IT is not often clear where to draw the line when a speaker gives an unprepared speech or interjection on behalf of someone else. The disavowal by former Edo State governor Adams Oshiomhole of union leader Issa Aremu’s views on ex-military head of state,
Ibrahim Babangida, is a case in point. Though there has been no refutation so far of the strident opinion expressed by the Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai, on the senate versus presidency wrangle over Ibrahim Magu, it is still unclear where his personal opinion ended and where the opinion of Acting President Yemi Ossinbajo, whom he represented at a function in Kaduna last week, began. Mallam el-Rufai had been asked to represent the acting president at the commissioning of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) zonal office in Kaduna last Thursday, and to make a few remarks. He did it with so much aplomb that newspapers emblazoned it on their front pages the next day.
Professor Osinbajo is known to be firm and usually incapable of equivocation. He has the courage of his convictions. But he is also diplomatic, restrained and encouragingly conciliatory. It may be true that he asked the fiery Kaduna governor to represent him, and probably also briefed him. Whether the governor executed the brief well and accurately is another thing entirely, especially whether he faithfully conveyed the glacial sentiments and tones of the acting president. Asked to speak, however, the volcanic governor was combative, provocative, imperious as usual, and managed to wrap up everything in his exasperating tone of divine finality. Unfortunately, this column cannot determine whether while discussing with the acting president, the governor gauged the voltage of his anger on the Magu case. What is nevertheless obvious is that the governor passed on to his audience what the public and newspapers presumed to be the acting president’s message, warts and amperage.
There is little doubt that the acting president has seemed to be more definitive and forward on the Magu case than even the president. Prof Osinbajo probably does not hide that fact nor regrets it. On an issue he feels so passionate about, including the anti-graft war and its prosecution, he is at liberty to be direct and unequivocal. It would therefore appear that Mallam el-Rufai’s stridency in Kaduna on Thursday matches the justifiable tenor of the acting president’s view on the problematic confirmation of the EFCC chairman, Mr Magu. About a week earlier, the senate had suggested that it would no longer be inclined to confirm any nominee of the president until the executive had determined, one way or the other, whether the senate does in fact have the constitutional powers to vet nominees and confirm them. The senate suspension of confirmation process had been taken as a veiled threat to force the hands of the presidency on the Magu case.
Indeed, compounding the matter on Wednesday was what was controversially interpreted as the muted displeasure of the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami, who had quibbled about how the Magu confirmation case was never brought before the Federal Executive Council (FEC). He had told the press that only the acting president, rather than FEC, could say anything on the matter. The press interpreted his statement to mean that he dissociated himself from the matter, and that the acting president, and perhaps by implication the president himself, was pursuing a private agenda. Alarmed that the cabal war in the presidency had flared up again, the public, including the less restrained Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Anti-Corruption (PACAC), Itse Sagay, took umbrage, denounced the senate, and excoriated Mr Malami and any other person they presumed to be in opposition to the anti-graft war.
It was against this convoluted background that Mallam el-Rufai fumed in Kaduna against the anti-Magu group and insisted that both the president and the acting president, judging from what they told him, were determined to keep Mr Magu till at least 2019. Take these two quotations from two newspapers on the subject. The first newspaper quotes the Kaduna governor as asseverating thus: “We have every confidence in Magu to fight corruption to a standstill. He will remain the EFCC chairman as long as I remain the Acting President and as well as Muhammadu Buhari remains the President. It is our belief that Magu will continue to remain a nightmare for corrupt people for years to come. Mr Chairman (referring to Mr Magu), two weeks ago, I discussed the EFCC and your appointment with President Muhammadu Buhari and he told me he has every confidence in you and every confidence in the commission and the work that you have been doing, and as long as he is president you remain the chairman of the EFCC. Last night, I spoke with the Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, who reconfirmed the position of the President and told me that as long as he remained the Acting President or Vice President, Ibrahim Magu would remain the chairman of the EFCC. That is the only message from the President; so those thinking that corruption is winning this war, Magu would remain their nightmare for the next two years or six years as the case may be.”
The second paper quotes the Kaduna governor as saying, “I had a discussion with the President (Buhari) on the Magu issue. He said he has every confidence in the work that the commission, led by Magu, is doing, and as long as he (Buhari) is President, you (Magu) remain the chairman of the EFCC.
For those who believe that Magu is their nightmares, he will remain there for the next two years. I spoke with the Acting President last night (Wednesday) and he affirmed what the President said.”
Even if Mallam el-Rufai represented the acting president on Thursday in Kaduna, he still managed to inject his own idiosyncrasies, if not the whole gamut of his impatience and cocksureness. Prof Osinbajo cannot be everywhere, especially in the absence of the president who is not available to share the burden of the presidency. But the acting president knows his men and the dispositions of those who might be asked to represent him at various fora. He has a duty to ensure he is represented by those who, despite their private passions and commitments, would not complicate his views and the public perception of his stand. Mallam el-Rufai has often placed himself heedlessly at the head of very controversial issues; and Prof Sagay has often been unsparing, hasty and undiplomatic, even when he is right. Both gentlemen hardly recommend themselves as representatives of the president or acting president when a controversial matter, as exampled by the senate versus Magu grudge match, calls for restraint and diplomacy.
Prof Osinbajo may be right to insist on Mr Magu. But he is wrong to want to leave the matter stalemated. He has a duty, as the senate says, to approach the Supreme Court to interpret the controversial section of the constitution relied upon by the executive to push the Magu case. The matter must not be left in abeyance. Worse, leaving the matter stalemated will quite clearly complicate matters for the All Progressives Congress (APC), a party which has so far managed unerringly to function as a village cultural association with no soul or conviction. The public may be indignant at the senate for seemingly condoning corruption, both within their ranks and outside, but so far, and quite irreverently too, the upper chamber has seemed to play politics devoid of the naivety that drives the Buhari presidency’s alarming proclivities. Thus, with consummate realpolitik, the senate has carried on ruthlessly wrong-footing the presidency and incensing the public.
It is not clear when President Buhari will return, or that when he returns, as everyone hopes, he will have the stamina and presence of mind to play politics with the ardour and brilliance required of him. For even before he took ill, his testimonial in those areas had been suspect. So, Prof Osinbajo must begin gradually to understand that he is dealing with a fairly amoral senate and a fair number of political leaders dedicated to the most unctuous and atrocious form of political endgame, as the country hurtles towards 2019. He must recognise that beyond showing grit in one issue or the other, whether it has to do with confirmation or not, he also has a party to run. He is not a typical politician, and the regular amenities and chicaneries available to the typical politician obviously elude him. Yet, he has a job to do, and he must do it.
He knows he has a fractious party to keep together, a party that has sundered so badly that it has no pretence to be called a party. He has an obstreperous senate to mollify, if the APC is not to wilt further. Perhaps those he has surrounded himself with might wish to goad him into a frontal assault on the legislature, as President Buhari was initially tempted to do in the hope of instigating a public march on the lawmakers to knock some sense into them. But going down that chute, egged on by an impatient public, is fraught with unquantifiable and unpredictable consequences. The eminent professor needs caution, despite the fiery talk around him in the presidency, and he needs diplomacy, contrary to the revolutionary fervour among Nigerians. Above all, he needs wisdom. To keep the APC as a party despite its naturally centrifugal tendencies, and coax the senate as a bulwark of the party despite its unmistakeably feudal outlook and centripetal tendencies require a balancing act of uncanny dimension.
President Buhari did little to bridge the chasm between him and the legislature, not to talk of between him and the party itself. Even at the risk of being accused of breaking rank with the president, Prof Osinbajo should not be tempted to ape that unseemly and antagonistic style. The task of keeping the country whole and wholesome, and stable and prosperous begins with managing the divisions and interests within the ruling APC and the APC-dominated legislature. There is sadly no precedence to help him, not since 1999. The acting president must, therefore, reach within himself to pull a rabbit out of the hat, conciliating, mollifying and placating both his turgid party and seething legislature. The consequences of leaving the current divisions and wounds unattended to till next year would be impossible to measure for the APC. Many commentators believe the party simply does not have the men for these times; it must not compound its deficiencies by also giving the false impression that it has time on its hands.