earned a reputation for its hard-hitting and ‘overbearing’ stance on the fight against corruption in the past, the daily purge of petty thieves by the EFCC while big-wig corporate and political criminals walk the streets unfettered is akin to a hunter who traps mice while big game stares him in the face.

Not a few Nigerians have deemed as curious the laid-back attitude that currently pervades the whole organization, especially in the face of what may look like the most bizarre explosion of economic and financial crimes at the highest levels of government and the economy.

To this day, the EFCC has remained surprisingly non-committal and mute over the mind-boggling allegations of $620,000 bribery presently rocking House of Representatives committee, which had originally set out to investigate the gross mismanagement of oil subsidies by several government agencies and oil and gas companies in the country. The Commission has assumed a wait-and-see approach even as the drama of the bribe allegation plays out on the political theatre.

Don’t forget also that no action has been taking by the Commission, nor any government agency for that matter, on the report of the House Ad hoc Committee, which revealed that over N1.06 trillion was paid out to companies and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) under questionable circumstances.

Many commentators believe that the EFCC’s growing apathy over the on-going probe into the fuel subsidy management and the role played by government agencies is a reflection of the wider failure by the administration to tackle corruption in the country. In the wake of the nationwide protests that heralded the announcement by government to remove subsidy from fuel, and in a bid to assuage angry Nigerians, the Goodluck Jonathan administration had practically corralled the EFCC to ‘investigate’ alleged corruption in the management of the subsidy regime.

The Commission’s half-hearted response involved a raid of the offices of the Petroleum Equalisation Fund (Management) Board (PEF(M)B) for files detailing products distribution across the country. It went the extra mile to ‘invite’ representatives of the petroleum importers, including some of the international oil and gas companies operating in the country, to report to the Commission’s headquarters in Abuja to answer questions over their roles in the importation and distribution of petroleum products.

The acting Head of Media and Publicity in the Commission, Mr. Wilson Uwujaren had told this correspondent that the EFCC would also visit other government agencies involved in the management of the nation’s oil and gas resources. “This is only the first step in our investigation. We shall also be visiting other agencies and corporations that manage oil and gas resources on behalf of the country, as well as the marketers of the petroleum products,” he said.

As part of the outcome of negotiations by the Federal Government and organized labour over the removal of subsidy, the government promised to clamp down on alleged acts of corruption within the petroleum industry. This led to approval by President Goodluck Jonathan for the anti-graft agency to review all  payments made in respect of subsidies on PMS and kerosene, and to take all necessary steps prosecute any incidence of malfeasance, fraud, over-invoicing, and related illegalities in an open and transparent manner. However, several months since the investigation was announced, Nigerians remain in the dark over what the outcome is.

Recently, a coalition of non-governmental organizations under the name, End Impunity Now (EIN) Campaign, petitioned the EFCC, demanding that it prosecute the ousted Group Managing Director (GMD) of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, Engr. Austen Oniwon, and three members of his executive board.

They also demanded that the Commission play “a more active role in the investigation of the suspects involved in the mismanagement of over N1 trillion of the nation’s resources in the guise of fuel subsidy.”

The group, which organized a protest rally in front of the NNPC headquarters in Abuja, noted that given the levels of corruption that have been exposed by the House of Representatives Ad hoc Committee report on the fuel subsidy management, the EFCC would be remiss to sit quietly while politicians sweep the matter under the carpet.

Most of the frustration expressed by Nigerians stem from the apparent inactivity in the Commission: it has to be practically dragged into the on-going mess in the oil and gas industry, even after millions of Nigerians had taken to the streets early in the year to protest the corruption in the management of the subsidy regime, and it appears that Nigerians would wait a while longer to see any further action on the part of the Commission.

The EFCC chairman, Ibrahim Lamorde, who had garnered a reputation as a no-nonsense police officer, promised upon resumption last year that the Commission under his watch would shock many Nigerians. He swore that the EFCC will be “committed to the pursuit of its mandate of tackling economic and financial crimes in the Nigerian system. This is a new phase in the life of the EFCC,” he said, adding that, “I will leverage the abundant skills and experience in the Commission and the immense goodwill of Nigerians to move EFCC to a new level. I will be making more demand of every EFCC, far more demand of professionalism, integrity and ethical conduct than had ever been made of each and every one of us, and I will not accept any excuse whatever for failure.”  He stressed, “I can guarantee that nothing has changed at EFCC; we are still focused on doing our job and going out there to do what is right, to make sure that perpetrators of economic and financial crimes have no place to hide.

Today, more than ever, we are determined to flush out perpetrators of economic and financial crimes no matter where they are hiding, and ensure that they are brought to justice. We want to continue to be first-class law enforcement, with complete focus on achieving our mandate of fighting economic and financial crimes, money laundering and terrorist financing.”

If perceptions matter in the fight against corruption, Mr. Lamorde’s mission to take the Commission to the next level may have suffered a severe blow in the eyes of many Nigerians who dismay at the relative inactivity within the agency. For a people who have long suffered from the effects of corruption, merely posturing is not enough. Nigerians simply cannot afford for this Nero to take a nap, while the country burns.

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