My recent encounter with Lucky Awobasivwe on the ‘National Leadership Question’ opened insights worth sharing.
A successful business tycoon, Awobasivwe is an amazingly simple man. Guided by sound ethical principles and convictions, he has deep respect for people, processes, and rules. Though averse to the “undue complexities of politics”, he is nonetheless passionate about good governance as the “bedrock of societal orderliness and oxygen for good, sustainable businesses”. He is passionate about credible leaders. To this end, he believes President Muhammadu Buhari has what is required to deal decisively with bad governance in Nigeria, especially corruption.
He supplied no more than platitudes for so elevating El-Rufai. And for this, I disagreed with him, and easily so.
In disagreeing, I was armed with two rebuttals, which I had aptly used in a social media debate on El-Rufai’s tenure as the Director-General (DG) of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE).
“Nasir must lose his claim to whistle-cleanliness, character balance, and thoroughness if media reports are right that, as DG of the BPE, he negligently, conspiratorially, overzealously, or underhandedly handed over NITEL to Pentascope – an easily ascertainable fraud on Nigeria as a nation. It is said that Pentascope was hastily registered in Holland on New Year Day in 2002 (a global Public Holiday!).
It is a fact that Pentascope is not a registered company in Nigeria (with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) and therefore lacked the legal capacity to do business in Nigeria, including managing NITEL.
“Significantly, the BPE advertised that it was searching for an international telecoms operator with a record of accomplishment of installing and managing at least one million telephone lines.
Pentascope had no such history of managing even one telephone line! Indeed, Pentascope failed all set criteria for companies competing to manage NITEL. … Despite these and much more, the BPE still donated the management of NITEL to Pentascope and curiously declined to monitor implementation of the Pentascope agreement!
These two critical rebuttals i.e. the Pentascope and Aishetu Kolo questions came in handy because they became the lenses with which I viewed anything ‘Nasir El-Rufai’ since the media publicised them. They tainted the saintly credentials of orderliness, uprightness, and transparency in public governance ascribed to El-Rufai. Thus, if there was a consensus between us on these clearly indefensible issues, then more was required from Awobasivwe to canonise El-Rufai as a reference for good leadership in the exalted order of Lee Kuan Yew who is credited with transforming Singapore from the “third world to first world in a single generation.”
To Awobasivwe, my rebuttals were out of context and based on unhinged media reports sponsored against a good El-Rufai. He was determined to challenge and correct that misconception!
Questioning his confidence in the El-Rufai brand as a disconnection from reality was a pain, as revealed in his response: “It’s very painful, disturbing and dangerous to have the thoughts of brilliant and principled persons shaped by sponsored media untruths and that seems to be the case here. … We need a serious conversation… Read this book (he brings a new copy of ‘The Accidental Public Servant’ written by El-Rufai)…”
No doubt, Nasir El-Rufai is a prominent feature in our public space. The top graduand of his 1976 class in the prestigious Barewa College, Zaria, El-Rufai also holds a first-class Bachelor degree in Quantity Surveying from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He has post graduate degrees from Harvard and Georgetown Universities – a Master’s degree in Public Administration and a certificate in Public Policy and Management from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. El-Rufai also holds a Bachelor of Law degree (Second Class, Upper Division) from the University of London. With these academic credentials, Mallam El-Rufai passes easily as intellectually smart. His core belief that “to succeed in public service, one must have acquired a certain level of anger with our failures as a society, and be willing to damn all consequences to change things for the better”.
El-Rufai came to sustained national limelight with his appointment as the Director-General (DG) of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) – the body in charge of the national privatization program. His choice gave the previously sleepy, disoriented BPE new life and it became registered in public consciousness as our national economic liberalisation engine for ‘market efficiency’ –an acceptable alternative to the historical ‘state inefficiency’ in virtually all our public enterprises. State inefficiency resulting from unabashed corruption, gross mismanagement, pervasive incompetence, crippling complacency, defective capital structures, and undue bureaucratic controls.
El-Rufai’s uncontroverted account in The Accidental Public Servant speaks admirably to an unbelievably strong leadership personality. He fought against massive systemic corruption and a generally rotten status quo whilst in BPE by consistently taking down corrupt ‘Big Men’ who came across his path. Consistent with his anti-corruption philosophy, he even had to exploit a ‘loophole’ in the extant laws to use BPE’s resources to help finance Mallam Nuhu Ribadu’s EFCC to take off. His goal was simply to strategically defeat the plans of some corrupt politicians who, being scared of its take off, gave the EFCC zero budgetary allocations at the time.
Given his unbreakable anti-corruption convictions, was it possible that the Pentacope and Aishetu Kolo allegations were orchestrated to taint El-Rufai in bad light with a view to allowing corruption a smooth sail in the BPE? The answer is a straight ‘Yes’.
In the Aishetu Kolo case, El-Rufai was targeted for refusing to ‘play ball’ with corrupt lawmakers who wanted to make the BPE their private ATM and compromise its globally respected operational ethics. And because they met an impenetrable barrier in El-Rufai’s granite will, they practically refused to fund the BPE by giving it zero budgetary allocations. Obviously, they thought this would compel his acquiescence. But not one who yields to attacks on his values, El-Rufai called upon his ingenuity by resorting to international funding and donations for the BPE from USAID, DFID and the World Bank.
In the case of USAID, the donations were administered by IBTCI – a USAID-appointed consultant. BPE was therefore not in direct control of what its “core team” consultants, including Aishetu Kolo earned.
On Pentascope, it has been argued that as chairman of the National Council on Privatisation (NCP), former Vice President Atiku Abubakar approved the takeover over of the management of NITEL by Pentascope on February 21, 2003 vide a memo referenced BPE/I&N/NT/MC/DG/280. This is quite significant, being contrary to the impression out there that El-Rufai’s BPE acted unilaterally or without approval. Short of some incoherent arguments bordering on procedures, Atiku’s NCP has not really disputed this assertion.
It is easy to conclude that El-Rufai’s leadership successes at BPE earned him his next appointment as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. Convinced about his unique strengths, former President Olusegun Obasanjo mandated him to restore the Abuja Masterplan, which was then under severe distortion.
The President knew it would take an El-Rufai to reverse the damage being done by ‘Big Men’ and others across the spectrum to the model city. And El-Rufai delivered excellently on his brief.
By refusing to give that bribe, El-Rufai again announced himself as a ‘madman’ in his new role – to be feared by ‘rules breakers and benders’. Fearless, he took down a building belonging to Ahmadu Ali (Chairman of the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party – PDP) because approval for the property was given in error.
He almost took Nigeria into a diplomatic row with France for rightly insisting that the French Embassy could not develop its ambassador’s residence on a plot of land reserved for a school on the master plan.
It is well know that El-Rufai played a leading role in the 2015 general elections which saw the emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari and his emergence as the Executive Governor of Kaduna State. His decision to invest his unique leadership endowments at his immediate home front is no doubt impacting Kaduna as a good governance model. He is already undertaking previously overlooked but critical institutional reforms. He is attracting major global players to the state.
• Duku ([email protected]) is a founding Director of the Gold Foundation (Governance, Policy & Law Research & Advocacy Group)