By Azu Ishiekwene
The cartoon was published in The Guardian on a Sunday sometime in 2016. It was a depiction of the tortoise approaching the gate of the Presidential Villa, carrying the sign, “Slow and steady.”
On that Sunday, nearly one year after President Muhammadu Buhari was elected and months, I think, after he announced his ministers, the President had a copy of that publication on his side table as he spoke with a guest.
Over small talk, he picked up the newspaper, flipped to the cartoon page and spread it before the guest. “Whom do you think that is,” he asked, half-smiling.
His guest looked at the cartoon, and as he was raising his head locked eyes with the president. Both of them erupted in laughter.
The tortoise in the cartoon was a caricature of a president who had taken six months to appoint his cabinet and would take even much longer to fill other vital positions in government. Up till this week, he regretted that many vacancies still exist.
Except in relation to the war against Boko Haram, which appears to have been an aberration in response time, the tortoise may well be the president’s favourite mascot for performance. But it’s no longer a laughing matter.
The removal of former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal and the NIA DG, Ayo Oke, finally happened five months after the report was ready and over two months after it was submitted to the president.
Did it have to take that long? Yes, the president travelled on a medical vacation shortly before the report was due to be submitted. But for a matter that has been lingering since April – and one that touches on corruption, a major pillar of the government’s agenda – it shouldn’t take nine weeks after his return to nail the coffin.
Yet, this coffin is not even closed. Prosecution for criminal breach of trust should immediately follow their indictment and removal from office. But, if it took six months to indict and formally remove Lawal and Oke from office, that may well be the end of the matter, until either or both of them pop up again in another government office and claim arrears for their layoff.
In a deal worse than incest, Lawal used a company in which he has interest to cut grass with N220 million from funds meant for displaced survivors of Boko Haram. It should have made the president mad that such nonsense happened at a time when he was desperately looking for help from the World Bank to rebuild the devastated North East region. Or that instead of providing intelligence that might have saved lives at the war front, Oke, the nation’s top spy, was busy stashing away money in a private apartment in Lagos, using his wife as full-time dollar nanny.
Why should the World Bank – or any other serious-minded group – act with urgency or care when the government gives the impression that fantastically corrupt officials in government are welcome to stay until public outrage boils over?
Again, we’re seeing the same dangerous delay playing out in the case of the disgraced former chairman of the Presidential Pension Reform Task Force, Abdulrasheed Maina. With questions over what President Muhammadu Buhari knew or did not know swirling, the government ought to follow up on Maina’s speedy removal – an exceptional moment – by charging him to court.
But from what the Chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Magu, is saying, it appears that the same forces inside the government that prolonged action on the Lawal-Oke case are working hard to let Maina enjoy the billions of naira he pocketed from the sweat of miserable pensioners.
Sadly, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, who should be helping to put away high-profile crooks, appears either confused or overwhelmed by his job. It was heartbreaking to hear him enthusiastically justifying his role in Maina’s triumphant return to work, while millions of the victims of the pension scam are suffering.
It’s not Malami’s fault. Neither are the hordes of crooks that still appear to be beyond the reach of the law to blame for the delay in bringing them to justice. The energy of Buhari’s government has been drained, almost from the start, by nasty internal brush fires and turf wars. The situation is compounded at the worst of times by his poor health and at the best of times by his choices and temperament.
It’s the turf war that has left Magu as the public officer on the longest probation doing perhaps the most dangerous job and yet serving without a letter of appointment for two years, while Maina, a fugitive, has a job reserved for him.
It’s the turf war that encourages the Group Managing Director of NNPC, Maikanti Baru, to add insult to the injury of the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu, and at the height of public disgust over the way the corporation is being run, the GMD still offers politicians free lunch.
It’s the turf war that has paralysed Buhari’s government, often leaving behind a trail of tardiness.
But even outside the turf war, it sometimes gets tardier with the choice of a few of the President’s key staff. His Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari, for example, may be doing a great job for him in some other unknowable departments. But the last thing that an aging Buhari needs on top of his poor health and natural insularity, is a key staff who allows the molehills of official work to become mountains of obstruction before anything gets done.
As the nation watched the pathetic scenes of Kyari and the Head of Service, Winifred Oyo-Ita, bickering over Maina in the Villa this week, and plumber after executive plumber raced in to mend the leaking roof in the presence of a perplexed vice president, the rule appears to be: slow and tardy wins the race.
It was interesting to hear the D-G of Customs and long-time Buhari ally, Hameed Ali, pile on the Peoples Democratic Party for the woes of the ruling All Progressives Congress. I think he should have spoken up when former Governor Rotimi Amaechi and others who crossed over from the PDP with fat checkbooks in hand were joining the APC.
Since APC cannot take their money and turn around to complain about their influence, the best the ruling party can hope for is to manage the mess.
Two and a half years down the road, the government’s worst enemy is not the PDP or crooks who are taking advantage of the system. It’s tardiness, government by slow motion, letting things pile up until there’s deafening public outcry. That’s the point of the mascot of the tortoise in the Guardian on Sunday cartoon.
That mascot haunted the president in his first coming 32 years ago, providing excuse for his removal in a palace coup. He should know by now that delay is, sometimes, more dangerous than speed.