There was always going to be a minister who would emerge as more intoxicated by his new station than other members of the cabinet, one who would win the shameful honor of being the first in the new administration to be outed for abuse of office, one who would generate a needless but tectonic scandal that the president has to answer with the swift rebuke of a sack –at the very least!
Early in the day, Abdulrahman Dambazzau, the minister of internal affairs, came close to being that man. His outrageous indiscretion of demanding, receiving, and relishing the cleaning of his pair of shoes by a security official in the midst of a public event was an unpardonable violation of decorum, an abominable assault on human dignity. It should have earned Dambazzau an eviction. But this is a culture where the worship of the ‘big man’ is a pervasive religion. So you couldn’t kill Dambazzau for the little error of glamorizing slavery in the twenty first century: You had to wait till he perpetrates some heinous crime that transcends our incredibly high standard of communal grace.
But Lai Mohammed, the minister of information, has clearly won that prize. The diktat he issued in form a letter to the National Broadcasting Commission ordering the agency to ‘’loan’’ him 13.2 million for his trip to China makes him an embarrassment President Buhari must urgently exorcise to emphasize that this new order would not brook the flagrant violation of civil service rules.
Buhari cannot afford to play the ostrich on this incident. He cannot pretend that it didn’t happen because he was buried in other life-and-death matters of state. This incident is not one he can sit back and wait out.
He can’t address this with inaction as he did in the scandal of the backdoor recruitment of kids of his cronies by the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele. This one will not fizzle away in public consciousness or be overtaken by other events. This is an acid test of his avowed commitment to restore order, discipline, and respect for due process as the national paradigm.
Buhari tends to be a hostage of his own predilection for excessive caution, calculation and care. He took four lunar months after his inauguration to nominate his council of ministers. He said he needed that fraction of eternity to identify and vet people of integrity.
The odds are that he would be loath to make a casualty out of any of them before they are six months old on the job. He would be wary of feeding critics a reason to claim that the sack was self-indicting. He had picked flawed men after all.
Yet, the potential criticism that would accrue to Buhari is nothing when compared to the incalculable cost of his declining to reject Mohammed’s felony and the culture of impunity that informed his extortion of an agency under his supervision.
First, if Buhari neglects to demonstrate that obtainment of public funds through bossy bullying and intimidation would not subsist under this new order, he would have lost the moral high ground to claim that his presidency represents the dawn of a new way of life.
This is a teachable moment he needs to maximize. He should make clear that the age-old normal in which public funds moved on the say-so of a minister has expired. This is a new era. Money will not change hands in this dispensation except the transaction itself and the procedure of its fulfillment are in accordance with Nigerian laws.
Now, Buhari is essentially an otherworldly person. Only stealing related matters push his button. He would wink at the massacre of 300 Shiites in Zaria and the shooting of peaceful protesters in the South East. But he can’t abide old foxes in the budget office rigging the budget into the text of their preferred fiction: He would shake up the civil service.
No kobo has been reported stolen in this China affair yet. Still, experience has shown that theft is routine in spaces where a top official presumes upon convention to make a functional ATM out of an agency under him.
Here is something very telling, though: Lai Mohammed was tetchy when a SaharaReporters correspondent called the minister to interview him on the letter. Mohammed was incensed that the letter did not stay a classified secret because it was marked an ‘’internal memo.’’
Why was Mohammed furious that the letter leaked to the press? Why did he want his application for the ‘’loan’’ hidden from Nigerians, the very owners of the money he was seeking to ‘borrow’? Why did he complain that somebody in the ministry had betrayed him? Why did he cry that the leak was proof that there was ‘’a lack of integrity in the ministry’’?
It was even worse. When the reporter asked Mohammed why he requested the ‘’loan’’ from NBC, a broadcasting regulator, since his dream quest was for tourism, he tergiversated: “The way the ministry is run is not for public discussion.’’
He would later recover himself from his rage and answer that there was not enough money in the department of tourism to fund the trip. But pressed again to confirm the multiple ‘loan letters’ he had sent to many parastatals and agencies under his ministry, the information man blurted out an extraordinary insult: “I do not owe you an obligation or duty to tell you that.’’
Pushed further to provide a breakdown of the cost of the trip, Mohammed belittled his inquirer by repeating ‘’that I do not owe you any obligation to tell you that.’’
The patient reporter gave Lai one more chance to redeem himself. He asked him, ‘’don’t you owe the public explanation for how you spend their money?’’ The minister –the word means public servant! –exclaimed… ‘’ I do not’’!
The conceit in those words, the sense of entitlement that inspired his diction, the superiority of an unquestionable emperor with which he dismissed the questioner, are all too evident to be belabored.
If you had the privilege of knowing Lai Mohammed, the articulate opposition spokesman, the gadfly of the Peoples Democratic Party, the prolific press release machine who replied any ‘corruption’ headlines with an apt, nuanced missive, you would assume that this gaffe-prone, intellectually lazy, underwhelming minister of information is an impersonator.
Whether the cause of his apparent degradation is his migration from a habitat of permanent cerebral labor to the paradise of power or not, one thing is sure: And that is that Lai Mohammed has turned out to be less socially useful in this his ‘glorious’ present than in his humble past.
Lai’s promotion to ‘’Honorable Minister’’ might well be the greatest tragedy that has ever befallen him. His ‘elevation’ has diminished him in stature and substance. It reduced him from brilliant to banal, from humble to haughty, from admirable to amorphous.
On his outings as the mouthpiece of the federal government of Nigeria, he confuses. He makes you wonder if his flippant predecessor, Labaran Maku, wasn’t a more competent and credible communicator. He makes you pine for the Lai Mohammed you used to know. He makes you chew a dumb proposition you would never have imagined a sane adult mind could hatch.
Lai recently proposed that Nigerian youths could make a life career out of costuming masquerades. That was the minister’s policy on job creation through tourism!
Lai Mohammed has yet to visit one tourism site in Nigeria in his capacity as the minister in charge of tourism. He has no firsthand knowledge of the potential of the sites. He has not experienced them to know how they may be developed into tourist magnets. But he is hankering for a ‘’Tourism for Peace and Development’’ talk shop in Asia; a program that would be all about power points and catalogues and group photographs.
That’s ‘masquerading’ an excuse to award himself estacode dollars as some unmissable ”all-important” conference!
Lai Mohammed knows full well that expending a ‘’loan’’ of 13.2 million naira on a foreign ‘’conference’’ on tourism would be a waste. He knows that investing something in the order of that amount on one promising tourism site in Nigeria makes better sense. He knows that with imagination, a plan, and a responsible management, the cave in Ogbunike or the game reserve in Yankari or the rock in Abeokuta can employ many Nigerians, yield foreign exchange, and boost the local economy.
Lai is a lawyer of 30 years standing. He knows that his harassment of the NBC is illegal. His knows that his plea that he merely followed an ancient precept doesn’t make his coercive borrowing less criminal. He knows that the law of the land does not license the minister to divest government institutions at will.
This new president who is rallying Nigerians to civility should make an example of his self-confessed business-as-usual conformist minister. Lai can’t be the chief retailer of the CHANGE gospel when he lives in open apostasy. Lai should not have the luxury of being …a lie!
Emmanuel Uchenna Ugwu
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