At a recent brainstorming session with some of his top aides, President Muhammadu Buhari expressed concerns about the limitations of his anti-corruption effort, saying it seemed his administration had spent too much time on rhetoric than give vital sectors needed attention.
Mr Buhari feared he had little to campaign on, a source knowledgeable about the meeting told PREMIUM TIMES. The president argued that if he were to step down, the “damage would be much”, therefore, he needed a second term to “work for the people”, our sources said.
“The president pointed to the fact that three years down the line, he is not busy going around cutting tapes to commission projects,” one source said on the condition his identity be protected because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
That meeting was a defining moment in Mr Buhari’s already turbulent presidency. At the session, aides agreed the president needed to seek re-election, but all sides arrived at a telling decision. The corruption war rhetoric, even though perceived to be largely without substance, must continue if the president stood a chance of a second term, they advised.
“The meeting analysed the situation and arrived at the conclusion that the best option available to them is to still use the corruption discourse,” a source said.
After a prolonged wait, Mr Buhari predictably announced his intention to run for office again early April, telling his party’s national executive committee he took the decision following a barrage of calls for him to run again.
That declaration, unlike Mr Buhari’s 2014 announcement, has been met with increased disinterest, even amongst the president’s supporters.
“Nobody in this administration has shown me any innovative way of fighting corruption and the current president continues to operate the same opaque and fraudulent system,” said Gbola Oba, a public affairs commentator and CEO of Automedics Limited in Lagos, who campaigned for Mr Buhari in 2015 across the Southwest.
“The unfortunate irony that can become an icing on the cake of the disillusionment and the predicament that his anti-corruption war is the brazen corruption under perpetrated or condoned by Mr Buhari, especially the Maina scandal or the recent scandal involving his Finance Minister.”
Critics have characterised the administration’s corruption initiative as selective and unconvincing. While several former administration officials have been arrested for alleged fraud, none has been convicted. A few have either returned or forfeited loots to the federal government, while far more corruption suspects still walk free.
Even more, the Buhari administration has faced its own allegations of corruption, with the Maina case, NNPC’s uncovered N50 billion, amongst many. Several cabinet members, including Ministers Kemi Adeosun and Rotimi Amaechi, and security chiefs Tukur Buratai, Abdulrahman Dambazau, have also been accused of fraud.
Aides said the meeting with the president before his declaration showed Mr Buhari somehow agreed that the corruption war was not as effective. They said the meeting especially agreed the government had done little to justify its claim of massive fraud under the Jonathan government.
“The president realised shortly after assumption of office that several allegations his party raised about the past government were based on false dossier,” another source said.
The presidency did not respond to requests for comments on this claim.
Campaign strategy and Keyamo connection
Our sources said the president’s advisers at the meeting counselled that regardless of the current limitation, the Buhari second term campaign would have to stick to anti-corruption as its major rallying cry.
While the message would still be same, the approach would differ, they advised. This time, the campaign will seek to be more effective by providing “concrete evidence” in support of allegations of corruption against opposition elements, especially those nominated as presidential candidates.
The appointment of popular lawyer, Festus Keyamo, to lead the communication team of President Buhari’s campaign in 2019, was a deliberate design to further that strategy, our sources said. Mr Keyamo’s appointment was advised by Transport Minister and chairman of the Buhari 2019 campaign organisation, Rotimi Amaechi.
The idea, our sources said, was that as a top government prosecutor who has handled several prominent corruption cases for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Mr Keyamo’s access to corruption dossiers of opposition politicians would come handy at the appropriate time.
Mr. Keyamo declined comments to PREMIUM TIMES Monday night, saying it would be inappropriate for him to comment on a statement that was not publicly made or officially communicated to him by the president.
Tax as a weapon
The campaign has another strategy, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
For politically-exposed persons who have long dragged their feet in meeting their tax obligations, the Buhari team is also plotting to make them pay a huge political cost, our sources said. The ongoing Voluntary Asset and Income Declaration Scheme (VAIDS) campaign will serve as a vital tool there.
The strategy would be to use politicians’ non-compliance with tax statutes to cripple their finance sources ahead of the election, our sources added. Some politicians might even be more unfortunate as the campaign strategy include shutting down their businesses, arresting and arraigning opponents to neutralise and dissuade them from presenting any serious political challenge.
Some analysts say the communication strategy of the Buhari campaign might seem robust, but the ability of Mr Keyamo to successfully anchor it and earn the president a second term could be more tasking than estimated.
“How they think a man who bungled Bola Ige’s murder case and could not successfully prosecute a corruption case despite years of humongous earnings from taxpayers money could lead a campaign to victory beats the imagination,” PDP strategist Demola Olarewaju told PREMIUM TIMES. “But we would like to have him on board.”
Mr Olarewaju said the president’s three years in office have further revealed him as not only corrupt but “morally and politically toxic for Nigeria’s survival”.
But the president’s apparent sloppiness towards old and recent corruption in his government may have a lot to do with his inherent personality traits than complicity, said APC strategist Ayo Akanji.
“The president is deliberate and meticulous in taking actions,” Mr Akanji said. “But this is not to assume that he doesn’t strike at the appropriate time as you could see with the dismissal of Babachir Lawal and Ayodele Oke.”
Mr Akanji said the president’s conviction that corruption is the bane of Nigeria’s development remained as strong as ever, saying he does not expect him to flinch from the message.
“The president would continue to see corruption as repulsive,” he said. “But this campaign will not be sacrificed for the country’s national security and economy to ensure that none of his three-pronged focus is abandoned.”