SHROUD IN MYSTERY!
—Senator Lawal (Chairman Senate Committee on Public Accounts)
Nigerians, and indeed, the whole world, are still blindfolded regarding the true depth of former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s financial involvement in the accounts of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) or even its subsidiary, the Petroleum Technology Development Fund, (PTDF) because both are conspicuously absent from the 112 list of the Ministerial Department and Agencies (MDA) of the federal governments whose accounts are being scrutinized in public by the Senate Committee on Public Accounts since the past two weeks.
Chairman of the Committee, Senator Ahmed Ibrahim Lawal who revealed this exclusively to Saturday Sun also marveled at the “weird monopoly of wisdom being exhibited by a clique of few persons who have cornered NNPC and made it an exclusive cow whose milk they alone should suck while the rest of Nigerians continue looking hopelessly”.
Senator Ahmed Ibrahim Lawal then cried foul that in spite of the burning desire from the Nigerian citizens to get explanations on certain sensitive accounts of the federal government parastatals, the Senate is yet to hold any sufficient financial documentation from the offices of the Auditor-General of the Federation and the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS) regarding the corruption-ridden NNPC.
Not only that, he also told Saturday Sun that of the 112 government organizations queried by the FIRS the Auditor-General for not remitting their taxes into government coffers, neither of the two national financial watch-dogs deemed it fit to submit any report on the NNPC expenditure, just as the reports on the years 2004, 2006 and the last five months (2007) of Obasanjo’s tenure are yet to reach the committee.
Throwing more light on the mysterious nature of the NNPC accounts, Senator Lawal said: “though I read on the pages of newspapers that there are several accounts run by NNPC which are not known to the public, I still don’t know if there are such accounts, and I am not saying they don’t exist either”. He, however, assured Nigerians that his Committee would do all in its power to unravel the mystery surrounding NNPC, which he described as “a clique of a few mystic Nigerians and their foreign partners and local cohorts”. Excerpts:
On whether NNPC will appear before the committee
At the moment, the Auditor-General’s reports for 2002, 2003 and 2005 have not shown any need for us to invite the NNPC because the documents did not indicate any infractions against NNPC in its financial transactions within these reports. Similarly, the list we got from the Federal Inland Revenue (FIRS) for those who have failed to remit taxes does not include NNPC. However, if we have any reason to ask for the accounts of NNPC, we would do that, because we will always do something that is in the public interest.
We don’t engage in shadow-chasing or rumours. We want to base and predicate our actions on concrete grounds. We only invite organizations that have erred or are at fault. We don’t invite organizations that have nothing to answer. Whenever we invite any organization, the Chief Executive would have to appear before us, and feelings of the public would be that this man is not honest or that his organization has done wrong, and that is bad you know. We want the public to just assume that whoever we invite is considered to be innocent, until he proves to us that his organization has failed to do what is right, and then we sanction him.
I am still looking for those mysterious accounts of the NNPC, but honestly I have still not been able to identify any for now, and that is not to say that they don’t exist but I want something that is solid, that those accounts are never known to the public. However, I am convinced that the NNPC has been running an operation that can equally be called or described as mysterious, because in their core transactions, you never know the kind of language they use though they use English, their business technicalities can be deceptive or misleading. You can only know what they want you to know, and even when you know, you may not fully understand.
In short, NNPC is like an exclusive reserve for a clique of a few Nigerians and their foreign partners and cohorts, at least that is the way I understand the place using my experience on various issues about them since I was a member of several committees in the House of Representatives. We will, however, get to the root of the matter, especially if we have good reasons to do that. We pray we will have good reasons in the public interest.
And it has been my firm belief that it is only when we can get one of them who has been a retired GMD, GED, MD, GM and the like to be engaged as a consultant to be able to dish out graphically the mystics and mysteries of the NNPC’s operations, then and only then we could be in the true picture of what actually goes on in that cabal called NNPC. But again, can we pay for the consultancy services? And even if we can, will this category of ex-NNPC men be ready to render diligently the service we need. Are they still not members of the Mafia-typified NNPC? These are the questions!
But as soon as we are able to lay our hands on concrete reason to invite them, we will certainly and definitely invite the NNPC to come and explain. So if anybody has the kind of information we need, they should forward to us and nothing stops us from acting. I also read in the papers that the NNPC has twelve, 13, or 14 accounts unknown to the public, but we need evidence, and we will certainly ask for it. You see, another thing is that if you are not ready for them, they will only come to dribble you, misinform you and mess you and go because they know the terrain more than you do. In the end you can only say you don’t agree with what they say, but then what do you agree with? That is part of the NNPC’s mysteries.
PTDF not in my list of MDAs too
In spite of the public accusations and counter accusations on financial misappropriation which the immediate past president, Olusegun Obasanjo and his deputy Atiku Abubakar threw against each other within the operations of the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF), the Senator Ahmed Lawal Committee has also received nothing from the Auditor-General and FIRS about the accounts of the mangled fund.
“We are not expecting the PTDF because they too, are not on the list we have. We have to deal with the Auditor-General Reports for 2002, 2003, 2004 which is yet to be submitted, 2005, which is with us, 2006 (yet to be submitted) and some months in the first half of 2007. You know we are not working on speculations. What we already have in hands is already a huge amount of job to do. If for any reason, we see the need for PTDF to appear before us, we’ll invite them immediately.”
Other sensitive documents we are looking into include documents from the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) in response to the Auditor General’s queries. We are also expecting NEMASA to come with a response. We have written to the FCDA on the abolishment of the two offices of the Auditor-Generals created for the FCT ministry and the Area Councils by the last administration of El-Rufai. So we have cause to write the current Minister of the federal Capital about the constitutionality of these two offices and therefore he should abolish them. The office of Auditor-General of the federation is the National Assembly to which FCDA should report for its relevant matters.
FIRS performs below average
Nigerians should be able to feel the impact of the Federal Inland Revenue Services, because the Value Added Tax (VAT) and the withholding Tax are supposed to be part of our revenue base. The federal government ordinarily should receive colossal amount from this. For instance, we are just trying to recoup outstanding arrears, which is in the region of almost N60 billion. This means that when everybody pays taxes, we would be talking of hundreds of billions of Naira and foreign currency. So it is very important that these taxes are captured into the coffers of the government.
Therefore my committee has decided to set up a sub-committee to take charge of the reconciliation matters between the FIRS and the organizations that have disagreed with figures presented by the FIRS on tax arrears cases before us. So they are asked to face this sub-committee with their bank tellers showing proofs of payments and certificates of those payments from the FIRS so that we can streamline the transactions.
In any case, because of apparent loopholes and failures on the part of the FIRS to convince this committee about its performance, I even had cause to lambast the entire leadership. So, we are inviting the chairman and the entire management team to hear from them why the lapses, loopholes and so many unreconciled figures with most of the organizations that appeared before this committee. The FIRS needs to be more efficient and effective.
Perhaps they need to look at the process and procedures that follow even at assessing the taxes and accessing the tax-payers, because so many organizations would say they had paid taxes for years, but the FIRS would tell you they didn’t see or they didn’t know even when those concerned have provided documents showing they had paid to the bank. So, there is a need for the FIRS to build in measures that will trigger reactions as soon as payment is made, a signal to show them fresh payment is effected in their account, so that even the organizations can be made to always pay as and when due.
As the Senate Committee on Public Accounts, our job this time around is inviting the Ministerial Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of the Federal Government to answer queries raised by the office of the Auditor-General of the Federation, particularly those queries which did not answer properly or respond at all. We also invited those parastatals which have failed to remit taxes into government treasury after they had deducted such taxes from their employees or in the form of withholding taxes as well as Value-Added Taxes (VAT)
At the moment we have concentrated on the recovery of taxes that should have been paid between 1999 to date, into the treasury by these parastatals of the government. We sought and received the list of about 112 different parastatals who are in arrears with their payments of either payees, withholding or VAT taxes or all of them.
On N60 billion outstanding taxes
The N60 billion figure was quoted by a staff from the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), but what we have confirmed was N53.8 billion (about N54 billion) in arrears and that, in our opinion, is huge amount of money. And let me tell you why it is a huge amount. The Universal Basic Education (UBE) Commission, which runs our education programme in conjunction with the 36 states and Abuja, receives 2% of the consolidated revenue funds, and that has been translated to about N31 billion, being the contribution of the federal government as marching grants to the states. So what we are talking is almost double the 2% of the UBE grant.
Criminal MDA chief executives uncovered
By the attitude of some of the MDA leaders who waylaid the accumulated taxes, it means we are tying down money that could have gone for glass rooms, laboratories, libraries and other instructional materials for our schools, or even for the purchase of drugs for our hospitals and so many other development projects. So, by cutting funds from salaries of their personnel and collecting VAT from contractors and refusing to remit same to treasury, the action of some of these MDA heads, to me, was a great misconduct bordering on criminality. We view this very seriously as Senate Committee on Public Accounts. However, without necessarily making life difficult for anybody, we simply ask questions to which we need answers, and whoever has arrears and could not defend his case, we ask him to pay back to the government coffers.
Our assignment is yielding results
We are already achieving some results because the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA), on receiving our letter on January 11th 2008, they quickly went and paid N242 million to the treasury, the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria has also taken our orders to pay their arrears of six months; we have told the National Hospital Abuja to go and pay their arrears, and we’ll continue telling others to do the same thing in the course of our duty, hoping that we deliver what will benefit Nigerians generally.
On whether MDA bosses cooperate with committee
You know because we are a creation of the Senate, and our creation is constitutional, no organization takes us for granted. Therefore whenever we invite them they come even though a few of them have failed to cooperate, but we have warned that we are not going to accept any representation without the head of any organization leading his team. Therefore, we have turned back those who reported to us by proxies. Because most of those we have received are not those who indebted their organizations into the arrears, we are extending our invitations to those responsible to come and tell us where the missing funds are kept.
No arrest, because we’re not EFCC
There is nothing like arrest by us because we are not operating like the EFCC. However, don’t forget that as a legislature we have the power of subpoena on anybody in this country who is responsible for certain action or inaction against public interest. So we invite the person and if he fails to come without any justification or cogent reason, then we are free to subpoena him through the Senate session and get him arrested. This is however democracy and National Assembly is the hope for all to enjoy democratic dividend, so people should feel very free to come and defend themselves.