July 25, 2020

Legislative Probes as bargaining chips: A tale of attacks and counter-attacks

Lawan, Gbajabiamila

Senator Ahmad Lawan and Mr Femi Gbajabiamila

Senator Ahmad Lawan and Mr Femi Gbajabiamila

•Na’Abba, Yakassai perspectives

By Omeiza Ajayi

Since the advent of democracy in 1999, Nigerians have witnessed several parliamentary inquisitions, many of which turned out to be like, in the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.

Often times, the revelations from such probes range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but after all the sound and fury, nothing much is usually made of the final reports even where the committee makes some far-reaching recommendations.

Perhaps what has made some of the reports to be gathering dusts is the usual tendency by some of the agencies under probe to resort to some form of mudslinging against the lawmakers. Yes, the lawmakers have no right to prosecute individuals who default in the discharge of their mandates. They can only make recommendations to the executive through the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF. It would be interesting to know how many of such recommendations have been forwarded to the SGF. This would allow Nigerians ask further questions on why the executive has refused to act on such reports.

While this style of throwing back accusations at the lawmakers might appear crude, the public is often tempted to believe that there is a truism in them due to the high level of trust deficit between Nigerians and their leaders.

However, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alhaji Umar Ghali Na’Abba said it could be a strategy by heads of the affected agencies to get some relief.

“I guess that is one of the few ways the Heads of the MDAs could save themselves from the consequences of the investigations. If they portrayed the NASS committee members as birds of the same feather who flocked together, they might get some relief”, he said.

The situation was such that last week, the heads of the National Assembly had to visit President Muhammadu Buhari to complain about the attitude of some heads of MDAs some of who have refused to honour summons or even walked out on the lawmakers.

President Buhari had to issue a stern warning to such heads, telling them not to undermine the legislature. Before then, in 2018, some heads of MDAs were reported to have blamed their reluctance to honour parliamentary summons on the unceasing demand for gratification by the lawmakers.

Elder statesman and Second Republic Presidential Liaison Officer to the National Assembly, Alhaji Tanko Yakassai who called on Nigerians to enthrone credible leaders however said the allegations against lawmakers by some of the agencies under probe is also an admission of guilt on the part of these agencies.

Yakassai said; “To begin with, corruption in Nigeria is endemic. It is in the police, it is in politics and so on but two wrongs never make a right. If somebody is asking Ministries or Departments and Agencies to include a fake project or contract into their budgets and they accept to do it, it is not when they are being probed that they will raise the alarm. They should have done so at the beginning. At that time it would have made some sense. People would rise against it and probably it will stop. But to come too late after you have shared everything makes you culpable. And then you accuse them of taking bribes which is an admission that you also gave bribes. Can two wrongs make a right?

“This sharing, it is when something goes wrong that you begin to hear. When it was going smoothly, nobody heard about it. We have a big problem in our hands. My only solace is that I have read history of a few countries where they suffered this endemic problem and when they got the right leadership, the story now is behind them. You can easily talk of a place like Philippines where you had former President Marcos. He did his own, even his wife was reputed to own the largest wardrobe. Hundreds of shoes of so much value. Where are they now? But the country is now thriving. Certainly, with this damage in the system, it cannot be corrected overnight but when you get the correct leadership, things will start going back to normalcy.

Friends stopped talking to me because of Buhari

“Even though I didn’t support Buhari right from the word go, but millions of Nigerians supported Buhari in the belief that he would perform. I knew people who were my good friends who stopped talking to me, who ceased to be on speaking terms with me simply because I was not supporting Buhari. Some of them, we do not even speak till now but I saw them on the pages of newspapers complaining that Buhari is not performing. Until Nigerians come together, look for correct leadership, not leadership with slogans, but with concrete programmes on our problems and how to tackle them, then we shall continue this way.

“My religion teaches me not to doubt the integrity of people until I have a proof that they are not to be trusted. Like when Buhari came, if there was an inventory or a list of basic problems bedevilling the country and then he says, this is the way I am going to correct them, nobody would have expected him to change everything overnight. Until we have leaders who have a clear-cut trajectory of how to address social and national issues one after the other, then we will know they are serious. But if people come with slogans, ‘changi, changi’, you cannot blame them when they do not perform and then you become a zombie like Fela sang”.

The situation between lawmakers and some members of the executive was such that last week, the heads of the National Assembly had to visit President Muhammadu Buhari to complain about the attitude of some heads of MDAs some of who have refused to honour summons or even walked out on the lawmakers.

President Buhari had to issue a stern warning to such heads, telling them not to undermine the legislature. Before then, in 2018, some heads of MDAs were reported to have blamed their reluctance to honour parliamentary summons on the unceasing demand for gratification by the lawmakers

Power to Probe

There are those who believe that the probe is usually to bully some of these agencies into doing the bidding of the lawmakers especially with regards to getting job slots or contract awards.

The legislature has what is called the “Power of the Purse”. This is because it is in charge of appropriation. This is one of its most important powers which often gives it the spine to launch investigative hearings into the activities of government Ministries, Departments and Agencies MDAs.

Sections 88, 89, 128 and 129 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, grants investigative oversight powers to the National Assembly. However, the powers are not absolute. In the case of TONY MOMOH V. SENATE OF THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY (1982) NCLR, 105, the court held that the legislature is not given powers to usurp the general investigating functions of the executive nor the adjudicative functions of the judiciary. Therefore, any invitations by the legislature to any person outside the purpose defined in the relevant section is invalid. Also, the prosecution of persons found guilty of corrupt practices or gross inadequacies or misconduct in the discharge of the public office is left to the executive. Furthermore, any investigation which is sought to only expose or ridicule persons, especially their private affairs, without any legislative intent, will not be entertained.

In 2008, there was the Energy Sector Probe by the House of Representatives wherein it accused former President Olusegun Obasanjo and 17 others of misappropriating $16 billion meant for the development of the sector.

The then Chairman of the House Committee on Power and Steel, Hon. Ndidu Elumelu was accused of taking bribes but he had since thrashed the allegations, accusing some vested interests of seeking to undermine the work of the committee and rubbish its report.

Senate probe of FCT Minister, El-Rufai in 2008

The Senate had in 2008 launched an investigation into activities of the Federal Capital Territory FCT during the Obasanjo administration.

Abubakar Sodangi who headed the committee told the Senate while submitting the report that the erstwhile Minister of FCT, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, was not fit and proper to hold public office in a democratic setting.

It also recommended that el-Rufai should account for N32 billion being money unaccounted for following the sale of government houses and other activities during his tenure.

El-Rufai, now Governor of Kaduna State, has since defended himself, saying he did no wrong as FCT minister.

There was also the House of Representatives probe of Railway projects in 2008.

The lawmakers had resolved to set up an ad-hoc committee to investigate the $8.3billion railway modernization project which was initiated by the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo.

While there was the Senate probe of Jos crisis in December, 2008, the House of Representatives on its part launched a probe of Finance Ministry over 2007 budget 2008. The same House of Representatives in January 2009 also probed the Jos Crisis.

Some of the other exercises were the House of Representatives probe of Customs scam in January, 2009; Senate probe of Obasanjo and Yar’Adua on solid minerals special account in February, 2009, the March 2009 NASS probe of World Bank Aviation loans of 2006, Senate probe of Federal Government sales of houses in Lagos and Abuja 2009 and the House of Representatives probe of sale of Nigerian House in New York, February, 2010.

Others were the Senate probe of lead poisoning in Zamfara State, 2010, Senate probe of NIMASA and Shippers’ Council in 2008, Senate probe of Ajaokuta Steel Company concession in March, 2008, Senate probe of Transport Ministry, in May, 2008, House probe of NNPC fund in 2009, Senate probe of transport sector in September, 2008 and the House of Representatives probe of the Salami/Katsina-Alu face-off in 2011.

There were also the Senate probe of Establishment and Public Service-Pension in 2012, Senate probe of the Bureau of Public Enterprise, BPE in 2012, House of Representatives probe of the Capital Market in 2012

The 2012 Fuel Subsidy Probe came with a lot of drama, the most prominent among them being the allegation by billionaire businessman, Chief Femi Otedola that the Chairman of the House of Representatives ad-hoc Probe Committee on Fuel Subsidy, Hon. Farouk Lawan demanded a bribe of $3 million from him.

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While he allegedly got $500, 000 as first installment to strike out Otedola’s company, Zenon Petroleum from the list of indicted firms, Lawan fired back at his accuser, saying he collected the money to avoid blackmail and that he informed his committee as well as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission EFCC about the development.

Herman Hembe versus Arunma Otteh

In the same 2012, there was the Capital Market Probe by the House of Representatives whose committee was headed by Herman Hembe.

Hembe had accused the then Director General of the Securities and Exchange Commission SEC, Ms Arunma Otteh of being unfit to regulate the sector, alleging that she had “been spending money as if it is going out of fashion since assuming office one year ago”.

He accused Otteh of staying in a hotel for eight months and spending over ¦ 30 million in the process and that in a day, she spent ¦ 85, 000 on food and at another time, ¦ 850, 000 on food.

Otteh however questioned the credibility of Hembe to preside over the probe, accusing him of collecting a cheque from the Commission to attend a conference in Dominican Republic but which he failed to attend.

While Otteh said Hembe neither attended the conference nor returned the money to government coffers, she also accused him of asking SEC to contribute ¦ 39 million to sponsor the public hearing and another ¦ 5 million for himself.

“This has been a Kangaroo court. Not even in Idi Amin’s Uganda did we have this type of public hearing”, Otteh had concluded.

There was the Senate Pension Probe of 2012  which accused the Chairman of the Pension Reform Task-team, Abdulrasheed Maina of sundry infractions, asking him to refund some billions of Naira to the government.

However, in a letter written to the Senate on June 19, 2015, Maina accused the 7th Senate of aiding pension thieves, stating that there was over ¦ 3 trillion yet to be recouped from 97 pension offices before he fled the country. He is currently back answering to some charges in the law court.

Olubunmi Ojo/Peter Nwaoboshi versus NDDC

The most recent of legislative probes which has turned dramatic is that of the Niger Delta Development Commission NDDC.

In the 8th Senate, a lawmaker was alleged to have taken 300 contracts alone. The ongoing probe of the Commission has been replete with accusations and counter-accusations to the effect that the Chairman of the House Committee probing the NDDC, Olubunmi Ojo was pressured into recusing himself from the proceedings, having been accused by the agency of being an interested party.

Niger Delta Affairs minister, Sen. Godswill Akpabio who has now recanted, had alleged that 60 percent of the contracts in the NDDC went to the lawmakers. Following threats by the House of Representatives to sue him, he has since recanted, saying he was referring to the previous Assemblies and that he did not put a percentage to the worth of contracts they got.

It would not be out of place to envisage more probes in the nearest future. Already, there is a move to probe the North East Development Commission NEDC which lawmakers have accused of spending ¦ 100 billion in one year without anything tangible to show for it. There is also a motion to probe the Nigeria Correctional Service NCoS, on how it spent over ¦ 613.5 billion in 10 years.

Would there be a Covid-19 probe in future? Nigerians would not be surprised if it turns out that in the nearest future some people may have unfairly profited from the pandemic.

Some have said the easiest way to break this country is to probe the NNPC. It shows the low level of trust that the people have in the management of government agencies.

Perhaps, the lawmakers would have to take to heart, the words of former President Olusegun Obasanjo when a House of Representatives Committee invited him in May 2008 to explain his role in the power sector probe.

He had said; “I appreciate Section 88 of our Constitution which says that the National Assembly has powers to investigate any matter in which it can make laws for the purposes of making law, and that power and energy is part of such laws. However, in Section 148, the President has power to grant executive responsibilities to ministers, to hold regular meetings with ministers for determining the general direction of domestic and foreign policies and to coordinate the activities of ministers in the discharge of their executive responsibilities.

“The President leads a team and galvanises, mobilises and inspires that team into action. What I am saying here is that the privilege and the collective responsibility of the members of Executive Council must not be hindered by the way the National Assembly carries out its function, otherwise it may be difficult, if not impossible, for the Executive to carry out its domestic and, certainly, its foreign duties, policies and responsibilities. Each institution should carry out its functions in such a way to enhance its own performance and the performance of other institutions of Government”.

While legislative oversights and investigations are good, the leadership of the National Assembly would do well to appoint members into committees where they have some experience. Lawmakers should also acquaint themselves with the workings of MDAs so that legislative hearings are conducted professionally and not turned into personal fights. And securing contracts from MDAs, using proxies is an allegation that doesn’t speak well of them.

Above all, and like Caesar’s wife, Nigerian lawmakers must earnestly strive to be above reproach.