By Eric Elezuo
Prior to June 2012, Mallam Farouk Lawan, the lawmaker who represented Bagwai/Shanono Federal Constituency of Kano State in the House of Representatives until 2015, was arguably the most vocal in the lower legislative chamber, a saint of some sort and to many, Mr. Integrity. When he speaks, not a few listens. Little wonder he was made the chairman Ad hoc Committee investigating subsidy scam regarding companies that collected money for fuel importation but failed to do so. The committee was set up by the House of Representatives. Farouk Lawan’s assertion and stand on corruption was legendary, and that earned him a lot of respect among his colleagues and as many that follow legislative activities.
However, in June 2012, everything changed. The same job his integrity won for him turned around to entrap him. He was reportedly caught on tape collecting a gratification from billionaire businessman and Chairman of Forte Oil, Mr. Femi Otedola to the tune of $620, 000. Farouk vehemently denied the allegation, saying he was set up.
According to Mr. Otedola, who maintained that the lawmaker demanded a bribe from him in order to remove his companies from the list of erring companies in the subsidy scam, the event was real and factual, and was intended to catch Lawan and put a check on corruption.
In his narrative, Otedola informed that he was the one that alerted former President Goodluck Jonathan to the fuel subsidy scam in 2010, regretting that he was later blackmailed by the House of Reps committee that probed the fraud.
In his testimony at an FCT High Court recently, the oil magnate, who owns Zenon Oil and Gas Ltd and Forte Oil (formerly called AP), relived his initial statement many years ago.
He said former President Jonathan had not believed that many companies were collecting subsidy payments without importing any product, and so he inform Senator Bukola Saraki, who raised the issue on the floor of the senate.
“In 2010, being the chairman of African Petroleum Ltd and also the CEO of Zenon Oil and Gas Ltd, I realised that companies in Nigeria were claiming money for subsidy on petroleum products they never imported. When I saw how much was being stolen, I went to the then President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan. I told him my observations. He told me later that he had consulted with the Minister of Petroleum and that there was nothing of such.
“I then reached out to Senator Bukola Saraki who raised the issue on the floor of the senate and thereafter, the house of reps set up the panel to investigate the allegation. The defendant reached out to me and I gave him the background information as to how the monies were being stolen. I gave relevant information to the ad hoc committee. I have two companies which are in the oil and gas industry which are AP and Zenon oil,” he said.
He noted that he was surprised afterwards that he was robbed into the matter even as his two companies had nothing to do with the issues on ground.
“On 18th of April, 2012, the defendant came to see me at my house in Abuja after the report of the committee had been laid before the House of Reps in plenary. He told me that pursuant to what we discussed on phone while I was in the UK, he told me that he was going to indict Zenon Oil and Gas Ltd. He demanded the sum of $3m USD to exonerate Zenon Oil. I said to him that why will he indict a company that does not import petrol but diesel. He said most of the companies indicted have paid bribe. I told him this is extortion.
“I was in Nigeria when the report was laid before the House of Reps. I saw it on the television, NTA on the 18th of April 2012 and I saw that my company was listed as one of the companies involved in subsidy scam. I wrote a petition to the DG DSS to complain. When the report was laid, I was shocked and I had several calls from my international partners and my bankers.”
His petition to the DSS however, paid off as a sting operation was proposed.
“After my petition to the DG DSS, I received a call from the DSS official, one Mr Caleb ,who told me that they were going to carry out a sting operation. He told me that I would be provided with serialised USD to give to the defendant and they were going to install video recording gadgets in my living and dining rooms. About six operatives of the DSS did the installation.
“I was given 620,000 USD serialised dollars. After the report was laid on the floor of the House of Reps, the defendant called me that if I made $3million USD available, he would exonerate my company. I said to him that this is unfair to a country that has lost about the sum of N1trn to subsidy scam. I took the instruction of the DSS and I agreed to play along.
“On 23rd April 2012, the defendant came to my house and I handed over to him the $500,000 USD given to me by the DSS. After handing over the $500,000 USD to the defendant, I asked him what next, he said would go to the House and discuss with its leadership. He said I should watch House plenary on the television.
“He claimed that my company obtained $232m USD from the CBN. I said it is not possible to obtain such money from the CBN without importing any product. Shortly after, I watched it on the television where the defendant applied to the House in plenary that the name of Zenon Oil be removed from the subsidy scam which was then removed.
“The EFCC investigated the subsidy scam and investigated my companies and found out that we were not involved in the subsidy scam. The defendant was at my house on 24/4/2012 at about 12 midnight and 1.00AM.
“In the morning of 24/4/12, my GM Mr Otaru did mention to me that the PW1 needed to collect money from me as the secretary of the committee. PW1 came to me and I handed over $120,000 USD to him.
“After the removal of the name of Zenon oil from the report, the defendant called me for the balance of $2.5m USD. I told him its being arranged that it will be loaded into an aircraft to Abuja. He said I should inform him when the aircraft arrives that he will give me the name of a person who would pick up the money.
“The meeting I had with the defendant in my house was captured on video by the DSS. I saw the video on YouTube and social media.”
Otedola’s defence is hinged on the fact that there is no way his company could be involved in the scam since it does not import PMS but only diesel. He was exonerated as EFCC investigated the companies involved and prosecuted the indicted companies.
He closed his testimony by reiterating that Farouk Lawan actaully demanded $3million and received $500,000 while expecting the remaining $2.5 million.
The lower house, in a bid to both chastise and defend their own, sacked Farouk from the positions in the House including the chairmanship of House committee on Education, and turned around to upturn the clearance earlier given to Otedola’s Zenon Oil. The House came to a conclusion that the oil company has some questions to answer. The House was also of the opinion that what happened in Otedola’s house may not be a sting operation, alleging that the giver of the bribe is equally as guilty.
Farouk Lawan, on his part, put the matter in the ‘hands of God’, claiming the what was happening to him was atrial from which he would be ‘vindicated’.
While Otedola continually insists that the operation was sting in nature to catch a corrupt politician in the act, the lawmaker, though has admitted receiving the amount, insists it was meant to expose the businessman, and to convince the House of the pressure its committee investigating fuel subsidy fraud, faced. Obviously, one of them is speaking the truth, but who?
The Police have however, said that locating the marked notes is central to its investigations.
Proving his innocence, Lawan noted thus: “I think it is important to note that I have been a member of the House of Representatives for the past 13 years, of course together with several other colleagues of mine past and present and we have done so much to build the House of Representatives. It means to show that I should enjoy the respect and confidence of Nigerians,” he said, noting that he had been silent for “strategic” reasons.
He continued: “As far as the issue relating to me is concerned, I believe ultimately, I will be vindicated,” the lawmaker said.
“I believe in the end Nigerians will come to believe and see that for the 13 years that I have invested in championing good governance, responsibility and probity in this country that this last trial is a trial from God and I believe in the end we shall prevail.”
The incident has pitched the House against the billionaire businessman even as his company was relisted for investigation. He dismissed the action as ‘celebration of corruption’ while House continue to hold that there was nothing like sting operation.
The then speaker of the House, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal also exonerated the members from the scandal, saying their integrity remains intact.
“While we consider it preposterous and hasty to dismiss the current bribery allegations, pending the outcome of ongoing investigations, including our in-house investigation just instituted, we reject in totality insinuations being orchestrated in some media to the effect that the allegations have eroded the integrity of the resolutions of the House on the report and rendered same unworthy of implementation,” Tambuwal said.
In his assessment the then Minority Whip, Samson Osagie, said “some persons” had hoped to blackmail the institution through a “framed” operation.
The way it stands, it is only the courts that can determine whether it was actually a sting operation or not, or whether actually Lawan was trying to expose Otedola’s pressure on the committee or was it the other way round. And if Lawan was right, why the house of Otedola, and at whose behest were the cameras planted. Who worked with the law enforcement agency and many more unanswered questions?
One question that must be answered on January 28, 2019 as adjourned by Justice Angela Otaluka, when the case reopens, is who is the guilty party between Otedola and Farouk Lawan?