TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI [email protected]
Senator Ahmed Lawan is the incumbent Senate President of Nigeria, having won the election into that office, 79-28, beating his rival, Senator Ali Ndume of the same ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Lawan was the anointed candidate of his party, the APC, but he worked hard to negotiate with and secure the support of other members of the Senate across party lines. He secured a bi-partisan victory in such a convincing manner that has caused turmoil in the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Nigeria’s main opposition party.
The PDP has since ordered an investigation into how its National Assembly members voted contrary to the party’s directives. The PDP must pursue that course with extreme caution in order not to shoot itself in the foot. But what has Ahmed Lawan done with his victory and what has been the fall-outs?
Immediately after his declaration and inauguration as Senate President of the 9th National Assembly on June 11, he and his equally “anointed” Deputy, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege went straight to the Aso Rock Presidential Villa to pay homage to President Muhammadu Buhari. When they got there, Ovie Omo-Agege whose role in the 8th National Assembly was controversial, knelt down before the President as if he was in front of a demi-god. In Africa, some Presidents consolidate power so much in their persons, that people actually worship them. Ovie-Agege knelt down; Nigerians cried out in criticism.
I didn’t join that needless outcry, because from the looks on Omo-Agege’s face, he came across like the kind of guy who would even have preferred to prostrate before the President, and if he was asked to jump up in the air, he would gladly have done so. It is part of African culture to pay respects to elders, but a “Kabiyesi syndrome” as poet laureate Niyi Osundare once put it, persists in Nigerian politics. Men and women of power are treated like monarchs and there is never a short supply of acolytes, relying on culture and custom, curtsying and genuflecting, masking what is in reality, opportunistic sycophancy.
Ahmed Lawan’s first act in office (his urgent and prompt visit to the Presidential Villa) became an issue because he had promised that he would not run a rubber-stamp Senate, and that the 9th National Assembly (the Senate President is the Chairman of the National Assembly) under his watch, while seeking a harmonious and qualitative relationship with the Executive arm of government, would act only strictly in the interest of the Nigerian people and in line with the legislature’s Constitutional mandate.
Rushing off to go and “kiss” the President’s feet, just hours after being inaugurated didn’t send the right signals to an observant public. The newly elected Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives would soon follow in tow, but those ones at least allowed one or two days to pass. The dynamics of power in African democracies more or less subordinates one arm of government to the other, structurally and unjustifiably, but the sad part is how those who should ensure the integrity of spaces wilfully violate them.
Shortly after President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration was inaugurated for a second term on May 29, 2019, his first assignment in office was to jet off to Saudi Arabia for a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Barely 10 days before then, he was shown observing the Umrah (lesser hajj) in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. The incumbent Senate President, Ahmed Lawan and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila have both followed in the President’s footsteps, visiting Saudi Arabia, either before or after their emergence as heads of the National Assembly.
The number of trips that have been made to Saudi Arabia by the Nigerian ruling elite, before, during and after the 2019 general elections deserves an independent and rigorous study of its own for all its connotations. These trips are not limited to religious observances, there have been reports of interactions with Saudi officials. Even Christian officials working for the Buhari administration have had to visit Saudi Arabia, decked in traditional Saudi garbs.
For more than the reasons of spiritual pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia has always been Nigeria’s strategic partner, but the kind of Saudi Arabian sycophancy that the current government has been demonstrating is the most bizarre that I have seen. Our embassy in Saudi Arabia must be the busiest mission that we have. Were Saudi Arabia to allow dual citizenship, many of our political leaders would have since joined the queue to beg for Saudi citizenship. For now, they have just turned it into their second London and they go and return, and do not fail to flaunt the trips in our face.
But whereas, we may cite the aforementioned illustrations as evidence of Senator Ahmed Lawan’s attempts to be like the boss, he eventually took a significant step to assert his independence and demonstrate that he has a mind of his own. The fact that he abandoned that attempt in the face of harassment and intimidation, indeed his cowardice in the face of pressure, and how that could well be a sad indication of what to expect, is the bigger point of this commentary. Six days ago, the Senate President Ahmed Lawan, unlike President Buhari, “hit the ground running” by announcing the appointment of his aides. President Buhari is yet to appoint any personal or official aides, his former aides continue to work for him by conduct in utter violation of Sections 151 and 171 of the Constitution.
Lawan took the right step of announcing his aides. He retained three media aides who worked with his predecessor, Senator Bukola Saraki – Senate President of the 8th National Assembly. These are Mohammed Isa, Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Olu Onemola, Special Assistant on New Media, and Tope Brown, Special Legislative Assistant on Photography. He retained another Saraki aide: Dr. Betty Okoroh. He further announced Dr. Festus Adedayo, former Special Adviser Media to former Governor Chimaroke Nnamani (Enugu State) and Senator Abiola Ajimobi (Oyo State), and a journalist with the Nigerian Tribune newspapers as his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity.
By retaining former aides of Senator Bukola Saraki, a former Senate President who had been declared persona non grata by the Presidency and the ruling APC, Lawan was obviously looking at continuity. He didn’t want to start his career as Senate President on a tabula rasa. It helps to have in place persons with institutional memory who may know where all the corpses in the office are buried.
Part of the problem we have in the governance process in Nigeria is that every new person who assumes an office believes that the first thing to do is to get rid of staff who may have worked with the predecessor and who may still be loyal to that predecessor. Lawan took the moral high ground. He showed confidence by re-appointing some of the persons who worked with Bukola Saraki. Then, he chose as the head of his media team, a man who has been very critical of the Buhari administration and even of him. By Adedayo’s account himself, Lawan said he was looking for a man who could get the job done. Certainly, Festus Adedayo has the experience and the skills to deliver on the job. When I was approached about two years ago to provide a shortlist of persons who could act as spokesperson for a government agency, he was one of the top favourites on the short list that I submitted. Festus Adedayo has the know-how, the intellectual heft, the street wisdom, the personality, and the courage to do a job that I consider, in retrospect, the most suicidal job in government.
As things have turned out, Festus Adedayo’s appointment as Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to Senate President Ahmed Lawan became the latter’s first major test. An APC mob crawled out of the woods to demand that this was an unacceptable choice. Adedayo was accused of having written a series of anti-Buhari, anti-Lawan, and anti-APC articles in the Nigerian Tribune where he runs a column titled “Flickers” and also works as an editorial board member.
Social media herdsmen pursuing this line of argument created a #sackFestusAdedayo handle online and within 24 hours they were in everyone’s face urging that Festus Adedayo does not deserve to get such a high office in a government that he had consistently disparaged and under a President for whom he seems to have no respect. Passages from Festus Adedayo’s writings were copied, pasted and distributed. He was accused of trying to reap where he did not sow. Those who claimed they worked to ensure APC’s victory and Ahmed Lawan’s emergence as Senate President protested that they had been insulted and marginalized.
They talked about the soup that they had prepared and now that the food was ready, it would be most unfair to invite an enemy to the table. Festus Adedayo was accused of having no shame, to have done so much damage condemning a party and a government, and to have the temerity to attend an interview for a job under the same government and believe that he could be allowed to take the job. He was labelled an enemy and an unprincipled person.
He was asked to go and get a job from the PDP. “You can’t eat where you did not help to prepare the food”, they told him! The way the APC mob was talking about “soup”, “food”, and “juicy positions”, an outsider following the entire saga would think the Nigerian political arena is one big kitchen where Nigerians fight over food, soup and fruit juice, rather than a democracy. There was so much talk about whose stomach should consume the food that the APC had prepared in Ahmed Lawan’s kitchen. We were even told that the APC has seasoned media managers who have worked and suffered and now that it is dinner-time, outsiders should be kept out.
In less than 48 hours, there was a press statement relieving Festus Adedayo of his appointment. This must be one of the shortest-lived appointments in Nigeria since 1999. Senator Lawan acted too prematurely and cowardly. He succumbed to blackmail. He may have been intimidated by the fact that the wife of the President, Aisha Buhari also waded into the matter with a widely circulated tweet, but he should have restrained himself from rushing to judgement. He interviewed Festus Adedayo. He didn’t just appoint him without a prior check.
To sack him so hurriedly just because of the harassment of the APC mob shows cowardice, lack of principles, and an abject moral stature. He says he will not be a rubber stamp Senate President. He has just rubber stamped the wish of the APC herdsmen on social media. So, if tomorrow an opposition candidate opposes an Executive motion on the floor of the Senate, and we have the APC Senate gang screaming, what would he do? A man who cannot stand by his own choice and principles is a weakling whose politics cannot be trusted.
Senator Ahmed Lawan, who was brought to office on a bi-partisan basis must show greater confidence going forward. He must be the Senate President of all Nigerians not a Senate President that shakes and dithers when either the wife of the President or a frustrated APC mob sneezes. I have been told by a guest on The Morning Show – which I co-anchor on Arise News, Channel 416 on DSTV – (I will not mention the guest’s name because we intend to invite him again) that it would have been better if Festus Adedayo did not accept the appointment in the first place, and that persons in the public place should always stand by their own beliefs and not seek to benefit wherever there is food to be served. Festus Adedayo has already defended himself in characteristically sturdy and lyrical prose. But I told the fellow I hope the professional political class will also abide by the moral code that he prescribes. He merely repeated his position.
It seems to me, overall, that the ruling APC is mismanaging its success by adopting in most cases a winner-takes-it-all attitude, sheer intolerance, post-election and the needless dictatorship of the APC Headquarters. The only exception to this rule is probably the Dapo Abiodun administration in Ogun State where after the election, all stakeholders have been invited to be part of an inclusive process instituted by Governor Abiodun.
I am told, however, that he is also under pressure from the APC to keep “enemies” away from the “kitchen.” The situation is worse in Edo and Bauchi states where infantile politics, and ego-conflict are on full display over the inauguration of the State Houses of Assembly and the election of principal officers. The APC must be reminded that Nigeria belongs to all of us whatever creed we subscribe to. The prevalent Manichean interpretation of power: them vs. us; winners vs. losers belongs to the age of Thomas Hobbes. There was a time after the 2019 general elections that President Muhammadu Buhari talked about inclusion – but there has been nothing inclusive so far since he assumed office for a second time. It is dangerous that other levels of government are beginning to emulate and mutate the arrogance of the APC.
When there is inclusion, the advantage is a no-brainer: when a so-called enemy is brought into the fold, he automatically becomes a friend, because clearly, there is no way a Festus Adedayo as spokesperson for Ahmed Lawan would have continued to criticize and condemn either Lawan’s Senate Presidency or the Federal Government. Nobody saw that or they thought it didn’t matter.
Alimentary politics blocks vision and reason. Perhaps seeing how Adedayo has been treated, Olu Onemola, who used to work for Saraki, has rejected his re-appointment by Lawan. This is not a good sign- Lawan should note that. I urge Senator Ahmed Lawan to avoid this kind of situation in the future. Critics are not destroyers. They are also part of the national common project. Nobody should be subjected to an apartheid treatment or the politics of segregation just because they express a different opinion. Central to all of this is the failure to understand the difference between the job of a journalist and the job description of a spokesperson. I reserve the commentary on that subject for another occasion.