Sunday January 12 2014

How Obasanjo’s own kitchen Cabinet failed his kisanja bid

By Bernard Tabaire

Several names dominated the limelight during Gen Olusegun Obasanjo’s second crack (1999-2007) at the top job in Nigeria. Nuhu Ribadu (anti-corruption czar). Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (finance/foreign minister). Chukwuma Soludo (head of the central bank).

Obiageli (Oby) Ezekwesili (solid minerals/education minister) was also in the mix, although I missed that name until she landed at the World Bank as vice-president for Africa later on. Okonjo-Iweala, sacked by Obasanjo as head of the economic team while she was on a foreign trip, would also end up at the World Bank as a managing director.

Today Okonjo-Iweala serves President Goodluck Jonathan as minister of finance and coordinating minister for the economy. And Ezekwesili, a founder of Transparency International with Obasanjo among others, is in private work.
It is this Ezekwesili who looked Obasanjo in the eye and told him: “Why have you allowed the devil to take you over? This third term attempt will fail!”

I wonder whether Miria Matembe gave it to President Museveni in the same tone some 10 years ago.
The names just mentioned formed Obasanjo’s dream economic team. Before ties came unstuck because of ambition and ego, they worked to solve some of Nigeria’s big problems such as getting the Paris Club to write off $18 billion in debt. But they also conspired, together with the heads of the legislature, often meeting in the small hours of the night, to fail their boss’ quest for kisanja.
The man at the heart of the team and the “head of the coup plotters”, as Obasanjo icily put it, was Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai – head of privatisation and then no nonsense minister (Mr Demolition) of the federal capital territory (Abuja).

A brilliant quantity surveyor in private practice, El-Rufai reluctantly entered government service to advise Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar’s transition government. He would go on to work for Obasanjo, and advise and then fall out with president-elect Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
And he knew President Jonathan so well as to write him off ahead of the 2011 elections as “personally ill-prepared and incapable of shouldering the burdens of the presidency”.

His memoirs on his time in government came out last year. Nigerians have reportedly not stopped talking. The Accidental Public Servant dishes big time. Who tried to bribe him, where, when, and why. It is all there. Bare. A stung Soludo says the books is a fraud, and reeks of narcissism.
For the politically minded, it is Obasanjo’s evil scheme for a third term that is supremely captivating. Obasanjo tried to rig the vote in the legislature, including seeking to disable the electronic voter machine just at the right moment. El-Rufai attended those shady planning meetings.
Once the thing collapsed, Obasanjo chose Governor Umaru Yar’Adua to run alongside Governor Jonathan. He then asked El-Rufai and team to support his choice and also stay on in government. El-Rufai refused because he did not think much of Yar’Adua, whom he had known since 1972.

But in choosing a weak team in Yar’Adua-Jonathan to run on the ruling party ticket in 2007, Obasanjo had other plans. He told El-Rufai he should not worry because he, Obasanjo, would still run the affairs of state from his Ota farm. “Only I will move to Ota and Yar’Adua will be here but we will be running things.” Did not work out that way because Yar’Adua revolted against Obasanjo, “reversed virtually everything he did and even began investigating him”. The Zambians know this script better.
But why did Obasanjo not anoint his deputy, Atiku Abubakar, his successor? Well, the man was power hungry and patently corrupt – he ate the money meant for Obasanjo’s re-election in 2003, forcing Obasanjo to turn to Aliko Dangote – now Africa’s richest man. Besides, by Obasanjo’s last year in office, the two men were hardly seeing eye-to-eye. Obasanjo could not bank on him to do the right thing.

Did you know that in Nigeria you have to bribe senators to schedule and approve you for minister? That if you want lawmakers to approve your financing request you have to give them a cut? “The legislators in particular were quite clear that unless we were willing to provide pay-offs or appoint their friends as privatisation consultants or advisers, none of our budgets on transactions would be approved, and they never were.”

Can an honest individual play and win in a decidedly decayed and depraved system? Yes and no. Yes, because through sheer will of force and power of good example El-Rufai turned around a privatisation programme that had lost its way, and restored the master plan of Abuja against the wishes powerful vested interests. It helped that he began by razing the house of the chairman of the ruling party. If I knew Ms Jennifer Musisi’s address, I would buy her a copy of this book from Aristoc.
No, because you need a critical mass of good people in government to have lasting impact. For all his good deeds, Yar’Adua rewarded El-Rufai with exile that lasted 23 months.

Ugandans who read this book – all 613 pages of it – will smile knowingly all through if they can go past many punctuation troubles. The way state corruption and madness work in Nigeria is not unlike in Uganda. I am not sure I should be happy about that discovery.

Mr Tabaire is a media consultant with the African Centre for Media Excellence.