Imagine a military battlefield in which the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces suddenly drop an SS-20, triple-headed, 150-kiloton, independently targetable nuclear warhead. That gives you a rough idea of the Nigerian political scene last week. Not three but four political equivalents of independently targetable nukes exploded in Nigeria last week and marred what should have been a honeymoon week for President Muhammadu Buhari, who returned to the country after a 50-day sick leave.
The gripping affair over whether or not Customs Comptroller General Colonel Hameed Ali should wear the service’s pale gray uniform when he appears before a Senate plenary to explain his controversial plan to collect duty on old Nigerian vehicles reminded me of an hour-long meeting I had with the then Military Administrator of Kaduna State twenty years ago. Kaduna was in turmoil in 1997 over Colonel Ali’s plan to right size the civil service, which led to a bitter labour strike, which he responded to by sacking all the strikers. As editors of New Nigerian Newspapers, we asked to see the Milad and he received us in his office on a Friday afternoon.
We found him sitting alone, in mufti. I was not surprised to see him in mufti on a Friday because in previous weeks, by chance, I saw Col Ali at three different Friday mosques in Kaduna, always in mufti. Going round Friday mosques was about the only “political” thing that Col Ali did in Kaduna in those days. As we sat, his SSG Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed walked in and joined the discussion. Ali refused our request for a formal interview but he was willing to discuss the civil servants’ strike informally. He said, “I know what they are calling me in Kaduna. They say I am Netanyahu, an enemy of peace.” He said the problem of the Kaduna State civil service’s bloated size had been swept under the carpet by successive civilian and military governors. Half jokingly I said, “Sir, why don’t you also sweep it under the carpet?” Ali laughed and said, “I don’t sweep problems under the carpet.”
He has imported this philosophy to the national scene. Since the 1980s when SAP and SFEM hit us very hard, millions of second hand vehicles have flooded this country. Majority of them either have no duty payment papers or they have fake duty papers obtained by car dealers from corrupt Customs officers. Successive Customs bosses swept this problem under the carpet but Ali wants to solve it once and for all. I don’t think there is anyone else in Nigeria who supports his plan and I suspect that its suspension last week was at the behest of President Buhari, the only voice around that can make Hameed Ali to bend a little.
As so often happens, the shadow overshadowed the substance when Senate marched Ali away last Thursday when he turned up in mufti. It said he must wear Customs’ uniform, which he never did since he took up the post in 2015. Heading the Customs in mufti was one of the three conditions that Ali set, and Buhari approved, before he became Customs’ CG. We assume that Buhari sought legal advice before he approved it. As for its psychological effect on the service, we assume that Buhari also knows that, since he was in uniform for 24 years. Maybe it was a mistake, but it is difficult to undo. Certainly, we cannot imagine anyone heading the Army or Police in mufti. To leapfrog back to the current situation, since Ali’s policy has been suspended, the Presidency should persuade Senate to drop this matter of wearing uniform and send Ali to its Customs committee, not plenary.
The second political equivalent of a nuke blast was Senate’s refusal, for the second time, to confirm Ibrahim Mustapha Magu as Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. Much has already been said by too many people regarding what happened and why. The important thing now is what should happen, going forward. Some lawyers said Buhari should nominate Magu again. That will be an exercise in futility because on this matter, senators have burnt their boats like Captain Cortes. The President’s anti-corruption advisory group has urged him to maintain Magu as acting EFCC boss indefinitely. While such a course of action will be popular with Buhari’s supporters, it might not speak well for democratic practice. Many young Nigerians easily forget that democracy is a process, not an outcome. Besides, it opens the danger that in future, a convicted looter could go to court and say EFCC’s prosecution of him was illegal because its chairman was not confirmed by Senate.
A crucial factor in the failure of Magu’s confirmation was the Department of State Services’ [DSS] letter that said Magu lacks integrity to hold the post. This was the third political equivalent of a nuke strike that hit Nigerian politics last week. Nearly everyone in Nigeria was shell-shocked that DSS could write such a letter, which totally undermined the president’s claim that Magu had been cleared of all the allegations. Remarkably, some Nigerians who hailed DSS when its agents clambered up the houses of Supreme Court judges at night in search of evidence of corruption are now angry with it for indicting Magu. I think we cannot eat our cakes and still have them. Either DSS was wrongly overzealous on both occasions or it was rightly overzealous on both occasions. Magu also said at the confirmation hearings that DSS lacks integrity. My fear is that these two agencies, each one armed to the teeth with Uzi submachine guns, may one day engage in a shoot-out on our city streets.
The fourth blast last week reminded me of a neutron bomb, which kills human beings through enhanced radiation but leaves buildings intact. Kaduna State Governor Nasiru el-Rufa’i’s personal memo to President Buhari, written last September but leaked to the press last week, greatly added to the confusion and prevented the president from having a quiet first week since his return, as the State House had planned. El-Rufa’i wrote, “In very blunt terms, Mr. President, our APC administration has not only failed to manage expectations of a populace that expected overnight ‘change’ but has failed to deliver even mundane matters of governance outside our successes in fighting BH insurgency and corruption...Overall, the feeling even among our supporters today is that the APC government is not doing well.”
This statement coming from a veritable insider, a serving APC governor of a very important state, for that matter one who is [or was] very close to the president, left even the regime’s critics agape. El-Rufai’s memo received two extremely different interpretations. While some people saw it as the call of a genuine loyalist passionate to see that his leader succeeds, other observers saw it is as the opening gambit in a desperate struggle for succession. Of course he followed up on the damning summary with a very detailed program of what the Buhari administration should do to turn Nigeria around. Anyone can see from this detailed program that Nasiru el-Rufa’i is more interested in federal power than in local power, even one as juicy as governing Kaduna State.
El-Rufa’i blamed the administration’s lethargy on two people, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and the President’s Chief of Staff. Trouble is, insofar as the President was solely responsible for his choice of aides and insofar as Buhari told both the party and APC governors to mind their business while he chose his aides, blaming those aides for the administration’s Go Slow character is a bit awkward. With those four political equivalents of simultaneous nuke blasts, Nigeria’s political scene last week looked like Fukushima Prefecture soon after the tsunami-triggered reactor meltdown.
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