By Rotimi Fasan
LAST week the Muhammadu Buhari administration took a major step in shaking off the odour of corruption that has been swirling around it since Babachir Lawal, erstwhile Secretary to the Government of the Federation, was implicated in a scandal surrounding the award of grass cutting contract in the Internally Displaced Persons’ camp.
The grass cutting contract was a scheme under the Presidential Initiative on the North-east, PINE. A company in which the suspended AGF had interest was a beneficiary in award of contracts under PINE. It was this apparent conflict of interest that pitched the Buhari administration against critics of its so-called anti-corruption war.
Asked to explain his involvement in this affair, Mr. Lawal scoffed at his critics including members of the National Assembly, particularly the Senate whose summons to appear before it he ignored. Although, he would later try to put a spin on his arrogant refusal to appear before the Senate but the damage had already been done at this point. Lawal’s action was one in a series of arrogant displays to constituted authorities by members of the inner circle of relations and close associates of President Buhari.
But his action in awarding a contract to a company in which he had interest was one Nigerians were not prepared to ignore and they plied President Buhari with questions that were beginning to show his administration up as one that was strong in fighting corruption only where his opponents were concerned.
As Shehu Sani, a senator from Kaduna framed the issue, the president fights corruption with insecticide where his opponents are concerned. But where the searchlight turns on his supporters, especially those around him, the president fights corruption with deodorants, the senator said. And it was in the process of fighting corruption with deodorants that the president set up an administrative panel under the headship of the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Malami, to investigate the allegation against Lawal.
The panel cleared him of the allegations, prompting the president to write to the Senate insisting on the integrity of his man. But convinced that Lawal had a case to answer, Nigerians never stopped asking questions of the president and of the manner he took side with Lawal.
The behaviour of the former AGF was diluting the anti-corruption rhetoric of the Administration and the president needed to act. While he was yet vacillating the odour of corruption around the presidential corridors was further worsened by the discovery of N13 Billion in a so-called operational base of the Nigerian Intelligence Agency.
Although Ayodele Oke, Director General of the NIA, claimed ownership of the booty, he is having a tough time convincing Nigerians that neither the executive arm of government, the presidency nor somebody close to it has something to do with the discovered funds. It was in the heat of all this that the suspension of the AGF and the DG of NIA was announced.
And Babachir Lawal, the ousted Secretary to the Government of the Federation asked the question which forms the title of this piece when cornered by reporters with news of his suspension from office. “Who is the presidency?” he asked. Mr. Lawal chose to be as literal-minded as possible in order to save face and avoid questions about his removal from office.
He pretended not to understand what reporters in the presidency meant when he questioned them about the source of the information on his sack which they attributed to the presidency. Much is however being made of his remark. Some see as denigrating to the presidency if not the president himself. I don’t think that is the case.
What seems apparent from the exchange between him and the reporters is that Mr. Lawal was embarrassed and he wanted to wangle his way out of the jam in which he had found himself. Of course, the presidency in simple terms is the entire gamut of human and non-human machinery, indeed the bureaucracy surrounding the office of the president, including the office of the vice president.
But what is of interest to me right now is the unintended implication of Mr. Lawal’s remark, his personalisation of the issue. He could as well have rudely asked who or where is the president if his sack had been attributed to the president? This question has become very germane with renewed concerns about the health of the president. Nigeria seems to be running on auto-pilot with the machinery of government grinding on without the President.
This can work but only for a while before something gives. Since his return from his medical vacation abroad, President Buhari has increasingly kept out of the public glare. This is clearly because he is yet to get over the ailment that took him abroad. Aside one or two brief appearances, the president has rarely been seen in public.
He has not been regular at state functions which he continues to delegate to his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo. Recent images of the president show him to be very emaciated and weak. Indeed I felt sorry and pained for him seeing his photograph on television during a Jumat prayer at the Presidential Villa two weeks ago.
I was not surprised thereafter to hear Nasir el Rufai, Governor of Kaduna State, advising Nigerians to stop their do-gooder visits to the Villa to allow the president recuperate fully. Yet the matter looks more serious than one of someone recuperating. What seems obvious and which should concern everyone is that the president is still ill.
We should be concerned enough to ask ourselves if it’s proper or in the interest of the country to allow the president to go on with what now seems the punishing schedule of governance when he appears critically ill. It is clear he returned home to stem the mounting tide of questions about his health and the propriety of remaining as president or claiming to be well after a prolonged absence from home on health grounds. It is in this context we all need to examine Babachir Lawal’s question about who is the presidency.
While the machinery of governance can run without the physical presence of the president, it cannot continue on that lane indefinitely. It is a misnomer to talk of a presidency without a president.
Let us worry therefore about the apparent disappearance of President Muhammadu Buhari from governance and the deeper implications of this for the security of the country. The President needs more time to take care of his health and he cannot do that holed up in the secret confines of Aso Villa. Is there a way that power can be temporarily ceded to his deputy while he takes time to get better because it is obvious he does not want to resign or “step aside”?