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Power play in Buhari’s cabinet

By Akani Alaka

With the inauguration of his 43-member cabinet and confirmation of appointments and re-appointments of a number of aides last week, the second term tenure of President Muhammadu Buhari is unarguably in full swing. The cabinet is expected to hold its first weekly meeting this Wednesday. The ministers were inaugurated by the president last Wednesday against the background of criticisms, which mostly bordered on doubts about the capabilities of the ministerial nominees to rise up to the challenges of solving the numerous problems, facing Nigeria and Nigerians.

As expected, the debate over the capabilities of members of the cabinet gained further traction with the allocation of portfolios to the ministers after the swearing-in ceremony. Analysts of all hues had embarked on a fine-tooth comb of the new cabinet in terms of the distribution of ‘juicy’ portfolios to the geo-political regions of the country, as well as the suitability of ministers to perform effectively or otherwise in the ministries they have been asked to superintend, among others.

“The president told us that he would appoint people he knows very well. I don’t think much has changed. Some of the new people he brought are not in the right place,” Prof. Isaac Albert, Dean, Faculty of Multidisciplinary Studies, University of Ibadan, said in an interview last Thursday as he asserted that many Nigerians are not impressed by the assignment of portfolios to the newly inaugurated ministers.

On the contrary, Uche Nwosu, a former governorship candidate in Imo State, says the ministers and the portfolios allocated to them are a perfect fit.

“l want to congratulate the ministers for the different portfolios assigned to them and also congratulate the president for giving them portfolios according to their experience and fields. More especially, I want to congratulate the president for those of them that came back to their former positions, such as Mr. Babatunde Fashola, who is now in the Ministry of Works and Housing. Others are former governor of Akwa Ibom, Sen. Godswill Akpabio, among others, who is a real Niger Delta man to handle the issue of Niger Delta,” he said.

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While the debate will continue, the ministers, who went to take over in their various ministries few hours after they were sworn in were for most parts of last week speaking about their agenda and how they will contribute to the achievement of the ‘Next Level agenda’ of the Buhari administration.

Report to Kyari

The discussion about the ministers and their portfolios is being held against the backdrop of renewed controversies over the levers of power in the Buhari administration. The president’s directive to ministers to route requests to see him through his Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari, at the end of a two-day retreat for ministerial designates had revived debate about the alleged influence of a kitchen cabinet or the Aso Rock Presidential Villa ‘cabal’ in decisions and appointments made by Buhari.

“As I said yesterday (Tuesday), in terms of coordinating communication, kindly ensure that all submissions for my attention or meeting requests be channelled through the Chief of Staff while all Federal Executive Council matters be coordinated through the Secretary to the Government of the Federation in order to speed up the process of decision-making,” the president had repeated the same instruction in the speech he delivered after the swearing-in of the ministers last Wednesday.

Reacting to the directive, the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, through its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbodiyan, accused the president of reducing the ministers to Kyari’s clerical aides.

While bemoaning the fact that the ministers will not have direct access to the man, who appointed them, he added that the instruction is tantamount to the president ceding his responsibilities to his Chief of Staff.

“The most worrisome is the instruction given by the president to his ministers to see his Chief of Staff if they want to see him. I am really confused. This is discouraging. If ministers cannot reach their president directly, then, there is a big problem,” Prof Albert said.

But supporters of the Buhari said there was nothing strange in the arrangement, as the Chief of Staff is always tasked with such functions in any government that such position is available in the world. “Why should ministers or whoever else just take their cases or discussion points to the Head of State directly? Has this instruction deprived the ministers the opportunity of first discussing with the vice president and, therefore, gaining more clout for a presidential consideration?” One Dr. Dokun Adedeji, who described himself as a supporter of President Buhari, argued even as he described the controversies over the presidential instruction as unnecessary.

“To my mind and without a silly recourse to our usual grandstanding is to hope that Kyari himself understands the responsibilities of his office as well as its importance so that he doesn’t destroy the efficiency of his office,” he added.

The ‘Cabal’

However, political analysts told The Nigerian  Xpress last week that the anger over the directive of the president was a continuation of the anger over alleged power being wielded in the administration by the appointed officials.

Kyari was believed to be a key member of the so-called kitchen cabinet or, as they are popularly called, cabal, who determines who gets what, who stays or will be booted out of the government. Other members of the cabal include Lawal Daura, who was sacked as the Director-General of the Department of State Services on 7, August, 2018 by the then Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, the vice-presidential candidate in the June 12, 1993 presidential ticket of the defunct Social Democratic Party, and former newspaper publisher and businessman, Isa Funtua..

Though most of them are not currently holding political offices, they are believed to have the ears of the president on national issues and have been part of Buhari’s delegation on some foreign trips.

First Lady, Mrs. Aisha Buhari, had repeatedly complained about the power being wielded by the unelected men in the Presidency and over her husband’s administration.

Indeed, some young members of All Progressives Congress, the ruling party had after Buhari was re-elected embarked on a protest in which they asked the president to keep Kyari and other old men, who did not contribute much to his victory out of government. But the president ignored the protesters to re-appoint Kyari.

Winifred Oyo-Ita ‘Scam’

Now, Kyari has been linked to what some have described as the ongoing plots to see Mrs. Winifred Oyo-Ita, the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, out of office.  In a move that shocked most Nigerians, reports recently indicated that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC had grilled Oyo-Ita, who was appointed, as the HoCSF in October 2015 by President Buhari over alleged involvement in a N3 billion scam.

According to the report, the HoSCF, who was once described as one of the finest Christians appointed into government by Vice President Osinbajo at an event in Yola last year, was interrogated over alleged abuse of duty tour allowance, money laundering and theft of government funds. She was reported to have landed in a hospital after undergoing grilling in the hands of EFCC operatives. The HoCSF had maintained that she was innocent of the charges, and according to reports, had tried to fix an appointment to see the president to prove her innocence without success.

Earlier last week, there were reports that Oyo-Ita’s family members had advised her to take early retirement, following her inability to secure an appointment with the president.

Indeed, the speculation was that she had submitted her resignation letter to the Presidency. Her absence at the two-day retreat for ministers designate where she was billed to speak, also gave credence to the speculation that she was on her way out of government. But surprisingly, Oyo-Ita was present at the swearing-in of the ministers on Wednesday during which she sat close to Kyari. She had earlier visited the Chief of Staff in his office on arrival for the ceremony.

It was gathered that the HoSCF returned to her office from the event. Garba Shehu, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity insisted last week that contrary to speculations, the president had not received any letter of resignation from Oyo-Ita. It was gathered that Oyo-Ita, was asked to put her plans for retirement on hold, pending the completion of the investigation of the fraud allegations against her.

The Maina Altercation

However, analysts and close aides of the embattled HoCSF have linked her ordeal to her open confrontation with Kyari in November 2017 over the leakage of a memo on the controversial reinstatement of the former chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Pension Reforms, Abdulrasheed Maina, into Service.

Maina was saddled with the task of sanitising the country’s pension system by the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2010. However, he was accused of leading a massive pension fraud scheme, amounting to more than N100 billion in the course of the assignment, following a probe of the activities of the task force by the Senate in 2012. Maina was later dismissed from service by the Federal Civil Service Commission, following a recommendation by the Office of the Head of Service.

But it emerged that the disgraced former Pension Task Force boss, who was from Borno State, as the Chief of Staff, was secretly reinstated into office and even promoted, early in the administration of President Buhari, despite the corruption allegation against him.

Reports had indicated that the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami,  Abdulrahman Dambazau, the then minister of Interior and the DSS, under the leadership of Daura were instrumental to the controversial reinstatement of Maina into the civil service. Following media reports and controversies over who was responsible for bringing the controversial Pension Task Force boss back into the civil service, Oyo-Ita had written a memo to the president, revealing how she warned against the action.

But the memo, which detailed the roles played by different officials in the controversial recall and promotion of Maina, was later leaked to the media. Though the argument between Oyo-Ita and Kyari, which was captured on national television was not credible, it was believed to be based on Oyo-Ita’s leaked memo.

Some of her associates and supporters are linking her current ordeal to the 2017 event. “A group of cabals is operating even without the knowledge of the president and by this doing; they are tarnishing the good name of the president whom we all know is a man of integrity. Buhari that we know cannot subject to this cheap way of blackmailing people; it is not nice. Oyo-Ita was not brought up to steal or to be found bending; that is not her style,” the Deputy Speaker of Cross River House of Assembly, Joseph Bassey, said while reacting to the fraud allegation against Oyo-Ita in an interview last week.

Another group, operating under the aegis of Concerned Cross Riverians queried how N600 million found in the account of a project accountant, who is already undergoing investigation, should be linked to Oyo-Ita. The group, in a statement by its leader, Mr. Williams Eko, noted that the project accountant is a Level 12 officer, who reports to the Director, Finance and Administration, who in turn reports to the Permanent Secretary, who also reports to the HoSF.

The group also claimed that N3 billion, which was allegedly embezzled, was the total annual budget for the Ministry of Special Duties. “So, the Estacode/duty tour allowance certainly could not have taken up the whole budget of N3 billion. Didn’t the ministry have recurrent expenditure, staff training, capital expenditure, etc. to attend to? So, there’s nothing like N3 billion fraud except that some powerful cabal is not happy with her,” the group said.

“We know very ready, able and willing allies of the Chief of Staff are ranking federal Permanent Secretaries, eyeing the HoSF seat, as replacement. She is 55 and has five more years to retirement, for goodness sake,” the Concerned Cross Riverians added.

Okoi Obono-Obla Too

Coincidentally, Oyo-Ita, like Okoi Obono-Obla, the chairman of the Special Investigation Panel for the recovery of Public Property (SPIP), who was not only sacked but has been asked by the president to report to the Independent Corrupt Practices & Other Offences Commission, ICPC, is also from Cross River.  The cup of Obono-Obla, who has been a subject of investigations over certificate forgery by the House of Representatives, reportedly got full when he decided to investigate alleged wrongdoings in the Petroleum Equalisation Fund, PEF. He targeted Goody Nnadi, the general manager, corporate services, and Aisha Fanya Usman, the general manager, administration and personnel department of the Fund in the investigation.

He was reportedly asked to drop the investigation against Usman, but refused and was later put on the defensive when the woman raised the alarm of theft of $30,000 from her room, following a raid conducted by police officers attached to the Panel. Before then, an NGO, the Human Rights Writers Association, had in a petition alleged that the WAEC result used by Obono-Obla to gain admission to read law at the University of Jos was forged.

An official of the Presidency had told journalists that Malami, before the dissolution of President Buhari’s first term cabinet, had recommended a thorough investigation of the forgery allegation against  Obono-Obla and his suspension from office.

The Presidency official also alleged that the former SPIP boss had been variously accused of abuse office, intimidation and unauthorised malicious investigations, financial impropriety and administrative misconduct. He added that Obono-Obla had also refused to obey a ruling by the Court of Appeal that SPIP lacked prosecutorial powers and could not seize properties, belonging to anyone or obtain forfeiture orders against any public official, as he demonstrated in the case between Tijjani Musa Tumsah and the Federal Government of Nigeria.

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According to him, though Obono-Obla gave an undertaking to ‘change his ways’ when he was confronted with the allegation, he refused to abide by his promise. He also revealed that other members of the SPIP had written various petitions, complaining about the extra-judicial activities of their chairman. Obono-Obla was also accused of extortion and disregard for Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who, as acting president in 2017, empowered the panel.

It was gathered that the ICPC had submitted an interim report of investigation on various allegations levelled against Obno-Obla to President Buhari, following which the SGF was directed to deal with his case.

“Following the crisis arising from series of petitions from legal practitioners, concerned public-spirited citizens and public officers, alleging abuse of office, intimidation, unauthorised malicious investigation, financial impropriety, administrative misconduct and forgery/falsification of records by the Chairman of the Special Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property, Chief Okoi Obono-Obla, President Muhammadu Buhari has directed his immediate suspension from office,” James Odaudu, Deputy Director, Public Affairs, in the office of the SGF, had written while directing Obono-Obla to submit himself for investigation by ICPC.

Osinbajo Against Me

But rather than honouring the ICPC investigation, Obono-Obla early last week filed a suit in which he queried the powers of the anti-graft agency to invite and probe him over the allegation of certificate forgery and extortion. He also alleged that he was suspended as chairman of SPIP because he was not taking instructions from the vice president.

The embattled SPIP Chairman added that his current travails were due to the numerous investigations he launched against “many politically-exposed persons and civil servants, none of whom has been suspended.” Defending his actions, Obono-Obla had exonerated Buhari from his travails.

“In January I got a letter from the Deputy Chief of Staff, the office of the Vice President, that I should suspend all investigations, that government wants to carry out a review and I said if the president was doing that, it should come from the Chief of Staff to the President. When I arrested one oil mogul, we investigated the company and discovered that the company had not paid $3 million. They have an oil block. When I arrested him to get the money from him, I had a lot of phone calls from the same people and they have not been happy with me. That was in July, that I touched somebody who is close to them. These are all the forces and the ICPC has joined them. I have gone into a lot of areas other anti-corruption agencies have not gone into,” he said.

No sacred Cows In Buhari’s Anti-Corruption War

Rather than an indication of power struggle or dysfunction in government, the Buhari Media Organisation will want Nigerians to see the suspension of Obono-Obla and investigation of Oyo-Ita as evidence that there is no sacred war in the president’s war against corruption.  “We make bold to say that with the latest drastic action against a founding member of the ruling party and a top government official, Chief Obono-Obla, the Buhari administration has shown that it has no sacred cows in the fight against corruption, and its resolve to eradicate the scourge remains strong and unshakeable,” BMO said in a statement by its Chairman, Niyi Akinsiju.

“We believe that this singular action, and the unfolding probe of the current Head of Service, Mrs. Winifred Ekanem Oyo-Ita, will lay to rest all doubts about the unfounded claims by the opposition that the Buhari administration was shielding its officials from prosecution. We also believe that the Federal Government’s decision to suspend him is in order, as investigations will unravel any areas of misconduct on the part of Chief Obla.”

The group also noted that the suspension of Obla from office was in order to preserve the integrity of the anti-corruption war and save it from being tainted with a bad image.

“We hope that the latest moves by the Federal Government should serve as a warning signal to all government officials that there will be no sacred cows in the fight against corruption, as the Buhari administration remains committed to tackling the menace head-long, as an aggressive problem requires a drastic solution,” the statement added.