A few days ago, subsequent to my authoring a brief piece urging restraint within the pro-El-Rufai faction, who were fervently positioning him as the sole competent northerner in the ministerial lineup on X, the platform formerly referred to as Twitter, an older friend and prominent figure in the APC reached out to advocate for the former governor of Kaduna State. Malam Nasir El-Rufai, he argued, isn’t only a “ruthless administrator,” but he’s the only one with the courage to stand up to the southern political establishment in the proposed cabinet in defence of the North. This proposition was persuasive, an amalgamation of allure and disheartening reflection.
Within the debated composition, I had urged those advocating for El-Rufai’s inclusion in the scrutinised ministerial roster to present their argument without diminishing figures like Professor Ali Pates from the Northern region. This was in response to the tendency to designate Malam El-Rufai as the solitary source of innovative thought, which, I contended, undermines accomplished technocrats such as Dr. Pate. Notably, Dr. Pate is a distinguished global authority in public health and an internationally acclaimed intellectual.
The majority of those supporting El-Rufai’s cause are not only promoting his exceptional qualifications but also asserting that the Northern region is represented by the least capable nominees on the roster, a viewpoint that contradicts assertions made by my friends from the South East and South South. Nevertheless, there are some political greenhorns who deserve to be given a chance in governance, and one such person is Professor Tahir Mamman – the former Director-General of the Nigerian Law School and the current Vice-Chancellor of Baze University.
Malam El-Rufai’s ordeal has sparked a flurry of conspiracy theories, and most of them are dangerous attempts to paint other northerners in the government as the masterminds of his disqualification from the first screened list. But that claim is the symptom of the very disease being cited to make a case for the necessity of El-Rufai in the government—as a ruthless administrator and outspoken regional ambassador.
However, as I told my friend, “ruthless” is one word we must not attribute to our public office-holders, even if it seems like the language that commands compliance in our public sector and among underserved Nigerians. The valorization of ruthlessness is done to excuse El-Rufai’s feuds with fellow politicians and sectional groups, but it’s also what has earned him the enemies and petitions being cited to delay his confirmation to join President Bola Tinubu’s long-awaited cabinet.
El-Rufai must maintain a considerable distance from those who rationalise his polarising alignment with a specific region, ethnic faction, or religious group, thereby cornering a public administrator of his profile into a local champion. His association with hostility towards Southern Kaduna is unfounded. His penchant for issuing threats, such as the one involving foreign election observers and the subsequent reference to body bags in the lead-up to the 2019 elections, is unwarranted. He has no justification for condoning the mass casualties among Shiites in Kaduna. Moreover, discussing the systematic promotion of a Muslim-Muslim ticket in Kaduna to a congregation of Muslims at an event is beyond his proper purview. But this bewildering characteristic persists as part of his persona.
Sometimes, profiling El-Rufai becomes challenging. During the peak of his feud with Kaduna’s senators in the lead-up to the 2019 general elections, he boasted that Senators Shehu Sani, Suleiman Hunkuyi and Danjuma Laah had no identifiable ancestral origins, portraying them as non-indigenous to Kaduna. This tactic promoted divisive politics, contradicting his appointments of prominent non-indigenous individuals to significant roles within his government, including one serving as his image-maker. It’s difficult to sell El-Rufai as an ethnic or religious bigot while he’s surrounded by non-Muslim aides.
Undoubtedly, in matters of unfiltered remarks, El-Rufai is within his right as long as it turns no group against another. One of such instances was alluding to the death of former President Umaru Yar’Adua as a mocking means to underscore his perceived resilience, which he’s done at public functions and in his book, at great risk to his personal reputation. But he can’t afford to be seen preaching or practicing antagonism towards any group, whether ethnic or religious, geographic or sectarian while he offers to serve a diverse nation.
Politics is a dance for strongholds, but it’s also a game of pretenses. So, anyone expecting El-Rufai to be a regional champion in the cabinet is his worst enemy.
The focus should be on utilising El-Rufai’s administrative competence to strengthen our vulnerable institutions and ignite transformative reforms, rather than relegating him to a local champion who joins the cabinet solely to champion the aggressive or divisive interests of a specific group or region.
His capabilities exceed such a role, and he must firmly reject any attempts to confine him within such limitations. Succumbing to such constraints would undermine the significant strides he has made in public service since his time at the Bureau of Public Enterprises.
El-Rufai’s brand name isn’t rooted in performing ethnic or religious dances; rather, it is derived from his demonstrated competence. This attribute is similarly responsible for setting Malam Nuhu Ribadu apart due to his groundbreaking leadership at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, just as the unforgettable Professor Dora Akunyili accomplished during the same period at the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control. Subsequently, we have witnessed the essence of competent leaders at the helm of affairs, with Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Dr. Yemi Kale at the National Bureau of Statistics in later years.
Beyond his administrative expertise, El-Rufai brings to the cabinet a dedication to introducing fresh ideas, whether they prove to be enduring or not. Whether through his experimentation with London-esque taxis during his time as FCT minister or his adoption of a 4-day workweek as Kaduna State governor, in recognition of the post-pandemic insight that prolonged physical presence in workplaces is both inefficient and uncertain in ensuring productivity, he consistently displays an unflinching willingness to embrace daring leaps.
The truth is, even though Nigeria needs strong institutions rather than strong individuals, the latter serve as short-term interventions in the nation’s institution-building process. Therefore, if El-Rufai chooses to step aside out of anger as reported in the media, it would indeed represent a significant loss. However, no individual alone can instantaneously transform Nigeria’s fortunes. The power sector, for which he was recommended, was previously overseen by an administrator of El-Rufai’s calibre – former Governor Babatunde Fashola – and the disparity is not apparent.
While I hold no reservations regarding El-Rufai’s potential to make a difference, I must assert, with all due respect, that El-Rufai is not more competent than Fashola – a profoundly intellectual and exceptional public servant who stands as one of Nigeria’s most distinguished. The sentiment surrounding his exclusion triggers a collective emotional response, and understandably so, but it is imperative that we learn to temper our expectations.
So, amidst the trending outrage from both his supporters and opponents, the legacy El-Rufai intends to leave behind lies in his hands. There are calls for demagogues in all three ethnic blocs within the country, including their religious and geographic affiliations. Whether he accepts invitations to become the spokesperson and divisive frontman for any group remains his choice. However, in the end, he could also choose to disregard the possibility of becoming the nation’s Minister of Power and instead concentrate on mentoring his aides, functioning as one of the Dattawan Arewa—northern elders—whom he had opposed during the previous general elections, in order to introduce himself and other governors as the legitimate elders.