Nearly four months after he received a detailed report on how Abdulrasheed Maina was readmitted into the civil service, President Muhammadu Buhari has failed to take a definitive position on the controversial matter.
The president’s critics said he is dithering on the report with the hope that Nigerians would soon forget.
But his supporters pointed to his history as a sluggish but thorough leader who would only take decisions after he gets all the facts, to avoid miscarriage of justice on matters of national interest.
Mr. Maina, a career civil servant and a former head of pension reform task force, was surreptitiously recalled by the Buhari administration in September 2017, four years after he was dismissed from service on allegations of gross misconduct and theft of public funds.
The Goodluck Jonathan administration, which fired Mr. Maina, hinged its decision on allegations of corruption against him and his decision to abscond from office rather than clear his name.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission subsequently moved to arrest and prosecute Mr. Maina, who was fired as an assistant director, but he fled at the time.
Since then, Mr. Maina was sparsely seen or heard from until October 20, 2017 when PREMIUM TIMES blew the lid that he had made a questionable return to the civil service.
After taking three days to observe the widespread condemnation that greeted the reinstatement, Mr. Buhari gave the Head of Service, Winnifred Oyo-Ita, a few hours to put a report together, with a detailed explanation of how the fugitive was reinstated.
In the October 23 statement, the president also ordered Mr. Maina’s immediate sack from service, although the legal bases for this were challenged by some constitutional lawyers.
Ms. Oyo-Ita’s report was submitted to the president around 3:00 p.m. the same day.
In her account of how Mr. Maina was recalled, first published by The Punch on October 31, Ms. Oyo-Ita denied allegations by Attorney-General Abubakar Malami and Interior Minister Abdulrahman Dambazau that she knew of the reinstatement.
She also reminded Mr. Buhari that she put him on notice a few weeks earlier that some of his senior officials were scheming to reinstate Mr. Maina to service.
“I sought an audience with His Excellency, Mr. President on Wednesday, October 11, 2017, after the FEC meeting where I briefed His Excellency verbally on the wide-ranging implications of the reinstatement of Mr. A. A. Maina, especially the damaging impact on the anti-corruption stance of this administration,” Mrs. Oyo-Ita said in the memo to Mr. Buhari’s Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari.
The president had ordered that Ms. Oyo-Ita submit the memo to Mr. Kyari’s office.
Since then, the president has neither confirmed nor denied his involvement in the reinstatement as asserted by Ms. Oyo-Ita. He also has not publicly taken any action on the matter.
Presidential spokespersons Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu did not respond to PREMIUM TIMES requests for comments about the president’s silence throughout Wednesday.
But rather than pacify frayed nerves, Mr. Buhari’s silence could actually bolster the claims by critics that he wanted to take the matter completely out of the headlines as he considers a reelection bid.
The president has not openly outlined his political future for Nigerians, but his recent comments have spoken more to his interest in keeping his office than retiring as being increasingly demanded by some political players, including former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
“In her response, the Head of Service stated that the president was warned that the reinstatement won’t be good on the anti-corruption image of his government,” said political analyst Eluma Asogwa. “But he either rejected the advice or decided to do nothing about it.”
“Undoubtedly, this scandal has become the legendary sword of Damocles on the president’s head,” Mr. Asogwa told PREMIUM TIMES Wednesday night, adding that the reinstatement could doom the president’s reelection if he contests.
Mr. Asogwa, an Abuja-based legal practitioner, said the president’s indictment by the Head of Service was another reason he has been silent over the matter.
“The president was indicted in the report,” Mr. Asogwa said. “That blew away his credibility or moral authority on Maina’s crooked reinstatement.”
“You don’t expect him to shoot himself in the foot by probing further on a wrongdoing he participated in,” he added.
Mr. Asogwa said while Mr. Maina has not been pronounced guilty of any wrongdoing by the court, his refusal to submit himself to the authority for probe remains highly problematic.
“That singular act alone is enough to tell that it would be morally reprehensible to return such a character back into the civil service,” he said.
But Nigerians should not be too quick to castigate the president for not acting on the report over the past four months, said a political analyst, Ayo Akanji.
“The president is very meticulous with his actions when it comes to issues like this. He takes his time to act,” Mr. Akanji, an APC strategist and media consultant for the administration, told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Wednesday night.
Mr. Akanji said Nigerians should immediately remember that the executive secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme was hastily removed from office, only for the president to reinstate him upon his return.
Mr. Buhari reinstated Usman Yusuf last week, more than six months after the Minister of Health Isaac Adewole suspended him on allegations of fraud.
Mr. Buhari, who was away on extended medical vacation in London when Acting President Yemi Osinbajo approved the suspension of Mr. Yusuf, took the decision despite being aware of a probe report that found Mr. Yusuf culpable of mismanaging public funds.
The NHIS chief strongly denied the allegations, accusing the minister of witchhunting him for introducing modern ideas aimed at reforming the state-run health insurance provider and regulator.
“The former SGF was very close to the president and, when he was found wanting, he was sacked and he was arrested by the EFCC before he later secured bail,” Mr. Akanji said of Babachir Lawal, the controversial Secretary to the Government of the Federation who was accused of stealing funds earmarked for internally displaced persons in the Boko Haram-ravaged northeast. “I think he’s going to act accurately on this Maina issue.”
Besides, Mr. Akanji said Mr. Maina had been cooperating with the Buhari administration in its efforts to recover some missing pension funds.
“He has also helped the administration to have access to a lot of stolen funds. You don’t rush to move against someone like that because of public outcry,” he said. “Nigerians must understand that we have a president who can’t be railroaded but will take his time to take a decision that will benefit all Nigerians.”
The scandal “won’t be a threat to the president if he’s running” for reelection, Mr. Akanji said.