Knowledge is, indeed, power because you are what you know. When the news filtered out last week that President Muhammadu Buhari had received a proposal of the Ahmed Joda-led Transition committee for a 19-man ministerial cabinet, I chuckled knowingly to myself. The proposal could not have emanated from the panel; it must have been submitted to the panel instead, by the president himself.
I know it for sure that it had always been the idea of Muhammadu Buhari to have a very slim executive, as a way of cutting the cost of governance. I have been privy to this fact for more than 12 years, since those days when I served as the director of media and publicity of the Buhari-Okadigbo Campaign Organisation during his 2003 presidential campaign. I have a story to share for the very reason that it might make clearer, the understanding of the Buhari stubborn persona, to an extent that once he is convinced about an issue, he hardly lets go. Again, I am going to tell this story now because of the convention that makes it permissible to safely ‘declassify’ items of privileged information after ten years or more.
In any case, I honestly do not see anything harmful about this small piece of information. Sometime during the campaigns in 2003, the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) debate committee sent us an invitation to a television debate that would pitch our candidate General Buhari against the incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo. Our vibrant publicity department was peopled with individuals that were high in enthusiasm but largely deficient in professional expectations of the job at hand. For instance, before I joined the team, the Buhari campaign had not been getting much mention in the media and my colleagues had blamed it on the usual ‘mischief’ of the Lagos-Ibadan axis media.
But the problem resided somewhere else. Ordinarily, media organisations report events and if you don’t bring those events to their notice, they would have nothing to report. So, with daily press releases on anything that moved or happened around our candidate, we became the toast of the news media… almost for free! If nothing happened, we created pseudo-events which often ended up becoming more attractive to the media. That seems to be the lapse in the current handling of the presidential media management; because enough information is not going to the media, the social media gossip industry is having a field day, as it moves in to fill the gap. Enough of the digression!
We decided that it would be suicidal to present the taciturn and easily-provoked Muhammadu Buhari to a live television debate against such a veteran as President Obasanjo who was well practised, without adequate preparation and coaching. Moreover, we were bothered about the lopsided nature of the people that were organising the debate, who apart from their geopolitical origin, were mostly officials of federal government media organs. We were walking a very tight rope. But we took it in our stride. I had often written in the past that the great thing about President Buhari was that, in spite of his ostensibly rigid disposition, he respects professionalism and submits to the directives of experts.
Again, once he delegated functions to people in whose competence and integrity he trusted, he gave them all the leeway and hardly interfered in the day to day execution of their charge. We did not, therefore, encounter any problems getting his consent to be rehearsed and drilled. For that purpose, we engaged four very competent journalists who sat with me and Sam Nda-Isaiah, who technically was the head of our publicity department, even without any hands-on experience either as a journalist or an image manager. What the pharmacist lacked in media professionalism, he made up with his energy and intelligence. The idea was to pose as adversarial journalists and pummel our principal with every manner of hostile posers that were trending in the polity at the time. Our intention was to touch on every possible subject that could be raised at the debate and prepare him on how to take them on.
Something told us that Obasanjo would be undergoing a similar preparation, and with the unlimited resources available to him, we were excited to be the David facing up to Goliath. On the first of the planned two sessions at a senior suite of the Transcorp Hilton, we took on General Buhari. The first question, after his usual humorous banters – who would know that Buhari is a very humorous man – was on how he planned to cut spending in government, as he had often claimed he would do during the campaigns.
He excitedly took on the question with his usual and undiluted candour. He noted that one of the greatest sources of resource haemorrhage was through the proliferation of government activities in such a way that the functions that could be performed by one ministry had been broken up and being handled by new ministries. He wondered why Agriculture and Water Resources, etc, could not be lumped together as one ministry. It was his contention that all those activities that were being handled by as much as over 45 ministers (as we had then) could be effectively be handled by 18 ministers, with the obvious implications of drastic cut in costs to the taxpayers.
In simple terms, Buhari insisted that if he won the election, he would have only 18 ministers, at three per zone. The followup questions tumbled in, the most obvious being how he would get around the constitutional requirement that each state should contribute at least one minister. He stuck stoutly to his guns even though it was obvious that he had not thought the issue through. At a time he said he would send a bill for the amendment of the constitution and all that. Even my realpolitik suggestion that he should not say something like that at a debate because he could lose all those people, like Chief John Oyegun and Tony Momoh, who were hanging around him, most probably with the hope of bagging ministerial portfolios.
He would not lie at a debate just because he wanted to impress the audience, as according to him, he was convinced that it was a sound and achievable idea. We moved on… The exercise was taking place at the period that President Bush Jnr had taken the US troops back into Iraq under the ill-fated pretext that Iraq stockpiled the infamous Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). That incursion that lacked the UN mandate was not popular in most parts of the world, even if most nations and leaders kept mum and restrained themselves from condemning the US.
In fact President Obasanjo had uttered a few unfavourable words against the US intervention and had incurred the displeasure of the Bush administration. When one of us asked General Buhari to comment on the US adventure in Iraq, he flew into an uncontrollable rage, describing the US in very unflattering terms. To him, the action was unilateral and condemnable and could not be excused under any pretext. General Buhari disagreed with our suggestion that it would be politically destructive for him to come head-on against the US at such a time and that the best he could do at that time was to remain evasive. He refused vehemently and was so enraged at our suggestion that he politely excused himself from the session.
After that aborted dress rehearsal, Sam and I put our heads together and agreed that our man was not ready for a live television debate with such a powerful and raging adversary as Obasanjo. Our director general, Alhaji Sule Hama agreed with our summation and the three of us secretly plotted to keep him out of the debate. After getting rid of the invitation letter, I as the director of media and publicity, put out a press release that made it to the front page of most papers the following day, announcing that General Buhari would not be participating in the debate as, according to us, we had not received any formal invitation to that debate but that we were learning about it from the news media like other Nigerians.
We further made sure that we blocked every attempt by the debate organisers and some very influential people to convince our principal to attend the debate. But as I have said, our boss would never go against the advice and programmes of his trusted aides. I am sure he never got to learn why, but he did not attend the debate. This story is not about the aborted debate but rather to put in a clear perspective on how long the president has nursed the idea of having a very slim government. If he has nursed it for this long, it stands to reason that he would have also thought about its workability.
He must have also thought hard and long on how to remove the constitutional obstacles that might impede the actualization of that and his other ideas for cutting costs in governance. So, if President Buhari sends the names of 19 ministers to the NASS this week, let the nation know that it is an idea that he has nursed for a long time.