On Thursday evening, I was fiddling with my phone when an alert popped up, announcing the appointment of Mr. Yusuf Bichi as the new director-general of the Department of State Services (DSS). That means President Muhammadu Buhari did not confirm Mr. Matthew Seiyefa — who had acted as DG since the removal of Mr. Lawal Daura last month — as the substantive head of Nigeria’s secret police. For those interested in context, Bichi, a retired DSS official, is from Bichi town in Kano state — not much of a distance from Katsina state, where the president happens to come from. Seiyefa is from Bayelsa state, the home of former President Goodluck Jonathan.
I had mixed feelings. A part of me was delighted. Another part was dumbfounded. I was delighted because, in my opinion, this president has got balls. There has been an orchestrated campaign to blackmail him to confirm Seiyefa as DG of DSS. Different political groups and commentators were busy raising the alarm and issuing threats over a “plot” to remove the acting DSS DG because he is a southerner — and all the usual stuff. God save Nigeria the day a president starts making or unmaking appointments on the basis of threats, blackmail and intimidation in the media. For ignoring the intimidation, Buhari delighted a part of me.
But then I was also dumbfounded. How can the president be so unconcerned about our realities and complexities as a nation? When Buhari holds his security meeting, in the room will be Major Gen. Babagana Munguno (rtd), the national security adviser; Brig-Gen. Mansur Dan-Ali, minister of defence; Gen. Abayomi Olonisakin, chief of defence staff; Lt-Gen. Tukur Buratai, chief of army staff; Rear Admiral Ibok Ekwe Ibas, chief of naval staff; Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, chief of air staff; Mr. Ibrahim Idris, inspector-general of police; Mr. Ahmed Rufai Abubakar, DG of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA); and AVM Mohammed Saliu Usman, chief of defence intelligence.
Now add Bichi as the DG of DSS to the list and it would be stupid for anyone to argue that the leadership of Nigeria’s security agencies is not overwhelmingly and embarrassingly northern. Apart from Olonisakin and Ibas, every other person in the room is from the north, even if they are not all of the Fulani ethnic stock (contrary to what they tell you on WhatsApp). In the event that Buhari decides to hold an expanded security meeting and brings in the minister of interior and the heads of Customs, Immigration, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and Federal Road Safety Corps, you will have to conclude that the president can use some federal sensitivity in that sector.
And there you have my puzzle about President Buhari. This makes it difficult for me to understand him. Since he assumed office in 2015, I have always been torn apart by many of his decisions and actions. He would do or say something and I would scream: “Sai Baba!” I would take a second look and moan: “Chai, Baba!” The DSS appointment is a perfect example. It is good for the president to have balls and not be easily swayed by public opinion, but it is also good for the president to care about public opinion. He must care about diversity and inclusion in a fractious, heterogeneous and complex country like Nigeria. Why does he not seem to care? I am puzzled.
It has always been mixed feelings for me whenever I analyse Buhari. For instance, many high-profile Nigerians have complained to me, privately, that Buhari is inaccessible, compared to previous presidents. If you look at it one way, that is good. When a president is too accessible, he becomes too available to be compromised. It becomes difficult for him to take some tough decisions that might hurt his legion of friends — even if Nigeria would be better off in the end. We may also end up having a laissez faire society where every Tom, Dick and Harry (make that every Tomiwa, Dike and Haliru) would be peddling influence, claiming to have dined with the president last night.
On the other hand, a president has to be accessible! If a president is a recluse, he will be denying himself the opportunity of mingling with a diverse number of people and enjoying the benefit of plural opinion. He will not be able to feel the pulse of the nation first-hand. The most dangerous part of it is that he will be cornered by a few people. Given that an average human being is self-interested, the people with access to him will only tell him what he wants to hear so that they don’t offend him or lose the gate pass to the inner sanctuary of power. But when a president is accessible, he is able to see beyond his cocoon. It could be an advantage.
Another issue over which I have been critical of the president is the Treasury Single Account (TSA). The cold implementation has had a negative impact on the financial system. Already-starved businesses became more starved as the all-important public funds were swept into TSA, giving banks more excuses not to lend. The paucity of funds also harmed interest rates. The bankers, ever clever, survived by any means necessary. They still found buccaneering opportunities in the crisis while ordinary Nigerians were losing their jobs and scraping pot bottoms to survive. I felt the TSA policy needed to be reviewed and modified in view of the situation.
When President Olusegun Obasanjo tried to implement a similar policy in 2004, he retreated on seeing the immediate negative impact on the economy. I thought Buhari should also have taken a cue from that. Yet, a part of me was happy. If Nigeria is ever going to develop, there will always be growth pains. You don’t make an omelette with your eggs unbroken. We cannot eat our cake and have it. Something has to give during the transition. Government agencies had, for ages, been colluding with bankers to rip off the treasury. Let the bankers do real banking and stop playing casino with public funds. So while I was horrified on the one hand, I was happy on the other.
It was this same predicament that hit me on Thursday with the DSS appointment. I was happy that Buhari refused to be blackmailed into confirming Seiyefa — but I was also horrified that he had to look for a Yusuf from Bichi. In a way, though, I feel justified by the outcry over the “northernisation” of security appointments by Buhari. I have been arguing all my life — and I have been thoroughly abused for this — that a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation like Nigeria must accommodate diversity in its body politic. Federal character is critical to building a balanced system and giving people a sense of belonging. You must consciously address fears of domination with equity.
In a complex developing country like Nigeria, no leader should create an impression that only people from a particular part are qualified to be appointed into certain positions. But according to a school of thought, “federal character” is a dirty concept. The antagonists argue that it promotes mediocrity above merit — based on the logic that federal character and merit are mutually exclusive. The Federal Character Commission actually defines “federal character” as “merit plus equity”. The purveyors tend to reason that when a southerner is appointed into a position, it is based on “merit”, but if it is a northerner, it is “federal character”.
Unfortunately, this prejudice has been passed down from generation to generation. True, at some point in the nation’s history, northerners were far behind southerners in Western education. As at Independence in 1960, you could count the number of university graduates from the north. Today, the north has its own fair share of unemployed graduates. They have experts and intellectuals, trained home and abroad, in virtually every field. But because of some prejudice dating back to half a century, it is difficult for southerners to accept this fact. So they continue to nurture a very negative mindset that sees merit as a southern property.
The DSS appointment raises a fundamental question that we must ask and be consistently sincere about: do we want federal character or not? It is hypocritical to argue for merit when it favours us and federal character when it doesn’t favour us. If we want to go all out for “merit”, we should never complain that a part of the country dominates appointments. We should just look at their CVs and decide if they are qualified. Did the appointee go to school? Check. Does the appointee have the experience? Check. Is the appointee competent? Check. Then let us fly with it. That means when you visit a ministry and everybody there is from Iwo, you must never complain. It is merit.
But I will never support this “merit minus federal character” idea in a diverse and fragile country such as ours, where mutual suspicion and fears of domination reign supreme. A country with three major ethnic groups and hundreds of minorities cannot be integrated without an affirmative action. We must deliberately marry merit with federal character — and I maintain that merit is present in every state, every region and every religion in Nigeria, even though some are more blessed than the others. Balance is critical. It is not too hard to solve the Buhari Puzzle. Mr President, just apply the principles of equity and we will be fine. Be sensitive. Be flexible. That’s all.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
THE KEMI CASE
I know that Nigerians like to shoot the wounded but now that Mrs Kemi Adeosun has resigned as minister of finance over her NYSC certificate issue, I think we need to address the pertinent issues rather than gloat. One, how did DSS screen and clear a forged certificate? Are we really safe in the hands of these security guys? Will anybody be punished in DSS for this terrible lapse? Two, how can we develop a mechanism to authenticate government documents so as to avoid a reoccurrence? Three, is it time to review the NYSC rule that makes national service compulsory for Nigerians who were born abroad and who might never have set their feet on our shores? Questions.
Could this end up in the Guinness World Records? Mr. Ayodele Fayose, the outgoing governor of Ekiti state, recently presented a N10 billion supplementary budget to the house of assembly — 30 days to the end of his tenure. It took roughly 15 minutes for the lawmakers to do the first reading, send it to the committees, do second reading and pass it. The lawmakers were even on recess, so only 12 out of 26 of them could make it. Forget quorums. According to Hon. Ekundayo Akineye, the member representing Ijero constituency, there was no illegality. Akineye said Fayose did the same thing at the end of his first term, so it is just his way of signing off from office. Goodness!
RULE OF RAW POWER
Have you heard the news? The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) has asked the Association of Nigerian Electricity Distributors (ANED) to shut up. According to the “directive”, the umbrella organisation of electricity distribution companies (DisCos) should never make any comment on any pronouncement made by Mr Babatunde Fashola, the minister of power, Prof. James Momoh, the NERC chairman, and the commissioners. Yet, freedom of speech and freedom of association are guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution. Nigeria is a democracy. Fashola is a SAN. Momoh was imported from the US, the land of free speech. Ridiculous.
Do you remember the time you had to travel to a branch of your bank or call an account officer before you could know your balance? Well, I got a mail from Access Bank during the week saying I can now do that by WhatsApp! On the Access WhatsApp platform, according to the information, I can retrieve my BVN, know my balance, request for payday loan, open an account and transfer funds between accounts. I know, of course, that technology has made life easier for all of us — and I can count how many times I have been to the banking hall in the last one year — but this WhatsApp business takes the cake. Now, I believe I have seen it all. Magic!