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Buhari’s government and the NNPC contract mess by Obi Nwakanma

By Obi Nwakanma

For a long time, when voices opposed to the listlessness, corruption, and lack of clear direction of the current Buhari administration spoke out about it, administration spokespeople – Lai Mohammed, Femi Adesina, and Garba Shehu; and, to a large extent, the former Constitutional scholar, Dr. Itsay Sagay – earned their daily broth by bombarding Nigerians with hokum.

They invented a very silly phrase: “it is corruption fighting back.” It was a phrase calculated to hoodwink Nigerians and blackmail opposition to Buhari’s serial failures as president of Nigeria, and the utter failure and collapse of presidential ethos. The signs were there of Buhari’s corruption of Nigeria’s national system.

Kachikwu, Buhari and Baru

The brazen ways by which the then newly elected president broke every rule in the formation of his administration. Nigerians know that bribery is corruption, but so also is nepotism. Muhammadu Buhari is the first president of Nigeria to openly practice and legitimize nepotism as official conduct.

It is the foundation of corruption to select from a very narrow pool of presidential courtiers those with whom  this president plots the fate of the rest of Nigeria in closed door and behind closed circuits.

The result is a fundamental loss of trust on the legitimacy of the office of the president, and the withdrawal of consent by a vast section of the country who feel themselves increasingly outsiders in the nation.

For the first time in Nigeria, this administration has pulled aside the mask of “nationalism” – the president occasionally cynically mouths the phrase – but in point of truth, President Buhari is increasingly being seen by some, rightly or wrongly, not as the president of Nigeria.

He is in fact, seen by some as no longer pretending to be. He is the president of Northern Nigeria they say. His policies, actions, and what we now call “body language” demonstrate the fullest reason for being, of the Buhari presidency.

This fact was powerfully demonstrated in the leaked letters of the Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu.

Now, Dr. Kachikwu is a brilliant and highly educated man: a first from Nigeria’s premier Law school, the University of Nigeria, and a doctorate from Harvard, is as good as they come.

I first came to know Ibe Kachikwu as publisher of Hints magazine, and met him socially only once in the ‘90s, in the company of the late Ely Obasi, my editor then at The Sunday Magazine (TSM).

I’ve never met him ever since, but that first encounter convinced me that Dr Kachikwu was endowed with distinct acumen, the sort that my friend and former newsroom colleague, and now Nollywood impresario, Zik Zulu Okafor tended to call “all-round genius.”

But of course, once you impressed Zik, you belonged up there in the constellations, and he clothed you with eloquent hyperbole. Zik was impressed by Kachikwu’s Hints idea, because Hints was a simple idea, and it outsold its competitors in the Lagos romance magazine genres of the 1990s by wide margins. It dispensed with hard news. It spoke to the longings of youth and the desires of love.

But it was the sort some of us called the “Ariya magazine,” that was not interested in hard news, and we did thumb our noses at it. It also therefore colored some of our perspectives on its publisher, as a man who really did not want to be in the news.

He was after all, an Enu-Ani man, those clans of the Igbo, who were driven more by the pleasure principle, than by rancour, much more than their kin on the other side of the great river, who were rancorous and thrifty. Kachikwu was efficient and ordered. He knew his place in the world, and his trajectory was high.

When he was made Group Managing Director and then Minister of state for Petroleum by Buhari, it was a move clearly to reassure Nigeria’s international oil partners. It was not out of Buhari’s playbook.

As one-time minister for Petroleum and chairman of the NNPC board himself, Buhari is no stranger to international oil politics. Ibe Kachikwu was to be his sacrificial pawn in the opening gambit of his administration. Ibe Kachikwu was necessary to mollify the restive Niger delta, and he was used to tour and calm those dangerous areas. Thereafter, having stabilized the market and reassured the “international” interests, Buhari took Ibe Kachikwu upstairs, took the position of the NNPC MD from him, and made him Minister of state of Petroleum. He basically put him to sleep, and in limbo. So, Dr. Kachikwu was now in that half-way zone which Catholics call “purgatory.” It was to purge him of any illusions that he might have about power and authority, for it soon became clear that the president was Minister of Oil and his appointee Dr. Maikanti Baru was MD of NNPC, and Ibe Kachikwu was “Dr. Siddon Look.”

That’s Buhari’s playbook. As minister of state, Dr. Kachikwu cannot raise a ministerial memo without consultation and approval by the substantive minister. The minister of state is largely a redundant position, and in the oil ministry particularly, he could be side-stepped by the GMD of NNPC.

As this situation became increasingly clear to Ibe Kachikwu, so did his mounting frustration at what he has now described as “insubordination” by the GMD, NNPC, Dr. Maikanti Baru, who has also thrown the rule books at him, saying, “nothing in the law says I must consult you on issues of contract, etc. etc.” All these have come to the surface with Dr. Kachikwu’s leaked letter to the president complaining of the conduct of Dr. Baru. I would say that letter needed minesweeping for the terrible typos that cluttered it, but it did register Dr. Kachikwu’s frustration.

It did above all serve Nigerians a very rare official insight into the soul of the Buhari government from inside. There is a firefight. There is frustration. There is the drama of corruption. Dr. Kachikwu accused Dr. Maikanti Baru  in the award of contracts to the tune of $25 billion without clearance with due authority.

Nigerians know that the oil industry stinks. But the suppuration is mind-boggling from close-range. The Minister of State’s letter seems to be a move to absolve himself from any complicity that might come when this government is investigated for its handling of oil contracts. He was of course invited to see the president over the ruckus caused by his leaked letter.

Unconfirmed reports say Ibe Kachikwu was roundly berated and put in his proper place by Buhari in their closed door meeting, and ordered to keep quiet from further comments on this affair. Dr. Maikanti Baru was then given a microphone to place on record that (a) he was not obligated to consult with the minister of state, and thus he had broken no procedural laws, (b) the President as minister signed off and approved the contracts, and in that sense, no laws were broken.

As a matter of fact, things should have rested in that case if it were so, but the complication was soon to arise in the question which the NNPC or President Buhari have not addressed: how could the president approve the contracts in the time frame presented by Dr. Maikanti Baru, when the President was already in hospital on sick leave and had signed over authority as the law of the land demands to the Vice-President as then sworn in as acting president? Why would Baru take these contract papers to the president on his sick bed in London?

Why did he not consult with the Minister of state, who in the absence of the President is substantive minister? But by which bids were these contracts made, and who were the beneficiaries? What does President Buhari know about all these? Plenty, it seems, but in his usual disrespect and disdain of Nigerians, he has refused to talk.

It is typical of this president: he didn’t say anything  to Nigerians on the question of the $2.1 billion missing oil money in 1979 for which the senate of Nigeria through the move by then Majority leader of the senate, Dr. Olusola Saraki, the father of the current president of senate, caused a senate inquiry which ended in the Irikefe commission. Buhari was named in that scandal.

There was  the scandal over contract inflations by the Petroleum Trust Fund, to which he had been appointed by the late Sani Abacha, whom this now “anti-corruption” president famously refused to describe as a thief despite all the recovered stolen funds.  He refused to appear before the Oputa panel. He stages aloofness. But this contract scandal in the NNPC does say something: Buhari’s oil ministry is possibly more corrupt than the ministry supervised both by Obasanjo and Jonathan. It is a murky place, and the Kachikwu letter is just a tip of the iceberg. Buhari must be forced to account for his serial misgovernance of Nigeria. Under him, corruption is not fighting back, it is growing wings.


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