By Reuben Abati
I admire Nasir el-Rufai, the Governor of Kaduna State for his intellectual abilities and what he has been able to achieve within the public space, but I am not his fan. I have had two rather disturbing encounters with him. The first I would overlook because at the time, I thought he spoke out of plain honesty. But there was a second encounter that I have never been able to get out of my mind. Sometime in 2013, I had taken permission from President Goodluck Jonathan to stay back in London for a few days to sort out some personal matters. The request was granted. The Presidential delegation returned to Abuja without me. A few days later on my way back home, aboard British Airways, guess who I ran into as I tried to settle down: Nasir el-Rufai. I was so excited to see him. He had just then published his impressive memoir: The Accidental Public Servant (Safari Books, 2013, 627pp.) I rushed to meet him and enthusiastically told him that I had read his book and that I was impressed. I congratulated him. He was busy putting his hand luggage in the overhead compartment. As soon as he was done with that, he turned towards me and bellowed:
“Abati, you are calling us yesterday’s men eh? Very soon, you too will be a yesterday man. When we become today’s people, we will show you what it means to be a yesterday man!”.
He didn’t respond to my compliments about his book. The scowl on his face was enough to frighten a lion. I was so confounded, I simply walked back to my seat. I kept to my lane throughout the trip. I was Nigeria’s Presidential spokesman at the time. Indeed, I had written a piece titled “The Hypocrisy of Yesterday’s Men” (February 3, 2013). I wrote in defence of my boss: “A loosely bound group of yesterday’s men and women seems to be on the offensive against the Jonathan administration. They pick issues with virtually every effort of the administration, pretending to do so in the public interest; positing that they alone, know it all. Arrogantly, they claim to be better and smarter than everyone else in the current government. They are ever so censorious, contrarian and supercilious. They have no original claim to their pretensions other than that they were privileged to have been in the corridors of power once upon a time in their lives. They obviously got so engrossed with their own sense of importance they began to imagine themselves indispensable to Nigeria. It is dangerous to have such a navel-gazing, narcissistic group inflict themselves with so much ferocity on an otherwise impressionable public. We are in reality dealing with a bunch of hypocrites.”
I went further: “With exceptions so few, they really don’t care about Nigeria as a sovereign but the political spoils that accrue from it. And so they will stop at nothing to discredit those they think are not as deserving as they imagine themselves to be. President Jonathan has unfairly become the target of their pitiable frustrations. They mask self-interest motives as public causes and manipulate the public’s desire for improvements in their daily struggles as opportunity for power grab…” I didn’t mention anyone directly. But I recall Femi Fani-Kayode, my friend, brother and associate, long before the Jonathan years, was the only other person who attacked me around the period. I had made another comment and Fani-Kayode promptly retorted that Reuben Abati could only have said whatever he said because he was the product of a same-sex marriage.
The same Femi Fani-Kayode would later realize his own hypocrisy. He eventually abandoned the company of hypocrites and aligned with the Jonathan government. He in fact led Presidential Jonathan’s second-term campaign as strategist and campaign spokesperson. Nasir el-Rufai was one of those who never took the Road to Damascus. In my 2013 essay, I did not mention his name. I gave examples including that of some Quantity Surveyors who needed to return to their professions and desist from turning Nigeria, after a spell in public office, into a meal ticket. Nasir el-Rufai is a Quantity Surveyor. He obviously assumed that the innuendo was directed at him. He took it personal. But on the spur of the moment, I couldn’t think up a justification for his attitude towards me. His arrogance. His malicious conduct. I have a big ego myself. But Nasir el-Rufai’s ego is taller than the tallest building in the world. He has had a brilliant public career, and he is one of our brightest, but his public persona is that he is completely undiplomatic. There is nobody he cannot abuse. There is no harsh phrase that he cannot utter. His critics insist that he respects nobody, fears nobody, and yet everyone wonders what feeds his ego. What is it based on? In his days as Minister of the Federal Territory, he demolished people’s houses at will. He fought the National Assembly. I will rate him as the best Minster of the FCT so far though, even if he went about his job in a very tactless manner.
As Governor of Kaduna State, he has also shown the same lack of tact and diplomacy. We are dealing with hubris it seems. In his public career since President Olusegun Obasanjo discovered him in 1999 and brought him aboard Nigeria’s big stage, Nasir el-Rufai has consistently acquired a public persona as an intolerant public servant, and a perpetual accident. In Kaduna state which he presides over, anybody that criticizes him in any way, is most likely to be slammed with a legal suit and detained. He has fought Shiites. He has abused the leaders of Southern Kaduna. He is said to be above the courts of the land because he does not respect their orders. One Bishop had the temerity to prophesy that he, El-Rufai will never be President of Nigeria, the Bishop is now in court to respond to charges of criminal defamation for daring to prophesy that the Almighty Nasir El-Rufai will never be “President of Nigeria”.
This piece is titled “NBA vs Nasir el-Rufai”. My simple point in that regard which is the main thrust of this piece is that Nasir el-Rufai is in part, the victim of his own hubris. He has lessons to learn from his current travails and I hope that he will soon be on the Road to Damascus. But at the same time, I think the joke is on the NBA, not el-Rufai. Paul Usoro, the outgoing President of the Nigerian Bar Association has handled the el-Rufai matter in a most embarrassing, cowardly and disgraceful manner. Nasir el-Rufai was invited by the Technical Conference Planning Committee (TCCP) of the NBA as a keynote Speaker at the Annual General Conference of the NBA 2020. The theme is “STEPPING FORWARD” and the question is: “Who is a Nigerian? A Debate on National Identity” (26 -29 August 2020) with a special session focusing on the topic: “Am I a Nigerian – A Debate on National Identity, The Indigeneship-Citizenship Conundrum”. It is a virtual conference, the first in the history of the NBA, in other words, a COVID-19 determined and compliant conference of the NBA, and the 60th Annual General Conference of the body.
When the Technical Committee for Conference Planning (TCCP) of the NBA decided to invite Nasir el-Rufai as a keynote speaker at this particular session, they must have thought of the fact that more than any other Governor in Nigeria at the moment, he is one Governor who has had to deal with the issue of identity crisis, especially in the Southern part of the state that he governs. Besides, he has the intellectual heft, the analytic skills and the knowledge of the national question being addressed. His ability in these regards is beyond question and he has the confidence to articulate his views in any forum locally and internationally. The Presidential Conference Planning Committee could not have made a better choice. You may not like el-Rufai’s attitude and his lack of tact, but you cannot question his ability as a diligent and first-rate intellect. By uninviting him to the 60th NBA 60thGeneral Conference, the NBA submitted itself to the will of an aggressive and vocal minority in a manner that could affect the future of the NBA negatively. Most of the people who signed the petition against Nasir el-Rufai come across like persons who nurse personal grudges against him and who failed to look at the big picture. The NBA as A.U. Mustapha, SAN has argued convincingly, should not be politicized. It must not be personalized. It must not be used to settle political, ethnic or personal scores. The decision to uninvite Nasir el-Rufai to this year’s NBA conference which commences tomorrow is a major low in the history of the NBA. Targeting one man out of a long list of other persons who have been identified by the Radical Agenda Movement led by Ogunlana Esq. as not necessarily saintly amounts to partiality and institutional malice.
Paul Usoro, the outgoing NBA President has also not handled the matter with wisdom. He has presided over the NBA in one of its lowest moments in the last 60 years. The decision to open up the NBA Annual Conference to non-lawyers and stakeholder communities is one of the major achievements of the last few years, but in a last moment act of indiscretion, Usoro’s NBA has blown that up. The scapegoating of el-Rufai by a group that has had more despicable persons on its list of invitees over the years is an indication of unfairness, injustice and malice by the same persons who claim to defend the rule of law. The NBA should be an open forum for all ideas to contend and for all persons to enjoy the benefit of fair hearing. With the NBA vs el-Rufai saga, may be the NBA is better off in the future inviting only persons who will tell members what they would like to hear. Even worse and this should be condemned, is the spineless, cheap and pathetic letters of apology written to the Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria (MULAN) and the Nigeria Governors’ Forum by Paul Usoro, the NBA President. These were self-serving letters in which Usoro tried to disown the NBA NEC. What kind of cowardly conduct is that? His silly apologies have brought the Usoro Presidency to an ugly end. Coming shortly after he presided over a most controversial NBA Presidential election and a lackluster tenure, Usoro by August 27 will be handing over a divided and troubled NBA. Nasir el-Rufai is not the problem of the NBA. The NBA, turned into a rent-seeking vehicle, is its own problem, and it is sad to see a once dynamic and progressive NBA, reduced to a beggarly body. Was it not under Usoro’s watch that a Chief Justice was disgraced out of office and judges were humiliated? The association faces a leadership crisis that it must resolve and address, especially now that there is a simmering battle between the inner and outer Bar for its soul.
It is not too late to reverse the dis-invitation of Nasir el-Rufai to the 60th NBA AGC. But he can take sufficient solace in the fact that he is not the problem. His travail with the NBA is only an indication of a problem within the NBA itself. Olumide Akpata’s emergence as NBA President is seen as the triumph of the young Turks within the NBA, that is the Outer Bar. Nasir el-Rufai is just a convenient pawn in an existing conflict. We should, therefore, look farther into the future. Olumide Akpata who by next week would have assumed office, has his job cut out for him. He has to unite a divided House. He must also restore confidence in the Bar. He will either take charge or cede control to a vocal, aluta continua group within the NBA that has shown its hands rather early with the objection to Nasir el-Rufai. The radical elements within the NBA must focus on larger issues beyond the politics of malice and personality. The NBA is in urgent need of reform.
Herbert Wigwe and Access Bank
I got a call about a week ago informing me that it was the birthday of Herbert Wigwe, the CEO of Access Bank and it would be nice to drink up on his behalf, thank the Almighty and shame the Devil as it were. Since the easing of the lockdown, boys have been looking for every opportunity to return to the old normal. I declined. I resist temptations to defy COVID-19; for, even more careful persons have fallen victim.
In normal times, I would have jumped at an opportunity to celebrate Herbert Wigwe who is certainly one of the biggest revelations in Nigeria’s banking industry in this century. When he took over the leadership of Access Bank, the Bank was no. 5. Today, that bank is No. 1 in terms of share capital, loans, deposits, reach and customer satisfaction. In April 2019, under Wigwe’s watch, Access Bank merged with Diamond Bank and became the largest bank in Africa. Wigwe has shown a capacity to control and transform every storm that comes the way of the bank. There is no doubt that he is leading Access bank in the right direction. He and his brother, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, both co-founders of Access Bank, remind me of Fola Adeola and Tayo Aderinokun who both built GT Bank into a global brand.
At a time when Nigeria’s reputation is being rubbished by the likes of Hushpuppy and Woodberry and the 419 gang, Herbert Wigwe and his team give Nigeria great hopes. He is a role model for the younger generation. Today, Access Bank is not just a Tier-I Bank, it has branches across Africa which provide jobs for millions across the continent. And yet Wigwe is just 54. He is in addition, Chairman of Nigeria’s Bankers’ Committee. A high-achieving brother like him truly deserves a drink and a salute. The organisers should please invite me next year when, hopefully, our lives would have become normal again. In the meantime, many happy returns Herbert. May your days be long.