President Muhammadu Buhari’s inaugural address was too drab for such a momentous occasion. But it had a singular line that mercifully redeemed the entire speech: ‘’I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody’’.
That line –easily the sole memorable and quotable part of that address –intrigued Nigerians. It had the disguise and the mystique of a proverb. And the Nigerian commentariat worked feverishly to decode it.
They proffered interpretations that were mostly similar. The phrase, they hazarded, had to be Buhari’s promise that he would not be beholden to his ethnic group, religion or political party. He would be an impartial leader. He would be fair to all.
Some speculated that the line was Buhari’s declaration of personal independence. It was his genteel warning to the wealthy individuals who bankrolled his campaign in the hope that he would be their pliant stooge. He meant to tell them that he won’t be their puppet. He would be his own man. He would be loyal to the generality of the Nigerian people.
At the peak of this discourse on 'I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody', it would have taken an extraordinary amount of cynicism to predict that Buhari would need only one year in office to create an all-time high record in nepotism!
But that's a present day reality.
In this relatively short time, Buhari has managed to accomplish the feat of populating his administration with more family members than any past Nigerian head of state, military or civilian, ever ventured to attempt.
In a PUNCH interview published last Saturday, Dr. Junaid Mohammed reeled off appointments that bear out President Muhammadu Buhari’s peerless record in nepotism.
President Buhari appointed Abba Kyari, the foster child of his nephew, Mamman Daura, Chief of Staff to the President.
Buhari appointed Duara’s son Personal Assistant to the President.
Buhari appointed Lawal Abdullahi Kazaure, Daura’s son-in-law, the State Chief of Protocol.
Buhari appointed Mohammed Lawal Abubakar, the husband of his elder sister’s granddaughter, Aide de Camp to the President,
Buhari appointed Sabiu ‘Tunde’ Yusuf, his sister’s grandson, another Personal Assistant to the President.
Buhari appointed Aisha Abubakar, the daughter of the younger sister of Daura’s wife, the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment.
No Nigerian leader has pushed nepotism this far. No Nigerian head of state has had the shamelessness to embarrass himself on this scale. None of them deigned to turn the rare privilege of holding the highest position in the land into an excuse to openly prioritize their family members in appointments –like Buhari.
The president has the constitutional power to staff the executive branch of the government. That is not in doubt. But it is a most embarrassing trivialization of that power, the most extensive vested in one office in Nigeria, for a steward of that authority, a person elected to exercise it on behalf of the generality of Nigerian people, to make it an instrument for advantaging the members of his own family.
Buhari’s overreach in nepotism is mind-boggling. It beats common sense. And it is reflective of his lack of bigheartedness and narrow field of vision, important factors that will guarantee his underachievement as president.
It is sheer foolishness for a president with a constituency of 175 million citizens to make his inner circle the sum of the capacities of some of his relatives. Buhari’s inner circle ought to reflect the riches and diversity of Nigerian talent. His reduction of the presidency to a family affair is self-deprivation. With a crowd of family members at the center of his official orbit, he is without a healthy debate climate and multiform perspectives. He is at the mercy of the groupthink of his relatives, people whose overfamiliarity with him and sense of entitlement would be a liability.
A small country, a dot on the world map, can afford an incestuous presidency. But it is a potentially expensive experiment to try in the most populous and heterogeneous country in Africa, in a fragile Nigeria. It is dangerous to have a real-life arrangement wherein the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria spends all his work hours surrounded by a hedge of closest aides that are his family members.
It is hostage taking. It gives these folks the opportunity to wield outsize influence over the president and his decision making. It gives them the room to sedate and manipulate him, to shield him from outside alternative views, to make him a prisoner of their own worldview.
The optics of this gratuitous nepotism is too ugly. Buhari’s inner circle has the appearance of a conspiracy. A cabal. A brotherhood bound by blood and history.
This is damaging. It serves to repudiate the argument in favor of the furtherance of a vulnerable Nigerian idea that is, at the moment, being vigorously challenged and attacked by disaffected secession canvassers and anarchist ethnic militias. It fortifies the case of promoters of the dismemberment of Nigeria. They ask: If the president is unapologetically privatizing power within his family circle when his urgent tasks should be calming the agitating parts of Nigeria and making gestures of inclusiveness, why should anyone remain invested in preserving Nigeria’s unity?
During the last presidential campaigns, Buhari lent himself to a brand makeover operation aimed at rebutting the myth of his clannishness and making him likable enough to be electable. He consented to the inconvenience of being costumed in various ethnic outfits because he was desperate to make a success of his fourth run.
He knew that the trivial issue of his readiness to parade himself in an exotic cloth mattered to the average Nigerian voter. The experience of his three consecutive failed bids had taught him that it was the measure by which the electorate judged the cosmopolitan outlook of the presidential nominee of a major political party. And that he would jeopardize a winnable election by clinging to his babaringa.
After winning the election, Buhari has retrieved himself from his image managers. He has cleaned his wardrobe of those election season wears and renounced the symbolism of that pageantry. He has retreated to his life of ethnic snobbery. And he is currently doing his level best to actively assault the sensibilities of Nigerians with it.
Right now, Nigerian security agencies are headed almost exclusively by Northerners. It didn't happen by wild coincidence. Buhari made it so. He is disposed to appointing people from his neck of the woods and throwing in one or two more outsiders into the scheme of things ...as an afterthought!
In the early days of his administration, Buhari raised hopes that he would compose the most competent Executive Council of The Federation in Nigerian history. He was the candidate of ‘change’. He would jettison the old order of cronyism. He would set a precedent for meritocracy. He would nominate Nigeria’s finest technocrats and professionals.
Buhari promised that he won’t appoint garden variety politicians as ministers. He said he was ‘looking for’ people of integrity. He would need ample time to make a thorough search. Nigeria was a moral wasteland. Only a few upright citizens that could pass his integrity test.
It was a false claim and a collective insult. Still, Nigerians did not take offence. They thought he had set high standards for his prospective picks. The nominees would be clean Nigerians with compelling resumes, track records of notable achievements and a leaning towards twenty first century ideas.
That was not to be. Buhari did not deliver. He nominated… his friends!
It was a wretched anticlimax. The protracted hide and seek culminated in Nigerians being introduced to a largely familiar and mediocre cast. It was a veritable scam. Buhari took two months to recall the names of his friends and another two months to pen them down for senate confirmation hearing!
Here’s an instance of a nepotistic misjudgment that you would never have imagined a sensible Nigerian president would make in this hour: Buhari, who appropiated the portfolio of the Minister of Petroleum, recently constituted the board of directors of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. He loaded the dice with Northern names and grudged a token mention to the oil producing region of the Niger Delta.
Such a skewed board composition for any federal agency would have been improper at any time. It is even more so for NNPC in this moment when Niger Delta militants are bombing oil installations and crashing Nigeria’s oil revenue earnings in the name of protesting against the marginalization of the Niger Delta people.
Buhari, nonetheless, did more. He added insult to injury. In a show of abject indiscretion, he injected Abba Kyari, his Chief of Staff, into the board!
The Chief of Staff to the President is ideally the busiest man in the presidency. His office is the engine room of the administration. His job is to manage the president's schedule, regulate his routines, control access to him and supervise staffers of the president’s office. His is a position so strategic and demanding of complete focus and devotion that he is the most ill-suited person to be permitted the luxury of moonlighting!
Yet, Buhari went on to give Kyari a second job…as if Nigeria was so poor in human beings that he couldn't find anybody more qualified than or as competent as the foster child of his nephew!
The reckless pick was a gift to the militants and their 'cause'. Their propagandists and sympathizers made capital out of it. They framed it as a confirmation that Buhari is a defiant nepotist that puts his family ahead of the country.
To the discerning, it would be obvious that Buhari effectively handed over the NNPC board to Kyari. Kyari's membership of that board means that other directors would tend to defer to him. As the most influential personality in the room, one with the weight of the president’s proxy, they will be inclined to avoid any argument with him. This will ensure that Kyari has the last word most of the time.
Buhari has the winner-takes-it-all syndrome. He considers his election a personal triumph and the power of the president a license to dispense patronage. His crass nepotism represents his attempt to reward his family and friends for keeping faith.
His vaulting nepotism is a shame. It is beyond the pale. Love for family and friends should not move the leader of a democratic republic to concentrate power within the circumference of his personal shadow.
He is setting a very atrocious example. For example, under his watch, the heads of the Central Bank of Nigeria, the Federal Inland Revenue Service and the Nigerian Prison Service have conducted scandalous backdoor recruitments that favored only the scions of the privileged. He offered no reprimand. He sanctioned the three cases of apartheid employment... as though he desires to count the institutionalization of nepotism in Nigeria as part of his legacy.
This is quite a shame. It’s a big shame that the man who stood before his countrymen and an attentive global audience and proclaimed ‘’I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody’’ is today making a show of belonging to nepotism!