House of disrepute
By Levi Obijiofor
Friday, 22 June 2012
The past 10 days have been disgustingly entertaining by way of accusations and counter-accusations between House of Representatives member Farouk Lawan and oil marketer Mike Otedola in regard to who asked, who gave and who received the stunning amount of bribe money in US dollars. Lawan was the chair of the House of Representatives ad hoc committee that probed the management of the oil subsidy money. According to one version of the allegations swirling in the public sphere, the financial inducement was given to ensure that Otedola’s companies did not appear in the report of the House committee on the companies that received huge sums of money but failed to deliver the oil.
This is a complicated tale that has exposed the defective relationship between the affluent and lawmakers with exaggerated integrity. It would be futile at this stage of investigations to make a categorical statement about the guilt or innocence of either side of the argument. This essay focuses on the lessons that politicians have refused to learn from pervious scandals.
Prior to this nightmarish experience, Lawan had cut an image of an upright man who says things the way he sees them. He was the man who led the so-called integrity group in the House that successfully campaigned and overturned the tenure of former House Speaker Patricia Olubunmi Etteh in 2007. Now, Lawan the man who built his image on his anti-corruption crusade, has been caught out in a related corruption scandal.
Before the allegation of corruption popped up, Lawan cultivated the image of a dashing young man who was respected by his peers in the House. He seemed like an emerging political leader whose track record was beyond censure. Before he voluntarily turned himself in to the police investigators last week, after days of hiding in his little cave, anyone would have sworn that Lawan was incorruptible. His face looked cheerful and unruffled all the time. Following sordid revelations supported by questionable video and audio evidence, everyone is asking questions about the man’s sense of judgment.
As the lead characters in a soap opera that has gripped the nation in the past two weeks, no one knows how the Lawan-Otedola melodrama would end. Every day, media reports suggest the saga is getting murkier and messier. Can anyone save Lawan or Otedola? Everyone loves a scandal, particularly a disgraceful conduct that holds the potential to end the career of a high profile politician.
Farouk Lawan’s case is a continuing drama scripted and performed by a smart businessman and a rather naive member of the House of Representatives. No year passes without major corruption scandal emerging from the House so much so that many people argue the House is now synonymous with indiscretion. Does the leadership of the House of Representatives have any meaningful and enforceable code of conduct to discipline dishonourable ones in their flock? Why do we experience on a regular basis gross acts of misconduct committed by members of the House? Is there no limit to the depth to which members of the House can plunge themselves, outside of lawmaking?
From former speakers of the House Patricia Olubunmi Etteh and Dimeji Bankole to Farouk Lawan and to others who preceded them, corruption was the big carrot with which their enemies entrapped them. Different personalities! Different acts of transgression. The same outcomes! Lawan must be an obstinate politician. In his chequered political career, no one can accuse him of immaturity because he has been in the House long enough to know how to avoid traps set by his enemies. When he emerged in 2007 as the arrowhead of the integrity group that plotted Etteh’s downfall, Lawan never imagined that he would fall by the same sword with which he impaled Etteh’s heart in 2007. No politician, even the one who suffers from the most congenital physical impairment or condition, can be as unintelligent and self-centred as Lawan has just demonstrated.
A good politician ought to learn from other people’s misfortunes. Lawan has learnt nothing from the relatively recent history of scandals in the House of Representatives. What made him think that he was invincible and incorruptible? Why didn’t he maintain a steady narrative right from the outbreak of the allegations? Why did he feel he could change his storyline and get everyone to believe him? Lawan failed to learn from the adversity of his mates because in Nigeria high profile politicians believe they are beyond reprimand. As I argued in a previous essay, part of the reason why nothing works in Nigeria is that some people believe they can break the law and escape penalty because they see themselves to be above the law. Otedola cannot escape reprimand in this saga. If he claims he offered the bribe, he must know there is punishment for the giver and the taker of bribe money.
Before he submitted himself to the police for questioning, Lawan behaved like a man on a moral high ground. Days later, he acted like a man imprisoned by guilty conscience. He was invited by the police for discussion. He refused to honour that invitation. He was asked to turn in the stupendous amount of $620,000 which his accuser Otedola alleged he gave to Lawan. That money, according to Otedola’s account, was to serve as inducement so Lawan could help to expunge the names of Otedola’s companies from the report of the committee headed by Lawan. Again, Lawan allegedly declined to turn in the money. Rather, he argued petulantly at the initial stage that the money constituted exhibit with which he could prove that Otedola attempted to bribe him so his House committee could go soft and write a favourable report on Otedola’s oil firms. Whose account should we believe?
The entire accusation and counter-accusation has become a circus. It would be difficult to untangle the tale of who asked, who offered and who received the bribe money. As former chairperson of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Farida Waziri once admitted, in Nigeria when you fight corruption, it comes back fighting hard. Now we await the next phase of this grimy affair.
Our brand of democracy has really exposed the worst in the behaviour of men and women who hold tenaciously to the title of “honourable members of the House of Representatives”. For example, on Tuesday, 22 June 2010 (exactly two years ago this week), members of the House of Representatives demonstrated the strength of their muscle when they engaged in a punch-up over whether or not they should investigate allegations of corruption against former Speaker Dimeji Bankole. It was not the first time that members of the House fought openly rather than use their brains to settle the procedure for lawmaking. In 2007, House members threw wild punches on the floor of the House following negative reports that Speaker Patricia Olubunmi Etteh had authorised shocking contracts valued at N628 million for the reconstruction of her official residence and that of her deputy, Babangida Nguroye. After weeks of agitations for a judicial inquiry into the scandal, violence exploded in the House. During the fracas, a member of the House collapsed and died later.
Thirteen years on since the return of democracy, members of the House of Representatives in general have not lived up to the high standards of conduct which the nation expects from them, including public expectations of their role as informed lawmakers. Again, it was Farida Waziri who described the House of Representatives fittingly as a “House of scandals upon scandals”. Neither the leaders nor members of the House of Representatives deserve the privileges and respect accorded to them by the Nigerian public. Why should the nation grant sumptuous salaries and allowances to lawmakers who consistently humiliate themselves and the nation by engaging in despicable conduct?
There is widespread anger across the land over the way elected parliamentarians have conducted themselves in questionable manner, not least of which is the latest corruption scandal involving Lawan, a man who, until now, was seen as the leading light and an emblem of uprightness in the House. By the power they hold, members of the House of Representatives are regarded (even if erroneously) as symbols of moral authority. By their conduct, however, they have set examples that continue to shock and repulse the nation.
The performance record of the House of Representatives since 1999 has been a history of legislative tragedy. Before Patricia Etteh and Dimeji Bankole, another Speaker – Salisu Buhari – was found guilty on 22 July 1999 by Chief Magistrate Bulama in Abuja of forgery and perjury but he was later granted official pardon by Olusegun Obasanjo in his capacity as president.
By all means, it is not only members of the House of Representatives who have lowered the integrity of lawmakers in Nigeria. The Senate is not exempt. The leadership of the Senate has also sullied the image of the upper house of parliament. In two years, the Senate lost two presidents in situations that were less than honourable. The presidency of Evan Enwerem and Chuda Okadigbo (now deceased) was individually marked by controversies and allegations. Evan Enwerem, who preceded Okadigbo, was pestered by serious allegations about his character and the authenticity of his academic qualifications.
Okadigbo’s short term as Senate president was also marked by crisis after crisis. After the Idris Kuta panel released its report on contract awards in the Senate and indicted some Senate leaders, Okadigbo claimed his innocence and refused to go quietly. He was, however, compelled to quit by the resounding but adverse ballot of 81 to 14 votes cast by his peers in the Senate.
If ever we want to be serious about transforming Nigeria, we must start by penalising leaders – politicians, businessmen and women and indeed everyone -- who violate the law and/or engage in corrupt practices.