Kachikwu/Baru: Why Buhari must act fast
Few people in Nigeria snore in their sleep, and the nation stays awake, panting, wondering. Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Petroleum, may just be one of such people. Absolutely unheard of in Nigeria’s political circles before the coming of Muhammadu Buhari in 2015, Kachikwu has since hit the limelight; though not as a politician. He came in as a messiah to the oil sector of the economy. By the end of last week, he has transformed to a crusader against impunity in public service. We must admit: in some of his actions, Kachikwu has shown rare courage; and it would be fatal to simply ignore him.
In the real sense, Kachikwu is not new to controversy. Since he left the comfort zone of ExxonMobil, a company he served for more than 25 years, for the political terrain where he has little or no knowledge of, things have since fallen apart; but the centre is still holding. The main problem with the Harvard-trained lawyer is that he is too professional when he is expected to be political for the job he handles. In planning, he is scientific. In speech, he is extremely blunt. In politics, he is as naive as the word implies. He is bringing to the Nigerian public service what Nigerians are not accustomed to: the boldness to say it the way it is; the audacity to challenge the system; and the effrontery to expose unpatriotic acts.
As group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation two years ago, Kachikwu left no one in doubt as to his ability to clean-up the mess created by his various predecessors and reposition the enterprise. And because he had the undoubted support of his boss, he went about his assignment with the messianic zeal of the Biblical Apostle Paul. That also means he stepped on huge toes. He came face-to-face with people who murmured to his hearing: we brought you in to eat; now you want to stop us from eating. Despite this, it is on record that it was under his command that NNPC made a reasonable profit for the first time in its life span.
As soon as he was appointed a junior minister, it was obvious that he would soon be sent packing from the NNPC. Deafening murmurings against the strength of his clean-sweep policy could no longer be ignored. It happened sooner than he dreamt. The man he pushed side on assumption of office replaced him. Months after the change of baton, it is as though NNPC is back in the mess of the past. By presidential arrangement, Kachikwu is the chairman of the board of the NNPC; particularly as Buhari, who is the senior minister, had reasons in recent times to be absent from duty due to ill health.
What this implies is that any major decision that NNPC takes regarding the industry, particularly as they pertain to appointments and contracts must be approved by the board headed by Kachikwu. If this provision exists in theory, it does not seem to have any effect in practice. For instance, the allegation contained in Kachikwu memo to the President shows that the Group Managing Director of NNPC, Dr Maikanti Baru, awarded contracts worth $25 billion without the knowledge of or approval by the board of NNPC. Those with good sense of mathematics are already speculating that this amount comes to N8.6 trillion which is N1.3 trillion more than Nigeria’s budget.
We must however assume at this point that Baru is innocent of these allegations. However, let’s also assume that Kachikwu has his facts. In his memo, the minister disclosed that the “disrespectful and humiliating” conducts by Baru towards him has lasted about one year. Within this period, he must have been waiting and praying silently for Baru to retrace his steps. Available information indicate that in addition to the unapproved contracts, NNPC had in March this year made 54 high-level appointments and reorganisations without approval by the board headed by Kachikwu. It is also alleged that in August this year, another personnel shake-up that involved 55 senior staff of the corporation was conducted without inputs from the board.
Kachikwu disclosed that in anticipation of the vacancies, which followed the retirement of certain senior executives of the corporation, “I wrote the GMD a letter requesting that we both have prior review of the proposed appointments. This was to enable me present same to the board or give anticipatory approval and then review with the board later. I wrote to the GMD given previous happenstance of this nature. In addition, thereafter, I called the GMD to a private meeting where I discussed these issues. Needless to say that, not only did he not give my letter the courtesy of a reply; he proceeded to announce the appointments without consultation or board concurrence.”
In addition, Baru is also accused of ignoring the Board Services Committee whose function it is to review potential appointments and termination of senior staff prior to implementation. Wait a minute! If Baru ignored the minister, the board and the Board Services Committee, who gave him the required approvals in all he did? Not to worry. The memo indicates that Baru has always boasted of his unhindered access to the President; who is the minister of petroleum resources.
By the petition, legal and procedural requirement requires that all contracts above $20 million be reviewed and approved by the board of NNPC. This is called due process. What this means is that the NNPC Tenders Board cannot be the only approving and final authority on such issues. This is because the NNPC Tenders Board is a mere collection of top-level NNPC executives and chief operating officers with the GMD as the chairman. That means the GMD can manipulate the members to do as he wishes. Again, Baru is cited as having justified his actions by saying that he was only answerable to Buhari as the minister of petroleum and not Kachikwu who was appointed by Buhari to head the board.
Assuming he is correct, it is believed that he still needed to have had, under the correct governance procedure, the minister of state and the NNPC Board review the transaction and give their concurrence before it was presented to the President. Kachikwu believes that “this bravado management style runs contrary to the cleansing operations you (the President) engaged me to carry out at the inception of your administration. This is also not in consonance with your own renowned standards of integrity.” He stated further “…..my working relationship with the GMD has been fraught with humiliation, sidelining and campaigns of character defamation against me….”
Kachikwu went ahead to describe Baru’s attitude towards him and the board as “blatant insubordination and disrespectful.” In the light of the negative impression created, Kachikwu stated that the GMD has instituted a culture of fear at the NNPC; a replacement of the open administration he introduced in 2015 while pushing reforms in the system. He stated that things have come to a point whereby at those NNPC staff that openly identify with him are either punished or sidelined in appointments. “Indeed, the key factor for growth and advancement in NNPC of today is to avoid the Minister of State’s office,” he disclosed.
What annoys and at the same time frustrates Kachikwu most is that the little achievements he recorded at the NNPC when he was the GMD have since been completely messed up. He stated, “given the sensitivity of my position, I remain one of the most tracked officers of your government …Mr. President, you took me from the private sector where I left an enviable track record of performance and integrity spanning over 25 years…I came to this job with the zeal to change the sector. Measurable progress has been made and more would have been achieved but for (certain) challenges…”
One reason Mr. President must handle this issue with speed and transparency without any undue consideration is because the integrity of his administration hangs on it. Already, the Peoples Democratic Party has alleged that the $24 billion contract was part of the financial arrangement by the Presidency towards the re-election of the President in 2019. The party’s media chief, Dayo Adeyeye, alleged on Thursday that “If the President’s powerful Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari, could sit on the NNPC board and such a calamity is taking place without an eyelid being blinked, we are forced to believe that the stealing is being done to the advantage of the president who has shown by his body language that the only thing that matters most to him for now, is his second term.”
Without doubt, if the allegations raised by Kachikwu against Baru have any substance of truth—and there is a huge possibility that they do, then the President must act fast. Fighting impunity was one of those campaign promises Buhari and his team used in 2015 to win the presidential race. Thus, anyone in his administration who still practices such act must be informed in clear and practical terms that such era has passed. This is one case Nigerians would wait patiently to see how the President would handle. Any public officer who believes he can ignore the rules and get away with it must be made to understand that it’s no longer business as usual.
Whatever personal grudge Baru holds against Kachikwu remains what it is: personal; and nothing else. Extending such a grudge to official duties to the point of disloyalty and going ahead to drop the President’s name as a cover-up is another way of labelling our President as the architect of illegal behaviours. The Villa must move to dispel the notion already making rounds that Baru is taking a cue from the President’s body language against Kachikwu. The same President who noticed and took advantage of Kachikwu’s professional and personal qualities and brought him into government cannot instigate disloyalty and insubordination against him.
However, all these are mere theories. It is what happens in the next few days, in addition to the Senate investigation, that will either dispel or uphold Baru’s insinuation. Nigerians are waiting to see what Buhari will do to an individual who, without anybody’s approval, has awarded contracts whose value, according to those who claim to know, is collectively higher than the national budget. A quick investigation to confirm the allegations is what is required. The President must be seen to be presidential because this not about Kachikwu. It is about Buhari and what he stands for.
• Kalio is Abuja based policy analyst
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