This week, the big story is that President Muhammadu Buhari has written to the Senate in response to the lawmakers’ indictment of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, and their call for his removal and prosecution. The letter provided an explanation, or rather, some excuses why the President would not act. The letter depicts a very high level of incompetence of whoever wrote it but above all appears to make the argument that the presidential team can engage in corruption without consequence, which is the most direct route for the Buhari Presidency to lose its credibility as a bastion of anti-corruption.
In the letter, the Presidency claims that the SGF was not given fair hearing before the indictment. Those of us who follow the media can all recall the invitation sent to Mr. Babachir to come and defend himself and his refusal to do so. How can the Presidency claim it was not aware of the invitation and dare use its self-inflicted amnesia as an excuse to refuse to consider the substantive issue? Are they saying that people who are invited to testify and respond to questions and they refuse to do so, or run away, are innocent simply because they run away.
The other excuse is even more pathetic. The letter claims that the report was signed by three of the nine members of the ad hoc committee and that therefore it is a minority report that does not need to be considered. I have never heard such a lame excuse in my life. Is it for the Presidency to determine that a Senate report is a minority or majority report? In any case, the Senate had repeatedly affirmed that the institution stands by the content of the report so I find it incredible that the Presidency would seek to sweep the matter under the carpet by such a claim.
The most disturbing element of the story is that the President had himself asked his Attorney-General of the Federation to look into the allegations and the letter did not say anything about the findings given to the President. My greatest professional concern is the sheer incompetence displayed in the letter. The message I get is that the Presidency lacks competent technicians to craft excuses for the President. The issue here isn’t that presidents should have teams that are capable of giving good excuses. The concern is that whoever wrote such an important letter so badly does not have the capacity to do anything rational or sensible. More important, there are no control mechanisms in the system for filtering out arguments and reasoning that cannot stand.
There is an even more important moral question regarding the legitimacy of the President. Nigerians elected him because they believed he would combat corruption, whatever its source. Over the past year, there have been disturbing signals and allegations that some ministers and presidential staffers are corrupt. There are no indications from the Presidency that corruption from within is being fought. It might be that the allegations circulating are frivolous. If that is the case, the Presidency still has a responsibility to investigate and report his findings to Nigerians. The impression I am getting is that the President appears to have forgotten his solemn promise that he would not hesitate to deal with anyone in his team involved in corruption. All we have seen the President do is refuse to comment or properly investigate such allegations.
Mr. Babachir Lawal has not been found guilty by a competent jurisdiction so it is unfair to assume that he is guilty. Nonetheless, the allegations made against him are very weighty. Different sources have fact-checked and confirmed that some of the companies Babachir gave contracts to indeed belong(ed) to Babachir. That in itself is enough ground to at least suspend the Secretary of the Government who has among his responsibilities the mandate to ensure that no public servant violates procurement code and procedures. On the moral level, the monies involved were allocated to alleviate the suffering and misery of the people of the North East, 20,000 of whom have been killed by insurgents and about four million displaced. It takes a high level of lack of empathy to take such resources and issue out useless grass-cutting contracts when starvation is emerging as a major threat to the lives of the survivors’ of the insurgency in the region.
We should not forget that the core issue is that the Senate had in December last year asked President Muhammadu Buhari to suspend Mr. Lawal and ensure his prosecution over alleged breach of Nigerian laws in handling contracts awarded by the Presidential Initiative for the North East (PINE). The interim report had drawn attention to the “mounting humanitarian crisis in the North East” at a time in which Mr. Lawal appeared to be giving himself N200 million contract to clear “invasive plant species” in Yobe State through a company, Rholavision Nigeria Limited, in which he was a director at that time. If this allegation is not true, the President should come out and say so. Seeking excuses not to address the issue is simply unacceptable. The excuses have also been very harmful to the reputation of the President.
There is a report in yesterday’s Thisday newspaper that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) has written to the Senator representing Kaduna Central Senatorial District, Shehu Sani to come and explain his utterances regarding the anti-corruption crusade of President Muhammadu Buhari. The party’s National Chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun is said to have drafted the letter addressed to the Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee. If this report were true, the reputation of the President and his Government would suffer additional damage. The Senate is acting as a whistle-blower on public corruption. If allegations against a public official are swept under the carpet and the whistle-blower is harassed, this would become additional evidence that the regime is seeking to cover up corruption within its ranks. I am aware that the Senate President is himself being tried for corruption. Be that as it maybe, the onus is on the Presidency to disprove the allegations against the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Babachir David Lawal.
It is important for the President to realize that he cannot run away from this issue. The allegations against Mr. Lawal must be addressed frontally and investigated. The Government must take the concerns of Nigerians seriously that if it is correct to arrest and try the former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki, and his associates for corruption. It is also correct to properly investigate members of the Presidential team who are accused and if there is a credible case against them, they must also be tried.
The President’s handlers owe him a duty, to protect his reputation by not giving the impression that justice applies only to selected members of the previous regime. The President owes himself an even greater duty – protecting his personal reputation as a fearless anti-corruption crusader. He can only do so when he takes allegations against his friends and staffers seriously and acts. By appearing to refuse to act, the President would be indicting himself in the court of public opinion.