Incredible, But True: Ministerial Recklessness, Political Chicanery, and NCC-NIDCOM Saga,

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Isa Pantami

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

Most members of the elite in Nigeria often quarrel with themselves in the area of why a country like Malaysia is developing and Nigeria is not. They ask how the People’s Republic of China has been able to throw its cloak of poverty and underdevelopment to the garbage of history. The concern of the Nigerian elite is derived from one truism: both countries were almost at par at the level of development indicators in the 1960s. Many Nigerians would even submit that Malaysia took palm oil seeds from Nigeria in the 1960s to go and plant back home and Malaysia is doing better than Nigeria in palm oil production worldwide as at today, while Nigeria is quite far away from doing well in the business.

Unfortunately, however, the same elite hardly ask themselves some basic relevant questions: what is responsible for the development setbacks in Nigeria? Who is responsible for what? Arguments of lack of national cohesion have been variously advanced as possible reasons. Impact of colonial legacy has also been given as part of the rationales. Poor infrastructure, military dictatorship, poor leadership, etc, are also some of the reasons often given. But most unfortunately again, hardly do people focus on ministerial attitudes as possible dynamics. The use of ‘ministerial’ is in the sense of both the ‘Ministry’ and the ‘Minister.’

Put differently, how do Ministers behave officially in Nigeria? How do Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of Government behave or operate in Nigeria? Do they ever behave in the spirit of quest for national unity, or unity of purpose in political governance? True, there is nothing to really write home about. Official attitudinal disposition is largely driven by factors of ‘self-perception,’ a ‘holier than thou,’ ‘better than thou,’ or ‘more powerful than thou,’ attitude. Mentality of service to the Government, not to mention service to the nation, is never part of their agenda. Rather, it is self-ego, power rivalry, religious bigotry, ethnic chauvinism, and political chicanery that are generally promoted to the detriment of national development, public transparency and public accountability. These are the ordinary dynamics of non-development in the Nigeria of today.

In Nigeria, for example, when letters are officially written by public or civil servants to law-abiding citizens of Nigeria, the signatories to the letters are always directed to do so, but when the same citizens write to any of the government agencies, the Directors and Permanent Secretaries are not always directed to reply. No administrative courtesy to reply, giving impression of non-seriousness of purpose in public governance. Even when such letters may be irrelevant or considered to be without value, courtesy and responsibility still requires a reply in the spirit of efficiency and effectiveness of Government, but this is hardly so. Communication has always remained unidirectional, and as a result, public governance has never been efficient and effective. It is only when Government is seriously criticised by and in the public that public and civil servants are compelled to respond and that replies suddenly become a desideratum.

In fact, it is in Nigeria, not to say only Nigeria, that the level of ministerial lies is also very high. Ministers in Nigeria cannot easily be relied on, because of their conflicting statements. They say one thing in the morning and thereafter in the afternoon, denying them differently. This situation has not helped the image of Government at home and abroad. An analysis of some manifestations is necessary at this juncture.

Manifestations of Ministerial Dishonesty
Let us espy the case of the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Raufu Mohammed to begin with. He caused the arrest and detention of one journalist, Rotimi Jolayemi, popularly referred to as ‘Oba Akewi.’ ‘Oba Akewi’ literally means ‘King of Akewi.’ ‘Akewi’ is a person who sings in praises or in condemnation of things and people, using poetic stylistics, special Yoruba traditional philosophies and incantations. When he was to be arrested and was not readily found, his wife, Dorcas, along with his two brothers, John and Joseph, were reportedly arrested and detained. When Mr. Rotimi Jolayemi eventually surfaced on May 6, 2020, he was transferred immediately to Abuja.

Why the arrest and detention? Rotimi Jolayemi, in one of his poetic songs, presented the Minister, Lai Mohammed, in bad image. In the video recording of the poem that I listened to, he called Lai Mohammed ‘wèrè’, meaning ‘insane’ or ‘mad person.’ More of concern, he called the Minister as having been brought up, or nourished with ‘omi irọ’, that is with ‘water of deceit,’ or polluted water. The use of words like these is simply to suggest that if the Minister is frequently telling lies, it is because the water and the blood flowing in his blood capillaries has been tainted with untruths. Thus, the Minister is painted as a recidivist liar.

But again, what has prompted the poet and journalist to paint the Minister as a blatant liar? Rotimi Jolayemi, rightly or wrongly, does not believe in the statement of the Minister that Government had incurred the sum of N100 million for the purposes of COVID-19 palliatives. He also accused other Ministers and the Accountant General of the Federation. He insinuated in his video that N1 trillion could not have been incurred for COVID-19.

Whereas, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is on record to be fighting societal indiscipline, and particularly, corruption. If any journalist believes that there have been jots of sharp practices in the management of COVID-19 palliative funds, he should be free to draw attention to it. In this regard, the whole issue of his arrest is about Jolayemi’s criticism of the Honourable Minister, who reportedly denied the incident (please vide Adeola Fayehun’s video series (https://youtu.be/rRIVnxAwAZc).

Many issues can be raised regarding the attacks by Rotimi Jolayemi and the response of the Minister. The first is the issue of right of opinion which every Nigerian has, as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution, as amended. In fact, by virtue of Rotimi Jolayemi’s status as a journalist, he is also specially required by the Constitution to monitor political governance and hold Government accountable. Consequently, he cannot be arrested for performing his constitutional duties. There is no big deal in levying allegations against any public official if the basis for it exists.

The second issue is the mania of monitoring political governance and holding government officials accountable to the people of Nigeria. Should Rotimi Jolayemi have described the Minister as a lunatic, a perpetual liar, etc? If he has reasons to justify his allegations, then the allegations should not have warranted police arrest and detention, which brings us to the third issue: the reactive attitude of the Minister.

The appropriate, civilised response is to challenge the allegations against him in the law court. It is fundamentally wrong to use one’s position as Minister to order the arrest of a journalist. The reaction of the Minister is therefore most uncivilised and untenable in a democratising, nation-making country, like Nigeria. The year 2020 marks the 21 years of uninterrupted efforts aimed at strengthening the foundation of democratic culture in Nigeria. The use of manu militari method to silence an opponent is not in tune with the efforts being made to evolve an enduring democratic culture in the country.

A fourth issue is the reported denial by the Honourable Minister of the whole scenario. The denial, in itself, appears to be more damaging than the allegations levied against him by Rotimi Jolayemi. As revealed in the Adeola Fayehun video, which has gone viral, the Minister cannot honourably deny a truism but he has done just that. Ministers, like any other public and political servants, must learn how to appreciate the word, ‘integrity’ in their political dictionary. Ministers are entitled to respect from the public, as servants of the public, but when Ministers do not behave well in order to earn such public respect, criticism and resistance should be expected. In this case, no use of force can be enough to suppress suspicions and criticisms. They are indestructible ideas that cannot be fought with forceful intimidation. The answer to public criticism is either further clarification, self-defence or court prosecution. Certainly not by show of power.

The case of the Honourable Minister of Health is more unfortunate, because it goes beyond self or individual interest shown in the case of the Minister of Information and Culture. The case of the Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire, has a national and international character because of the multi-dimensional nature of COVID-19 politics and the involvement of the Foreign Affairs Minister, who is a member of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 pandemic.

For instance, the Health Minister told all Nigerians that fifteen Chinese medics who came to Nigeria on April 8, 2020 were to assist the Government in the war against COVID-19. Impression was given by him that they were coming on the kind invitation of the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. As the Honourable Minister put it, ‘first of all, what the Chinese doctors will be doing in Nigeria is capacity-building, to add to the body of knowledge which Nigerian doctors and experts have… They will be able to connect with our scientists and doctors via tele-conferencing, so that we can start early to be able to ask questions and hear their narratives.’ The importance the Minister attached to the coming of the Chinese medics was to the extent that he opted to go to the airport to personally receive the Chinese guests, rather than taking active part in the COVID-19 daily up-date on that day.

Incredibly but true, the Chinese never came to Nigeria on the basis of any governmental invitation. It has been revealed that they came on the business invitation of the CCECC, a Chinese construction company doing good business in Nigeria. The company has publicly denied that the ‘medics’ came for any corona virus assignment in Nigeria. In fact, they were not quarantined in the isolation centres established by the Presidential Task Force. Besides, many of the Chinese ‘medics’ have been reported to be technicians and not medical physicians.

In this regard, there are other related questions which make the statement of the Minister look true, but most unfortunately, unbelievable. Chinese medics came to deliver anti-COVID-19 equipment donated by the Beijing authorities to their counterparts in Abuja. And true enough, the Chinese doctors arrived as scheduled with a 30-day visiting visa each and the Minister went in person to receive them. Unfortunately too, the Government of Nigeria did not host them as required by protocol. They were hosted by the CCECC management.

And perhaps most disturbingly, when the issue of where-about of the Chinese medics was again raised, the Honourable Minister of Health, who initially said that the Chinese were coming to help Nigeria, later claimed not to know their where-about. It took the time of the Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, to come to his defense and explain that the Chinese actually came to help in the conversion of ThisDay Dome into an isolation centre, which Prince Nduka Obaigbena, Chairman of Leaders and Company, donated to the Government of Nigeria for temporary use to assist in the containment of COVID-19 pandemic.

In terms of diplomatic protocol and etiquette, it is improper for a Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to descend so low to the level of going to receive a non-governmental delegation at the airport. Even if a delegation is governmental, the level of who should receive the delegation also matters. For instance, in 1982, when the President of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, was to go on official visit to Paris, France, the then French President, François Mitterrand, assigned a very junior Minister, Mrs. Georgina Dufoix, who was in charge of either fish or water resources, to receive the Nigerian leader at the airport. The Embassy of Nigeria in Paris kicked against the choice of Mrs. Dufoix. That was how the visit was cancelled sine die. Visits in international relations are not a child’s play.

Although the Elysée (Presidency) and the Quai d’Orsay (Foreign Ministry) tried to manage the crisis by differentiating between official and officious visits, as well as between State Visits, Courtesy Visits and Working Visits, the cancellation of the visit seriously tainted the bilateral ties that had already been largely predicated on mutual suspicion. In other words, there is reception diplomacy in international relations that the Minister of Health should not have ignored.

A Minister should not simply wake up to engage in any act of diplomacy without carrying along the Ministry of Affairs. The Health Minister’s airport reception of the Chinese is better looked at as going to the airport to ensure the safety of the donation of anti-COVID-19 equipment and supplies rather than an attempt to receive the medics. The airport reception, at best, was a faux pas. Why should a Minister of Interior know the location of the Chinese delegation, who came to Nigeria for the purposes of reconstructing ThisDay Dome to assist the Federal Government and the Minister of Health would not know? Tissues of lies lay somewhere. If truly, he does not know, where is the inter-ministerial coordination required at the level of public governance? Nigeria is not entitled to have Ministers of Untruths. Nigeria can never survive on the basis of lies-driven political governance and selfishness-driven policies. What about anti-Nigeria decisions of Ministers?

NCC-NIDCOM Saga and Political Chicanery
The NCC is Nigerian Communications Commission. NIDCOM means Nigerians in Diaspora Commission. The NCC is headed by Professor Umar Danbatta in his capacity as the Executive Vice Chairman, while the NIDCOM has Honourable Abike Dabiri-Erewa as Chairman and Chief Executive. The saga in question is not at the level of the two agencies of government, but at the level of attitudinal disposition of the two agents of government. How do the two individuals protect the national interest? In fact, how have people been reacting to the saga? Indeed, what is the saga about?

From the perspective of polemology, the saga is still at the level of a crisis. The object of dispute is the allegation of forceful ejection of the staff of NIDCOM from their offices located within the premises of the NCC in the absence of its Chief Executive, Dabiri-Erewa. The origin of the saga is traceable to February 13, 2020 when the NIDCOM drew attention to the attachment of its office space and mistreatment of NIDCOM staff by armed security men, who reportedly came at the instance of the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Pantami.

The need for an office space to enable the newly established Commission to begin to function was made known as far back as June 2019. It was in response to Dabiri-Erewa’s request for office space that some agencies of government offered some offices. The EFCC and the CBN offered to assist. The NCC, thanks to Professor Umar Danbatta, the Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC, similarly offered its space in its Annex Office in Mbora District, Abuja.

More interestingly, the NCC not only gave an office accommodation, but also took additional steps to providing some basic furniture. Following delivery of the office and furniture, the NIDCOM began to adapt the office to suit its purpose: installation of workstations for not less than 140 people; installation of a PABX-supported international Call Centre in collaboration with the Airtel Nigeria Limited, etc.

What is noteworthy here is that the NIDCOM has been settling down gradually in their new NCC office. The NIDCOM Chairman was to move there by mid-February 2020. However, a letter done by the NCC was served on her on February 9, 2020, giving an ultimatum of one week to vacate the office, as the Honourable Minister of Communication and Digital Economy purportedly needed the same office. More embarrassingly, even though one week ultimatum was initially given, it is useful to note here that on February 11, that is, only two days after, NIDCOM staff were reportedly denied access to their offices on the fifth floor of the NCC building. On February 14, reports also have it that NIDCOM offices were forcefully broken into without the knowledge of the NIDCOM’s Chairman.

As noted in a Press Statement issued on May 24, 2020 by the NIDCOM, ‘the Director of Special Duties of NCC informed the NIDCOM staff that he is acting on the instruction from the Honourable Minister, Pantami, to evacuate/refuse them entry into the building until further directive is given.’ More important, when the NIDCOM’s Chief Executive returned from her official trip to Ethiopia on February 14, she discovered that ‘all items including the 140 work stations, personal computers, printers, sensitive documents and personal belongings of staff were carted away. The Call Centre was locked up.’ Although the NCC boss has reportedly denied sending any armed security to do the dirty job, the question remains who directed the action?

The point being made here is simply the attitude of Ministers in Nigeria. Abike Dabiri-Erewa was on official trip with Mr. President to Addis Ababa. It was when she was not around that the dastardly act took place. Why was her attention not called to the eviction notice before giving a week’s ultimatum? Why was the one-week ultimatum not respected? Why forcefully break into NIDCOM’s offices? Who carted away their belongings, both official and personal?

Without any whiff of doubt, Ministerial behaviour is increasingly becoming reckless in Nigeria. The recklessness is driven by lack of policy coordination, which enables individual arrogance. Indeed, nothing prevented Mr. Pantami to have a tête-à-tête with Dabiri-Erewa inform her about why there was the need to eject the NIDCOM from the NCC building. Some observers have commented that Dabiri-Erewa is always hiding under ‘woman factor’ to fight her case. Why not? If the Chief Executive of NIDCOM were to be a serving or retired military man, would any armed security men have been deployed? Why are Nigerians disregarding policemen but never attempt to look into the face of soldiers, even when they are not armed? In fact, what makes it difficult for the Government to allocate an office accommodation to NIDCOM? Why is the NCC boss behaving as if the NCC building is his own personal property ? Have all the floors in the NCC even been fully occupied? Why is there no appreciation of Nigerians in Diaspora in light of their great financial commitment to the funding of development projects?