17 oil marketers get second chance to defend selves

A furious House of Representatives bent back Tuesday to offer a fresh hearing to oil firms indicted in the fuel subsidy report for not attending the first inquiry, momentarily bowing to a concern that had threatened to cast controversy on its findings that have been applauded by Nigerians.

The 17 marketing groups now have two weeks to appear before the Farouk Lawan-led committee, the House said in a decision that appeared unpopular amongst its members, but remained a crucial choice needed to shore up the report’s credibility.

The decision peaked one of the most audacious debates ever seen in the House, well renowned for brushing aside its reports and doing nothing to implement them.

Against increasingly mounting pressure from a sector regarded by many, according to Speaker Aminu Tambuwal, as a “secret society”, the lawmakers, on the first day of deliberating on the report, approved 35 out of the 62 far-reaching recommendations put forward by the committee.

“Let me also remind you that we are fighting against entrenched interests whose infectious greed has decimated our people. Therefore, be mindful that they will fight back, and they do fight dirty,” Mr. Tambuwal told colleagues as the session started.

In approvals reached Tuesday, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA), the two institutions worst hit by the report, are to refund more than N1 trillion to federal coffers as proposed by the committee.

Subsidy on kerosene should be restored as the committee suggested, while that on petrol be maintained, the lawmakers said, also calling for a re-drafting of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB).

The lawmakers also approved a recommendation calling for two ministers for the petroleum ministry, one for upstream and the other for the downstream sector.

The House backed tougher sanctions for key NNPC and PPRA officials indicted by the report, unanimously replacing relatively suggestions with tougher ones in the list of recommendations passed.

Ahmadu Ali, the former ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chairman, and current board chairman of the PPPRA, was recommended for investigation and prosecution, instead of a verbal “reprimand” which Mr. Lawan’s committee recommended.

A similar push to apply specific sanctions on  minister of petroleum, Diezani Alison-Madueke, under whose supervision as the board chair of the NNPC, the abuses occurred, failed.

At a media briefing on Monday, the minister refused to respond to questions about the report after an aide told Premium Times, the minister and the NNPC boss, Austin Oniwon, would not stand down.

Mrs. Alison-Madueke told reporters at the conference, where she discussed government’s new gas efforts, that she would prefer to speak after the adoption of the report by the entire House. Several other top officials had maintained similar position.

Tuesday’s debate, to be rounded up Wednesday, is expected to trigger a series of reactions, partly from the indicted officials, who have alleged witch-hunting, claiming innocence, and partly from Nigerians who for once, seem elated by the lawmakers’ effort and are poised to push the implementations through.

Since the reports became public, civil societies have warned of protests if the federal government failed to implement the recommendations.

Faulting predictions of a likely confrontational session, the lawmakers turned up on Tuesday in a rare allegiance that breached party divisions, and affirmed a common interest.

Mr. Tambuwal’s speech was greeted by repeated applause from members, and many of the lawmakers appeared disposed to approving all the 62 recommendations before an adjournment on Tuesday.

Of the 15 firms expected to make refunds of money received without importing fuel, Mr. Lawan excused two, claiming the committee later realized Synopsis Enterprises Ltd. and Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited, did not actually participate in the subsidy.

The 17 oil marketing groups accused by the committee of “refusing” to attend the hearings, and asked to make full refunds, said they were filing legal action for being denied “fair hearing.”

In approving a second opportunity, the House conceded to the firms’ concern. House spokesperson, Zakari Mohammed, said the decision will not affect the outcome of the debates.


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