In the Muhammadu Buhari II era, the war of convenience against corruption has also emerged in the suppression of the tradition of an annual National Honours scheme. The government feels it is an affront to honour anyone who bears Nigerian nationality (unless, of course, such a person has been celebrated internationally).
But I believe that rather than this being an actual policy, it is merely part of the haphazard and arbitrary character of this government that historians will flesh out in due course.
For myself, I announce Winifred Oyo-Ita Ekanem, the Head of Nigeria’s Civil Service, as my Nigerian of the Year 2017. I also nominate her for the Daily Trust African of the Year 2017, for which nominations close tomorrow, November 6. I cite her patriotic response to the September 2017 reinstatement of Abdulrahman Maina, the former chairman of the Pension Reforms Commission, into the federal civil service. I invite you to go to the website of the newspaper and nominate her too.
Mrs. Oyo-Ita, who became substantive Head of Service in January 2016, is now known to the world to be the first official to say No to him. I, therefore, honour her uncommon courage to have advised the Nigerian leader that it would be politically suicidal to permit the reinstatement of Maina; for the foresight and strength to put the objection in an official memo; and for standing up to President Buhari’s Chief of Staff Abba Kyari last week in a one-on-one shouting match in the federal cabinet over the matter.
Where are we? In the jungle, apparently, or a primitive suya-and-peppersoup buka.
Remember: the Maina reinstatement-with-double-promotion scandal broke upon the nation with President Buhari feigning ignorance. As part of what appeared to be genuine national outrage, he fired Maina, and demanded of the Head of Service an immediate report of the reinstatement of a man who had been fired over allegations of embezzling billions of Naira in pension funds and declared wanted.
As part of her response, Mrs. Oyo-Ita affirmed that her office neither agreed with the reinstatement nor approved his posting to any part of the service.
“Rather, I sought an audience with His Excellency, Mr. President on Wednesday, October 11, 2017 after the FEC meeting where I briefed His Excellency verbally on the wide-ranging implications of the reinstatement of Mr. A. A. Maina, especially the damaging impact on the anti-corruption stance of this administration.”
She explained that the recall was at the instance of letters from the Attorney General of the Federation to the Federal Civil Service Commission in which he made the case for Maina’s reinstatement.
So, where are we? We have arrived in parts unknown: a neighborhood of the jungle with disquieting sounds, and the dispiriting smell of fear and shame.
We have never been this far before. Not with a serving leader. Not with one who had just begun to tout his “achievements”, presumably in preparation to run for another term of office.
This is particularly significant for Buhari. For 33 years, he has positioned himself as Nigeria’s most unimpeachably incorrupt. There were some of us who felt that even if he was less than he claimed to be, not only was he better than those running against him, he would provide a sufficient umbrella for a systematic war.
For that hope, in the two and a half years he has been in office, he has received the benefit of the doubt even when the decay appeared to be deep, and spreading.
For Nigerians and friends of Nigeria now to learn he knew about the reinstatement of Maina carves at Buhari’s credibility. That realisation is what may have prompted Mr. Kyari, a man dressed in baban riga that Mrs. Oyo-Ita could easily have pulled over his head, to confront her in public last week.
I recognize that the federal cabinet is not exactly your market square. But the leakage of Mrs. Oyo-Ita’s memo and of the story of the Chief of Staff’s verbal confrontation of her are a measure of how narrow the present pass is.
I don’t know if Mr. Buhari is afraid of heights. For years he has flown quite close to the political heavens and been praised by kings, queens and commoners.
Last week, with his credibility clinging to the ropes like a boxer who has absorbed too much, he responded to the chaos at the FEC by inviting Mr. Kyari and Mrs. Oyo-Ita to a meeting, as though they were two kids who must stop the shouting.
He missed a great opportunity. He should have fired one of them, thereby making clear who he is. The truth is that the character game of on-this-hand-and-on-the-other his government has played in the past 30 months has run out of steam.
Where are we? Buhari can recover, if he is a patriot. Here is how.
First, he must fire without delay, persons such as Messrs. Kyari and Malami, who seem to feature in every seedy matter in the government.
Second, he must reshuffle his cabinet, letting go the weaker and dispensable members. While he is entitled to replace them, this also means he must resist the temptation he announced last week, to appoint more cabinet members. The cabinet is already too big, and far too many people are doing nothing but stroking the ego of the president.
Third, he must replace these and other key officials with Nigerians with a track record of character and achievement, and not just those who offer only loyalty.
Fourth, and as a fresh beginning both to the anti-corruption war and the reengineering of the economy, President Buhari should subscribe to the rule of law by publishing the full record of recovered stolen funds since Nigeria’s return to civilian rule in 1999, as ordered by a court in February 2016.
That court asserted that Nigerian governments since 1999 have “breached the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability for failing to disclose details about the spending of recovered stolen public funds, including on a dedicated website.”
The publication, the court said, must include detailed information on the total amount of stolen public assets that has so far been recovered; what has spent of the recovered assets; and details of the projects on which they were spent.
Sadly, the Buhari government ignored that order.
But then in July this year, another court ruling in another case ordered the government also to publish a list of the high-ranking public officials from whom it has recovered such funds since it assumed office, and the sums recovered from them.
The court restated that the Buhari government owes the legal debt to identify all suspected looters of the public treasury. It also ordered the government to disseminate the information widely, including on a dedicated website.
The day after that ruling, Mr. Malami told journalists the government fully agreed with the court and would comply.
Up until now, in a sad but not surprising move, it has not.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Malami told a visiting delegation from SERAP, which had won both court victories using the Freedom of Information law, that the government would soon publish the information.
With Buhari’s credibility in tatters, there is no more room for circumlocution. Come clean, or don’t come at all.