by Idowu Akinlotan
In the days ahead, officials of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, like many other analysts, will be tempted to focus almost exclusively on the contents of the August 30th letter written to the president by the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu. The letter accuses the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Maikanti Baru, of insubordination and bureaucratic misconduct. It is possible the NNPC boss will be found guilty of some or all the allegations levelled against him. It is also possible that the infractions listed against him may be of such tameness that he and his accusers could get away with only a slap on the wrist. But overall, the outcome of any discussions or investigations apparently being conducted by both the president and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, is not certain. For now, until the investigations are concluded, it is pointless examining the content and severity of the infractions allegedly committed by Dr Baru.
The temptation to focus only on the contents of the letter should be resisted. What is far more important and weighty is to focus on why a letter written to the president in late August, and should have been delivered not later than early September, should receive no attention until the first week of October, and only after someone leaked it to the media. The allegations are so weighty and disturbing that the letter should have received immediate attention once it got to the president’s table. If it becomes established that the letter indeed got to the president — and there is no reason it should not have got to him if the presidency has not become dysfunctional — it would even be far more worrisome to know that the president treated the letter with the idiosyncratic casualness many Nigerians attach to him when he is discomfited by the public censure that accompanies his misconceived or misplaced policies.
Unlike the scandals that have engulfed both the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) Babachir David Lawal and the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) director general, Ayodele Oke, it is impossible for the president to limit himself to the usual squirming he has become accustomed to when some of his top appointees are accused of malfeasance. In October 2016, Mr Lawal had first been accused by national lawmakers of feeding fat on contracts meant to bring succour to internally displaced persons in the Northeast. By December, the controversy over the SGF’s conduct was deafening. In January of the following year, the government hastily cleared him of any wrongdoing after what looked like an investigation. Because the noise did not die down, however, the government was forced to take a closer and second look at the allegations, and the SGF was eventually suspended in April. The president feigned disinterest in the scandal, travelled abroad on May 7 for a second medical attention in the United Kingdom, and seemed justified to leave the matter in abeyance. But he returned on August 19 and has yet to find a closure that satisfies justice and morality.
The Kachikwu letter, however, strikes at the heart of the Buhari presidency, particularly its awkward and contradictory image as a reformist government. The letter is both denotative and connotative of the temper and philosophy of the Buhari presidency, and of the worldview and fundamental character of the president himself. It does not just insinuate that gross and unforgivable bureaucratic malfeasances were committed by a government appointee, much of it deliberate and orchestrated, it also quite clearly infers disturbing connivance at the highest echelons of government and an inexplicable and probably contemptuous foot-dragging at the presidency. This is why it is deeply troubling. That the president has suddenly woken up more than one month after Dr Kachikwu wrote him a letter does not absolve him and his aides of dereliction of responsibility.
While the president and vice president in their interactions with the accused and the accuser are free to establish the accuracy or otherwise of the allegations, it is far more important for Nigerians to establish a few other salient facts. The first is whether the president received the letter or not. If he did not, then it is necessary to find out who held the letter up, because there must be consequences. But if the president got it, he needs to explain why he ignored it for over a month, for surely he can’t feel so unperturbed as to think that for so weighty a letter, acting with dispatch was needless, or that his office is too indpendent and too powerful not to owe those who elected him an explanation. Indeed, by acting frantically after the letter was leaked, the president seemed to indicate that he was not devoid of a sound assessment of the weightiness of the contents. In addition, the president and his aides must not go away with the impression that all they need to do is find common ground between the accuser and the accused, or rekindle esprit de corps in the NNPC. Terrible infractions have allegedly been committed. They must not only be explained and blames and punishments apportioned, the presidency must also recognise that the accusations indicate that so much is wrong with the running of government, particularly under the Buhari presidency, and ethnic and regional biases have become accentuated.
The Kachikwu letter exemplified the author’s deep frustrations, perhaps frustrations other similarly excluded cabinet members share. By penning such vigorous and specific allegations against Dr Baru, the Minister of State appears to have resigned himself to whatever consequences his feistiness might attract. The letter not only exposed alleged wrongdoings in the NNPC, some of them truly mindboggling, it also clearly indicates that the author’s position cannot be rendered worse or more prostrate than he already was. Outflanked, outgunned and outmanoeuvred, Dr Kachikwu appears to know he was throwing his last dice. That throw would make or mar him. Should the president resolve this big dilemma — probably the biggest his troubled presidency has faced so far because it deals with his image — by simply doing away with both Dr Kachikwu and Dr Baru, he would not have shown himself or his presidency to be as courageous as he has constantly let out, nor the fair and just man he is cracked up to be.
The president must accept responsibility for the scandalous allegations. He is Minister of Petroleum Resources though he does not need to be. That ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo kept the job to himself does not make combining the ministerial and presidential jobs sound or correct. Chief Obasanjo freaked everyone out, including the youths in his government, with his bizarre and frenetic work rate. It was purely animalistic adrenalin at work in him. However, there was nothing done in the ministry under Chief Obasanjo that showed he brought uncommon savvy to the job, or that he left the ministry far more organised and ethical than he met it. It was even more unwise for President Buhari to have resolved to keep the jobs of president and petroleum minister when he does not possess half the energy, exposure and attention to detail of Chief Obasanjo to do even one of the two.
It appears that President Buhari was impervious to the rot alluded to by Dr Kachikwu, despite the two working together to manage the same ministry. The implication is that the president was neither supervising the ministry as closely as he should, nor setting the tone and philosophy by which it must be run. It meant that too many things were happening in that ministry without his knowledge, and if stories are to be believed, without his consent. It also meant, very sadly, that he was virtually an absentee minister. Otherwise, there is no way the controversial appointments that infuriated the Southeast, and the contracts mentioned by the Minister of State, could have been issued without him being in the driver’s seat. More damningly, for a president who swore to have the presence of mind needed for the top job, and who says he is above suspicion or capable of any connivance, how could the tempestuous controversy over the recent postings in the NNPC have escaped his attention? Surely he reads the news, and should have shown interest in what was shaping up into a national crisis, for the country was in a lather over the matter for weeks. It will, therefore, be taken with a pinch of salt to say the president, as Minister of Petroleum Resources, was ignorant of the ministry’s affairs. But if he knew, as seems sensible to speculate, his refusal to probe the controversy and arrest the drift when it began showed connivance.
Dr Kachikwu was smart to have brought the matter to the attention of the president. Whoever leaked the letter to the media also did the minister a great favour. The worst punishment he can get is to be reshuffled out of the cabinet. But if it comes to that, he will leave with his reputation and dignity intact. He complained of being sidelined and treated shabbily by a subordinate. Now everyone knows it was not because he shirked a fight or was too unintelligent to understand when he was being insulted. Everyone now knows that the strange and indefensible policies and measures emanating from the ministry in the past one year or so came essentially not from him but from a shadowy group of powerful individuals.
What is even more critical is that everyone now knows, without prejudice to the investigation of the $25bn contracts, that the widespread allegation of a cabal hijacking the Buhari presidency are unlikely to be an exaggeration. Dr Baru himself might still turn out to be a pawn on the convoluted chessboard of the so-called cabal, and Dr Kachikwu a victim. It may even be somewhat established that the Minister of State himself, going by the unsubstantiated allegations against him, might have performed less than stellar in some of his assignments, as many have suggested, but there is no question where the ultimate blame lies. The buck stops with the minister or the president. By combining the two positions less effectively than the positions demanded, President Buhari should tender an unreserved apology and relinquish the ministerial position. If a minister had proved incapable of supervising such an important ministry, he would be sacked. But how does the president sack himself? If he kept the portfolio because he could trust no one to handle it ethically, does his abdication of both responsibility and close supervision not amount to implicit assignation of the ministry to someone else?
Except President Buhari is in denial, he must begin to appreciate that his presidency is more troubled than he seems to acknowledge. Apart from the intolerable skewness in his key appointments, probably the worst ever, he also dithers badly in tackling deep bureaucratic infractions committed by the offending appointees. And for an elected president, he has not shown any inkling that he understands what democracy, from which he has profited so extravagantly, is all about, nor demonstrated that he has a special liking for it. On top of his curious fondness for the wholesale application of force in every conflict that appears to challenge his political chauvinism, not to say his refusal to respond well to accusations of promoting ethnic exceptionalsim, it is uncertain that after the Buhari presidency, Nigerians will still recognise the democracy they thought they received in 1999.
As Minister of State, Dr Kachikwu, was barred for an unhealthy long time from meeting or conferring with the Minister of Petroleum Resources, that is, the president. But after the letter leaked, he was summarily ushered into the president’s presence. However, it is doubtful whether the rapprochement is anything but a ruse. The Buhari presidency’s minders are too stouthearted and cabalistic to bend in accommodation. They will be incensed that the junior minister wrote the damning letter, and fly into a rage that the letter leaked. In fact, they will have no interest in mollifying him, or if they do, it will be grudgingly tokenistic. Instead, they will wait in ambush to unhorse him at an opportune time. No one has yet survived their strangulation, not even the sometimes idealistic and optimistic wife of the president, Aisha, whom members of the cabal reportedly painted in unflattering colours not too long ago, complete with a nom de guerre.
A few weeks before the president returned home from his last medical treatment, Mrs Buhari had eulogised her husband’s newfound vigour and charisma in ecclesiastical allegories that suggested that those who held him captive would be publicly drawn and quartered on the canvass of public prayers. He would return and call his soul his own, she had enthused. Her optimism was unfortunately like a red rag to a bull. Not only are the president’s cynical captors stimulated by opposition, sometimes even deriding those who say the inflexible former army general has been held captive, they see the sanguinary consequences of war as both inevitable and indispensable. Dr Kachikwu may reap short term benefits from his potent and provocative letter, and perhaps be regaled by the president’s bucolic humour during very brief interactions, he will do well, however, to consider the anecdotal graves in which those who took on the president and thumbed their noses at his aides are interred. For if ‘the other room’ suffers from rising damp, there is no reason to think the president’s office, already scarified by rodents, cannot suffocate a daring epistolary upstart.
- This Best Outside Opinion was written by Idowu Akinlotan/The Nation