Proponents of restructuring in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, to divest Ibe Kachikwu of his double-barreled position of minister of state for petroleum and group managing director of the corporation have, at last, had their way. Last Monday, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina announced that Dr. Maikanti Kacalla Baru had been appointed the new GMD of the corporation with a board headed by Dr. Kachikwu who retained his position as minister of state for Petroleum. May be, that is just as well so that peace will reign within the establishment.
For far too long, speculation about Kachikwu’s departure from the GMD’s job had ruled the media space with irritating frequency triggering, at times, frantic rebuttals from the agency. But as it goes in the popular Nigerian parlance, there is never a smoke without a fire. Kachikwu’s exit was a secret on everyone’s lips except the man who had the power to make it happen. But many had thought that Buhari would not want to tamper with an arrangement that is working optimally, that the timing of such an action, when it became imperative would allow for the deepening of the winning strategy that is being implemented.
Many reasons had been advanced to justify it: that one man should not hold the two most powerful positions in the oil industry, conveniently ignoring the fact that the ultimate position was held by President Buhari who, had he not appropriated the position, still would have overriding powers, including that of removal, over Kachikwu. Or any other minister for that matter. The overwhelming feeling is that the President has capitulated to geopolitical pressures. Worse still, allusions have been made to the exclusion of the southeast zone in the NNPC board as further evidence that the Igbo of the south east have no place in a Nigeria ruled by Buhari.
This has become a recurring feature of PMB’s appointments since he came to power and this has also become increasingly worrying. May be we should remind our President that Ibe Kachikwu comes from the South- South geopolitical zone. While we ruminate over the political implications of the President’s action, good conscience will demand that we first consider how it affects the dramatis personae in this unfolding saga, Ibe Kachikwu himself. Does the President’s action amount to a vote of no confidence on the minister? Or has he discharged the initial mandate that warranted his occupying the two strategic positions at the same time? If Kachikwu were to leave the cabinet today, how will he be remembered? What will be his legacy?
To answer these questions will require looking at his mandate even against the background of his self-professed benchmarks that revolved around the following fundamental issues: professional restructuring of the NNPC anchored on best practices spearheaded by knowledge based leadership, reversing the loses in the NNPC, enthroning transparency and accountability, steadying fuel supply, restoring confidence in industry stakeholders who were suspicious of the motives of Buhari and restoring stability to the Niger Delta through a win-win proposition.
Nearly three quarters of a year later, can we attempt an objective scorecard? What will be the highpoints of his performance? Was the NNPC under the minister able to deliver on the key benchmarks? Is it not possible that the President, satisfied that the expectations had been met, therefore decided on a further restructuring to achieve his best intentions? If so, what are those best intentions? Are they best for the country or just for narrow interests, going by the composition of the board which suggests pacification of known political godfathers and gladiators in the party in power?
However one evaluates the situation, judged by the ministry’s accomplishments within so short a time, it can be argued, without any fear of contradiction, that Kachikwu’s has been one shinning ministerial performance in a rather opaque canvass of questionable administration deliverables. Under him, accountability and transparency have been restored to the operations of the NNPC. The publication of monthly accounts may not mean much to the ordinary Nigerian who is more concerned with food on his table, electricity and water at home, employment for his or her three graduate children and a sound sleep at night and a trip from Abuja to Lokoja without the fear of being kidnapped on the way. However, to oil industry stakeholders, investors and entrepreneurs, it provides a solid mirror for understanding what goes on behind those tightly guarded dollar-incubating towers, analyzing the Nigerian economy and taking investment decisions.
Of course, not even Kachikwu’s detractors will deny that by his handling of the fuel crisis, he established himself as a solid professional, a consummate bargainer and a principled patriot not deterred by the prospect of losing his job in so far as the greater national good was achieved. Talking about patriotism, his willingness to negotiate with the militants implied that not only was his job on the line, even his life could be sacrificed in the process. In spite of the predictable dangers including intra-party and intergovernmental distractions, he has forged ahead with the zeal of a patriot and the consuming passion of a martyr. Is this new arrangement a reward for such brilliance and exceptional dedication and performance? Some doubt it.
Coming immediately after the very successful NNPC road show in Beijing China,where investment MOUs totally over 50 billion US dollars were signed to fast track the administration’s plans for transforming the oil industry, it will amount to a contradiction to interpret the President’s action as a vote of no confidence on Kachikwu. On the other hand, it may well be that in the President’s calculation Kachikwu has delivered on the target set for him. I am more inclined to go with the latter view because I sincerely believe that the President can not reward such performance with a seeming demotion. That being the case, I think there are, at least, three fundamental issues that should be addressed by the President. The first is the timing of the changes especially against the background of the need to have some consistency in driving already initiated platforms to their logical conclusion. Related to the first, we would be naïve to ignore the inevitable power relations that would disrupt the existing order. How this is managed would determine the sustainability of present achievements including relations with external stakeholders. Thirdly, it appears that the President is not bothered by the perception challenges that go with each of his every action as this latest step has oiled the arsenal of those who insist that his government has been grossly unfair to the south east zone of the country. This point has been made by several unbiased commentators that ignoring the South East geopolitical zone in most of the President’s appointment, except for the ministerial positions mandated by the constitution leaves sour taste in the mouth.
Let me conclude on the following notes. One: the change has been made; Baru is an industry insider and a member of Kachikwu’s team. Therefore, he can be expected to deliver on the settled goals of the administration. Second, while Kachikwu’s position as chairman of the NNPC Board guarantees that he retains substantial oversight over the activities of the company, the fact that he is a junior minister can circumscribe his authority and render him vulnerable to humiliation. The way out: unless President Buhari no longer has confidence in him which is doubtful, the most strategic thing to do would be to confirm him as substantive oil minister without delay. That not only confers him with the moral authority to prosecute the existing reform template but the confidence of the Niger Delta militants who, at the moment, could see this thinly veiled demotion as a repudiation of Kachikwu’s promotion of dialogue with the Niger Delta militants.
Considered dispassionately, the President has absolutely nothing to lose by elevating Kachikwu to the substantive position. On the contrary, he has everything to gain. Come to think of it: the electric power situation has gotten worse, food prices have quadrupled and shot through the roof, all the gains from the north east theatre of war have been obliterated by unprecedented insecurity in other parts of the country; these areas, being manned by different ministers, all desperately yearn for the attention of the President who, in a strict sense, is responsible, to the electorate, for their performance or lack of it since the ministers, like Kachikwu,are only exercising delegated authority. Now that the NNPC executive position is gone, it is only proper that in the light of the achievements of the ministry under the Buhari/Kachikwu leadership, the junior minister should be elevated to the substantive position to continue with the good work while the President devotes his time to those areas where the roof is still leaking badly.
On the issue of perception, by excluding the south east from the executive board of the NNPC, the President has inadvertently given fillip to the accusation that he hates the Igbo race. This view is gaining currency everyday and I wonder what his advisers including the NSA are telling him about this patent discrimination. But it is up to the President to consider. If I am to suggest, I will think that by excluding a zone with three oil producing states from the body that decides on the policy framework guiding this natural resource, he may be losing the moral and spiritual foundation of his authority which came, first from God, before it was translated through electoral votes, no matter how it was conjured. In the end, it is up to the President: as the Igbo would put it, he has both the yam and the knife; therefore, the sharing formula remains his prerogative. May The Almighty God grant him the wisdom to rule with justice and fear of God.