What did the President know, and when did he know it?
The altercation that took place in the Council Chambers of the Aso Rock Villa last Wednesday between Chief of Staff to the President Malam Abba Kyari and Head of the Civil Service of the federation Mrs. Winifred Oyo-Ita was only the latest ugly turn of events in the Mainagate scandal that has gripped Nigeria in recent weeks. Just before the weekly Federal Executive Council [FEC] meeting started, with reporters and photographers still in the chamber, the two top officials were seen having a hot exchange while Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, National Security Adviser Mohammed Monguno and new secretary to the Government of the Federation [SGF] Mr. Boss Mustapha were seen frantically trying to broker a truce.
From what reporters heard and saw from afar, Kyari and Oyo-Ita were quarrelling over an online news report two days earlier based on a leaked letter that the HoS reportedly sent to President Muhammadu Buhari over the Mainagate issue. In her reply to the query issued to her by the presidency when the Mainagate scandal broke, Mrs Oyo-Ita was quoted to have told Kyari that weeks before Maina was restored to the civil service, she whispered to President Buhari after a FEC meeting that some officials were pushing hard for Maina’s reinstatement in the service and she warned him of the consequences of doing so.
Neither the Presidency nor the HoS has publicly denied that such a letter was written. In fact, the altercation in the Villa was a back hand confirmation that indeed there was such a letter, otherwise there was no need for the top officials to quarrel over a non-existent leaked letter. The Chief of Staff’s grouse, for which he accosted Mrs Oyo-Ita in an open forum, were two. One was why the letter leaked and the second was a challenge to the HoS to provide proof that she indeed warned Buhari of the push to reinstate Maina. Regarding the leak, the presidency is standing on shaky grounds because it did not punish anyone for previous high profile leaks, notably of Kaduna State Governor Nasiru el-Rufa’i’s personal memo to Buhari or Minister of State Ibe Kachikwu’s letter to Buhari. Even worse, NNPC released its Group Managing Director [GMD] Maikanti Baru’s letter to Buhari in response to Kachikwu’s letter and said the presidency authorised it to do so. As for providing proof, the HoS reportedly reminded Kyari that no cabinet officer carries a camera with him or her while briefing the president.
Unless the government denies the existence of such a letter or the presidency flatly denies that the HoS whispered her warning to Buhari, this promises to be the most serious twist in the Mainagate scandal, and one with the worst implications imaginable. It will be recalled that as soon as the scandal broke, the president ordered Maina’s sack for the federal service and demanded an explanation from the Head of Service. Mrs Oyo-Ita was away in Calabar that day but she rushed back to Abuja and submitted a written reply to Kyari before the close of work that day, as directed. Since then the Presidency has not said anything again about the affair; no one has been punished as far as we know and government has not said who did what in reinstating Maina into service.
That is why the HoS’ claim that she actually briefed Buhari on the push to reinstate Maina before it even happened has such dire implications. There are two obvious ones: either President Buhari approved of Maina’s reinstatement, which would amount to a colossal lapse of judgement, or he did not approve it but when the HoS told him, he took no action. Some lawyers have said that it was wrong of the HoS to call Buhari aside and verbally warn him of Maina’s impending reinstatement, that she should have fired off a memo instead. We believe this argument does not hold water because Buhari did not wait for a memo before he fired Maina from service when the scandal broke.
Unless the presidency urgently provides credible answers to the many questions that are still swirling on the Mainagate scandal, responsibility will gradually shift from suspects such as ministers and other officials to the president himself. Very soon newsmen and legislators will begin to ask the famous question that Senator Howard Baker Tennessee asked during the US’ Watergate scandal in 1973: What did the president know, and when did he know it? Confrontations between high officials in the open glare of newsmen will not solve this problem. They should move fast and provide Nigerians with the answers of who did what to reinstate Maina, who knew what and when he or she knew it.
President Muhammadu Buhari