Reflections on the National Assembly probes

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 6 Jul 2008

MOST honourable members of the National Assembly are very busy at the moment. They have probed and are still probing some past activities of government agencies and parastatals. Ndudi Elumelu and his committee investigated the embezzlement of the power sector funds. The Senate Committee on the Federal Capital Territory examined Abuja land allocations and revocations. Currently, there is an enquiry into the mismanagement of the N19.5bn aviation intervention fund, etc. Last week, Senate spokesman, Senator Ayogu Eze, hinted that more of these public hearings were in the offing. Not only has the wind of these probes exposed the rump of corruption involving past government functionaries, but has also revealed some lacunas surrounding the exercise.

First, Senate President, David Mark, has given a hint of what Nigerians should expect from the investigations. According to him, ”This is not a probe (referring to the aviation probe) to indict or send anybody to jail. It is a fact-finding public hearing, so that we know exactly what the problems are. And once we identify the problem, I believe that we will be 50 per cent done in finding a realistic solution.”

Obviously, what Mark is saying is that those who allegedly attempted to bribe members of the Senate committee on aviation will go scot-free; that nothing will happen to those who allegedly inflated the N6.5bn safe tower rehabilitation contract by N5.5bn; and that Nigerians should forgive and forget the mindless looting of over $10bn power sector funds.

At least, Mark is sincere. He didn‘t want Nigerians to have any illusion about the outcome of the probes. Some past administrations, which also embarked on probes, made some noise about them. At the end, they all became an exercise in futility. There was Justice Obiora Nwazota Judicial Commission of Enquiry that investigated the mismanagement of Nigeria Airways. That commission toiled for about 12 months to gather facts. On May 8 2002, it submitted four volumes of report. This indicted some prominent citizens of this country and proposed some sanctions. Till date, nothing has come out of the report.

What of the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa panel? For about three years, that one traversed the length and breadth of the country, collecting information on how past military regimes abused the rights of Nigerians. Today, the report is still gathering dust somewhere. Nigerians had also witnessed the Christopher Kolade panel on contracts and licences; Pius Okigbo panel on the $12.4bn Gulf War oil windfall; and many other panels.

The question is, why does our National Assembly still fancy probe panels when their reports will virtually amount to nothing? I wish to hazard some answers. One, setting up investigative panels may be a way of settling scores with real and perceived opponents. For instance, the Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba Committee that investigated the mismanagement of the Petroleum Technology Development Fund last year gave the impression that the then Vice President Atiku Abubakar was the main target. Recall that the committee indicted Abubakar for diverting and mismanaging public funds. It recommended that he should be sanctioned. Curiously, the same committee did not prescribe any punishment for former President Olusegun Obasanjo who, it admitted, acted outside the law and did not follow due process. The report was generally seen as an extension of Obasanjo‘s personal war against Abubakar then. Even the probe of the Abuja land allocations under Nasir el-Rufai had the same vindictive undertone.

Two, probes are another avenue for committee members to make more money. Of course they cannot embark on such hectic national duties without collecting sitting allowances. We are familiar with the penchant of our lawmakers for agitation for allowances under different guises. A report in THE PUNCH last Friday indicated that the proposed probe of the oil sector by an ad-hoc committee of the House of Representatives would gulp about N273m. The money is to cover for consultancy charges, running the secretariat, publicity, and a capacity building retreat for members. Each member of the panel is also expected to go home with N20, 000 per day for the 90 days the investigation will last. This is not ruling out the temptation of bribery.

If the lawmakers had genuine intentions with regard to this avalanche of probes, why have they pussyfooted about the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill? This is a law that will help ease the workload of the lawmakers. It is a law that will ensure transparency in public office. With it in place, there may not be much need for probes. The 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives are accountable to the over 140 million Nigerians who are desirous of change. But most of these legislators who profess to be working for the interest of their constituents have continued to reject the FOI Bill.

But we need to let them know that while we appreciate their preoccupation with the activities of the past regime, we will appreciate it more if they devote more time to their major responsibility, which is to make law. Last May, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Dimeji Bankole, admitted that they had not done well in lawmaking. The last legislative session, Bankole observed, passed 35 bills after one year. The incumbent legislators could only boast of passing 11 out of 65 bills after their own one year in office.

This low productivity is in spite of the lawmakers’ often-touted capacity-building trips abroad. The truth is that they build the capacity more in their bank accounts. They collect money from ministries and elsewhere for oversight functions. Yet, the cases of corruption they are now probing happened under their noses. Why couldn‘t the committees of the previous assembly discover the crimes then during their oversight functions? I will not be surprised if the next assembly spends time and money to probe how the Ministry of Health mismanaged the N300m unspent 2007 budget of the ministry.

As if to confirm that the probes are an exercise in abracadabra, the National Economic Council, last month, appointed three principal characters, who supervised the rot in the power ministry, to a committee that will monitor investments in the power sector. They are Ondo State governor, Dr. Olusegun Agagu; Cross River State governor, Liyel Imoke; and Gombe State governor, Danjuma Goje.

Can there be a better circus show than this?

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