By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA — Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alhaji Aminu Tambuwal and the embattled erstwhile Chairman of the House of Representatives ad-hoc committee on fuel subsidy probe, Farouk Lawan, yesterday, urged an Abuja High Court sitting at Apo, to dismiss the N250 billion suit slammed against them by oil mogul, Mr Femi Otedola.
The two lawmakers, while challenging the competence of the suit which they said was grossly lacking in merit, further relied on section 251 of the 1999 constitution, to insist that the high court was bereft of the requisite jurisdiction to entertain the case.
Arguing through their counsel, Chief Mike Ahamba, SAN, and Mr Kehinde Ogunwumiju, respectively, Tambuwal and Farouk, maintained that only a Federal High Court has the jurisdiction to adjudicate on such issues as were raised against them by Otedola.
Besides, it was their contention that under section 3 of the House of Representatives Power and Privileges Act, Cap L-12, Laws of the Federation, neither Farouk nor any other member of the fuel subsidy probe panel, could be subjected to any form of litigation in respect of the delegated duties they performed on behalf of the lower chamber of the Nigerian legislature.
The Speaker and Farouk said they were imbued with absolute legislative immunity for words spoken on the floor of the House as well as any function carried out on the behest of the House.
More so, they argued that the failure of the plaintiff to join the National Assembly to the suit rendered it incompetent, insisting that the appropriate party was not brought to court to defend the mandate given to the Farouk-led committee.
Likewise, Tambuwal, through his counsel, urged the court to strike out his name from the suit, arguing that his office and person were not involved in the complaint of the plaintiffs.
Meanwhile, Otedola, through his lawyer, Chief Babajide Koku, SAN, pleaded the court to dismiss the preliminary objection and grant his substantive reliefs as contained in the suit.
After listening to all the parties yesterday, Justice Peter Kekemeke adjourned the case till January 30, 2013, for ruling.
Otedola who is Chairman of Zenon Oil and Gas, had in his suit, adduced reasons why the defendants should be compelled to pay him the sum of N250bn as compensation for business losses he suffered owing to his alleged indictment by the said probe panel.
It would be recalled that shortly after the Farouk Lawal led panel released its fact-finding report that exposed astronomical fraud perpetuated by various companies under the subsidy regime, Otedola, in a retaliatory move, released an audio tape with a view to proving that the probe panel demanded cash-for-clearance.
Otedola specifically accused Lawal of demanding for $3million to exonerate his company, emphasizing that the lawmaker even went to the extent of stuffing monies in his cap on one of the occasions he came to receive bribe on behalf of the panel.
However, Lawal, through his lawyer, Chief Mike Ozokhome, SAN, refuted the allegation that he stuffed money in his cap, stressing that contrary to insinuation that he travelled to Lagos to collect bribe as alleged, he only received money from Otedola on two separate occasions at his room at Protea Hotel at Apo Abuja and at Otedola’s house at Aso Drive Asokoro also in Abuja.
Describing the audio tape which was released to media houses as “a devilish caricature”,Lawal urged Nigerians to give him the benefit of doubts, insisting that he would not rest until he proved that the primary intention why he collected the money was to uncover the level of corruption within the oil sector of the Nigerian economy.
Meanwhile, in a bid to further puncture the probe report, Otedola alongside his company, Zenon Oil and Gas, filed the suit where he is equally seeking the sum of N150billion against the defendants as exemplary damages for alleged oppressive and arbitrary actions he said was meted against him.
Otedola is further seeking another N100billion as general damages for acts of intimidation, loss of good-will and patronages occasioned by the acts of the Speaker of the House of Reps and Lawal.
Likewise, he is also challenging alleged moves to re-list his company among the oil firms indicted for allegedly defrauding the federal government.
In his 28-point statement of claim, Otedola averred that by resolution of January 8, this year, the House of Representatives set up an ad hoc Committee to verify and determine the actual subsidy amount made to oil companies and to also monitor the implementation of the subsidy in the country.
He claimed that Hon Farouk later allegedly contacted and informed that his company was going to be indicted for purchasing foreign exchange from Central Bank ofNigeriawithout importing fuel.
He said in spite of his explanations; Farouk allegedly demanded $3m bribe to enable Zenon oil get a clean bill of health.
He contended that Farouk resorted to persistent phone calls threatening him that his company would be included in the list of indicted oil importers and that the image and reputations of Zenon oil would be greatly affected unless he pays the three million US Dollars.
Otedola maintained that faced with the unrelenting barrage of intimidating phone calls, he became distressed and reported the unlawful demands to the security agencies.
He told the court that he secured the advice of security agents to play along by giving marked money to Farouk with a view to gathering convincing evidence for the nefarious activities.
He said the situation got to a peak on April 18 when the fuel subsidy probe report was submitted, which he said indicted his company.
According to him, Farouk had called and assured him that Zenon could be delisted from the list of the indicted firms, an assurance he said prompted him to give $620,000 marked money in two instalments with $500,000 to Farouk and another $120,000 to one Boniface Emenalo on the instruction of Farouk.
Nevertheless, he told the court that Farouk, on April 24, moved the House to de-list the name of Zenon oil from the indicted company but was still persistent in demanding for balance of $2,380,000 prompting him to report the incident to Police.
He stated that inspite of on-going police investigations, the Speaker and Hon Farouk allegedly conspired to re-list his company among the indicted companies so as to embarrass him and his business corporate image.
He claimed that the purpose of re-listing Zenonoil was to force and intimidate him to drop his complaints against Farouk.
Otedola therefore asked the court to award him the N250bn for the grave injuries done to his reputation and business image resulting in the substantial loss of goodwill and patronage of the business built over the years.