Toyin Akinosho’s piece titled: ‘Baru’s triumphant return: Be Afraid! Be very afraid’ that appeared in the THISDAY edition of Tuesday, August 16, 2016, leaves us with much food for thought as the President Muhammadu Buhari Administration strives to engineer a paradigm shift away from the governance environment that has left Nigeria’s economy prostrate. If my understanding of his piece is correct, the central theme is that Makanti Baru, who replaced Ibe Kachikwu as group managing director of the NNPC is not fit to spearhead the envisioned paradigm shift being, himself, a scion of the old order that architected the rot in the petroleum sector. But that is a moot point.
Being an industry insider, Akinosho’s piece was prodigiously laced with rich information on those technical details that transcend the immediate concern of the common man. However, it also contained some serious contradictions that, left unattended to, could do incalculable damage to the reputation of Kachikwu, minister of state, petroleum. While the body of the article gives due recognition to Kachikwu’s effort to get the IOCs to the negotiation table, the intro is awash with broadsides that not only taint the minister’s competence but cast aspersions on his integrity.
Let me quote Akinosho here: “There are reasons to believe that Kachikwu could have done a much better job than he did in his year long position as NNPC GMD. He tended to over promise and under deliver. He began too many experiments with little or no planning. He talked too much. He had a re-organisation that changed a few titles and increased NNPC’s already unacceptable opex by creating a number of pointless and expensive senior positions. And he could not perfume away the “smell” of corruption around him: he seemed enthusiastic about every “lucrative” transaction, one of them reportedly blocked by the Presidency”.
From the outset, it will be completely naïve if not hypocritical to contest the view that Kachikwu could have performed better than he did. The same point could be made about every other minister. As a matter of fact, not a few persons have gone ahead to completely write off the entire Buhari cabinet cum administration as a misfit, indeed, an unmitigated disaster. But is that correct? My answer is no. First, any assessment of public officers without considering the environment of their operations will miss the point flatly. This is not about who caused the rot or when the rot set in. Truth is that Buhari inherited an economy that was already on its knees. It doesn’t matter what the statistics said.
Now, if, as Akinosho posits, vested interests within the NNPC were resisting change, is it any surprise therefore that Kachikwu could not have delivered to the expectations of Nigerians or his self-appointed benchmarks? In spite of that, Kachikwu’s performance, particularly with respect to the fuel crisis, will go down as one of the stellar displays of the Buhari Administration so far. His was frank, bold and positive. Even when the National Assembly tried to brow beat him into a corner, his response was as brilliant as it was reassuring. To wit, his position on the fuel issue carried the day: for the first time in the annals of our country, we were able to achieve a substantial deregulation of fuel prices with concomitant amelioration of the scarcity without the country going up in flames. If that is not a major achievement, I wonder what is.
Again, I wonder what Akinosho meant when he said that Kachikwu talked too much. The man was in the eye of the storm. For over one month, nothing else mattered in the country except the fuel situation. Everybody was on his neck: oil marketers, commuters, transporters, legislators, the media, the organized private sector, even his party men! I guess that it was in the context of the crisis that the issue of over promising and under delivering plays up. But if it had to do with his road map, one can only sympathize with this ‘outsider’ who, bristling with private sector ideas and energy, enthusiastically embraced his mandate with uncommon passion and unaccustomed patriotism only to be ambushed by Nigeria’s debilitating intrigue network.
Of course, I had excused myself from the somewhat technical aspects of Akinosho’s presentation. But how does one reconcile Akinosho’s acknowledgement that Kachikwu had taken the unprecedented step of getting the IOCs back to the negotiating table to tackle the JVC cash call problem that had lingered for over two decades and at the same time suggesting that he did not deliver as expected?. Was he supposed to solve a challenge that had lingered for two decades within twelve months? I doubt that most other ministers or heads of strategic national assets could have recorded the level of success Kachikwu achieved within so short a time.
And that leads to Akinosho’s thinly disguised indictment of Kachikwu on the transparency scale. The ordinary interpretation of the allegation that he could not perfume away the “smell” of corruption around him is that he was greedy, that he probably engaged in insider dealings or was out rightly corrupt. He talked about a transaction allegedly stopped by the Presidency but fails to give details of the transaction, when it happened or the parties involved. Akinosho needs no reminding that such innuendoes, sooner than later, begin to acquire lives of their own and are repeatedly recycled by mischievous elements to discredit solid technocrats like Kachikwu whose interest in joining the Buhari team hinged largely on the President’s much vaunted zero tolerance for corrupt practices. He could also not feign ignorance that the Presidency had denied the rumour that Kachikwu was being investigated for corruption. To now tar such a man with the brush and “smell” of corruption would be seen as an unfair cut indeed.
Whatever the case, the evidence abounds that Kachikwu has scored very high marks on the transparency index. Long before now, the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, NEITI, and other stakeholder groups had commended the minister for his demonstrable effort to enthrone transparency in the NNPC. As has been widely acclaimed, Kachikwu, more than any minister or GMD before him, ushered in a new era of openness hitherto unknown in the industry. He threw bids open, initiated the monthly statement of accounts and restored some credence to the operations of the NNPC.
That is not to take anything away from Akinosho’s article. Over the years, he has established a reputation as an authority in the areas of oil and gas and the environment. To that extent, it is difficult to ignore his position in these areas. As I indicated from the beginning, the piece in question has the potentials of creating a navigational compass for the conversation that must follow if we are to get out of the oil conundrum. My final take on the matter is that no matter who is in charge at the NNPC, so long as serious matters of corporate governance and national interest are pigeonholed in parochial cocoons and viewed from narrow political or economic lenses, for so long shall we continue to be mired in this unfortunate cycle of stunted growth, poverty and instability.
Emma Agu, one time Chief Press Secretary to former Head of the Interim National Government, ING, Chief Ernest Shonekan and Publisher of Zesttraveller magazine is Fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (FNGE) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (FNUJ).