Ministerial gaffes multiply…

Idowu Akinlotan


Apart from the reservations many Nigerians have about the competence and patriotism of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, they must in addition also endure the awkward manner some cabinet members defend and project a government that has been under attack since its inauguration in 2015. There was of course the embarrassment of not appointing a cabinet early enough, with the president likening ministers to noisemakers. There was also the vexatious matter of the president skewing his appointments, particularly security positions, in favour of the core North, but these were also defended by his supporters as his presidential prerogative. And there was his adamant resolve to discriminate appointments in favour of those who voted for him and against those who rebuffed him; but in the end, he has had to depend on the eyes and ears of shadowy individuals who crystallized and championed his private instincts. Between those early days in office and today, the Buhari administration has done and said so many more things to rile the public and cause intense controversy.

But nothing in the Buhari presidency matches the impertinent gaffes of some of the president’s ministers, gaffes that typify and embody the soul of the administration, gaffes likely to form an important part of the discussions of the legacy of the administration. Not only do ministers make these gaffes, they defend them in a way that makes it hard to determine whether they are just being sycophantic or are genuinely persuaded by what they see and say. President Buhari’s spokesmen have become famous for their gaffes, have been relentless in making them, and are abusive and remorseless in their statements. But that is expected of spokesmen. Ministers are, however, expected to be a little more elevated in what they say, what they think, and how they express themselves. Sadly, instead, they have been unrestrained, crude, no less abusive than presidential spokesmen; and though they are conscious of being tagged sycophantic, nevertheless gush over inanities with the undignified ardour of mercenaries.

Some 10 days ago, reports indicated that Nigeria would soon start importing petroleum products from the less endowed Niger Republic, yes the same neighbouring country with which the Buhari administration has become infatuated, perhaps even obsessed. Last week, aware that the government of which he is oil minister of state was being derided for its insularity, ethnic parochialism and opaque economic justifications, Timipre Sylva decried the criticism and suggested that in fact Nigerians should be proud of looking outwards. Really? And proud? Why, yes of course. As he put it on a Channels TV: “I don’t see that as an embarrassment at all. As a country, Nigeria is a big market, we need products, even if all our refineries were functioning, we will still need extra products. Niger Republic produces oil and they are landlocked as a country. They have a refinery that produces in excess of what they require as a country and they offered to sell to us in Nigeria because this is a bigger market. In the spirit of regional cooperation, regional trade development, we decided to buy from them. I don’t see anything wrong with that. If your neighbour is producing something that is required in your country and you buy from him, why is that a big problem? So, we agreed with Niger to buy the excess of what they don’t require in Niger because this is a big market. Nigerians should be proud that we are doing that to encourage sub-regional trade because we have been talking about sub-regional trade for a long time and this is how it should be between neighbouring countries. Niger should import from us what we have, and we should be able to import from Niger what they have. Let us encourage intra-regional trade, and this is one good example of trading within West Africa.”

Mr Sylva’s ministerial drivel is unsurpassable. The fact is that Nigeria hardly refines any petroleum product today, underlining the fact that public criticism was meant to draw attention to the incompetence of the leaders and the slothfulness of the country as a whole. If small Niger Republic could operate a refinery, reasoned the critics, why could big Nigeria not do the same or perform far better? But the point was lost on the glib and infatuated Mr Sylva. He enthuses over what he sees as Nigeria embracing “regional cooperation and regional trade development”, completely glossing over the fact that Nigeria killed its refineries without really exploiting the economies of scale in crude oil refining at the sub-regional level. Hopefully, they will have opened the borders futilely shut for more than one needless year before they kick-start their oil trade. Nor does Mr Sylva appear to grasp the subtle hint that the public frets at the new national penchant for cuddling northern neighbours to the detriment of other neighbours, a style that suffuses this administration’s scanty and desultory economic policy.

Mr Sylva is unlikely to be embarrassed by anything, at least not by anything in a government that glamorizes everything Niger Republic. After all, he met a policy already glamorized by other ministers before him, not to talk of by the president himself. Apart from importing oil from Niger Republic, the Nigerian government will also be constructing a $1.96bn rail line to that country, and building two roads worth some N30bn from Sokoto and Jigawa States to the same northern neighbour. The Transport minister, Rotimi Amaechi, who should more properly be described as Minister of Railways, defends the rail project as necessary for economic reasons. Presidential spokesman Garba Shehu reiterates the argument in support of the rail project. According to him, “Nigeria isn’t building rail line into Niger Republic, but only to the designated border point. An agreement between Nigeria and Niger in 2015, coordinated by the Nigeria-Niger Joint Commission for Cooperation has a plan for ‘Kano-Katsina-Maradi Corridor Master Plan, (K2M)’ as it is called. Going by this, the two nations would each build a rail track to meet at the border town of Maradi. Nigerian delegates to that meeting comprised officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Boundaries Commission, Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Water Resources as well as those of Kano and Katsina states. The objective of the rail is the harnessing of raw materials, mineral resources, and agricultural produce. When completed, it will serve domestic industries, and play the role of a viable transportation backbone to the West African sub-region, starting with the neighbouring Niger Republic, for their export and import logistic chain.”

Senior administration officials are obviously unaware of the emphasis they put on economic relations between Nigeria and Niger Republic, clearly to the detriment of other neighbouring countries and Nigerian cities and regions. Maradi, to start with, may in this administration’s consideration be the next most important city after Kano and Katsina, but it is not directly located on the border with Nigeria as Mr Shehu tries to suggest. This city of less than 300,000 people is certainly not as economically significant as, say, Cotonou, nor as Port Harcourt, Enugu, Jos and many others. It is undoubtedly culturally significant to Katsina, given their shared histories, but not economically important. The opportunity cost of the road and rail projects to Niger Republic is huge and indefensible. There are more significant road and rail projects within Nigeria that would yield more economic value than the projects swamping Niger Republic which is just a little more populous than Lagos State.

If any gaffe exceeds Mr Sylva’s petroleum products import remarks, it is Mr Amaechi’s Transportation University gaffe. In December last year, the minister happily embraced being described as a sycophant for siting the Transportation University in Daura, the president’s hometown. The incongruousness of the decision did not occur to him, as he insisted that Daura is a Nigerian city anyway. Hear him: “When we sited the wagon factory at Kajola, Ogun State, there was no noise. If by siting this university in Daura, people will call me a sycophant, I would not mind being called a sycophant. Is Daura not in Nigeria? Daura is not in Chad or in Mali. Daura is in Nigeria. What is wrong in siting the university in Daura? Daura is in Nigeria, it is not in any other part of the world. It is not in Niger Republic, Biafra or Mali, it is in Nigeria. So, what is wrong in siting the University of Transportation in Daura? I have no regret siting this university where I have sited it; it is not because I want to get any gain.”

It is clearly impossible to convince Mr Amaechi with logic. His mind is made up, like the other happy gaffe maker, Mr Sylva. Their gaffes epitomize the Buhari administration. They think narrow, and they think hegemonic. The compass means nothing to them to indicate direction. There was a time in the distant, healthy past when Nigerian leaders deliberately refused to site projects in their hometowns. Now they corner projects brazenly, defiantly and eagerly. Honour means nothing to them. If Mr Amaechi was unable to appreciate this delicate fact when he made verbose statements about his honour and character, he is hardly the person to blame. Subordinates always try to ingratiate themselves with their bosses and leaders. It is up to the leaders to see through the thick and dark façade. But when leaders themselves promote the scaffolding for the building, it is not shocking that subordinates will always try to flatter their bosses, including insulting the public and defying and sniggering at the country. But gaffes apart, Nigerians should wonder what other projects would be sited close to the borders to link Nigeria and Niger Republic, almost as if other neighbouring countries to the east and west hardly matter, and quite as if there are no priority projects to link Nigerian cities and regions with one another.

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