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Politics, Loopholes In Fuel Subsidy Trial
With the arraignment of some suspects over the fuel subsidy scam, KUNLE ODEREMI underlines the inherent politics in the days ahead.
WHEN the curtain is drawn on 2013, the N1.7 trillion fuel subsidy bazaars in the oil industry will probably be the most rated issue in the Nigerian polity. Beginning from January, the matter has dominated public political discourse, generated more heat and passion almost at the expense of what a renowned jurist, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, once described as democracy and the pyramids of power. That concept was his apt description of economic, political, religious bureaucratic and idea power, all rolled into one for the benefit of the citizenry.
The fuel subsidy saga has also almost dwarfed all high profile cases of fraud involving a number of political actors dating back to 1999 when the country returned to civil rule. Notwithstanding the arraignment of some suspects over the scam, the matter, according to some pundits, may have only entered another chapter, given the unpredictable Nigerian judicial terrain.
The precursor to the arraignment was the announcement of certain individuals and firms which the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) claimed had a case to answer over the monumental fraud. The list comprised seven firms and 13 individuals, some of them relations of prominent citizens. The commission explained that the suspects represented the first set that had undergone investigations on the scandal that had polarised the polity.
For example, despite earlier promises, the Save Nigeria Group (SNG) had consistently raised the alarm on the seeming lack of demonstrated political will by the government to prosecute those found culpable by the House of Representatives ad-hoc committee of the gross abuse of the government largesse. In a statement tagged: “Petrol Armada 2011: Kleptocracy Unlimited,” signed by its convener, Pastor Tunde Bakare, SNG feared that anything short of conviction of the culprits could worsen the reputation of the country.
“Our message to our countrymen and women is that they must be strong-hearted and determined to take back our country. All we must be ready to do is to assert our collective dignity and let our ‘leaders’ know that we are better than their animals,” it stated.
Transparency International also lamented the unprecedented number of corruption cases emanating from Nigeria in 2012 to its headquarters in Netherlands. It wrote to President Jonathan, inter alia, “When the pension scam broke out, the three specialists working on Nigeria complained about network and threatened a law suit against Transparency International. Because they had to work 23 hours a day from Monday to Sunday just to cope with the figures coming out of that scam.”
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) equally decried the manner the Federal Government was handling matters relating to the way individuals and companies had turned the fuel subsidy into the proverbial national cake to whet their individual and collective appetites. NLC President, Abdulwaheed Omar, said, “There have been mind-boggling revelations of theft, fraud and rapacious greed,” adding, ”Congress is uncomfortable and worried at the way and manner in which the Federal Government is handling the report of the petrol subsidy probe.” Consequently, he advised Jonathan to be firm and decisive in handling the matter. Is the president finally bowing to public pressure on the large scale rot in the sector or truly applying the laws of the land to sanitise the polity and the economy?
Apparently, there is sceptism over the trial in certain political camps because the list of those arraigned fell short of the initial public expectation engendered by the Lawan Farouk/Femi Otedola tango over the House report, which allegedly left out about 50 oil companies in the document. The expectation was that the names of some oil majors and independent marketers, who dominate the industry, were bound to top the list of those to be prosecuted. The core issues surrounding the Farouk/Otedolagate have in fact fueled such speculations, though some pundits have expressed doubt about the sacred cows losing their protection, in view of the strong symbiotic relationship between the ruling political elite and the business elite who control the oil industry.
Another area of concern is the disparity in the amount recommended by the House committee that should be refunded by those firms and individuals found culpable over the fuel subsidy scam and that of the executive arm of government. The committee set up by the Federal Ministry of Finance and presided over by Mr. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede to look into payments to oil marketers based on the fact that in spite of paying N1.7 trillion to the companies in 2011 as subsidy, the government still had N450 billion as backlog for 2011.
While the authorities have promised that those arraigned on Thursday represented the first batch, it is possible that the issue of the disparity may have been settled. Emphasis could henceforth be on those already arraigned as the cases of those under investigations pale into little or no significance owing to high wire politics in the coming days.
Meanwhile, a former National Secretary of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), Chief Moghalu George, argued that the government should be conscious of the cautious optimism being expressed across the polity over the prosecution. While commending it for the arraignment, he said the exercise should be properly handled and concluded.
“For me, the prosecution is a step in the right direction. It underscores the seriousness of government in its effort to address this corruption menace. The fact that high-profile individuals are involved underscores the seriousness. However, it must be stated that government having started this must take it to a conclusive end,” he stated. He added that though he was yet to read the report of the presidential committee so as to be able to draw conclusions, “from the snippets I have read in the papers, the committee having identified leakages in the subsidy payment process and gone a step further to identify culprits coupled with the far-reaching recommendations, it made must be commended and their report properly looked at and implemented.”
Another political leader and one of the contestants for the position of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) National Secretary in April, Chief Tunde Daramola, said though the government should be commended for prosecuting the suspects, it ought to move against those established to have been their (the suspects’) accomplices. He said, “At least, the government has started somewhere. It is important to let the citizens know that they are not being made to suffer for the greed of some corrupt individuals. There is the need for the government to prosecute officials who collude with the marketers, to ensure a comprehensive approach to the matter.”