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Progress of the well-digger

By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
“An ugly life is still preferable to a beautiful funeral”
Kathrine Hepburn

A WELL-DIGGER makes progress only by digging himself further into the ground, until he reaches water. Sometimes, he goes so deep into the earth that by the time he strikes water, he is too deep. Climbing up, or being pulled up and out of the well becomes a very hazardous affair and by the time he is out it seems as if it really wasn’t worth all the trouble.

It is even worse when he digs to dangerous depths, only to find that there is no water at the bottom.

Watching the House of Representatives’ outing last week Friday over the fuel subsidy saga and scandal, Nigerians must feel like the well digger who dug deep into the earth, but is unsure over the quality of water he struck, or even if it is water. To abandon the digging will amount to wasted effort. To dig deeper may yield more impure water, and jeopardise his life.

Grand dreams in flames

The grand dreams that the fire President Jonathan lit when he said removing subsidy on petroleum products will liberate the economy from the grip of waste and corruption which is the subsidy policy went up in flames when allegations of corrupt practices by chairman of the House Ad Hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy, Farouk Lawal began to filter.

It is reasonable to assume that even President Jonathan himself had no inkling over the effect which his insistence to remove subsidy and “free” trillions of Naira being wasted around it will generate. Nigerians demanded evidence that the subsidy was wasted.

Ministers reeled out statistics and figures that contradicted each other and shocked the nation. CBN Governor,  Sanusi Lamido Sanusi rolled out figures that suggested that the subsidy policy and regime was costing the nation far much more than it was worth. Subtle hints at the absence of transparency and waste became loud howls against unprecedented plunder of our resources around the subsidy policy.

Having cried wolf, the President could not retreat and protect the interests involved in the subsidy regime. He got half of what he wanted, which was a lower subsidy level, even though no one was sure exactly what was the actual level of subsidy we paid for.

But the President and the powerful interests involved in the subsidy policy were left dangerously exposed to the intense scrutiny of organised labour, a mobilised and articulate civil society and an enraged citizenry which wanted to know much more than was healthy for an administration with intimate relationship with many of the key players in the saga.

The penalty for higher pump price was that the clamour for an investigation over the embarrassing exposés and improvements in the levels of transparency in the oil and gas sector had to be addressed.

Enter the National Assembly, with its well-honed instinct for opportunity. The House of Representatives’ initiative had much promise. Its hearings had all the ingredients of serious business: a legislator with a carefully-cultivated image for uprightness; openness, television cameras and carefully choreographed media engagements that hinted at attempts to compromise the probe.

It was vintage National Assembly: strong muscle; an eye to public acclaim; trial by television and massive activity away from television cameras. Within a few weeks, the nation was told that findings, (arrived at after incredible pressure were resisted) show that a few companies have swindled us of trillions of Naira; that they are known; and that the President will be asked to commence prosecution.

Nigerians thought they had their pound of flesh from multi billionaires who have been exposed by a few brave men and women.

But the cartel also knew the terrain well, and had an intimate knowledge of the legislature and its weaknesses. It was not going to roll over and submit to a public relations exercise which had the potential to cause them massive inconvenience. Since the Presidency appeared powerless to protect the major players in the subsidy saga, they would adopt their own do-it-yourself strategy.

They would have known, as key players in a political system where huge resources from the private sector are mobilised to fund electoral campaigns and weaken regulatory mechanisms of government, that the legislature was vulnerable and available. The committee system of the legislature creates pockets of massive influence, and weak points in a system which is difficult to penetrate from outside. A deal struck at the committee level, or a decision or recommendation is hardly questioned or overruled.

Chairmen of committees are extremely powerful people, and members yield them much ground to negotiate or relate to objects of probes or targets of oversight. On the whole, the public sees very little of what is actually done by committees, even in televised events. Many public officials or other persons who relate with committees of the legislature prefer to keep sealed lips over the experience, but in private, they do not hold up the institution as the beacon of integrity.

With stakes sky high, either the desperation of the subsidy cartel or the greed and assured confidence of the legislators was to threaten to compromise the outcome of the probe. They did, and we still do not know how badly.

Report tainted beyond redemption

The report of Farouk Lawal’s committee is now not worth the paper it is written on. In spite of all the efforts being made to distance the report itself from Farouk, the bitter truth is that the report is tainted beyond redemption. Far from redressing the damage by the House through the public relations stunt of re-listing Otedola’s companies, the act merely calls into question the credibility of all other findings and recommendations in the report.

The infamy of instructing the House to de-list the two companies in the first place by Farouk has exposed other members of the committee (which for some curious reason is still there, intact, even though its report has been presented and accepted) will not be obliterated by the bravado and seeming defiance of the House’s decision to re-list.

Why should anyone believe that Otedola was the only one asked to give bribes, or who actually gave? Why should anyone believe that subsequent work on the report will be conducted with higher levels of integrity with everyone else in place except Farouk?

Why should President Jonathan take the National Assembly serious when it demands that he forwards its report to law enforcement agencies for action? Why should we have faith that law enforcement agencies which collaborated with Otedola to ensnare Farouk will be fair and dispassionate in investigating and possibly prosecuting cases? If ten or more importers come forward to claim that bribes were demanded, will that torpedo the entire report or would it still retain some value?

A judicial panel of enquiry on fuel subsidy

As matters stand, Nigerians need to demand that President Jonathan sets up a Judicial Panel of Enquiry on Fuel Subsidy, which should investigate the entire policy, its practice, the Farouk Lawal report and the bribery saga. Many Nigerians will scoff at this idea, given the deep distrust – much of it justified – over all institutions of state.

But whatever reservations we have over having a judicial investigation, it is better than having a severely compromised report moving back and forth between the executive and legislature, which may be precisely what those who subverted it want. Whatever happens, we must not end up like the well digger who digs himself into the bowels of the earth and finds no water, and then is unable to come up.

The President may not set up a judicial panel on his own volition. The National Assembly will not abandon the Farouk Lawal report (as amended) on its own volition. So Nigerians should demand for what can be done with some credibility, because this scam must be paid for, and not with bribes.



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