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NNPC $25b Contract: Ethnic, religious sentiments threaten Senate probe

By Azimazi Momoh Jimoh and Adamu Abuh (Abuja)
22 October 2017   |   4:34 am
Saraki is, however, expected to meet with the committee members after a principal officers’ meeting on Monday to dispel insinuations of vested interests from the Senate leadership, and to encourage the committee to work as a team.

L-R: The group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Maikanti Baru and the Nigerian minister of state for petroleum resources Kachikwu Baru at the Nigerian Economic Summit Group recently. PHOTO: TWITTER/NNPC

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Vested interests, religious and ethnic sentiments could frustrate attempts by the Senate to unravel the true position of the alleged $25b contracts, awarded by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).

Already, cracks in the nine-member ad hoc panel led by a former Sokoto State governor, Senator Aliu Magatarkada Wamakko, has widened, as influential senators, including some members of the committee have expressed concerns about perceived pressure being mounted on them to frustrate the probe.

This is as protests within and outside the National Assembly, against subterranean moves to compromise the investigation and render it ineffective gather steam.

On its part, the House of Representatives has concluded plans to summon the duo of Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu, and the Group Managing Director (GMD) of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Maikanti Baru, during the week to clear the air on the issue.

The Guardian understands that sensitive sentiments, majorly along ethnic, religious and political lines, are being introduced into the crisis within the committee, by forces within and outside the National Assembly.

It was further learnt that some top members of the Senate leadership even reached out to the Senate President, Abubakar Bukola Saraki, who was away to Russia, for the International Parliamentary Union (IPU), to stall the commencement of the probe until some level of sanity is restored to the committee.

Saraki is, however, expected to meet with the committee members after a principal officers’ meeting on Monday to dispel insinuations of vested interests from the Senate leadership, and to encourage the committee to work as a team.

After the probe was suspended by the Senate last Tuesday, Wamakko could not speak on the crisis in the committee when reached. He simply ignored questions put to him at the Senate Hearing Room 231, where he had attended a meeting of the Senate Committee on Tertiary Institutions, which he is also a member.

He equally failed to respond to telephone calls and text messages since last Wednesday when he travelled to Sokoto. But a few senators who agreed to volunteer information on the matter confirmed the growing tension within and around the committee. They equally expressed displeasure that even the leadership of the National Assembly is being linked to the alleged bid to truncate the investigation.

A lawmaker said: “Although, I am not aware apart from what we read in the media, of any moves, by anybody in the Senate or House leadership to frustrate the investigation, what is certain is that the Senate has already taken a resolution to embark on the investigation and that remains sacrosanct.

“Whatever internal problem we may have in the Senate cannot result in dropping the probe because our rule is clear that we cannot cancel that resolution until another substantive resolution is sponsored and passed to that effect. So, no interest, political, ethnic or religious can jeopardise this investigation because it has already taken a life of its own,” he stated.

On the alleged visit of Wammako to the Villa, the lawmaker said: “Look, the investigation is even beyond Wamakko, or any leader in the National Assembly now because Nigerians are keenly interested in how the allegations would be treated. I am a member of the APC and I can tell you that it is not even in the interest of the party to attempt to sweep all these under the carpet.”

One lawmaker was particularly concerned about the growing trend in which heads of government departments attempt to sabotage parliamentary operations each time there were issues bordering on abuses or leakages.

“I think we are gradually approaching a time when we in parliament would have to call a spade a spade, by insisting that the right thing be done no matter whose ox is gored. All these reports we read about compromise would not be there if everything is right. For example, nobody in the executive would have any need to attempt to compromise the parliament, in any way, if the right process of law is adhered to.”

On the nature of the crisis in the committee, another lawmaker who has keen interest in the petroleum industry revealed that there were issues, which the Senate had been working towards unravelling and exposing in the petroleum industry before the emergence of the alleged $25 billion fraudulent contracts.

According to him, the rush to kill the probe by persons in the executive arm, using their allies in parliament arose from the desperation to cover up the entire shady deals.

“I have always known that it will come to this point, where we would be made to be at war with one another to weaken the constitutional mandate of checking the excesses of the executive arm of government. All I plead with my colleagues is to disallow the use of all kinds of sentiments to split and
weaken our legislative powers. The legislature remains the only pillar around which democracy is built, just because of its natural powers to expose and check against all forms of misconducts in governance. So, it is not surprising that these efforts are being made to destroy our unity.”

Membership of the nine-man ad-hoc committee include the Chairman Senate Committee on Petroleum Upstream, Tayo Alasoadura; his counterpart in the Petroleum Downstream and Gas, Kabir Marafa and Bassey Albert respectively.

Others include: Sam Anyanwu, Ahmed Ogembe, Chukwuka Utazi, Rose Okoh and Baba Kaka Garbai. Deputy Chairman of the House Committee on Petroleum (Upstream,) Mark Gbillah, told The Guardian that both Kachikwu and Baru, would be summoned during the week to clear the air on the issue.

Ehiozuwa Agbonayinma (PDP, Edo), who also bared his mind on the issue assured that he would raise the issue under matters of urgent national importance to achieve the goal.

Gbillah, (APC, Benue), who expressed dissatisfaction with the conduct of the duo overseeing the oil industry, assured that the House would not allow the matter to lie low in the interest of Nigerians.

According to him: “Let me emphasis the fact that even before the issue came to the fore, the minister had even mentioned to me in particular, the frosty relationship and the challenges he is having relating to the NNPC GMD.

“We think it is very strange that that letter came out less than two weeks after he spoke to me about it. Much as I don’t want to make insinuations about what I don’t know, as a committee, we were already aware that there was a very frosty relationship and that the GMD was acting as if he had no recourse to anybody else, but the Villa, and going ahead to conclude on a lot of contracts,” he said.

The representative, who said they were already working towards inviting both parties before everything broke in the media, added, “I must emphasise that part of our oversight functions involved being able to liaise with these officials and not necessarily having to bring it to the floor of the House.

“The National Assembly is not being accommodated by the executive. We have become a rubber stamp institution to them and they just bring the budget and expect us to just sign it after which they move on and do not liaise with us anymore. And no other institution is displaying that level of impunity than the NNPC. That place is like a cult,” said the lawmaker.

He continued: “You can imagine my committee is the Committee on Petroleum Resources (Upstream). There are two committees in both the House and the Senate that oversee the NNPC and the oil industry. But as the deputy chairman, even if I send a text message or place a call to the GMD that we want to meet him or see him over certain issues that we hear, he doesn’t pick up.

“The GMD who we supervise feels too big for the National Assembly. Nigerians need to know what is going on since he feels he only reports to certain individuals in the Villa under the President because we know that the President Muhammadu Buhari had been sick for sometime and so those individuals seem to have taken total control of the NNPC, and it seems he only kow-tows to them.

“We are planning to delve into the issue. We appreciate the fact that the Senate has already set up an ad hoc committee, but we are not going to leave it at that. In the legislature, which is bicameral, every arm can carry out their independent investigation, just as is happening in the US Senate and the House of Representatives investigating Russia’s involvement in the last US election.

“And it is important for both Houses to independently do so because they have varying levels of information and it helps the country to be more objective and to avoid any bias or any influences.”

On whether the House was under pressure not to probe the issue, he said: “No, no, no. And I can assure Nigerians that the House would not succumb to any such pressure. I don’t know if there is any such pressure on the Senate, but we have not been brought under any such pressure and that is so because they haven’t heard us bring up a formal motion on the floor to say we are investigating.

On his part, Agbonayinma said: “Nigerians would want to know exactly what is happening. We represent our various constituencies and we owe our constituents the right to know exactly what is happening to their resources.

“Ibe Kachikwu has a hidden agenda. He should come out clean. There is no need to whip up sentiments by trying to discredit Mr. President, who appointed him and the GMD. So I don’t see anything wrong if the GMD is reporting directly to Mr. President.  The person on trial now is the Minister of State Petroleum Resources… If the Senate decides to drop the probe, I will personally move a motion to investigate why Kachikwu took the step he did. As a matter of fact, he should honorably resign because he has just proven he does not mean well for this country.”