Former FCT Minister, Nasir El-Rufai, is at it again. He knows how to get the nation’s attention and how to use damning moments of scrutiny to his advantage and as a way to add luster to his controversial image. He also knows how to profit from our national proclivity to forget, our culture of amnesia. Unfortunately for the ex-minister, not everyone has this national disease of forgetting.
El-Rufai struck again recently. He declared spectacularly that, as the Director General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), the clearinghouse of the government’s massive privatization exercise, he received and rebuffed pressure from ex-president Obasanjo and his deputy, Abubakar Atiku. El-Rufai claimed that the duo approached him to influence the sales of strategic national assets to their preferred bidders and he retorted that due process was sacred. Even more sensational is his claim that he rejected gratification offered him by Globacom chairman, Mike Adenuga and punished a subordinate who helped himself to the offer and later told him about it.
Even by the standards of a nation desensitized to corruption scandals, these are earth-shattering revelations, even if they conform to and confirm what Nigerian’s already believe about the privatization process. Understandably, El-Rufai is basking in these self-serving revelations and in the controversy that it has stirred among Nigerians. Until and unless those indicted by his testimony refute these claims, El-Rufai will milk this episode as he did previous revelations to his public relations advantage.
In the wake of his testimony, the former minister has issued a press release designed to distance himself even more emphatically from the rot of the BPE, a rot so deep that the national assembly committee investigating it may have to extent its work.
But the revelations raise as many questions as they purport to answer about El-Rufai’s stint in government. They are also remarkable for their willful silences as they are for their loud revelations. El-Rufai claims that only one of the many privatization deals he oversaw was poor. Conveniently, he would not tell us which one. We know why. It is because that poor deal is still the most scandalous privatization deal ever executed in Nigerian history. It’s the sale of NITEL to a fraudulent, fly-by-night consortium called PENTASCOPE.
PENTASCOPE, a scandalized nation would learn later, was a hastily formed asset-grabbing front whose central address was traced to an empty warehouse in the Netherlands! We would also learn to our horror when the deal unraveled that the contract papers for the sale was written in Dutch!! All told, Nigeria lost close to N40 Billion on that transaction. Some argue with good reason that the failed transaction, which saw NITEL stripped of its valuable assets by the PENTASCOPE predators, doomed the company to date. NITEL is still a cesspool. Burdened by a mountain of debt, it hemorrhages money and is unable to sustain itself. It has become a drain on the public purse. Because PENTASCOPE and subsequent private managers stripped the company bare, it now has few, if any, suitors willing to pay reasonable money for it.
For those like me who look beyond the sensation of the moment, there is the question of why it took El-Rufai so long to unleash these revelations. There is also the question of whether he would have volunteered this information if he had not been summoned to testify before the senate committee. Then there is the question of why he stayed on in the position of BPE Director General, and became a loyal member of the inner circle of a president who was trying to corruptly snag choice national assets through the BPE. Knowing as he did that Obasanjo was a hypocritical, corrupt leader who mouthed anti-corruption rhetoric by day and engaged in graft by night with attempts to corrupt due process, why did El-Rufai graduate from an Obasanjo appointee to one of the most fanatical defenders of the former president’s integrity?
I recall a particularly telling newspaper interview conducted with El-Rufai and his Obasanjo political family friend, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu. In it the former minister labored so hard to defend Obasanjo against widely circulating allegations of corruption and against ubiquitous and documented evidence of the latter’s corruption. Such evidence included the Transcorp shares; the presidential library scandal; the PTDF largesse; Andy Ubah’s smuggled dollar purchases for Obasanjo’s farms; the revelation that a formerly bankrupt Obasanjo farms now made N30 Million a month, etc. When all else failed and the interviewer, Sam Omatseye, I think, persisted in calling attention to the hollowness of El-Rufai’s defense of Obasanjo’s integrity and to the publicly available evidence of the latter’s corruption, the former minister, in exasperation, claimed that when Obasanjo came to power in 1999, he had only N20, 000 in his bank account. This was supposed to dispel all the chatter that Obasanjo was corrupt in his personal capacity and was also an enabler of corruption—financial and electoral. The poor defender that he was, El-Rufai was oblivious to the fact that that revelation constituted the most damning evidence yet of the monumental corruption of his principal and benefactor. It dramatized the miraculous financial transformation of Obasanjo, a transformation impossible on the strength of legitimate presidential earnings and perks.
So, here is a man, whom by his recent testimony, knew that Obasanjo was a corrupt bully trying to pressure him into favoring his front consortium in the privatization of a juicy national asset. Yet, a few years later, having made his way to the top of Obasanjo’s government, El-Rufai set aside the moral objection to Obasanjo’s corruption that he now claims he felt and appointed himself defender-in-chief of the personal integrity of the same merchant of corruption. And we are supposed to applaud him for his revelations regarding what transpired in that period!
El-Rufai’s defense of Obasanjo’s failed, corrupt presidency continued into the Yar’Adua administration. When the House committee on power revealed that Obasanjo’s government spent between 10 and 18 Billion dollars on the power sector and gave us less power than we had, El-Rufai was the most vocal defender of the regime’s profligate investments in the power sector. He argued farcically that the amount spent on the sector was not $10 Billion or $20 Billion but $5 Billion, as if spending $5 billion dollars on fraudulent contracts and misappropriated allocations to produce more darkness was an honorable proposition deserving praise!
This duplicity should not come as a surprise to perceptive Nigerians. It fits seamlessly into a familiar pattern. In fact, while we are on this subject, this may be the time to do a fairly comprehensive exploration of El-Rufai’s history of making spectacular claims that indict former allies and partners in crime after the fact.
Only recently, the former minister, told us that he had met James Ibori several times in detention in Dubai to recruit him into the effort to get Muhammadu Buhari elected. Realizing that this was a damning information that would spotlight his duplicity and opportunism, the former minister threw in what looked like a tangential aside: that Nuhu Ribadu was a friend of Ibori’s and that the two used to meet in the house of Andy Ubah. Totally unconnected to the subject of his scandalous visits to Ibori, El-Rufai threw that red meat out to deflect attention from himself, to deflect the backlash that he knew would follow his courtship of Ibori. Predictably, the outrage that followed ricocheted to the man El-Rufai always calls his brother and friend, Ribadu.
El-Rufai will throw anyone under the proverbial bus to look good or look less bad. Lost in the debate that followed these revelations is the question of what El-Rufai, a self-proclaimed clean guy, was doing consulting the filthy Ibori in his detention or why he was asking political advice from a man who rose to political prominence through the vilest combination of corruption, violence, betrayal, and anything-goes political tactics? In focusing on the juicy tangential detail of Ribadu’s friendship with Ibori and the meetings the two allegedly held in Andy Ubah’s home, we forgot to interrogate El-Rufai on why he would uphold Ibori as a political asset worth consulting on the strategies of electoral success. He got away then by playing on our appetite for sensational tit-bits and our concurrent disdain for the big canvass.
El-Rufai has gotten away with more insults on our nation than perhaps any politician in Nigeria’s recent history. He finds a way to have it both ways. When he is an insider in the establishment he basks and profits from it. When he is displaced from government, he manages to reestablish himself as an anti-establishment insurgent political activist. His duplicity, opportunism, and willingness to betray benefactors, co-conspirators, and accomplices, as well as his infinite elasticity on matters of morality and principle enable him to construct and maintain this deception. But more than his tricks, we let him do it. Like hungry dogs, we latch onto every red meat he throws at us and forget the fact of his own complicity in what he pontificates on.
In the aftermath of the 2007 elections, El-Rufai told us arrogantly and unabashedly that he and his fellow Obasanjo “boys” imposed Yar’Adua on Nigeria, ensuring that other aspirants were neutralized and that the nomination process was effectively rigged to produce the desired outcome. That desperate act of democratic subversion unleashed one of Nigeria’s worst election rigging sprees, a rigging orgy so thorough even the beneficiary admitted that his mandate was tainted.
That imposition started the disastrous Yar’Adua absentee presidency that in turn inaugurated Jonathan’s reign, whose pain we now endure. In spite of El-Rufai’s imprint on these high national crimes, some of us let him off when he tried to exonerate himself from the 2007 electoral heist, declaring laughably that he thwarted rigging in the FCT and so had nothing to answer for. Even if that were true, which is not the case, where is his contrition for helping to distort and subvert the democratic process for candidate selection? Because some of us let him off he was able to successfully make some populist noises from exile and later from home.
El-Rufai has a knack for claiming that he was at the scene of most of the egregious national crimes of the last twelve years but that he is not a criminal and did not partake in any of them. It is the political equivalent of claiming that you smoke but you don’t inhale. It is a game he plays with ruthless efficiency, relying on our thirst for political sensation. When the former minister was first nominated for a ministerial position he loudly accused the duo of Senators Jonathan Zwingina and Ibrahim Mantu of demanding for a bribe to confirm him. We all cheered and thought we had found a courageous, incorruptible member of the PDP mafia who might be trusted with a cleansing from within. When the two senators fought back and challenged El-Rufai to provide evidence of the alleged shakedown, an opportunistic El-Rufai suddenly and curiously embraced silence.
Later, information leaked out that he had met and quietly resolved his problems with the senators. Some reports even suggested that he recanted and apologized to the senators in exchange for confirmation. El-Rufai acquiesced to the odious PDP family solution that often robs Nigerians of closure in corruption scandals. Assuming that his allegation was true, his subsequent action (or inaction) amounted to a despicable compromise with evil. He had a self-created opportunity to expose and shame sleaze and to emerge a hero of Nigerians’ anti-corruption yearnings. But he put his political interest and the interest of his beloved PDP allies ahead of the nation.
El-Rufai’s modus operandi seems fairly predictable. When in government, he hides and defends the crime of his friends and benefactors like Obasanjo. He hides his own crimes behind the facade that he is a tough technocrat. When outside government, he hides behind hollow anti-government rhetorical posturing. That way, he is able to deftly maintain his relevance in and out of government.
This is the same El-Rufai who, as FCT minister, delighted in awarding choice properties and lands to himself his wives, children, relatives, and friends. He arrogantly admitted this before the national assembly. He and his supporters looked past this clear infraction and sought to muddle public perception of it. They argued that the former minister broke no law and that his family members were entitled to the choice Abuja lands as Nigerian citizens! Have the former minister and his hirelings heard of abuse of office and nepotism?
Why were El-Rufai’s supporters able to secure a pass for the former minister on this blatant, self-confessed corruption? The answer is that El-Rufai, ever the crafty opportunist, found a cause dear to Nigerians’ heart and aligned himself with it: the opposition against Yar’Adua’s incompetent and paranoid regime. He also financed it with his immense personal wealth. He came out of that episode playing the victim of state persecution in an Oscar-worthy performance that many Nigerians lapped up. We never asked the former minister what he was doing with Jimi Lawal, a fugitive from the failed bank tribunal of Abacha’s regime. Or why he was paying millions of naira as starting salary to a female Youth Corper he hired to be his aide with no prior experience.
We always give El-Rufai a pass because he is skillful at manipulating the public mood to his advantage, at aligning opportunistically with every current national outrage. He abandons the cause as soon as it is no longer politically profitable or when it loses credibility.
El-Rufai’s dizzying, chameleonic political transformation in the period between his self-exile and the April elections is instructive. First he praised Jonathan from exile and cursed Yar’Adua at every media opportunity. Allowed to return home by Jonathan, he visited the latter in Aso Rock and spoke positively of him afterwards. He then returned to his beloved PDP and started making the usual political noise about reform. He was an early supporter of Jonathan’s and Nuhu Ribadu’s candidacies, even calling Buhari a political dinosaur and counseling him to vacate the scene for a younger generation of presidential aspirants. He even got into a public media fight with the retired general over this critique.
Then, in a summersault dramatic enough for an Olympic medal in gymnastics, El-Rufai turned on his former friends and preferred candidates, Jonathan and Ribadu. The crass opportunist that he is, he saw the mass movement in his native North in support of Buhari’s presidency and the virulent, potentially violent hatred for the PDP and its Northern members. He ran to Buhari, the same old, spent force of his recent critique. Opportunistic criticisms of Ribadu and Jonathan followed to convince the Buhari folks that he was not a mole and to ingratiate himself with the Northern political icon and his supporters. This, he reckoned, would secure for him immunity from the coming anti-PDP wave. He was right in his opportunistic calculations. He was spared the anti-PDP rage that followed the elections in several Northern states.
This duplicitous, dishonorable, and deceptive political behavior was as opportunistic as it was disgusting. Yet, he found a way to shift our focus from his insincerity. He got us to view him instead as a victim of Jonathan’s persecution. He played the victim card once more in the wake of the elections, citing his support for Buhari as the source of his trial for the self-admitted award of choice lands to fronts and family. And some Nigerians bought the crap, as if Jonathan’s well-known and well- documented poverty of statecraft and his intolerance for critique erases or excuses El-Rufai’s crimes.
When El-Rufai is in government and basking in its licit and illicit perks, he says little about the malfeasance that goes on and even defends it. When out of government and at risk of being asked to account for his role in the crimes of state, he cowardly and opportunistically recoils behind the rhetoric of victimhood that he knows will strike a chord with Nigerians. He is always asking us to believe that he witnessed many crimes but didn’t partake in them.
With the resonance of the victimhood tact wearing thin, El-Rufai has now resorted to another gimmick to curry public sympathy and deepen our amnesia on his infractions. He has taken to writing social commentary lamenting the rot in the health, education, and other sectors of our troubled country. Thankfully, Nigerians seem to have wised up to his antics and are asking him about the sudden display of social conscience and about why he did not raise these critiques and issues when he was a first-among-equals member of the Federal Executive Council.
Even his friends at Next, a paper in which he is a major investor, seem to have gotten weary of El-Rufai’s deceptions and direct or indirect roles in several unfolding national scandals.
We may be an amnesiac nation but we have to resist and reject more insults from the pen and mouth of El-Rufai.