What we feared most about the Buhari presidency – lack of internal cohesion – is what is happening to the respected General who was elected in 2015 on the crest of his ethical strength to deal with official corruption, Nigeria’s major blight.
That is the sad denouement from last week’s leaked scandalous story about the country’s notorious oil corporation. Specifically, a letter, which Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu wrote to the President in August on alleged impropriety in contract awards in Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), was curiously leaked to the press. Its contents not to mention the subtle insinuations were indeed damning to the presidency and the image of the corruption-fighting stance of the administration. Nearly one-week after the letter was leaked to the public, there has been no official word from the presidency beyond the president’s routine meetings with the two men at the centre of the story. After the reported meetings, no statement was issued. This is an insult to the expectant people. What exactly is going on? What did the President think of the allegations? Why was there no explanation to the people about why a serving minister could not see the President who is the substantive head of the oil ministry? It is either the government holds the people in utter contempt or is simply insensitive. And that stance smacks of arrogance of power in a strange democracy!
The Petroleum Ministry is charged with overseeing the NNPC and its allied agencies, among other concerns in the oil and gas sector. As supervisor of the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, the business and conduct of the officials of the ministry are always in the public eye. Humungous sums of money usually pass through the state oil firms. Hundred of billions of naira both from oil sales and other sources accrue to the nation through these transactions according to laid down rules. In any case, these extant rules have never been clear to the public, as stories of alleged revenue leakage from the oil firms have been curiously regular.
Besides, too many persons and officials in that sector have fallen into the cesspit of corruption through fraud and shenanigans. Some recent top officials in the sector are reportedly facing trials abroad. The affairs of the NNPC have always been shrouded in some secrecy. Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) has repeatedly reported lack of transparency in NNPC. The stakes are therefore very high.
It is perhaps for this reason that the President Buhari’s decision to take charge (as Minister) in charge of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources in 2015 was not challenged. But sadly, this has not insulated the state oil corporation and oil ministry from corruption stories.
Now at issue is the relationship between the Minister and the GMD of the NNPC in terms of appointments, taking decisions and implementing same without the authority of the NNPC Board chaired by the Minister of State. A background to the crisis was the reported frosty personal relationship between the minister and the GMD of the NNPC.
In the beginning of appointments, which President Buhari ordered, Kachikwu as GMD was made boss to Baru; the latter was then sent to the Ministry on a desk assignment, a position which some considered as punitive. When later in a re-organisation, Kachikwu was elevated as Minister of State and Baru returned as GMD, the latter seemed to have decided to operate without recourse to the minister. The only difference was that officially, Kachikwu is senior to Baru. Or so it seemed. Whatever the reasons for their unhealthy relationship, it has not served the nation well. The differences between two officials should not have been allowed to be a source of embarrassment as it has been.
In the leaked letter, Kachikwu reportedly complained that high-level appointments in the corporation were made without his or the input of the NNPC Board. He also complained that policy moves, which would have transformed the sector are being hampered by the incumbent GMD. His words conveyed deep angst, with such references to ‘insubordination’ and ‘humiliation’ in the course of serving the nation. In summary, the former Vice President of Exxon Mobil, West Africa, accused the current GMD of misdemeanor and therefore called on the President to call him to order.
There are many questions, in this regard. But can it be true that a serving Minister of State for Petroleum Resources has not had access to the President since August this year when the letter was written? What then is the colour of the administrative machinery of the presidency, coordinated by the Chief of Staff to the President? Is the Chief of Staff mischievous or incompetent or both? This has exposed a failure of coordination in the presidency that has been made weaker since April this year when the Secretary to the Government of the Federation was suspended again on allegation of corruption. Is it possible that some other ministers too may have been quietly enduring this travesty in administrative procedures?
But by far the most damning element in Kachikwu’s letter is the alleged approval of a whopping $25 billion for sundry contracts without the consent or knowledge of the minister who is also the chairman of the Board of NNPC. What exactly is the true state of things Mr. President? Has any rule or law been broken? Is there really a fifth column working behind the scenes to sabotage the efforts of the President? Will the government sweep this matter under the carpet? The NNPC’s explanations through press statement yesterday were insensitive and insulting. The president, who doubles as the minister of petroleum resources, should put his house of commotion in order and address the serious allegations.
The Nigerian people need to know. Transparency should be the key word. The government should not simply remain silent and hope that the matter would go away. If there has been any infraction, appropriate sanctions should be invoked. The government should make a statement to clear the air. The NNPC Board should be allowed to function to guarantee due process. The process of consultations between cabinet members and the President should not be left to the discretion of the Chief of Staff who from all indications is an interested party; he is quite curiously a member of the NNPC board. The proposed reforms in the NNPC should, therefore, be allowed to continue. The overall interest of the nation should be the basic concern of the government on this pregnant affair.
Remarkably, current holders of power should realise that they are responsible to the Nigerian people. If they do not give account now because of official protection, some day they will be held accountable. Certainly, officials in the last administration did not envisage the current audit that has allegedly exposed massive looting of funds. The buck stops at the table of the President who has received some plaudits on fighting official corruption.
Finally, the President should restore public confidence in the operations of the NNPC. Kachikwu should not be bullied into silence. Having rightly cried wolf over perceived disregard for due process, he must not acquiesce like the typical Nigerian if things do not change. All stakeholders should keep the government on its toes until a proper and satisfactory explanation is provided on the activities of the NNPC and how its operations can be made transparent to serve the needs of the people.