The social diary of the presidency at Aso Rock, the official residence of the head of state, is quite formidable. Since coming to power last year, President Muhammadu Buhari has spent a lot of time receiving both local and foreign visitors at his official residence. Hardly a day passes without some important and not so important guests calling at Aso Rock. In the case of foreign visitors, particularly his counterparts from foreign countries, it is perfectly understandable that the President should receive them personally when they visit Nigeria, either at Nigeria’s invitation, or at their own request. These visits are usually profitable to both sides. But that is not quite the case with local visitors to Aso Rock, some of whom are not really needed or wanted.
Usually, these calls are intended either to congratulate President Buhari, or to express the august visitors’ support for the new government. In most cases these local visits to the President at Aso Rock are used to request from the President personal favours that are not necessarily in the interest of the country. In this respect, one might mention oil blocks, huge contracts and choice land that, in the past, were casually given away by the presidency to the visitors after such visits. Official advisers to the President are not usually present on such occasions to offer the President any advice.
Virtually, all former living heads of the federal government, military or civilian, have made courtesy calls on Aso Rock since President Buhari came to power. These include Jonathan, Obasanjo, Abdulsalami and Shonekan, with many of them visiting the President several times. I am not sure whether Gowon should be included on the list of former heads of the federal military government that have since paid a courtesy call on President Buhari. The only former military head of state who has so far not visited Aso Rock to express his solidarity with the Buhari federal government is former military President Babangida. Obviously, he is not yet welcome in Aso Rock. It was he who deposed Buhari from power in 1985.
In some cases, when these former heads of the federal government visit the President, they are usually accompanied by foreign CEOs of local or foreign companies in which the visiting former heads of state may have some financial interests. This is morally unacceptable as Nigeria’s economic and financial interests may not possibly be served when foreign CEOs of companies are taken directly to see the President. In such a case, it is unlikely that Nigeria’s true interests are being served. This practice is the source of much of the financial scandals that have been unveiled in recent years in our country, such as Halliburton and Siemens, in which our country was simply ripped off. The Jonathan presidency was undermined by these social visits from his cronies that eventually led to the frenzied and vast sharing and looting of public funds. During Obasanjo’s presidency, a certain Uba, little known and politically obscure then, could even brag publicly that he was often received in the President’s bedroom.
Not to be left out of this unnecessary pilgrimage to Aso Rock are the bishops, the senior clergymen of all denominations, and the senior Islamic clerics. To this list must be added the various traditional rulers, except the Oba of Benin, the Awujale of Ijebu land, the Owa of Ijesha land and the Alaafin of Oyo, who traditionally hardly ever venture outside their domains. And this is why they are respected and held in high esteem by the public. It is ungainly for traditional rulers to beat the doors for admission into Aso Rock merely to seek personal favours from the presidency. Even the newly installed Ooni of Ife has paid the President a courtesy visit. Even men of letters, academics, vice chancellors, heads of professional associations, all seek to visit the President. I am not sure that even Professor Wole Soyinka has not yet felt obliged to visit the President despite his well known disdain for the ‘establishment’ and the power elite. It is as if the President has nothing better to do than to spend valuable time receiving visitors.
It is perfectly understandable that when a new government is elected, the entire ‘establishment’ should wish to reconnect with it immediately. In the Nigerian political setting, it is vital for members of the ‘establishment’ to remain in the ‘magic circle’ where important political and economic decisions are taken, regardless of their true political persuasions, or lack of any. To be left out of this ‘magic circle’ can be politically and economically costly. And the fastest way to reconnect is to wangle a visit to Aso Rock. Such visits, which are usually given much publicity in the local press, are also used, or misused, to lead the public to believe that the visitors are in good standing in the seat of power, even if they are not. Being seen publicly with the President can yield valuable political and economic dividends for the visitors.
To some extent the doors of Aso Rock should be kept open to those who have legitimate reasons to wish to see the President. There is considerable advantage in running Aso Rock, the President’s official residence, in an open manner, as both a national institution, as well as the official residence of the President. An accessible and open presidency is good and healthy for the country as this promotes a ‘corporatist’ style of government in Nigeria, one in which all interests are taken seriously and are involved in vital decision making. An open and all inclusive government is far better for Nigeria than one dominated by parochial and other selfish interests that do, in fact, hurt the country.
Having said this, I do believe, however, that the time has now come when the President should discourage too many visits to Aso Rock, except by those that he really considers are useful to his government and the country, and whose advice or views are really needed. If the President wants to invite anyone to Aso Rock, they are only a phone call away. He has the facility to reach anyone in the country that he wants to talk to. President Buhari is faced with so many political and economic problems that he needs all the time he can find to address these problems. Too many calls on him in Aso Rock are a waste of time and should be discouraged. His social diary should be well managed to enable him concentrate more on the grave challenges facing our country. He should be mindful of any form of cronyism in his government.
- This Best Outside Opinion was written by Dapo Fafowora/The Nation