OTHER than the response prompted by President Muhammadu Buhari’s social media aide, Lauretta Onochie, the scathing May 31 open letter to the president authored by Abubakar Umar, a retired colonel, has gone largely unheeded by government.
The outspoken Mr Umar had warned the president that his lopsided appointments, lack of political inclusiveness, and orchestrated favouritism were likely to doom his presidency and destroy his legacy.
The president’s social media aides, however, insisted that the appointments in question were well distributed, with the Southwest getting the largest share.
But the devil is in the detail. Even though Mr Umar did not spell which areas of appointments he was referencing, but was probably referring to key and top-level positions as well as those in the security services, the president’s social media team was it seems analysing general appointments, most of them in non-critical sectors.
The blistering May 31 open letter was not the first time Mr Umar would take the Buhari presidency to task. It is unlikely to be the last.
Having resigned his military commission on principle in 1993, he has kept scrupulously away from government largesse or handouts in order to retain his independence in taking issue with Nigerian leaders and government policies.
He has imposed Spartan discipline on himself enough to lead even his worst critics to admit that though his opinions may rankle very badly, they could not be dismissed.
He had taken issue with other past governments, including the Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida government that adopted him as a favoured military officer, and he is expected to continue to do so with future governments.
He has also avoided partisan politics except at the peripheral level to push certain non-populist ideals, but has demonstrated uncanny progressivism which many self-confessed flamboyant and voluble politicians find very challenging, if not shaming.
Sometimes, the impact of Mr Umar’s views is not so much because of his chutzpah, which is undoubtedly admirable, or the substance of his topic, which is always timely and consistent, but because of his privileged person and background which stand in stark contrast to the radical issues he addresses.
He spoke out on the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, and neither waffled nor minced words. And he also spoke out on the grave and sometimes bitter issues that traversed all governments from Gen Sani Abacha and onwards, and since Gen Babangida left office.
No presidency since 1999 has not elicited his fiery comments or contributions, and his comments have been mostly well received, though sometimes also heavily criticised. His contributions retain their vigour partly because they are infrequently made and go against the grain.
His May 31 letter to President Buhari will rank as one of the most critical and pungent he has ever written to any president.
Not only did he address a few taboos such as religious and ethnic exceptionalism, around which many northern commentators have disagreeably tiptoed over the past five years, he also valiantly took on the president’s skewed and exclusionist politics and appointments.
Both are of course intertwined, but Mr Umar addresses them separately, illustrating them with examples, and calling attention to their damaging effect on the polity and the legacy of the president himself.
It is difficult to controvert him, for he has not written anything unusual or radical or mendacious. But as expected, and as a rule, neither truth nor accuracy deters the president’s social media team in penning their responses.
Mr Umar doesn’t need to illustrate his letter with his bona fides to remind everyone, particularly the president, that he is an objective critic with a jealously guarded history of making sound and unbiased contributions to national development. He, however, does, probably so that presidency hounds would take less umbrage.
And just so that the president would appreciate the letter more, Mr Umar set the appropriate tone for his letter, making references to the highly nuanced idea of legacy and greatness. Said he: …At the expiration of your eight-year tenure in 2023, your achievements will not be measured solely by the physical infrastructure your administration built. An enduring legacy would be based on those intangible things like how much you uplifted the spirit and moral tone of the nation.
How well have you secured the nation from ourselves and from external enemies? At this time and in the light of all that have happened since you took office, any conversation with you Mr President cannot gloss over the chaos that has overtaken appointments into government offices in your administration.
All those who wish you and the country well must mince no words in warning you that Nigeria has become dangerously polarized and risk sliding into crisis on account of your administration’s lopsided appointments which continue to give undue preference to some sections of the country over others.”
It would be tragic if the president does not know the implications of his actions. There is, however, nothing he has said that gives an indication he understands all the nuances undergirding great leadership and presidency, a great presidency the country would remember for ages.
Nor has any of his aides, including his voluble and cantankerous image makers, ever admitted that they had a responsibility to coax the president into enunciating ideas and executing programmes that project far into the future.
Everything about the Buhari presidency has been short-termist, insular, and simplistically dualistic. These flaws of the Buhari presidency are very well known, but it has taken reiteration by Mr Umar to remind the country and the presidency that the president has but a little time to make amends. Will he?
In the paragraph quoted from the open letter, Mr Umar also vigorously asserted that the president was risking revolt and disintegration by his adamantine resolve to sustain his lopsided appointments.
The retired colonel probably timed his open letter to help the president and his new chief of staff, Ibrahim Gambari, find the time and courage to open up the country and banish the provincialism which the government reeks of.
It is unlikely the retired colonel meant the letter solely to criticise the president. The idea, long sold by many supporters of this presidency, is that the insularity observed in the president might have been influenced by the famous cabal, particularly the late Abba Kyari, that virtually ran the presidency until a few weeks ago.
It will take a little sleuthing to determine just how far Mr Kyari and the cabal sidetracked the president and ran the country along their close-minded tradition. Mr Umar obviously expects some changes, and hopes the president can disprove the rumour around his person, ideas, and competence.
The retired colonel also made the tangential observation that Nigeria under President Buhari had become very insecure. The level of insecurity in Nigeria is undoubtedly disgraceful. No presidential social media team can sugarcoat this depressing fact.
The country has become very unsafe because the government lacks the initiative, objectivity and independence to deal with the problem.
It has kept tired security chiefs in office, dealt with herdsmen with kid gloves to the point of even abetting their crimes, looked the other way as the country is being torn apart, and appears reconciled to the inundating chaos, perhaps based on the assumption, as they have often reiterated, that the problems are a global reality.
Many critics have written Pro Gambari off, partly because of his antecedents. But he should try to put some spine in the back of the president to help him make a comprehensive reassessment of his security architecture and personnel as well as make sweeping changes reflective of the country’s ethnic pastiche.
Mr Umar called out the president on his lopsided appointments. This criticism was wounding enough. But he goes much further by calling out the president on his handling of issues and appointments pertaining to the judiciary.
This was an even more galling reminder of just how parochially and short-sightedly the presidency has handled the third arm of government.
“You may wish to recall that I had cause to appeal to you to confirm Justice Onnoghen as the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria a few days before the expiration of his three months tenure of acting appointment to be replaced by a Muslim Northerner,” began Mr Umar as if nudging the president into a logical cul-de-sac.
“We were saved that embarrassment when his nomination was sent to the senate by the then acting President, Prof Yemi Osibanjo.
When he was finally confirmed a few days to the end of his tenure, he was removed after a few months and replaced by Justice Muhammed, a Muslim from the North.”
Not yet done, and delving into the main point, Mr Umar warned that refusing to confirm the Acting President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban Mensem, would spell doom for the government and portray the president as irretrievably prejudiced.
Said the retired colonel: “May I also invite the attention of Mr President to the pending matter of appointment of a Chief Judge of the Nigerian Court Appeal which appears to be generating public interest.
As it is, the most senior Judge, Justice Monica Dongban Mensem, a northern Christian, is serving out her second three-month term as acting Chief Judge without firm prospects that she will be confirmed substantive head.
I do not know Justice Mensem but those who do attest to her competence, honesty and humility. She appears eminently qualified for appointment as the substantive Chief Judge of the Court of Appeal as she is also said to be highly recommended by the National Judicial Council.
If she is not and is bypassed in favour of the next in line who happens to be another northern Muslim, that would be truly odd. In which case, even the largest contingent of PR gurus would struggle to rebut the charges that you, Mr. President, is either unwilling or incapable of acting on your pledge to belong to everyone and to no one.
I hope you would see your way into pausing and reflecting on the very grave consequences of such failure not just to your legacy but also to the future of our great country.”
President Buhari does not like to be dictated to by the wrong person. But in the face of this well-known fact about the intrigues surrounding the confirmation of the President of the Court of Appeal, it is hard to see what elbow room the president has left to manoeuvre.
There is none. The untidy overthrow of Justice Walter Onnoghen, former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), using very clumsy judicial rigmarole and blatant coup remains a blight on the Buhari presidency.
Though the government threw the corruption red herring before the public, it could never dispel the suspicion that it acted based on ethnic and religious sentiments.
To go ahead, despite the presidency’s well-known ethnic biases, to treat Justice Mensem shabbily, as indeed it is already doing by causing many investigations against her, is to court so much disaffection that it is hard to see the president’s already dented image left unscathed.
Mr Umar has done the Buhari presidency a world of good. Since resigning his commission in 1993, he has nurtured his integrity as a public commentator, has remained independent of vested interests, has played politics peripherally in order to influence the direction of public policy and help restore integrity to governance, and has managed for the past 27 years or so not to be beholden to any religion or group.
President Buhari is encouraged by some of his supporters to disregard Mr Umar’s criticisms because of the role the latter played in the 1985 coup. That would be a mistake. Mr Umar has criticised every head of state and president since 1993. He is 70 years old now.
He will not stop, not with President Buhari no matter how truculent he is, and not with his successors no matter how benign they are. But the president can choose to ignore the advice.
That would, however, not make it any less poignant, for the advice not only resonates with most Nigerians and gives them shock therapy, it also takes on added amperage and urgency in the southern part of the country.
There are a number of governors who have bastardised leadership, encouraged divisions in their states, made a mockery of managing the affairs of their states, and are destined to be forgotten after their one or two terms in office.
There will always be bad and short-sighted leadership, in politics, business and even religion. Mr Umar is merely calling on President Buhari to make a difference. Under this presidency, the judiciary has been brazenly castrated, and injustice, especially its dispensation by wrongly appointed and incompetent judges, has multiplied on a scale that is truly colossal and bewildering.
Under this presidency, herdsmen have issued provocative statements and given teeth to those statements by maiming and murdering, and the government has seemed overtly collusive or conniving.
Under this presidency, bandits, kidnappers and all sorts of anarchic groups are roaming the streets almost unfettered, with the security agencies at their wits’ end. A numbing paralysis has overtaken the country and its government.
No answer is coming from anywhere. And above all, the divisions — both ethnic and religious — have multiplied and are catalysed by the government’s complicit actions. Mr Umar suggests that if President Buhari wants to safeguard his legacy, he must urgently reflect on these problems and do something about them.
He is a natural optimist — bold, gifted, persistent, patriotic and far more forward-looking than the average politician and leader.
He will of course hope that his optimism is not misplaced. He will hope that the president, perhaps nudged by his kitchen cabinet, aides, and well-wishers from outside government and politics, can yet summon the rare capacity and brilliance to reboot the country and enthrone the right values and ideas by which Nigeria can structurally remake itself and blossom far beyond the dreams and expectations of his critics.