By Rafiq Raji, PhD
It is beginning to dawn on Ibe Kachikwu, the Nigerian junior petroleum minister, how diminished he is. When I happened on the leaked memo he wrote to Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian president, about supposed misdemeanour on the part of the head of state oil company, NNPC, Maikanti Baru, who he accuses of making personnel changes without following due process (besides not conferring with him), I immediately recalled a term oft-used by one of my very clever teachers: “velvet ghetto”. It is a situation whereby a person has all the comforts of a position or office but does not have any real power or influence. If you are not well-to-do or have not had the good fortune of experience about what that implies, you may wonder why anyone could be unhappy amidst much luxury just because their power is usurped by another person or group of persons. Money and luxury are things desired until when acquired, how little they are in the scheme of things becomes apparent. Billionaires do not engage in philanthropy only for the tax benefits. Most do so because having acquired wealth, it dawns on them the purpose is not so much their comfort as it is what they can do with it.
Weary is the head
It was a “brave” act in the first place for President Buhari to initially appoint Dr Kachikwu not only to the “juicy” petroleum ministry but also to the headship of NNPC. Mr Buhari’s “people” were most unhappy then. Were the position not so lucrative and much sought after, Mr Kachikwu might have immediately seen why his diminished role may not be as exciting as it was hitherto. I suppose he took comfort in the fact that Mr Buhari would be the senior minister. But of course, in government, the presidency is really the chief of staff; currently Abba Kyari. And it is simply not possible for the president to handle all the files that require his attention. So effectively, Dr Kachikwu’s supervisor is Mr Kyari. But such is the enormity of Mr Kyari’s tasks that even he would have to provide a great deal of latitude to his reports. I recall vividly a guardian of mine once, who was a top functionary while I stayed with him. The way we knew he was headed back home from the office was when his driver brought ‘some’ of his files home before going back to the office to ferry his boss as well: There was simply no space in the car for his principal on the first trip. The old man would get back and sleep for about 3 hours and thereafter with the aid of many cups of coffee, would labour till just before dawn to ensure the files are treated. An hour’s sleep after the Muslim dawn prayer would be all he got thereafter before heading back to the office. Never mind the numerous meetings that he needed to attend when he got there. He was just a functionary, talk less the president. And the cycle would continue all over again. Needless to say, his wife was very much relieved when he finally left office.
Besides, the north was never comfortable with an outsider at the helm of both the petroleum ministry and NNPC. Left with a choice between the two, they would gladly give up the ministry; especially since it would nominally still be Mr Buhari’s. When the grumblings within his inner circle became deafening, Mr Buhari had no choice but to make the change. But with that change, there was no way the junior minister could remain influential, especially since he was believed to already have a frosty relationship with Dr Baru, a direct report before his appointment as NNPC group managing director (GMD). If Dr Kachikwu did not already know this, I would wonder a great deal about his fabled intelligence. Perhaps his belated outcry is just so at least his grievance would be on record. But he could not really think that his outburst would make things any different; that is, barring solid proof of illegalities by Dr Baru. In fact, I think the secret service would be keen to find out whether the leaked memo was instigated by him. But for the political sensitivity of removing him, in light of myriad accusations of ethnic bias in appointments by the Buhari administration, the presidency would probably be eager to ease him out. However, his presence provides credibility to the administration. And Dr Kachikwu can by and large, be expected to come to heel.
Did Dr Baru act unilaterally? I do not think so. I am almost certain the personnel changes at the NNPC could not have been without the approval of the presidency. Besides, it was probably to ensure that the changes would be made with the least inconvenience that the action was taken in Dr Kachikwu’s absence. It helped of course that Mr Buhari was indisposed at the time as well. At the very least, it gives him deniability. Key among the grievances of the north was the preponderant ascendancy of Niger Deltans to the upper echelons of the petroleum bureaucracy during the administration of former president Goodluck Jonathan. Whilst the avaricious Diezani Alison-Madueke was oil minister then, she made sure the buck at the NNPC stopped with her. And because Ms Alison-Madueke had the ears of Dr Jonathan, no NNPC functionary dared challenge her. (Of course, we now know that was at the expense of our commonwealth.) Dr Kachikwu was able to continue that tradition with his dual portfolios as minister and GMD until his wings were finally clipped. He may need to learn how to fly with shorter wings or find a different tree to perch on.
Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2017/10/04/kachikwus-reality-by-rafiq-raji/