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Alhassan and the game of long knives

By Azu Ishiekwene
THOSE who thought that Wednesday’s Federal Executive Council meeting would be the political funeral for Minister of Women Affairs Aisha Alhassan may have exaggerated her dilemma after all.

Minister of Women Affairs, Senator Aisha Alhassan and President Muhammadu Buhari

She may well have had her letter of resignation in her bag, but in the end President Muhammadu Buhari didn’t push her over the edge – yet. After many years in politics, Alhassan should know that wrongs might not be counted always; but they’re not easily forgiven.

For example, three days after the video in which she endorsed former Vice President Atiku Abubakar for 2019 went viral, and while she was still trying to explain what she really meant, a small document was leaked from the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation.

According to the report, the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development paid N11.7million for Alhassan and some officials of her ministry to visit unnamed skill acquisition centres.

  Hot Water

The report, published by Premium Times, however, said, “Audit investigations established that the purported appraisal visits to the skill acquisition centres were never undertaken.”

 The report did not say the minister pocketed the money given that it was curiously released on the day she was sworn in, but the money was raised in her name and spent after she assumed office. Was this a parable or its cousin?

 It might well have been a coincidence that the audit report was leaked only days after the Alhassan video on Atiku went viral. But politicians, like witchdoctors, take omens very seriously. Why now? And what next?

Any trace of doubt that Alhassan may have talked herself into a tight corner disappeared when Kaduna State Governor Nasir el-Rufai and his Ogun State counterpart, Ibikunle Amosun, both strong loyalists of President Muhammadu Buhari, threw the minister under the bus.

Even if Buhari had told her he would not do a second term, was it her place to say it on the rooftop and preempt him so frontally by even announcing her own preferred candidate? Is this how to treat the man who rescued her from the crushing defeat of her gubernatorial misadventure and gave her a ministerial seat?

  Atiku’s Snake

It was not her fault, El-Rufai said. Buhari was paying the price for ignoring an earlier warning that Alhassan was Atiku’s snake in the president’s grass.

 Well, for sometime now, the Buhari grass has not been looking like a safe ground and Alhassan’s goof was just one metaphor for a cabinet in disarray.

  Even in a matter as straightforward as negotiations with striking lecturers, the public had to wait while the office of the vice president and that of the minister of labour spent a few days quibbling over who will meet with the university teachers.

  The strike is already in its fourth week and it is embarrassing that the government doesn’t know who is supposed to do what.

Cabinet Chaos 

Also, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and the Office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice have been locked in a cold war that can only undermine the government’s anti-corruption war.

Justice Minister Abubakar Malami can argue that he’s well within his brief to oversee what the EFCC is doing. That’s right. But this was precisely the sort of argument that one of his predecessors, Michael Aondoakaa, used to cripple the EFCC.

The difference is that while Aondoakaa did not claim, or even pretend, that he was appointed to fight corruption, there’s no minister in Buhari’s government, including Malami, who can pretend not to know that corruption would eat the government alive if the war is lost because of malice, complicity or incompetence.

Yet it seems the government can’t help its own self-inflicted chaos: confusion over government’s negotiation team; Malami’s face-off with the EFCC; the embarrassingly duplicitous reports by the DSS on Ibrahim Magu; a vacant office of secretary to the government of the federation, and the latest Alhassan gaffe are dangerous signs of cabinet chaos.

In the best of times, chaos is inevitable for any government nearing the end of its shelf life. But under Buhari, the internecine war started early. It began with his wife Aisha warning that a cabal had hijacked the president and left the party’s faithful in the cold. It has been worsened by Buhari’s rigid insularity and, regrettably, complicated by his ill health.

  Log In El-Rufai’s Eye

El-Rufai does not have to get mad at Alhassan. He’s been there more than once before. He kicked up a public storm when he described his benefactor, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, as a shameless puppeteer in his book, The Accidental Public Servant.

Congress for Progressive Change insiders still believe he was part of the rigging machine that frustrated Buhari’s first two attempts at the presidency in 2003 and 2007, and that he might never have left the Peoples Democratic Party if either former President Umaru Yar’Adua or former President Goodluck Jonathan had given him appointment.

As a member of the PDP when that party was at its deadliest, El-Rufai crowned his anti-establishment rhetoric in the run-up to the 2011 election by describing General Ibrahim Babangida and Buhari, who were presidential contenders, as old hacks who didn’t know the difference between the Blackberry phone and a fruit.

That episode may even be a chapter in his next book which, I hope, will also contain the inside story of the 7MHz slot, valued at $100m but quietly awarded, under the guise of “re-planning” to Intercellular by this Buhari government without bidding. The title of the chapter could even be from Blackberry to fruit, from fruit to fruit juice.

It’s quite interesting that the governor’s reincarnation is complete and he is now in such a secure stead that he was among those who advised Buhari about his choice of ministers.

  Wages Of  Frustration

Alhassan was tactless, no doubt; but it was easy for her because Buhari, having lost grip of his party, is also losing grip of his cabinet, if not his government. Her tactlessness seems to have been borne more out of frustration than malice or opportunism.

When the minister said she didn’t mind being sacked if it was the price for saying what she believed in, she was speaking as an insider who had seen the Presidency hijacked by a few renegades with their own private agenda.

But she cannot light the fire and hope to walk away scot-free. After the leak from the Office of the Auditor General, there might be yet another leak, and another, and another, until there’s a flood of retribution.

It would be interesting to see how it plays out.

  AZU Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview magazine and board member of the Paris-based Global Editors Network.


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