30 April 2014, Abuja – The announcement by the House of Representatives’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Monday that it could not proceed with the probe into alleged N10 billion expended by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) on the lease of private aircraft for the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, owing to a court injunction, has been dismissed as an outright lie by the Federal High Court in Abuja.
Taking the lawmakers to task, the court yesterday in Abuja summoned the House of Representatives to come and show it the purported order which stopped it from going ahead with the probe.
THISDAY had correctly reported yesterday that the court had rejected the request by the minister and NNPC seeking an interim injunction stopping the House from its investigation.
In the alternative, the plaintiffs had asked the court for an order of status quo, directing the parties to maintain the current position as at the date of filing the suit.
Instead of granting their request, the court had on April 14 directed the House of Representatives to appear before it to show cause why the interim orders being sought should not be granted.
However, at the resumed sitting on the suit yesterday, a visibly exasperated Justice Ahmed Ramat Mohammed said he was embarrassed when he woke up on Monday night and saw a barrage of headlines claiming that he granted an order restraining the House’s committee from going ahead with the probe.
“I’m interested in where they got the order from since it did not emanate from this court,” the judge said.
Justice Mohammed then demanded an explanation from the lawyer to the Minister of Petroleum Resources and the NNPC, Mr. Etigwe Uwah (SAN), especially on the source of the information that resulted in the misinformation in the media.
Responding, Uwah dissociated himself from the reports and told the judge that the House of Representatives was the source of the reports.
He produced a statement allegedly issued by the Chairman of the House Committee, Media and Publicity, Hon. Zakari Mohammed, purportedly showing that the court had restrained the House from going ahead with the probe.
Etigwe said he was equally shocked, as he was bombarded with calls and text messages asking him for clarification on the purported court order.
He said in his bid to ensure that the public was not misled, he was forced to issue a statement which he sent to THISDAY and The Guardian newspapers on Monday night.
“My Lord, you can see that THISDAY reported correctly,” he told the judge while brandishing a copy of the newspaper.
Uwah also defended his clients – the petroleum minister and the NNPC – saying they did not sponsor the misinformation, adding that the House should take the blame.
Uwah, who said he was also embarrassed just like the judge, added that he was at a loss as to why the House of Representatives’, which has legal adviser and a retinue of lawyers, had chosen to misinterpret a simple court order.
Curiously, the House, which is the second defendant in the suit was neither in court nor represented by a counsel.
Only the National Assembly who was listed as the first defendant was represented by its counsel, Mr. Yakubu Maikyau (SAN).
Maikyau commended the judge for his steadfastness and said he had just been briefed by the National Assembly. He also defended Uwah, whom he said had been forthright in the handling of the case.
The judge consequently summoned the House to appear before it on May 5, with the purported court order issued by him restraining the House from carrying out the probe.
The judge said: “I had thought that Uwah was behind this. But now that it has been shown that he was not behind this, I will summon the House to produce the purported court order.”
The judge had earlier cautioned journalists to get their facts right before going to press.
He said he had instructed his registrars to allow any journalist who wanted clarification to see his manuscript so that the court would not be misrepresented.
He stressed: “As the presiding judge of this court, no such order was made. Since the confusion emanated from the House of Representatives and incidentally the House, though a party to the suit, is not represented in court today.
“I will adjourn the matter to enable the House of Representatives come and clear the air on whether it was served with a restraining order. The House should come and tell the court where it got the restraining order from.”
He consequently adjourned the matter to May 5 and ordered that hearing notices be served on the House.
The House committee was supposed to have commenced investigations into allegations that N10 billion had been expended by the state-run oil corporation to charter executive jets for the personal use of Alison-Madueke and her family on Monday.
One of the jets is a Challenger 850, while the other is a Global Express XRS, which was said to have cost NNPC €600,000 on a return charter trip to London.
However, instead of proceeding with the planned probe, PAC had announced that day that the House had been served court papers stopping the probe.
The chairman of the committee, Hon. Adeola Solomon Olamilekan (APC, Lagos), told reporters that as they prepared to commence with the public hearing on the matter, the committee was told that an order restraining it had been submitted to the speaker’s office.
“As we speak, there is a court order, which has been served to the Office of the Speaker, even though the committee has not obtained the copy of that order,” Olamilekan had said, stressing, “We expected that she should be here today. But we have been served with a court order, notifying us that they have gone to court.”
He explained that the “nature of the court order is simple. They are just restraining us from carrying out our own investigation. I don’t know what they are afraid of that they have gone to court. We shall wait and see.”
Also speaking at the briefing, the House Chairman, Media and Public Affairs, Hon. Zakari Mohammed (APC, Kwara), had said that the minister’s action was a sign that the executive arm of government was bent on arm-twisting the legislature and stopping it in its anti-graft crusade.
“The import of this is that as legislators, we are supposed to fight corruption, but of course, this is another demonstration of the frustrations we face from government. This is a clear case of a matter which is under investigation, or supposedly will go into investigation, but is being frustrated,” Zakari had said.
“However, as a law abiding arm of government, we would tarry a while and take legal advice on this issue. May be that was why she did not show face today (Monday),” he added.
Adding that the House was studying the papers and taking a position, Mohammed said: “Rather than leave the issue to speculation, we said let us inform you about the development, so that the Nigerian people would not be misinformed about the House.
“Our responsibility is to expose corruption. The House of Representatives, in its wisdom, took the decision to investigate this matter. They chose to wait until the day we said we would start this investigation for them to serve us this order.
“So it tells a lot about what they intend to achieve with this issue. We don’t need to go into details. But of course we have come out formally and told you about the stand of the House.”
The lawmaker further clarified that the committee would study the court papers and consult widely before taking the next line of action.
“There are court papers served by the court stopping us from further probing the issue of the chartered jets. We had a resolution on the floor of the House and it was referred to the Public Accounts Committee. At no point in time has the leadership of the House expressed fears that they were under any pressure.
“This is not the first time we are going into this kind of process. It is usual that when you are dealing with the high and mighty, people will presume that you will hit a brickwall, but we are very, very consistent.
“The only way you can stop us is through a process like the court case, which we consider as a temporary setback. We will seek legal opinion and the House will be advised appropriately.
“This setback is painful though, but we have to obey the laws of the land. There is nobody that is under pressure. All that was written was based on speculation. As for the court order, we do not know what will happen. We are watching,” Mohammed had said.
Meanwhile, in reaction to speculations that the House might have succumbed to pressure and had used the fictitious court order as the perfect excuse to stop the probe, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, has restated the commitment of the lower chamber to hold the public hearing once the House gets the appropriate legal advice on the suit instituted against it.
Tambuwal, who made this known yesterday during plenary while ruling on a point of order on the propriety of the court action, said: “We have not closed that investigation. When we get legal advice, we will know the next line of action.”