Months after President Muhammadu Buhari rejected the calls to remove the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. David Babachir Lawal from office, the president surprised many last Wednesday when he suspended Lawal and the Director General of the National Intelligence Agency, Ayo Oke, pending the investigation of corruption allegations against them. Tobi Soniyi considers what could have informed the president’s sudden change of heart
Last Wednesday, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina issued a statement announcing the suspension of two top most officials in the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.
The statement reads: “President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered an investigation into the allegations of violations of law and due process made against the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr David Babachir Lawal, in the award of contracts under the Presidential Initiative on the North East (PINE).
“The President has also directed the suspension of the SGF from office pending the outcome of the investigations.
“In a related development, the President has ordered a full scale investigation into the discovery of large amounts of foreign and local currencies by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in a residential apartment at Osborne Towers, Ikoyi, Lagos, over which the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) has made a claim.
“The investigation is also to enquire into the circumstances in which the NIA came into possession of the funds, how and by whose or which authority the funds were made available to the NIA, and to establish whether or not there has been a breach of the law or security procedure in obtaining custody and use of the funds.
“The President has also directed the suspension of the Director General of the NIA, Ambassador Ayo Oke, pending the outcome of the investigation.
“A three-man committee comprising the Hon. Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, and the National Security Adviser, headed by the Vice President, is to conduct both investigations.
“The committee is to submit its report to the President within 14 days.
“The most senior Permanent Secretary in the SGF’s office, and the most senior officer in the NIA, are to act, respectively, during the period of investigation.”
For a president who believes that none of his own can do any wrong, the reality, it appears, is beginning to sink in.
This perhaps explained why Buhari had to suspend Lawal. This is because the president’s refusal to do so four months ago, in the face of overwhelming evidence provided by the Senate baffled many. The facts have also not changed. Although there have been elaborate but unsuccessful efforts including orchestrated media campaign to clear the SGF of any wrongdoing. That is also why many are querying the correctness of the decision to include the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, SAN who had earlier written a report clearing Lawal of any wrongdoing in the president’s probe panel headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN.
As for the suspension of the Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, Oke over the discovery of an equivalent of N13.3billion in an apartment in Ikoyi, Lagos, many believe that that decision was necessary to reduce tension and the embarrassment the discovery of the money had created.
On December 14, 2016 the Senate called on Buhari to suspend and ensure prosecution of Lawal over alleged breach of Nigeria’s law in handling contracts awarded by the Presidential Initiative for the North East, PINE.
The Senate’s resolution followed the presentation of the report on humanitarian crisis in the north-east by the Shehu Sani-led ad hoc committee.
The Senate found that Lawal’s company, Global Vision Ltd., is one of the companies indicted by the committee for allegedly benefiting from inflated and phantom contracts – or ones not executed at all – awarded by the PINE.
Lawal’s firm was said to have been awarded over N200 million contract to clear ‘invasive plant specie’ in Yobe State.
The committee found that as at the time the contract was awarded in March 2016, Lawal was still the director of Global Vision and that he just resigned in September. Yet, Lawal remained the signatory to the company’s account.
The Senate found that Lawal’s directorship of the Global Vision while being a public official – Secretary General of the Federation – contravened Nigeria’s code of conduct for public officials as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution.
Global Vision was incorporated in 1990 to carry out ICT services; but it received contract to clear grass in 2016 even while the owner is a senior government official, the lawmakers found.
Buhari’s Initial Reactions
Relying on the report of an investigation carried out by the AGF, the president in a letter to the Senate in January said the Senators were unfair to the SGF and that he was not going to remove him from office. That decision sent shock waves across the country as many concluded that the president was only interested in fighting corruption among those in the opposition. The message also sent a wrong signal. Protected by his boss, the SGF was emboldened.
It is obvious that the award of contracts in March 2016 to a company where the SGF was a director, by the Presidential Initiative on the North east amounts to a breach of constitutional provisions and the Code of Conduct for public officers, provided for in Paragraph 1, Part 1 of the Fifth Schedule to the 1999 Constitution which prohibits a public officer from putting himself in a position where his personal interest conflicts with his duties and responsibilities.
The SGF has obviously breached the code of conduct for public officers provided for in Paragraphs 1 and 2 of Part 1 of the Fifth Schedule to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended); by failing to resign as a Managing Director occupying an executive position and remaining a signatory to the bank account of a private company, until September 2016 when the Senate started investigating him of corrupt allegation.
This also amounts to abuse of office and may likely offend the provisions of the Public Procurement Act and Financial Regulations Rules on award of contracts.
Reactions to Suspension
Even critics of the president such as Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN gave him kudos for suspending Lawal and Oke.
In a statement, Ozekhome said: “The suspension of the N250m grass cutting Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr David Babachir Lawal and the N15 billion Osborne Road ware-housing Amb Ayoade Oke, DG, NIA, is good riddance to bad rubbish. I am sure the government is beginning to listen to my critical but patriotic voice. We cannot continue to be a laughing stock in the international arena. The anti corruption ‘fight’ has so far been a case of defending corruption within the government’s inner circle and it’s very kitchen cabinet, decorating it with powerful sweet smelling sasarobia perfume, while fighting that of perceived enemies and critics with powerful insecticides, pesticides and herbicides.
“The chicken is finally coming home to roost. I congratulate PMB on this move, even if belated. But, there are still more tons of petitions existing against some serving ministers and other key figures of this government, pending before the anti graft agencies, but which have so been carefully swept under the carpet. Let the president open the Pandora box and he will be shocked at the ugly revelations beneath the white sepulchre of his ruling party. The actions of the security and anti graft agencies have constituted a great embarrassment and ridicule to Nigeria as a nation. Contrary to simulated position being pushed by government, aside the loot recovery spree, some quite unverified, with no transparency about, or accountability of, recovered monies and attached properties, corruption today literally walks, not just on all fours, but even on its head and buttocks. Let the music play on. Let the real anti corruption fight begin.”
But Ekiti State Governor, Ayodele Fayose was not as generous as Ozekhome. He described the suspension of Lawal and Oke as an afterthought and a deliberate cover-up.
Acording to him, the setting up of a three-man committee to investigate the discovery of the money was diversionary and a prelude to the official cover-up of the original owners of the money.
“Would the president have set up a probe panel if these scams were linked to anyone in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) or those members of his party that are not in his good books?” the governor said in a statement by his spokesperson, Lere Olayinka.
“Most importantly, what business does presidential committee have with investigation of crime? Are they telling Nigerians that they have lost confidence in all the intelligence and investigative agencies of the government, including the EFCC and DSS?
“The Buhari-led Federal Government is operating like many governments within one government. There appears to be many presidencies within the Presidency and this is the reason for the confusion everywhere.
“Did the President not write a letter dated January 17, 2017, to the Senate, exonerating the SGF? So, what has changed in the case of the SGF? Was his announced suspension just for balancing?
“Why waiting for this messy OsborneGate to act on the Presidential Initiative for the North East (PINE) grass-cutting scam? Could it have been a case of one Presidency (Buhari) writing the Senate on January 17, 2017 to clear the SGF and another Presidency suspending him today?
“Whichever way one looks at it, it gives no other impression than that of confusion in the government.”
Fayose also wondered why there was no presidential committee on abandoned N49 million cash in an airport that has CCTV cameras and that of the N448 million the EFCC said it found in a shop at LEGICO Shopping Plaza, Ahmadu Bello Way, Victoria Island, Lagos.
“In all these, what I see is a government trying frantically to cover-up corrupt acts of its functionaries but like I said before now, even though we know that the APC-led federal government has the capacity to sweep it under the carpet like many others before it, Nigerians will have it on record that they are being ruled by a government of the more you look, the less you see,” he said.
Expectedly, the Senate applauded the decision suspending the SGF. Chairman of the Senate ad-hoc Commitee on mounting humanitarian crisis in the North East, Senator Shehu Sani (APC, Kaduna) described Babahir’s suspension of as a welcome development.
His committee had in December last year indicted Lawal following which the Senate in a unanimous resolution requested Buhari to sack him.
Sani in a statement said the suspension was commendable and that the president had taken the Senate Committee report and recommendations seriously.
Why Did President Change His Mind?
Some believe that the decision to suspend Lawal was aimed at pacyfing the Senate. There are a lot of unresolved issues between the Senate and the executive. Those who hold this view argue that there is much at stake and that picking up a fight with the Senate at this time may jeopardise efforts to take the country out of recession.
Others however reason that the decision was aimed at diverting attention. The statement announcing the suspension was issued on Wednesday 19th April. On that day, there was supposed to be a Federal Executive Council meeting which did not hold. The president did not attend the previous week’s FEC. People were beginning to ask questions about the state of the president’s health. But what did they get? Suspension of Lawal and Oke. Some see the decision as a strategic diversion. If that is the reason, then it was well timed.
Still, there are those who see the suspension as a cover up just like the Ekiti State Governor, Ayo Fayose had said. Those who hold the view cite the reaction of Lawal to the news of his suspension. Minutes after his suspension, Lawal met behind closed-doors with Osinbajo. When he was cornered by reporters he pretended not to be aware of his suspension. Addressing State House reporters later, Lawal appeared to be making a mockery of the presidency’s powers to suspend him.
The following conversation ensued between Lawal and reporters:
•Q: Your suspension has just been announced. How will you react to the development?
Lawal: Who announced it?
• Q:The Presidency
Lawal: Then ask them. Why are you asking me? Who is the Presidency?
•Q: Have you been informed of the suspension?
Lawal: By whom? About what? What about you? Have you been informed?
• Q: Yes sir.
Lawal: By whom?
•Q:By the Presidency sir.
Lawal: I have not seen it. I should have been given… I have not seen the press release so I cannot comment on it.
Another explanation, however, is that the president has come to a stark reality that the fight against corruption risked an imminent collapse unless it is rejuvenated. What with recent loses of corruption cases in courts?
To prove skeptics wrong, the president will have to do more than suspending the SGF and the DG NIA.
While it is difficult to correctly pin down the president’s justification for suspending Lawal and Oke, what happens in the next two weeks will give further clarity to his decision.
Will the president make the report of the Osinbajo’s committee public? Will law enforcement agencies now question the suspended officials? Will the presidency continue to treat a criminal matter as a mere administrative issue? Answers to these and many more questions will help to further shed light on the direction in which the president is headed.
The Office of the Vice President said the presidential had already commenced work.
A statement by the Senior Special Assistant to the Vice President on Media and Publicity, Mr Laolu Akande said in the discharge of its work, the panel would invite all relevant officials and private individuals who might be connected to both cases.
He said: “It will also obtain and scrutinize documents that may throw some light on the issues raised in both cases. All its proceedings will however be in closed sessions to avoid speculations, allow for full disclosure and enhance the pace of proceedings. “
The decision of the committee will go a long way in shaping the fight against corruption.