(Premium Times) – In sheer size and brazenness, details of the bribery deal and the sting operation by the State Security Service (SSS) would rate amongst some of the most startling in Nigeria’s history.
Facing an army of television cameramen, and an anxious public on April 24, Farouk Lawan, the flamboyant House of Representatives’ veteran, who led an audacious investigation into shocking fuel subsidy abuses, led Nigerians through a protracted and often repetitive review of the arduous task his panel had accomplished.
To the delight of a grateful nation eager to see its oil thieves punished, and colleague lawmakers about to debate the committee’s recommendations, Mr. Lawan narrated the fraudulent schemes oil importers used in siphoning more than N2 trillion of federal money, culminating in January’s bloody street protests where at least a dozen died.
Then, mid-way into the debates that had already yielded high profile indictments, Mr. Lawan jolted his colleagues when he requested the House to approve the acquittal of two oil marketers listed alongside 13 others alleged to have received government funding without importing fuel.
The House, for a large part abiding by Mr. Lawan’s guidance through the 63-page report, obliged.
The ad hoc committee, he said, had found, rather belatedly, that the companies, Synopsis Enterprises Ltd and Zenon Petroleum & Gas Ltd did not participate in the subsidy, Mr. Lawan said. Zenon is owned by billionaire oil tycoon, Femi Otedola.
In minutes, the two companies were cleared of culpability over USD284 million subsidy receipts between 2010 and 2011.
But new details, reaped from a mesh of clandestine wiretappings weeks ahead of the House session, now alleges Mr. Lawan criminally misled the nation, and had indeed chosen to ease off the companies after meeting Mr. Otedola, and receiving the now famous US$620,000 in cash.
In sheer size and brazenness, details of the bribery deal and the sting operation by the State Security Service (SSS) would rate amongst some of the most startling in Nigeria’s history.
The House has pledged to support full investigations into the allegation, and has vowed not to “take side with corruption” but promising to “stand on the side of the rule of law.”
Mr. Lawan, a fourth term House member, has denied the allegations, describing them as “mudslinging and red herring” targeted at discrediting the committee’s report.
That position has been countered by Mr. Otedola, who confirmed the transaction in an interview with THISDAY. He spoke of how he decided to reach out to the law enforcement agency after Mr. Lawan had repeatedly impressed on him that he needed to pay to clear Zenon.
But security officials, speaking to PREMIUM TIMES on anonymity due to the delicate nature of the issue, have painted a covert procedure that may have long been initiated, largely founded on considerations that transcended corruption watch.
In the end, the operation turned out to serve an interest far out-weighing its original intent.
Since leading the politically-sensitive subsidy investigation, Mr. Lawan had long been on the eavesdropping radar of the security agency digging to know whether the probe had partisan motivation, possibly stirred by the opposition to smear the Jonathan administration, our source says.
For several weeks, the effort remained in place with the committee members’ phone calls scrutinized, and their interactions monitored.
With the hearings over in February, and inklings of the preliminary reports gradually reaching an anxious public, officials of indicted companies kicked-off desperate final-minute attempts to overturn verdicts of culpability.
The effort found a committee that appeared willing and in some cases, was the party to initiate the negotiations.
In Zenon’s case, according to Mr. Otedola and the sources, Mr. Lawan, who until then, had woven around himself an impression of an exacting and incorruptible investigator keen on exposing official theft and homing in on a national acclaim, made the contacting.
According to the Farouk Lawan-committee, Zenon Pet & Gas Ltd was paid USD233 million subsidy money, in 2010. The allocation was not reconciled with imported products, the committee claimed, a position denied by Mr. Otedola.
The Zenon quota was by far, the highest paid to a single company in 2010 and 2011. The second highest amount earned by any other company, was USD51 million by Synopsis oil and gas.
On repeated phone calls with Mr. Lawan, Mr. Otedola made it clear his companies did no wrong, and should not be on the list. He explained that against the committee’s position suggesting his companies failed to deliver, his company dealt with diesel which was not under the subsidy scheme.
According to security sources well briefed on the content of the monitored conversations, Mr. Lawan called the billionaire’s bluff, and said the committee had completed its work. However, if he were to help, then USD3 million (N480 million) would be needed to sort things out, he reportedly said.
Evidences of the discussions are available, and have been put before top government functionaries, the sources said.
Within the security circles, striking the compromise note at the time proved invaluable for a covert operation that had failed to establish substantial political links earlier envisaged, but that was prepared to build on any evidence of wrongdoing with the storm the report had generated.
“No one hoped this was going to be in this direction,” a source said. “That was not actually the intent of the whole coverage.”
After the demand was made, the SSS contacted Mr. Otedola in the open for the first time, officials informed about the events said, and offered to assist him only if he would cooperate and play the ball he was being offered. He agreed.
In Mr. Otedola’s interview, he claimed he reached out first for the agency. But officials say it was the contrary, and that the businessman’s position was in the interest of keeping the deal as furtive as possible.
Back with Mr. Lawan, the billionaire demurred on the payment briefly complaining he could not afford that at the time since he was in multiple bank debts, according to the conversations. He however indicated he would make offers.
Mr. Lawan insisted the amount was a fair sum considering consultations would be made, an argument Mr. Otedola agreed with. However, both men settled that a part of the money-USD600,000- be paid first, while the balance is cleared on a later date.
Again, Mr. Otedola raised fears about the report having been released already and soon to be considered by the House. But his worry was put to rest by the lawmaker who assured he knew the “buttons to press in the House.”
Then, the first tranches of the payment were made between Saturday April 21, and Monday, 23 -a day before the House began its considerations-at a location secretly fitted with audio and visual devices by the SSS.
“Farouk came in, sat by Otedola’s right. Then later, he collected the money and put some in his agbada trousers,” a source said, citing visual details of the meeting that was now being documented.
That encounter, will provide Mr. Lawan, at times an eccentric but well respected ranking member of the House, a needed impulsion to convince the House the next day of the innocence of Mr. Otedola’s two companies.
A member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) representing Shanono/Bagwai constituency of Kano state, Mr. Lawan, a diminutive former lecturer now nurturing a 2015 gubernatorial ambition, is one of the few members of the House who have returned a record four times successively.
Through his years since joining the chamber in 1999, he has cultivated a known shifty disposition of lawmakers pitching tents where power appears to be residing. When out of favour with the authorities in 2007 under Patricia Etteh as Speaker, he rallied support and replaced Ms. Etteh with Dimeji Bankole.
In return, he asked to head the Appropriation committee, a juicy slot often reserved by the leadership for key loyalists. He was instead rewarded with the Education committee; another portfolio aides say he later realized was equally as lucrative.
Mr. Lawan has held on there since 2007 even with the change of leadership in 2011 until the subsidy investigation came knocking in January.
A volatile sector, the investigation met early criticisms from the executive which reportedly viewed the move an attempt to embarrass the government, since it was clear from the start cronies and associates of officials will be indicted, and that it would be nearly impracticable for the recommendations to be implemented.
The approved report, widely applauded by Nigerians, recommended punishment for past and present ministers of petroleum, finance, officials of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and several oil marketers.
But the Jonathan administration has picked holes in the inquiry, questioning why some past officials of the sector were exempted from the inquiry, a concern critics have feared may be bandied as a getaway from implementing the report.
Therefore, analysts say, an evidence of an underhand dealing between the committee members and marketers-as is with the Lawan-Otedola deal- will sell into government’s hand, a concern the House itself has raised.
“We hope that the executive will not, because of this allegation, abandon its commitment towards bringing to justice, the culprits already in the committee’s report,” spokesperson, Zakari Muhammed, said on Saturday after the allegations became public.
In a move that may underline that factor, two weeks back, the video clip of the money transfer was showed to the president, Vice president Namadi Sambo, Senate president, David Mark, and the Speaker of the House, Aminu Tambuwal.
To possibly further drive home the point of the unreliability of the report, a copy was also played to Nobel laureate and social campaigner, Wole Soyinka, the only non-government figure to view the footage.
Mr. Soyinka had vowed to lead a devastating street protest if the report was swept, as usual, under the carpet.
But after viewing the clip, a shocked Mr. Soyinka said he had never seen a thing like that and appeared to be backing down, the sources said.