Nigerian fuel subsidy probe head quizzed over bribe

ABUJA Fri Jun 15, 2012 12:44am BST

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ABUJA (Reuters) - Police said on Thursday they were questioning a Nigerian lawmaker, who uncovered a $6.8 billion fuel subsidy corruption scandal, over an allegation that he took a bribe from an oil trader in exchange for removing his name from the report.

Farouk Lawan was the head of a parliamentary probe into Nigeria's fuel subsidy scheme, which found huge fraud involving collusion between fuel marketers, regulators and the government.

During his presentation of the report in April, he skewered the oil traders involved and called for all those responsible for the scandal to be prosecuted.

"I can confirm that as of an hour ago, he was still being interrogated," police spokesman Frank Mba said by telephone.

"I cannot confirm he has been detained - that would be only after the interrogation if there are conclusions that detaining him would enable justice to be done."

Lawan was unavailable for comment.

If he turns out to have taken a bribe, it would seriously damage the credibility of the probe, although it is not clear if the allegation is an elaborate smear campaign - a tactic used often in Nigerian politics.

On the other hand, graft inquiries have sometimes been used to extort bribes from those under investigation, analysts say.

The report presented to parliament advised that the board of the state oil firm, including its head, Oil Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke, and the firm's chief executive Austen Oniwon, be "completely overhauled." In doing so, it fingered some of Nigeria's most powerful people.

The national press this week quoted one of Nigeria's richest petrol tycoons Femi Otedola, owner of Forte Oil and Zenon Petroleum, as saying Lawan approached him for a $3 million bribe. The reports said he paid some of it - but videotaped the transaction so he could expose Lawan as an extortionist.

The alleged video, which has not been published but a copy was seen by Reuters, seems to show a man about Lawan's size and wearing his typical dress taking a parcel from Otedola. The contents are not shown; the lawmaker's face is unclear.

When voting on the report, parliament inexplicably voted to remove Zenon from the list of fuel companies abusing the subsidy - the report initially estimated that Zenon owed at least $1.4 million to the government for fraudulent subsidy payments.

(Reporting by Camillus Eboh; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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