The unfortunate politicization of President Muhammadu Buhari’s illness has no doubt affected any rational discussion of the matter of the suspended Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, Engineer Babachir Lawal, let alone resolving it. Had the President not been compelled by circumstances beyond his control to take another medical vacation just as his government was beginning to stabilize, it is possible that, by now, we would have put the matter behind us.
Whether or not Acting President Yemi Osinbajo can dispose of the matter since he has headed the investigation into the allegations against the SGF is not clear. What is not in doubt, however, is that the matter cannot be kept pending indefinitely without completely destroying the moral fabric of the anti-corruption crusade. That is without prejudice to the acting SGF Dr. Habitat Lawal who, for all practical purposes, has the right to seek confirmation if she meets the criteria for the position.
Talking about the criteria, any candidate for the position should be equipped, in disposition and experience, to serve as the fulcrum around which all the various organs of government will revolve. The person must be a team player who possesses the antenna to decode and manage the extreme sensibilities of the various stakeholder groups in the Nigeria project, however these groups are defined.
As things stand, I do not think restoring the SGF Lawal to his position is a viable option. With the country literally on tenterhooks, nothing should be done to worsen the rather tenuous and dysfunctional relationship between the executive and the legislature, a situation that was not helped by Babachir Lawal. Yet, installing a substantive SGF can no longer be delayed for at least two reasons. For one, with an acting president running the country, being saddled with an acting SGF gives the impression of a makeshift government. For another, the strategic role of the SGF as the clearing house of government’s activities, as the fulcrum of executive action and as the co-ordinator of the three arms of government demands that, even within the limitations of delegated power, the occupant should command unquestionable authority. An acting SGF does not, especially as he navigates the complex web of intrigues that will determine his confirmation or denial of it.
So what are the options open to the President? We can look at three scenarios: one, confirm the acting SGF; two, appoint a new one from Babachir Lawal’s geo-political zone and three, appoint a new one from another zone. Nothing will be wrong to adopt any of the options. The acting SGF has the right to aspire to be confirmed. Apart from being a Nigerian, he has climbed to the pinnacle of civil the service and is, by that same fact, equipped to hold that office. For another, appointing a replacement from Lawal’s geo-political zone will be in line with extant political practice. Stretching the argument further, the point needs to be made that President Buhari did not act without precedent when he appointed Lawal SGF. If anything, his action was justified following precedents. Consider this: Uffot Ekaette, Obasanjo’s SGF (south); Baba Gana Kingibe/Yayale Ahmed, Umaru Musa Yar’Ardua’s SGF (north), Anyim Pius Anyim, Goodluck Jonathan’s SGF (south). The argument of critics of Lawal’s appointment is flawed to the extent that Buhari in fact toed the line of Presidents before him.
However, in picking Lawal’s replacement, everything will be gained if, in addition to the qualities required of the position, the opportunity is harnessed to address the vexed issue of the absence of the south east geo-political zone in the President’s kitchen cabinet. If this proposition is accepted, I would proceed, without prejudice to the other candidates whose names have been advanced for the position, to suggest incumbent minister of labour, Dr. Chris Ngige, for consideration to fill the position. In proposing him, I am not oblivious that there are people of his geo-political zone who would kick just because he has had the courage to tell the truth about the Igbo predicament. Yet, it is precisely that quality that equips him for the role, that ability to speak truth to authority in the quiet recesses of the President’s inner chambers.
We live in interestingly challenging times and the last thing a President needs is fawning loyalty, self-serving acquiescence or destabilizing exuberance. Ngige is staid and cannot be shaken by emotional tantrums. His diverse experience as director in the federal civil service, party administrator, elected governor of a state, senator of the federal republic and now minister confers on him the unique privilege of being comprehensively schooled in the business of governance. This is the person the President needs at this critical watershed when emotions are running haywire everywhere, when relationship between the executive and the legislature need to be streamlined, when certain governmental initiatives need a bulldozer approach, such as Ngige amply demonstrated when he was governor of Anambra State.
The times also call for a bridge-builder, the type of role Ngige played during the unfortunate deportation saga in Lagos State, just before the 2015 general elections. Ngige was able to intervene because as past president of Aka Ikenga, has been an enlightened protagonist of Igbo interests minus the emotional content that is often deployed by selfish politicians to cause street fights. He understands the temperament of other Nigerians; he realizes that deep-seated pluralities call for mutual forbearance and pragmatism, not strong-headed street agitations. This is a great asset the President can harness to stabilize his administration in the second half of his tenure.
In the end, nothing that I have said here should be construed as advocating denying the north east or any other zone, their rights or legitimate expectations. I am a Nigerian of Igbo ethnic stock and I perfectly understand how the Igbo feel over their plight. In that wise, I am not advocating robbing Peter to pay Paul; that should not be the way to go.
Yet, there are moments in a nation’s history when pragmatism is wiser than notions of right or wrong, even constitutionalism. Luckily, Nigeria has examples to lean on. I shall mention only one here. If seniority had been observed after the unfortunate coup in which Murtala Mohammed lost his life, Lt. Gen. Theophilus Danjuma, and not Brigadier Shehu Musa Yar’Ardua would have become the chief of staff, Supreme Headquarters. But the soldiers realized the need to assuage the Hausa ethnic stick whose son had been killed. Hence Yar’Ardua was promoted over and above his peers and made chief of staff, supreme headquarters. Nigeria did not collapse because of that. On the contrary, the nation was able to weather the political storm caused by Murtala’s assassination and became stronger for it.
The political class can take a lesson or two from the soldiers who, demonstrating uncommon statesmanship, wisely adjusted pristine regimental rules so that the country would avert the looming ethic backlash. Undoubtedly, this is one such moment when history beckons on our President to play the statesman. Buhari can and should seize the moment; he can deploy one stone, in Ngige, to achieve two pressing needs: diffuse the tension in the land and energise his administration to drive his change agenda.