By Ochereome Nnanna
ON Tuesday, 19 April 2017, President Muhammadu Buhari’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, announced that the President had suspended the embattled Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, Mr. David Babachir Lawal and the Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, NIA, Ambassador Ayo Oke, from office pending the conclusion of the job of a probe panel set up to look into allegations of corruption against them.
While Lawal was indicted by the Senate for violating the law and code of ethics by allegedly awarding over N200 million contracts to companies he is linked to under the Presidential Initiative on the North East, PINE, Oke is to explain how the over $43 million which the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, reportedly discovered at the Osborne Towers Lagos, belongs to the NIA as he sensationally claimed.
Majority of Nigerians who reacted to this measure by the President were happy that, at last, the All Progressives Congress, APC, Federal Government was “moving against” its allegedly corrupt top officers, as against its well-established track record of targeting officials and stakeholders of the former President Goodluck Jonathan regime in its anti-corruption drive.
Many saw it as a new resolve by the President to make the anti-graft war all-inclusive, saying it is better he started late than not at all. It will be recalled that the regime has been under great pressure to subject its officials indicted for corruption in the same manner that it did the judges who were suspended from their posts when the State Security Service, SSS, raided their homes over alleged corruption.
Those who are quick to sing the President’s praises for appearing to do what he should have started doing from Day One when his anti-graft war was launched two years ago need to pause first and ask important questions: will Babachir get an unbiased probe? Or, will the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo-led three-man probe panel merely end up laundering corruption by giving Babachir an undeserved clean bill due to his closeness to President Buhari? These questions are valid, going by the track record of the Babachir scandal.
The summary of the story of the Babachir scandal is that the President has demonstrated extreme reluctance to wield the big anti-corruption hammer on any of his close loyalists or architects of the APC’s rise to power. In what way will the so-called probe of Babachir and Oke alter this presidential resolve? Or, will the panel’s work be used as the shovel to bury the “grass-cutter” scandal which the Senate brought to light through the assiduous probe conducted by the Senator Shehu Sani-led Senate Committee on Federal Character and Inter-Governmental Affairs?
It will be recalled that the Senator Sani Committee had, in December 2016, recommended SGF Babachir Lawal for sack after being indicted of using the PINE, which his office supervises, to award multimillion naira contracts to companies he is linked to. The outrage of the scandal was not just that the Senate probe found Babachir culpable of unlawfully awarding contracts to companies he had controlling interests in. It also involved the alleged diversion of hundreds of millions of scarce naira to frivolous projects such as “grass cutting” instead of deploying it to the welfare of the Internally-Displaced Persons, IDPs, who are languishing in hunger and starvation as many international humanitarian groups like the Medecins San Frontiers, MSF, have officially reported to President Buhari.
The severity of this Senate allegation is that the suspended SGF Babachir Lawal, through his companies, has been profiting from the miseries of hapless victims of Boko Haram terror by diverting monies meant for their upkeep for personal profit.
Under normal circumstances, a person so accused by the highest lawmaking organ in Nigeria would do everything in his power to clear his name. This would include willingly appearing personally before the Senate probe panel with relevance evidence with a view to dispelling any shadow of doubt about his involvement or that of any interest linked to him. Instead of doing so, Babachir chose to play hide-and-seek with the senators. Though he dismissed the allegations as “balderdash” he refused to answer the summons to say what he knew. He even at a point threatened to sue the Senate for inviting him.
An intriguing twist to this tale (which is why this Osinbajo panel is highly questionable) was that when the Senate suggested that President Buhari should fire Babachir, Buhari, on 24th January this year, wrote a letter to the Senate saying he could not oblige them because the same Babachir who had refused to appear before the Senator Shehu Sani Committee, was not given fair hearing!
This presidential assertion flew in the face of the true facts of the matter, as the Senate’s letter inviting Babachir was acknowledged by a Permanent Secretary in the SGF’s office, while paid adverts to the same effect were published in four national dailies. Could the President pretend he was unaware of Babachir’s stubborn refusals to appear before the Senate, including his threat to sue over his summons?
With this as the background to the story, questions naturally arise as to the real purpose of the Osinbajo panel, which also has as its members Buhari’s other close political family members such as the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Shehu Malami, and the National Security Adviser, NSA, retired Major General Babagana Monguno. David Babachir Lawal, who was the first to start campaigning for Buhari’s second term even while the President was seriously sick in London, couldn’t find himself in safer hands if the idea is to use the Osinbajo panel to deodorise him with a clearance.
The Osinbajo panel is not a politically credible platform to determine Babachir’s innocence or otherwise. It will not promote the war on corruption. Rather, it will deepen the perception that the Buhari regime would go to any length to protect exposed persons within his political family while fighting the opposition in the name of fighting corruption.
The only credible thing to do is to ask the Senate to kindly indulge Babachir with another invitation to come personally and clear himself. The Senate is the only body that can do so without bias since it represents all interest groups in the country. The other option is the courts or a judicial panel.
As for Ambassador Oke, the story is not much different. Indeed, Nigerians need answers from him as to how the NIA came by the money, what it was doing in an unguarded house, what his wife has to do with it and why it was not used for the so-called “covert operation” more than two years after it was allegedly approved the former President as he told us. This case goes beyond mere corruption. There is also the political angle, where the Rivers State Government is claiming ownership of it because of the name of its former governor linked to it.
I do not trust the three-man Osinbajo panel to tell Nigerians the truth if indeed a prominent serving minister who is seen to have heavily bankrolled the APC’s rise to power is involved. It is in the interest of the Buhari regime to subject Babachir Lawal and Ayo Oke to an unbiased probe to save its anti-corruption campaign. Again, the only way this can be achieved is to constitute an independent panel, with the Media and Civil Society as members.
The Osinbajo panel is too politically involved to determine the culpability or otherwise of Babachir Lawal and Ayo Oke. It must be disbanded immediately and the case reassigned to an impartial panel.