President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-corruption profile is fading. The bogeyman mystique that constitutes the essence of his public persona is increasingly being revealed as an absent and abstract construct. Surprisingly, it is the masquerade himself who has been demystifying the man behind the mask.
His chief of staff, Mr. Abba Kyari, is alleged to have collected 500 million naira in bribes from MTN Nigeria to get the federal government to crash the 1.04 trillion fine imposed on the telecommunications company by the National Communications Commission to a third of the original penalty. He was later rumored to have been suspended by President Buhari to allow for investigation of the charge. But Kyari showed up after two weeks of absence from the Villa to joke that he had only gone away on leave, an incomparably different experience from the ostracism of suspension.
In the month of August, SaharaReporters published a letter that clearly showed Kyari overleaping the bounds of his official duties to seek undue privilege for a heavily indebted private firm. He wrote to Assets Management Company of Nigeria (AMCON) requesting a clean bill of health that will allow Valiant Offshore Contractors Limited, a concern that was being fronted by the major owner of SeaWolf Oilfield Services Limited, to commence business dealings with the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC). He was working to put the private company in a position to win huge drilling services contract from NNPC where he is the most influential board member.
Kyari had also been alleged to have attempted to scuttle the investigation of Sahara Energy for massive fraud. The company amassed hundreds of millions of dollars from the opaque crude oil swap deals arranged by the ultra-corrupt former petroleum minister, Mrs. Diezani Allison-Madueke.
None of these grave allegations alarmed Buhari or moved him to ask Nigerian anti-corruption agencies to investigate Kyari.
Few weeks ago, the senate found that Buhari’s associate and confidante, the secretary to the government of the federation, Mr. Babachir David Lawal, gifted himself an ‘over-inflated’ 270 million naira weeding contract. The paperwork states that M/S Josmon Technologies Limited won the contract. But the senate committee that investigated claims of abuse of IDP funds discovered that soon after the release of the contract money, a tributary of millions of naira began to flow from the contractor to the bank account of Rholavision Engineering Limited, a company owned by Lawal.
What may have caused the cash flow to Rholavision? The company prides itself on its website as ”a truly innovative leader in computer and telecommunications engineering”. So did M/S Josmon subcontract out the job to Rholavision so the ICT firm would use some novel technology to effect a virtual grass removal from the earth?
The answer is no. It was all about kickback. Lawal presumed on his control over the Presidential Initiative for the North East (PINE) to make fast fortune. He cut for himself huge hay as if money grows like grass!
To be sure, Lawal tried to rewrite reality after the fact. As soon as he learned that a probe into of the PINE scheme had commenced and that the discovery of his sharp practices was imminent, he rushed to Corporate Affairs Commission, removed himself as a director of his company and divested himself of his shares. But the panicked man who resigned his directorship remained a signatory to the account of the company. Control of the purse strings was that important to him!
The senate has asked Lawal to resign. He has vowed to stay on. The standoff prompted Buhari to wake up to the exigency of authorizing an investigation into accusations of corruption involving his aides.
In a terse two-paragraph press statement, unarguably the shortest ever released by the Buhari administration, presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said that:
“The attention of the presidency has been drawn to a number of reports in the media, in which various accusations of corruption have been levelled against some top officials in the administration.
“In that regard, President Buhari has instructed the Attorney General of the Federation to investigate the involvement of any top government officials accused of any wrong-doing. If any of them are liable they will not escape prosecution.”
That miserly 70-word reaction was the sum of Buhari’s reply to pervasive accusations of corruption against his senior aides. He vouchsafed no more than a tame, tokenist answer. A timid improvement on silence that disingenuously sidestepped the identity of his accused officials and the nature of their alleged offenses.
The Buhari administration is big on naming and shaming those accused of corruption. Feeding Nigerians corruption porn is its preeminent definition of ‘fight against corruption.’ Yet, it showed an incongruous disinclination to expose its own accused officials in a public statement meant to address the issue of their alleged involvement in corruption. It shied away from namechecking them even at the risk of making a hide-and-seek game out of the scandals. Instead, it purported to spread a veneer of anonymity over Kyari and Lawal in order to dissociate them from the corruption charges.
The hoarding of the names of the allegedly corrupt Buhari men by the presidency in the statement ‘ordering’ their investigation represents an elliptical and preemptory defense of their innocence. The presidency could not deign to cite the identity of Kyari and Lawal and the particulars of the wrong-doing attributed to them because it is persuaded that acknowledging the narrative in the public domain, in its pristine form, would dignify the allegations and taint Buhari’s men.
There was no need to edit out the names of Kyari and Lawal. It’s a front-page secret that they are under a cloud. The avoidance of their names smacked of ostrich pretension. It made that piece of presidential communication factually deficient, vague and evasive.
The resort to literary parsimony in a context that required abundance of clarity speaks to the psychological orientation of the Buhari presidency. The thinking of the Buhari administration is that corruption is the preserve vice of outsiders. It is what other people do. And it is what Buhari’s disciples are incapable of doing.
Buhari has the strong notion that human beings rise to infallibility by the virtue of their presence in his immaculate orbit. This fallacy in his head filters out accusations of corruption against his aides. Thus, he is irritated by any suggestion that one of his men could be guilty of indiscretion. It makes him poised to dismiss accusations of wrongdoing raised against his any member of his team as politically motivated attacks on his person and the government.
Buhari’s narcissistic obsession with the optics of moral invincibility has served to make him a self-employed, full time custodian of an illusory ideal. He feels obligated to protect and insure the integrity of his entire staff. This sense of false duty has expanded into an amorphous policy of blind spot favoritism, a touch-not-my-anointed exemption arrangement that guarantees his men immunity from rigorous scrutiny.
It is an irony lost on Buhari, that in his administration’s supposed open season against corrupt persons, Nigerian anti-graft agencies make to-investigate-or-not-to-investigate decisions on his cues. They read his ‘body language’ to determine the man to arrest and prosecute and the woman to let be.
President Buhari approved the midnight raid of the houses of Supreme Court justices by the Nigerian state police. The nocturnal invasion was justified on the basis that there was intelligence to the effect that the judges were warehousing proceeds of corruption in their homes. Sure enough, the tipoff proved helpful. Some of the judges were found to be wealthier than their means could explain. And their court trial is underway.
But consider that one of the disgraced auctioneers of verdicts pointedly accused Buhari’s former campaign director and minister of transport, Rotimi Amaechi, and minster of science and technology, Ogbonnaya Onu, of attempting to procure justice on Buhari’s behalf. The same Buhari that claims to be interested in purging the Nigerian judiciary discountenanced the justice’s allegation and shielded Amaechi and Onu from investigation. Buhari ignored the weighty allegations even though his own reputation was in play.
In all his campaigns for president, Buhari ran on an anti-corruption platform. Everywhere he went, he affirmed with tired, clichéd reductionism that all the problems of Nigeria and Nigerians boiled down to corruption. He argued that the powers of the highest office in the land must be exercised in an earnest ‘war on corruption’ for Nigeria to recover its promise. His rallying cry had a prophetic repent-or-perish ring: ”Nigeria must kill corruption or corruption will kill Nigeria.”
One year after Buhari took office, the news cycle is furnishing cause for fears that corruption is killing the presidency of the presumed corruption slayer. His kitchen cabinet has been frothing poisons instead of the antidote. And his minimalist response to the scandals all but testifies that that he has enough hypocrisy in him to nurse in his inner circle the corruption plague he affects to be invested in eradicating from the body politic.
The litmus test of the sincerity of Buhari’s ‘war on corruption’ is supposed to be the extent to which his response to reports of graft in his inner circle matches with his administration’s standard reaction to similar scandals in the body politic. The exposés of the alleged involvement of his top officials in bribery and contract scams offered him a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate that his ‘zero-tolerance for corruption’ was no respecter of persons. But he has only grudged a forced, modulated response which doesn’t jibe well with his vaunted hostility to sleaze.
It would be oddly fitting if, a few years from now, this ‘grasscutter moment’ Buhari is trying to duck, is remembered as the historical inflection point, a time when the proverbial fall from grace to grass began to find symmetrical fulfillment in the fallout of the real life story of North East grasses given the golden cut of corruption.
Emmanuel Uchenna Ugwu
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