Nigeria: Dirty Deals Of National Assembly

The latest scandal in the House of Representatives raises questions on the motives behind National Assembly’s multiple probes and casts the two chambers as shallow rather than hallowed

Last Tuesday, the plenary session of the House of Representatives was strangely unanimated. The few lawmakers present looked glum as they took their seats. The mood in the chambers did not change all through the time the session lasted. Given the events of the previous days, it was not a surprise that members of the House had looked doleful. During this period, the integrity of the legislators had come under serious public scrutiny, which yielded unflattering conclusions in many minds. The scrutiny has been directed at the legislators’ oversight functions over ministries, agencies and departments of government.

One man whose integrity has taken the bullet is Herman Hembe, Chairman, House Committee on Capital Market. The lawmakers had hardly finished taking their seats when Hembe’s hand went up, as he sought to raise a point of order before the commencement of the first business of the day. Looking downcast, the otherwise vibrant lawmaker sought the permission of the House to step down as chairman of the committee probing the collapse of the capital market.

Hembe explained that he was stepping down on account of the allegations of bribery, conflict of interests and bias levelled against him by the Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, SEC, Ms. Arunma Oteh. While emphasising that he neither demanded nor took any bribe from the SEC DG, the lawmaker said he “rather fought hard to resist any such temptation”. He maintained that SEC made overtures to the committee through a memo ahead of the probe, and vowed to go to court to clear his name. All the members of the committee also stepped down from the investigation.

The Speaker, Aminu Tambuwal, accepted the resignations immediately and set up an eight-man committee to continue the investigation into the collapse of the capital market. He also referred the bribery allegations against Hembe and members of his committee to the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges for further investigations. This magazine gathered that Hembe’s decision to step down was not exactly voluntary. Rather, it was a damage control measure agreed to by the leadership of the House and other members of Hembe’s committee in reaction to the furore generated by the bribery allegations. Going by past experience in both chambers of the National Assembly, referring matters which border on the integrity of members to the Ethics and Privileges Committee for investigations is usually the end of such issues. The general public, most times, does not get to know the outcomes of such investigations. There are actually doubts if investigations are carried out at all by the committee.

But according to media reports last week, Hembe and members of his committee may not only have the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges to contend with. They may also have to explain to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, and the Independent Corrupt and other offences Commission, ICPC, what they know about the bribery allegation slammed on them. Both agencies have indicated that they will take up invitations extended to investigate the allegations by Hembe immediately they were levelled against him by Oteh.

Hembe and his colleagues on the committee began their march to reputational damage on 12 March, when they kicked off a two-week public hearing to “identify the manifest causes of the near collapse of the capital market with a view to finding lasting solution”. The hearing had progressed, attracting little attention from the public until 14 March, when Hembe unleashed a volley of accusations against Oteh without allowing her to respond. “You are not fit to regulate the sector,” he shot at Oteh, before going on to list various acts of profligacy he claimed she had committed since her appointment. “You stayed in a hotel for eight months and spent over N30 million. In one day, you spent N85,000 on food at the hotel; the other day you spent 850,000 on food. These are the things we should look at to see how you will regulate a market that is collapsing,” Hembe said indignantly. Before she could respond, Hembe machine-gunned her with other allegations.

He claimed that Oteh committed fraud and compromised SEC’s regulatory role by recruiting one Charles Ughele and Titi Olubiyi of Access Bank as SEC’s advisers. “I cannot believe that Access Bank can just send somebody to your office like that,” he said, adding: “Somebody can rightly say he is a spy. There is no way we can be better. It smells of fraud.” He consequently declared her incompetent to hold the exalted position of SEC DG, while also ordering that Oteh should submit her academic certificates and all documents regarding the engagement of the Access Bank staff to his committee.

Attempts by the SEC DG to defend or counter the allegations were rebuffed by Hembe. As expected, the accusations, especially the ones relating to hotel and feeding expenses, got the media seething with incredulity the next day.

Oteh, however, was determined to return the fire. When she appeared the next day, she spewed enough toxin to poison Hembe’s reputation. “Mr. Chairman, I question your credibility to preside over this probe. On 20th October, last year, you were given a cheque to travel to the Dominican Republic to attend a conference. You need to tell Nigerians whether you attended the conference. Yet, you did not return the cheque. Can you tell Nigerians that you returned the money when you did not travel?” Oteh asked. But she was not done. “Would I now say that because SEC was approached to fund this hearing, that the committee has no competence to do its job, the same way that you questioned my competence as DG?” queried Oteh, who claimed that the committee demanded N39 million from SEC to fund its assignment. Hembe, she added, personally requested for N5 million from her barely 24 hours before the sitting started. She also argued that the hiring of two Access Bank staff by SEC has not in any way affected the commission’s integrity.

According to her, the remunerations of the two workers were being paid by their bank and not SEC, adding that the decision to employ them was right as the Commission is gaining from their competence and experience. “This has been a Kangaroo court. Not even in Idi Amin’s Uganda did we have this type of session,” she declared. Oteh’s fulminating response had Hembe squirming. He furtively looked at the other members of the committee as though he needed comfort from them. His colleagues were also reeling before Hembe found his voice to offer a desperate denial. “I can swear on my father’s grave that I did not collect any money from SEC. Since I started this work, I have not even written a note to SEC for one day. If what I am doing is because of the fact that I have collected money from SEC to go on overseas trip to study and I didn’t go, the public will take note,” Hembe said. He also invited the EFCC to investigate the allegations against him.

The EFCC accepted the invitation. “Investigation is ongoing on the matter. Our operatives are working on the case. We are gathering documents that will assist us. Apart from the documents, definitely, there would be need for oral evidence in the course of gathering evidence,” Wilson Uwajaren, EFCC spokesperson, said last week.

With the public hearing being transmitted live on national television, the public watched with keen interest. On the Internet, the video of Oteh’s allegations went viral, a few hours after surfacing on Youtube.

Both Hembe and Oteh have however started defending their actions in the public domain even before the expected visits of the officials of the EFCC. Obi Adindu, Communications Adviser to SEC, gave a point by point reaction to issues raised against Oteh in a statement he issued last Tuesday. He described most of the allegations against Oteh as false. Adindu insisted that Oteh has never consumed a meal worth N850,000 nor has she ever submitted such a bill to the SEC: “We have reviewed her hotel expenses during her stay, and the highest charge for food was N83,400 on March 24, 2010. This bill was in respect of an official dinner hosted by the SEC, with a group of international capital market experts who were visiting Nigeria to provide technical assistance to SEC. The bill for the official dinner was charged to her room, and therefore the SEC’s account. This was a single incident and was not a personal affair. Hilton’s billing records can corroborate this,” he said. Adindu also defended the SEC DG’s long stay at Transcorp Hilton. According to him, the DG’s stay in a hotel before getting her rented accommodation was in line with the terms and conditions of her employment verbally communicated to her on 7 January 2010 and confirmed in writing four days later. He added that Oteh “voluntarily left the hotel before an official residence could be provided, unhappy with the lack of privacy at a hotel accommodation and for security reasons”.

Barely out of the chamber, where he announced his withdrawal as Chairman of the Committee on Capital Market, Hembe also put some documents into the public domain to indicate that rather than him going to solicit for money, it was SEC that offered to sponsor the public hearing. In one of the documents, dated 9 March and signed by Hassan Mamman, it was recommended that N30.4 million be approved for the committee. In one of the documents purported to be extracts of the minutes of the 63rd meeting of the Board of SEC, held on 12 March 2011, the sum of N30 million was approved to support the public hearing on the capital market by the committee. But SEC also denied this claim, even as it alleged that the documents were stolen from its custody and carefully manipulated to create a wrong impression by the lawmaker.

Rather, according to SEC, it was the committee that approached it on 29 February, through Messrs Note Worth Consultants, asking for financial assistance to organise the hearing. The commission, in a statement issued in response to the claims of Hembe, noted that the “consultant visited the SEC in the company of Mr. Olufemi Ogunsanya, clerk of the committee, with a ‘shopping list’ detailing a large number of ‘specific areas’ for which the SEC’s help was being sought”.

SEC said its board granted the request based on the understanding that the public hearing would serve the interest of public and investors. The commission, however, said it had to suspend the payment when, on 14 March, barely one day to commencement of proceedings, Ogunsanya visited the SEC under the instruction of Hembe to demand the sum of N5 million in cash, being part payment of the sum Hembe had earlier sought. “The SEC smelt a rat that rather than wait for the payment to be made through electronic transfer, in line with extant public service policy, to an institutional account, the man was seeking undocumented payment by cash. This was why the transfer was suspended,” claimed SEC. Similarly, the commission also disputed Hembe’s claims that his inability to make the Dominican trip was due to a mix-up in flight arrangements. The lawmaker had claimed that he was unable to continue the trip after he got to Texas, United States. “He has tendered ‘evidence’ of travel to somewhere other than the Dominican Republic! The implication is that he diverted public resources to personal ends to the detriment of capacity building in the capital market,” SEC charged.

While the theatre lasted, it provided plenty of fun, but not of the harmless variety. Thus, Nigerians are waiting for the intervention of the anti-graft agencies to help untangle the web of allegations and counter-allegations. But many are critical of the committee’s handling of the hearing. “The level of discussion was pedestrian, primitive and absurd. Investors are never protected because they have taken risks, which can give them returns or otherwise. It is only the depositors that are protected,” said Lagos-based economist, Bismark Rewane, in response to allegations that Oteh has refused to protect investors in the capital market, during last year’s take-over of some banks by the Central Bank of Nigeria.

In its 19 March edition, The Punch in an editorial entitled, Suspend The Dubious Capital Market Probe Now, said the latest bribe scandal puts Nigeria to shame, noting that the integrity of the parliament has been called into question.

‘‘If we are serious about fighting corruption and improving the nation’s odious image, this latest bribe saga should not be swept under the carpet’’, it wrote, demanding that an independent committee investigate the allegations against Hembe and the committee.

‘‘Previous legislative scandals offer stout evidence that probes are nothing but random plots for corrupt enrichment, or to achieve personal agenda. How come none of the numerous probes undertaken by the lawmakers have ever yielded fruits?’’, the paper asked.

For the National Assembly, the power to carry out oversight function over Ministries, Departments and Agencies, MDAs, is generally provided for in Chapter V, Part 1, which is Section 80(1)-(4) and 88(1-(2)(b). Specifically Section 88(1) states: “Subject to the provisions of this constitution, each House of the National Assembly shall have power… to direct or cause to be directed an investigation into: any matter or thing with respect to which it has power to make laws; and the conduct of affairs of any person, authority, ministry or government department charged or intended to be charged, with the duty of responsibility for (i) executing or administering laws enacted by the National Assembly and (ii) disbursing or administering moneys appropriated or to be appropriated by the National Assembly.” It also stated that “power” is conferred to enable the National Assembly “expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the executive or administration of laws within its legislative competence and in the disbursement and administration of funds appropriated by it”. For this purpose, the two chambers of the national assembly constituted different standing committees saddled with the task of overseeing different sectors of government and national life.

There are over 140 of such committees in the two chambers of the National Assembly. But there have always been insinuations that most members of the committee see the power to carry out oversight functions as a way of making easy money. This usually provokes scrambling for membership of committees deemed “juicy” whenever the leadership of any of the chambers decides to constitute or re-constitute the committees. Such periods are always tasking for the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. It is common among the committees to demand that the MDAs they are supposed to be supervising sponsor retreats, seminars, public hearings and so on. Even before current scandal in the House of Representatives, there were insinuations that the flurry of public hearings being organised by the different committees are motivated by the desire for pecuniary gain. There are allegations that individuals or groups, who lost out in the bid for contracts, sale of particular national assets and so on have perfected ways of inducing different committees to conduct hearings into sectors under the guise of public interest.

It was learnt, for instance, that the Hembe Committee was acting on behalf of some stakeholders, who lost out as a result of recent developments in SEC and the banking industry. The allegations against Oteh during the controversial public hearing, for example, were contained in a petition signed by one Mr. Kola Ogba, said to be a SEC employee.

In a petition addressed to President Goodluck Jonathan last year, SEC staff accused the DG of squandering over N200 million on hotel accommodation, frequent overseas trips, all of which were made on business class; collusion with the Chairman of SEC Board, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma, to milk the commission dry; and employing unqualified staff at the commission among other allegations. The petitioner copied the Senate President, Speaker of House of Representatives, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Chairman, Senate Committee on Capital Market, Chairman, House Committee on Capital Market and Head of the Civil Service of the Federation.

In the petition, the staff called for Oteh’s removal from office. Sources alleged that the petition is a fallout of the struggle for control of SEC between the staff, who had worked in the commission all their lives, and somebody they see as an outsider who seemed determined to render them irrelevant in the scheme of things. While there may be arguments that the committee, as part of its oversight functions, may indeed look at such petitions, many of those who spoke to this magazine last week said Oteh should have been intimated of the allegations and allowed to prepare her defence. But the Hembe Committee is not the first to be confronted with allegations of soliciting money.

In 2003, Malam Nasir el-Rufai, former Federal Capital Territory Minister, caused a stir, when he revealed that some senators demanded N54 million to clear him for a ministerial position. He thus confirmed the suspicion in some quarters that lawmakers are in the habit of demanding money to ensure less gruelling screening for ministerial nominees. “When I was nominated for ministerial appointment, a couple of legislators called me and said that I had made money as DG of BPE, and so to make sure I got cleared as minister, I have to pay them N54 million. The feeling that once you get a public office and responsibility you must use it to enrich yourself is a sad reflection of the status of our society,” the former minister told a national newspaper. He was summoned to substantiate the allegations, which sparked public outrage, before the Senate Ethics and Privileges Committee on 7 October 2003.

When he appeared before that committee, the former minister pointedly named the then Deputy Senate President, Ibrahim Mantu, and Deputy Majority Leader, Jonathan Zwingina, as those who met him and asked for N54m to facilitate his clearance for the ministerial position. “Mantu said money will be needed to recruit an army of senators to act as my defenders and stated that N54 million would be needed to secure the support of the majority… Zwingina added that senators also said that it would be hard to get much from me once I became minister, and it was safer to have something upfront,” said el-Rufai.

Though the Senate Ethics and Privileges Committee, after two days sitting, cleared the senators of the allegations, el-Rufai insisted that the two senators demanded a bribe from him. In August 2010, Senate President David Mark announced on national television the dissolution of the Senate Committee on Communications, headed by Senator Sylvester Anyanwu. The Senate, on that day, also took over the job of screening and confirmation of nominees into the Board of the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, from its Committee on Communications. Trouble began for Anyanwu when he presented a 10-page report he said was the result of screening of nominees into the NCC Board conducted by all members of his committee. He had hardly finished presenting the report when Senator Abubakar Argungu, a member of the committee, raised objections. Argungu claimed that his signature contained in the report was a forgery and the purported report, a phantom, as he was not part of any screening of the nominees. Another member of the committee, Senator Tanko Ayuba made similar claims, but added that he signed the report right inside the chamber that morning. Anyanwu could not dispute the claims, prompting Mark to dissolve the committee in anger. “The committee has put itself in an embarrassing situation. I am sad by this. One committee should not ridicule the Senate. I am truly disappointed in the committee. None of the committee members can be exonerated and all of you appended your signatures,” said a livid Mark.

There were speculations that the committee was torn apart by a N250 million gratification, prompting Anyanwu to try to go it alone.

There is also the bribe-for-budget scandal in which ministers and heads of government agencies try to induce lawmakers to increase the allocations contained in the Appropriation Bill sent to the National Assembly by the Executive. The model of this genre was the N55 million bribery scandal involving former Senate President, Adolphus Wabara, in 2005. Others involved in the alleged scam, over which former President Olusegun Obasanjo made a national broadcast, were former Minister of Education, Professor Fabian Osuji; Professor Peter Okebukola, the then executive secretary of the National Universities Commission; Mr. P.S Audu, acting permanent secretary, Ministry of Education; five directors in the ministry and the then vice-chancellor of the Federal University of Technology Owerri, FUTO, Professor Jude Njoku, who was alleged to have bribed some members of the House of Representatives with the sum of N10 million to increase his university’s vote in the 2004 Appropriation Bill. The President sacked Osuji and Wabara was also removed by his colleagues as a result of the scandal. The ICPC later arraigned Osuji in court on allegations that he offered bribe to the Senate to smoothen the passage of the budget of the Ministry of Education, while Wabara and others were accused of being recipients of the bribe. The Appeal Court, however, dismissed the cases in 2010, though the anti-graft agency has filed an appeal against the judgment at the Supreme Court.

In 2009, the EFCC arrested three members of the House of Representatives in connection with a N6 billion fraud in the Rural Electrification Agency, REA. Among those arrested were the then chairman, House Committee on Power, Ndudi Godwin Elumelu; his deputy, Muhammed Jibo; and chairman, House Committee on Rural Development, Paulinus Igwe. The list also included Nicholas Yahaya Ugbane, chairman of the Senate Committee on Power; and Aliyu Abdullahi, Permanent Secretary in the Power Ministry among others. It was alleged that the lawmakers had connived to build a N3.5 billion Grid Extension project and N1.8 billion solar project into the budget sent to the National Assembly by the President. The power committees in the two chambers and top REA and Ministry of Power officials were alleged to have collaborated to carry out the deed. The contracts for the two projects were also said to have been awarded without due process by the agency to 113 companies and by November 28 2008, the money for the contracts was said to have been collected from the Budget Office, with 15 per cent of the entire contracts sum allegedly paid into the contractors’ accounts. To beat the deadline for the return of the unspent budgetary allocations, those behind the alleged fraud, according to EFCC, paid the remaining 85 per cent of the contracts sum, though work was yet to commence on the project. The accused are still being prosecuted by the EFCC.

Ironically, in February 2008, Elumelu had made the headlines when he presided over investigations into spendings on the power sector by the Obasanjo administration. Some of those who appeared before the committee had accused Elumelu of working towards a pre-determined end, going by his manner of questioning. Some members of the committee eventually dissociated themselves from the report of the probe, accusing Elumelu of single-handedly writing the panel’s final report. The House eventually rejected the report.

The EFCC in 2007 also arrested and arraigned in court, members of the Senate Committee on Health, then headed by then Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, over allegations that they received N10 million from the unspent funds of Ministry of Health to attend a retreat in Ghana.

What continues to rile Nigerians is that despite a clear 61.9 per cent of their contrymen and women living in abject poverty, the National Assembly has refused to reduce the jumbo allowances they earn, which is probably the highest in the world.

In 2010, Central Bank Governor, Lamido Sanusi alleged that National Assembly members routinely demand money from Ministries, Departments and Agencies. Indeed, a former senator once alleged that he had received and personally distributed bribes to other senators at the behest of the Presidency. At the lower chamber, a member once displayed his share of millions of naira collected as bribes by members.

Last year, former Transport minister, Alhaji Yusuf Suleiman, aware that National Assembly members have a fondness for cutting deals with heads of parastatals under his ministry, ordered heads of such parastatals to defend their budgets with him rather than go straight to the National Assembly, where the lawmakers cut deals with them to pass budgets. He preferred to face the lawmakers himself.

This ex-minister’s minister’s stance angered the Senate ad-hoc Committee on Transport, which ordered the minister to appear before it. When Suleiman was perceived to be dithering, the senators ordered the Inspector-General of Police to effect his arrest. Suleiman, however, appeared before he could be arrested.

At a a stormy session, he pointedly accused a senator from Bayelsa State of an attempt to humiliate him because he had refused to grant his request to have his (senator’s) brother transferred to the United Kingdom office of the Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA.

An aide of Suleiman once complained that senators on the Transport Committee were fond of going to extort money from contractors to the Nigerian Railway Corporation. “It puts Nigeria to shame that they could be doing this because it puts the ministry’s projects in jeopardy,” he complained. He added that National Assembly members are in the habit of demanding gratification while carrying out their oversight functions and probe of government agencies and parastatals.

A former aviation minister once complained to TheNEWS that senators were fond of inviting him to face them and answer some questions.

“When I tell them that it is better I send some of my aides, who are more competent in matters that should be handled by professionals in such areas, they insisted it had to be me. It must be because they want me to give them some money after addressing them,” he explained.

“They believe that once they step into the National Assembly, it is an opportunity to raise money for their re-election,” a Lagos-based social critic told TheNEWS last week.

National Assembly members are known to often demand for money before or in the course of their investigation of corruption in government agencies. The head of a federal government establishment told this magazine last week that some persons representing National Assembly members probing his agency demanded money in exchange of a clean bill of health.

“They demanded for $100,000 per committee member. I knew I could not raise the money because I hadn’t stolen any money as they had imagined. I resolved not to give them a kobo. A friend of mine said once I give them any money, they will demand more and it would be proof to them that I had indeed stolen public funds. So, I refused to play ball,” he said.

To stop lawmakers from exploiting their committee positions for illicit gains and the accompanying embarrassment when the bubble bursts, as it happened with the Hembe case, analysts say that the National Assembly leadership should come out with a clear policy on the funding of its oversight functions. The National Assembly, they suggest, should provide for the funding of the activities of its committees through its budget and stop its members from receiving any form of support from government agencies. Most importantly, it was argued that the current practice of giving accused lawmakers clean bill of health after half-hearted investigations will only encourage more members to continue along the path of graft.

Source: The News

  1. malik Reply

    elumelu panel is another one. lets wait for our own opportunity to collect our share of the national cake.

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