On trial for alleged embezzlement of N32 billion housing funds and accused of land grabbing, former minister Nasir el-Rufai is no stranger to controversies. His latest row with the authorities over security spending seems curious. Yomi Odunuga and Jide Babalola examine the situation
Ever since his arrest, interrogation and subsequent release by the State Security Service (SSS) last Saturday, the travail of the former Minister of the (FCT), Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, has dominated the headlines.
Of course, that was not the first time the diminutive former Director-General of the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) would be courting controversy.
His conduct, both in and outside office, has always generated one row or the other.
And so, when the news broke that he had been picked up by the SSS at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, , over comments he made on the 2011 Appropriation Bill, many Nigerians were anticipating a battle of wits. And that was exactly what they got.
For some reasons, el-Rufai is seen by many as a man who loves to court trouble with both hands. His abrasive tongue, more than anything else, has often put him on the firing line. A few examples will suffice.
When he was nominated as a minister by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and his name was sent to the Senate for screening, el-Rufai was the only nominee that accused the Senate of demanding money before screening the nominees.
Specifically, he said some key members in the Senate leadership had demanded a N45 million bribe to ease his clearance.
Challenged to name the persons involved and his witnesses, el-Rufai said the Almighty Allah was his witness and those he accused of demanding the bribe felt insulted by what one of them described as totally unverifiable evidence. A deft placatory move by Obasanjo resulted in his clearance and deployment in the FCT Ministry.
It was not long before el-Rufai stoked another fire of discord between him and the National Assembly. Arguably the FCT’s most successful Minister in recent years, el-Rufai’s approach to developmental issues, especially his determination to pull down illegal structures, attracted condemnation and bitter criticisms from both the public and members of the National Assembly who thought things could have been done differently—at least with some injection of ‘human face.’
Accosted by reporters to respond to allegations levelled against him by the Senate concerning the demolition, el-Rufai’s response that ‘’silence is the best answer for fools’’ aggravated the strained relationship between him and the lawmakers.
Feelers from the Senate then indicated that the lawmakers had approached Obasanjo to remove el-Rufai from the cabinet. Obasanjo apologised for el-Rufai’s indiscretion. Though he was later pardoned, it was clear that many of the senators never really liked his lame apology.
Many other altercations with the authorities were soon to follow. There was his condemnation of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar’s face-off with Obasanjo. So also was his controversial demolition of a property owned by Dr. Ahmadu Ali, the former Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP), in . His defence of his stewardship as Minister when the Senate probed his tenure and the controversial allocation of land to some of his close associates, including his wives and children, left many in doubt of his anti-corruption credentials.
There was his critique of the Yar’Adua/Jonathan administration and how the administration was foisted on Nigerians. His decision to go on exile; his controversial return and trial for allegedly embezzling N32 billion housing funds; and his decision to walk out of the PDP and join the Gen. Muhammadu Buhari-led Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) all indicated that he has parted ways with those in power. Recently he emerged as a columnist in This Day. Few weeks into that venture, el-Rufai’s writing has generated so much dust
Though he has argued that, as a citizen of , he is exercising his right to free speech through his writings some have argued that, in doing so, el-Rufai should have been mindful of abusing the privilege that writing confers on him. But the question is: is he doing it for altruistic reason or is there any ulterior motive behind this latest fascination to opinion writing?
A source said the former minister was bitter that he is facing trial for alleged corruption, even as he expects the Presidency to grant him amnesty by entering a nolle prosequi.
Whatever the case, it is increasingly becoming difficult to unravel the el-Rufai personae. More so when he was once very close to the Yar’Adua/Jonathan administration under which he once served as a member of the Energy Board. Political watchers are still trying to fathom where the party went awry.
Yet, for the ordinary citizens, some behavioural pattern of the elite remains eternally puzzling. They really can’t understand why the men of power do what they do; why some become turncoats immediately something goes wrong.
They can’t understand the bitter quarrels, the intrigues, blackmail and sudden deep-seated enmity. Why do they turn against one another with such ease and with much venom? How did el-Rufai find it convenient to turn against Jonathan, whom he once urged to contest election when the zoning debate was raging like wildfire?
The perplexities become even more confounding for some who recall that sometime in May last year, the former minister was praising President Jonathan openly in a manner that suggested unreserved support. Early in October, last year, el-Rufai, in a blistering attack on Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, described the former military Head of State as being “perpetually unelectable”. He cited the controversial 53 suitcases affair and the extra-judicial execution of the Buhari era as part of the issues that continue to stand against Buhari’s name.
“Bitterness and unfulfilled expectations might be at the root of el-Rufai’s recent outbursts,” some of his critics have said.
However, to those who continue to support Mallam el-Rufai, such conclusions are illogical.
In dissecting this issue, it is important to examine the reasons given by the SSS for el-Rufai’s arrest. The authorities, in a statement issued on Saturday, said he was picked up for questioning because he published falsehood contrary to the tenets of the Freedom of Information Act.
el-Rufai was accused of publishing incorrect, inciting and misleading news both on the internet and in a particular Nigeria daily for the purpose of inciting Nigerians against the government, knowing full well that his positions as canvassed in the publications were untrue.
He had, in the said article, alleged that the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) would be controlling a large chunk of the nation’s annual budget (N208billion) to manage security issues.
The authorities said it was a packaged lie meant to incite the people and cause disaffection against the government. But an adamant el-Rufai insists the figures were obtained from authentic government data.
Though the matter has been resolved ‘’amicably’’ and the planned court action also dropped, the jury is yet to come out with a verdict on how to classify el-Rufai’s latest passion to ‘open up’ government for scrutiny. While he says it is borne out of a patriotic zeal to make governance transparent and accountable, a school of thought believes that it is a vindictive way of hitting back at government for a relationship that has gone sour.
They wondered why a smart person like el-Rufai would, in his article, lump funds appropriated for the amnesty programme with that of security if he was not out to play games with the intelligence of the people and abuse the privilege of a public commentator.
They said a patriot with the kind of influence wielded by el-Rufai would have sought audience with the President and advise him accordingly. But the man in the eye of the storm has come out to say that it was his prerogative to take a decision and he has chosen to make his thoughts on policy issues known through his weekly column.