One week into the new year, Tuesday, January 9, the air in Abuja was dry, dusty, and clammy. The nation’s capital was sluggishly waking into a new rhythm of calm and relative order after the chaos of the Christmas season prompted by a debilitating fuel crisis.
That day, at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency [NIA], in the south-east corner of Maitama district of the city, Mohammed Dauda, the then acting director of the agency was getting ready for an official briefing with President Mohammed Buhari. It was his first of such briefing after he was plucked out of the Nigerian embassy in the Republic of Chad October last year, to come serve as acting head of the spy agency tasked with overseeing foreign intelligence and counterintelligence operations.
Last year April, the NIA became the butt of a bumpy controversy on account of a botched undercover operation and a $43million lodgement at an Ikoyi apartment that eventually led to the suspension and subsequent investigation of Mr. Ayodele Oke, a career diplomat and erstwhile director general of the agency.
Dauda the NIA boss in cheery mood
When Mr. Dauda emerged from his meeting, according to Premium Times sources at the Aso Rock Villa, he was in “such an expansive and cheery mood,” and it started looking as if he was now on an assured path to reinforcing his position, and probably earning confirmation as substantive head of the agency.
As ambassador to Chad, a major theatre in the war against the Boko Haram insurgency, and with a pedigree in financial and economic crimes intelligence, two of the major organised crimes posing severe and existential threats to the national image profile, agency insiders say Mr. Dauda, with his added ecumenical, even if under-stated, mien had the requisite qualities for the new office.
He had reasons to be upbeat. Dauda, like many appointees of the Buhari presidency, invariably carried a badge of needless uproar. In his case, the man he will be directly reporting to, the National Security Adviser to the president, Mr. Babagana Munguno, a retired Major General, and a fellow Kanuri, was unaware of and was certainly not consulted on, his appointment. For the two months now that he has served at NIA, Mr. Dauda was forced to walk a delicate balance, trying tirelessly to build trust and confidence internally, and in the immediate outer-rim of the NIA political universe.
Two events, the very next day, will finally change all that for Mr. Dauda.
First, in the early hours of Wednesday, January 10, an operational truck of State Security Services [SSS] agents drove quietly towards the eastern end of the city and pulled up at the gate of Defence House in the Maitama District. They wanted to see the Chief of Staff to the President, Mr. Abba Kyari, and their mission, they said, was to defend Kyari, a usually taciturn but fiercely loyal acolyte of the president in the event of an attempted arrest.
Administration sources told Premium Times at the weekend that the orders for the SSS deployment came directly from the director general of the agency, Mr. Lawal Daura.
The NNPC TSA controversy
At the beginning of October last year, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, found itself at the centre of a scandal that it was flouting the government's policy on TSA accounts, by failing to remit N50 billion of its income and interests from five banks. The scandal attempted to smear Mr. Kyari, claiming he provided the directive for the NNPC to bypass the TSA account.
The NNPC, through its public communication office, strongly shot back saying, “By virtue of the operations of the NNPC, the Corporation had made series of compelling cases to the Presidency and the Central Bank of Nigeria to allow certain categories of accounts operate outside the TSA, as they contain co-mingled funds governed by detailed agreements with local and international implications. It concluded that to “claim that the Chief of Staff single-handedly approved these exemptions was not only unfair but is a complete misrepresentation of facts to mislead the general public.”
Political and security sources familiar with the matter, in Abuja, said both the NSA’s office and the presidency became sufficiently worried about the story and got the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission [EFCC] to show interest in the matter. The spokesman for the commission, Mr. Wilson Uwujaren, suggested he was unaware of this claim but promised to broach it with the upper deck of the organisation and get back. His phone became unreachable through the weekend. The EFCC boss, Mr. Ibrahim Magu, in response to PREMIUM TIMES inquiries later disclaimed that operatives of his agency were on any such assignment.
Interpreting all these manoeuvres from the sidelines, the director general of the SSS, Lawal Daura, reportedly felt a sense of nefarious intent, and in response, rapidly deployed the team of armed operatives to forestall any eventuality. “It was like a preemptory move” a source told PREMIUM TIMES. This will be the second time that Daura would muscularly wade into an interagency storm on perceived grounds of “EFCC’s operational overreach.” About two months ago, on November 21, the SSS triggered an inter-agency war with the EFCC when it frustrated an attempt to arrest the former head of the NIA, Ayo Oke, and former head of the SSS, Ita Ekpeyong, from their homes on Mamman Nasir Street in the Asokoro district of Abuja.
The drama at Defence House
Defence House is one of the presidential guest houses in Abuja, and among its famous occupants, these days has been the president himself who used it as his transition home before his inauguration in 2015. Currently, however, the two most celebrated occupiers of the posh real estate are Mr. Kyari and Mr. Babagana Munguno, whose houses are adjacent to each other.
The Kyari-Munguno relationship is one of the utmost fascinating and defining narratives of the Buhari presidency, one which a presidential aide, in response to questions from PREMIUM TIMES for the reporting of this story, characterized as “a truly enthralling history of animosity.”
Both men, from the same Kanuri stock, entrenched within the topmost rack and influential ladder of the administration, represent, by all indication, the spiky edges of the problematic policy-making space of the Buhari presidency.
With the SSS agents prowling the perimeter of the Kyari household, this Wednesday, all armed to the teeth, Mr. Munguno, according to sources, could not hide his shock when he encountered them as he made ready to head to work. “Who are these men?” he reportedly asked, in anger and distaste. In a short while after, a truck load of soldiers, ordered by Mr. Munguno, had descended on Defence House with a mission to disarm the SSS agents. After some indecent trade in language, reasons prevailed, and both combatants, the soldiers and the SSS operatives, went back to their bases.
The very next day, Thursday, the president met separately with Mr. Monguno and then with Mr. Kyari, according to sources, in the effort to mend the breached relationship of his two principal aides. Later that night, the presidency issued a statement announcing the appointment of Ahmed Rufai Abubakar, a senior special adviser to the president as the substantive head of the NIA. Abubakar, a polyglot who is reputed to “speak and write excellently in French, English, and Arabic” was previously a director at the United Nations Political Office for West Africa in Dakar Senegal where he oversaw the patterns of conflict, peacebuilding, and the democratic transition in the region.
As in the case of Mr. Dauda’s appointment, again, Mr. Munguno, who had been reportedly prepping another candidate for the job, heard of this announcement, which he ought to have had a hand in determining, like every Nigerian through the late new hours. It was a humbling and stinging jolt on the NSA’s profile. This was a particularly neutralizing episode in the thorny relationship of the two presidential aides whose contrastive visions regarding policy directions of the administration had now come full circle. In this particular case, Mr. Dauda, who himself heard of his replacement over the news, turns out as a victim of an enormous power play that acutely expresses the Buhari political cosmos.
The Magu conundrum
No unique issue, however, best describes the divergent vision of the Kyari-Munguno challenge so unambiguously as the question of Mr. Magu’s continued suitability for the office of the anti-corruption czar of the country.
During the long Christmas and New Year holiday, the team of Mr. Kyari; the interior minister, Bello Dambazau; the DG of the SSS, Mr. Daura; and the Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Malami convinced the president to remove Magu who they thought had become a major liability to the progress of the administration. The president reportedly advised them to clear with his vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, a law professor who, with Mr. Monguno remain the two prominent life-lines of Magu in the administration.
When Mr. Osinbajo returned from his holiday trip to Dubai, they met with him and tabled the request arguing that Magu had become a burden for the administration, stalling progress on the budget and several other engagements with the National Assembly for which, in their view, the president was suffering costly reputational haemorrhage.
They illustrated their claims with several appointments awaiting confirmation at the Senate. The vice president reportedly told them that the international community as indeed many Nigerians continue to credit the Buhari administration on account of its anti-corruption profile, and that “removing Magu would send a dangerously wrong signal in an election year.”
According to those familiar with the exchange, Mr. Osinbajo suggested that in the event of a Magu transition, a fitting position for him would be an elevation as Special Adviser on anti-corruption in the presidency while a new chair for the EFCC is appointed.
Irreversibly committed to the removal of Mr. Magu, the group is said to be uncomfortable with the arrangement. In the larger narrative of the Kyari-Monguno relationship, presidency sources reason that matters have gotten to a peak where one of them will have to eventually cancel the other for peace to reign.