President Goodluck Jonathan’s patchy relationship with key northern political groups took a plunge at last week’s hyped visit of the region’s elders to the president, with the team’s last minute rejection of a N20 million presidential gift, those familiar with the matter have told PREMIUM TIMES.
The visit by the Northern Elders’ Forum, a touchy political gambit that has since generated discontent from some northern regional organizations, was made to confer with the administration on the way out of the current security challenge the country is facing.
The government has faced scorching attacks from the region’s leading class over its handling of the matter.
The meeting discussed the operations of the Joint Task Force military outfit, which the delegation told the commander-in-chief, were involved in extrajudicial killings and other excesses.
But those familiar with the proceedings say after the talks, the government, through an intermediary, offered the visitors about N20 million – branded as “kola from oga” (meaning honorarium from the president).
Presidential sources say the offering of huge cash to visitors is an infamous but routine gesture in Aso Rock..
The money was however rejected based on a “consensus” of the members of the group, after they were handed the cash in several bulky envelopes as they emerged from the meeting venue and made their way back to their bus.
“The president may not have been aware. But then, it is unlikely he knew nothing about it. But someone stationed near the bus offered the delegation the package,” one of oursources said.
PREMIUM TIMES could not independently verify the sequence of events during and after the meeting. Phone calls and text messages to presidential spokesperson, Reuben Abati, for comments were not answered or returned.
We however learnt that after the talks, said to have ended on a cordial note, members of the group were met as they were boarding a bus to exit the villa, by an administration representative who informed them of the monetary package.
Those who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES, many on anonymity, said the group considered the motive of the donation and reached an “automatic consensus” that the offer be rejected.
“The members were emphatic,” one source said. “When you review what has been going on at the National Assembly, you realize you need to be careful with such gifts.”
When contacted, a member of the delegation, Lawan Kaita, declined to comment on the monetary gift from the president’s office, directing all enquiries at Maitama Sule, who he said was leader of the delegation.
Mr. Maitama could not be reached for comments but another member of the delegation, Ango Abdullahi, confirmed that his team was offered huge cash after their meeting.
Prof Abdullahi, a former Vice Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, told PREMIUM TIMES the gesture from the administration may have been a reflection of “African hospitality” regarding visits.
“It is common practice in Africa that when you pay someone a visit, your host should extend hospitality,” he said. “But in our case, what was offered was turned down. It was an automatic consensus that it should be rejected because we have to be very careful.
He however could not confirm the amount offered his group although another source said the money should have been in the region of N20 million.
“No one had time the to count money,” Mr. Abdullahi said. “Once you don’t want it you don’t want it. There is no need to count.”
The offer of cash to the northern elders again underlines a longstanding culture in government houses where discretionary cash tills are kept, and arbitrarily deployed by aides and officials to “appreciate” guests to the chief executive – governors or the president.
This year, the state house budgets N436.4 million as honorarium and sitting allowance. The amount is expected to cater for regular state meetings such as council of state meetings, security and economic council meetings.
But its provisions, backed by separate wide monetary votes, also become handy for servicing presidential guests.
More than 15 members of the Northern Elders’ Forum attended the closed-door meeting with the president where they roundly condemned the tactics of the JTF in hunting down militants and keeping peace in the region that has seen several armed attacks.
Those in attendance included Prof. Ango Abdullahi, Yusuf Maitama Sule, Paul Unongo, Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi(rtd), Lawal Kaita, Shehu Malami, Sanni Zango-Daura, Bello Kirshi, Mrs. Pauline Tallen, and Gen. Paul Tarfa(rtd).
Others were Bishop John Praise, Gen. IBM Haruna (rtd), Sen. Wash Pam, Rev. Yakubu Pam and Dr. Safiyat Mohammed.
The government’s delegation to the meeting included Vice President Namadi Sambo, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Anyim Pius Anyim, Head of Civil Service of the Federation, Sani Sali, Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke, and all ministers from the north.
The group reportedly told the president that although regional leaders were “appalled” by the activities of the Boko Haram sect, they were equally concerned about the behaviour of the security personnel deployed to protect lives and properties.
“The most charitable interpretation of their mode of operation is unprofessionalism,” the group’s leader, Yusuf Maitama Sule reportedly told the president.
They accused the Joint Task Force whose of summary executions and arson, carried out “in the name of fighting Boko Haram.”
“In Maiduguri alone, available records indicate the figures of those that were killed by the JTF to be in the thousands, most of whom were first apprehended/arrested before they were extra judicially executed,” they told the president.