A Scapegoat Named Babachir Lawal

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Since President Muhammadu Buhari launched his anti-corruption campaign in 2015, the question has been how far is he willing to go to sustain the battle, especially in the face of allegations that he is protecting his own loyalists. Segun James looks at the suspension from office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. David Babachir Lawal in the context of the anti-graft war

One of the first steps taken by President Muhammadu Buhari after he was elected president to purge the military of some of the high profile military brass who had stolen the money meant for the purchase arms and ammunition to fight the fundamentalist and terrorist organisation, the Boko Haram. Many soldiers lost their lives as a result of corruption among top ranking military brass.

That was how Buhari was willing to go as far as the fight over corruption was concerned.

Understandably he had also caused to be arrested some opposition politicians from whose homes and bank accounts millions of ill-gotten sums of money had been exhumed.

Yet, many Nigerians still demanded that he could do more, and should do more, especially among his own political party where some kleptomaniac fat cats abound. It was also alleged that some of the president’s loyalists who funded his campaign had also stolen from their states and that it was from such alleged stolen money that they sponsored the president’s election and ensured that he won.

How do you arrest or incarcerate such persons? Wouldn’t that show ingratitude of the highest order? Besides, since such money was used to bring him to power, is he not a beneficiary of the process and as such culpable also? So many questions begging for answer.

But then, many people dismissed his war on corruption as a political subterfuge to cow and witch hunt his enemies and opponents. It was in the middle of this that the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. David Babachir Lawal was suspended from office and is now undergoing interrogations for his role in the award of contracts under the Presidential Initiative on the North East (PINE).

The purging of the military by the president was not surprising to anyone as that was the primary constituency of the president and he has firsthand knowledge of the atrocities perpetrated in the section under the guise of security which had been locked in secrecy for many years.

But the unexpected removal of Lawal from office has sent a signal to the political class that the president is willing to scotch even the biggest and most well fed of any sacred cow in the political arena. Yes, Lawal is the perfect scapegoat and sacrificial lamb as events toward the 2019 election start to take shape.

Although, the allegation has been in the news for some time, and quite a number of petitions had reached the president about the activities of Lawal and allegations of violations of law and due process made against him in the award of contracts under the Presidential Initiative on the North East (PINE).

The president initially would not believe it. He in fact ordered a statement be made absolving the SGF of any complicity in the the contract deal. The allegations, however, would not go away. Preliminary investigation soon proved that there was substance in the allegation.

It was at the point that the president ordered him suspended with immediate effect. A statement issued by the Special Adviser to the President, Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, also had it that the president has equally 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) had 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 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; and 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, is to act, respectively, during the period of investigation.

Until the new chain of events, Lawal had been a law unto himself. He never respected anybody but noted for shunning invitations from the National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. When the allegation of his private companies involvement in the Presidential Initiative on the North East contract activities became public, he refused to appear before a Senate Committee on Humanitarian Crisis in Northeast.

Like most persons appointed by the Buhari government, Lawal see going before the senate as below him even though he had earlier been indicted for alleged fraud by the committee and the Senate, who called for his removal.

The road to infamy for the SGF began soon after the federal government decided to create the PINE committee to look into the rehabilitation and resettlement of people who had been displaced through the activities of the dreaded fundamentalist and terrorist group, the Boko Haram in the northeastern part of the country.

But no sooner had the committee began work than the SGF was found culpable by the Senate for his alleged role in a grass-cutting N200 million contract to clear “invasive plant species” in Yobe State!

But surprisingly, Buhari, in a letter to the Senate, defended Lawal saying he was not given a fair hearing, thus necessitating a new summons by the Senate. He cleared the embattled SGF from the allegations of corruption leveled against him over the mismanagement of funds earmarked for IDP camps in the north.

In the letter to the Senate, in response to a call for the removal of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Buhari stated that Lawal was not given a fair hearing, citing other reasons the SGF could not do as the senate had demanded.

However, instead of heeding the summons, Some of the SGF loyalists went before the courts to challenge his summon and indicated he would not appear before the Senate. This was the situation when his suspension was announced.

It would be recalled that in December 2016, the Senate had asked Buhari to sack Lawal and ensure his prosecution over an alleged breach of Nigerian laws in handling contracts awarded PINE.

An interim report by the Senate’s ad-hoc committee on the “mounting humanitarian crisis in the North East” led by Sen. Shehu Sani, indicted Mr. Lawal for receiving N200 million contracts to clear “invasive plant species” in Yobe State through a company, Rholavision Nigeria Limited.

Lawal was said to be a director in the company until September 2016, a year after his appointment. This was a breach of the code of conduct for public officials as stated in Nigeria’s 1999 constitution.

Soon after his suspension, Lawal was at the Presidential Villa where he was confronted by newsmen over his suspension. But as usual with him, in his disdain, he stocked his tongue out in a video in mockery of Nigerians who think anything will come out of his “suspension” and “investigation.

He then mockingly asked the reporters: “Who is the presidency?” before departing Aso Rock after his suspension.

In a Facebook post, Prof. Farooq Kperogi wondered: “How did we end up with a man like this as Secretary to the Government of the Federation? The man clearly doesn’t have his head screwed on right–literally.

“In this photo, Lawal is sticking his tongue out in mockery of Nigerians who think anything will come out of his “suspension” and “investigation.” He had earlier mockingly asked reporters “Who is the presidency?” Judgment day for this boor can’t come soon enough! Let’s wait and see.”

Scandalized by the action of the suspended SGF, the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption (PACAC), Prof Itse Sagay (SAN), while reacting to Lawal’s suspension by the Federal Government made it clear that he was gone for good and no longer a part of the Buhari administration.

“I think the suspensions are inevitable, and in my view, they are a journey to total disengagement.

“The SGF is a top member of the administration. He should have known that for him to award a contract to his own company is absolutely prohibited by the Code of Conduct and the Constitution. What he was doing was illegal and unconstitutional.

“The worse is that he didn’t even award the contract for relevant activity such as for food, rather it was for grass cutting, which is totally unrelated to the needs of this people for very basic life-saving materials.”

On the suspension of the NIA DG, Sagay said: “This one is even worse in my view. How can you hold over $40million of state money in a private apartment, without the knowledge of the head of state to whom you’re responsible?

“So they’ve turned themselves into a government of their own. They didn’t inform the present administration that they got this money from the Jonathan administration and this is what it was meant for and this is what is left.

“Once they didn’t do that, then they were all on a criminal conduct which should lead to what has happened now. It’s very clear that they intended to convert it to their private use. That’s why I said everything is inevitable.”

With the removal of Lawal, at least one of the president’s men person has bitten the dust in the presidential war against corruption.

But with the 2019 elections looming near and the president’s state of health, will the battle be terminated midway? This is the question that will be answered by time as the nation moves on.

Yet, many Nigerians still demanded that he could do more, and should do more, especially among his own political party where some kleptomaniac fat cats abound. It was also alleged that some of the president’s loyalists who funded his campaign had also stolen from their states and that it was from such alleged stolen money that they sponsored the president’s election and ensured that he won.