The rumpus that broke out last week following the leak of a letter that Minister of State for Petroleum Mr. Ibe Kachikwu wrote to President Muhammadu Buhari six weeks ago has presented the president with the greatest image, perception and leadership challenge to his 28-month old administration since his return to the country after a long medical leave in the UK. In the letter, Kachikwu made many allegations. Most of them were directed at Dr. Maikanti Baru, Group Managing Director [GMD] of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation [NNPC]; some of the allegations were made against the president’s key aides and at least one appeared to indict Buhari himself.
Kachikwu said he resorted to writing the letter because he could not secure an appointment to see the president and lay the complaints to him. If this allegation is true, it portrays the administration in very bad light. Kachikwu’s portfolio, Petroleum Resources, oversees the sector from which the three tiers of government derive most of their revenue. President Buhari himself is the Minister of Petroleum and Kachikwu is his Minister of State who also chairs the NNPC Board and is in day to day charge of the ministry. It is scandalous indeed if he could not see the president for many weeks. The minister blamed certain presidency officials for blocking his access. Buhari must find out who, if anyone, blocked Kachikwu and why. In the end, Buhari met with Kachikwu for an hour on Friday, and what should have been a normal meeting between president and minister became a national melodrama with reporters hanging out and with screaming newspaper headlines that “Kachikwu to meet Buhari today.”
We do not as yet know what transpired at Friday’s much anticipated meeting since both Kachikwu and the president’s spokesman Femi Adesina kept sealed lips after it ended. In all certainty the two men discussed the substance of Kachikwu’s allegations. These were that Baru showed disrespect and insubordination to his office, avoided meetings summoned by the minister of state, made key staff appointments which Kachikwu only read in the newspapers, and also that Baru awarded contracts worth $25 billion without the minister or the NNPC Board knowing, much less approving it.
According to Kachikwu, who is a lawyer, the laws and rules governing appointments and contract awards require the board to approve them before they are submitted to the president. The Senate has already set up a committee led by Senator Aliyu Magatakarda Wamakko [APC, Sokoto] to probe Kachikwu’s allegations against Baru. President Buhari should not wait for the Senate to unravel this matter; he is in a better position to do so much faster and he also has the higher moral imperative to do so. SERAP has already urged him to ask EFCC and ICPC to conduct a probe into the matter and to suspend Baru in order to make room for an unfettered probe. While many people might find this call to be an overreach, the alleged breach is weightier than the allegations made against suspended Secretary to the Government of the Federation [SGF] Babachir David Lawal.
Kachikwu said in his letter that Baru defended himself from charges of sidelining minister of state and board by saying Buhari approved the NNPC staff changes and the contract awards. Nigerians have not yet heard from Baru so we do not know if indeed that was what he told Kachikwu. It must be noted however that the NNPC top level changes, which attracted much attention all over the country, have not been reversed by the presidency. Kachikwu’s letter ended by asking Buhari to defer both the appointments and the contract awards pending the board’s input into them.
The question that must be answered is, did the president approve either the staff changes or the contract awards or both knowing full well that the board did not see them, or was he misled on the issue? If he approved them, was he advised on the correct procedure, assuming what Kachikwu said is correct? After all, Buhari himself constituted the NNPC board so there is no reason why he should sideline it or usurp its powers. On the other hand, if it is found that Kachikwu’s allegations against the GMD or the president’s aides are not true, then he has no business continuing to be in the cabinet. Baru too became NNPC’s GMD with a reputation for ability, experience and uprightness so no one should rush to judgement until the full facts are in.
We believe that this unbelievable level of bad blood, rivalry and blatant non-cooperation between the top heads of the oil industry was partly due to the clumsy leadership arrangement instituted by the Buhari administration in the last two years. Back in 2015 we urged Buhari not to make himself Minister of Petroleum. Even though it is his prerogative to do so, he needs not hold on to a post that he held nearly 40 years ago. If he had found a capable and trustworthy person and entrusted him or her with the full powers, the minister might have been able to exercise full supervision over NNPC. Kachikwu, who was brought in from the private sector, was initially touted as that magic player. If he is not, it is not too late to find the right person. Matters were not helped by the fact that Kachikwu simultaneously held the GMD’s post for a year and allegedly sidelined Baru, who later succeeded him in the post.
In order to avoid similar scandals erupting in the near future and further portraying the administration as being in disarray, we urge the president to proactively look into other areas where clumsy leadership arrangements and suspected bad blood exist, such as between Customs Comptroller General and Minister of Finance, between Minister of State for Aviation and Minister of Transport and most dangerously, between Director General of DSS and Acting Chairman of EFCC.