Kachikwu, Baru and the NNPC debacle by Reuben Abati

The current NNPC debacle is probably the most embarrassing, even if mercifully, eye-opening crisis in the history of that nationally strategic institution since its creation in 1977.
I seek in the following commentary to offer a number of observations that would probably throw some light on the muck and confusion running riot out there on the matter. In my view, it was an error to have paired the Group Managing Director of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Dr Maikanti Baru, with Dr. Ibe Kachikwu.
I say this for two reasons. When Dr. Ibe Kachikwu was appointed the GMD in charge of the NNPC and as Minister of State in 2015, it looked like a dream appointment and an extra-ordinary career point for him but not necessarily for the sector. Dr Kachikwu did not hesitate to assert himself and in his attempt to reform the NNPC, one of the victims was a certain Dr Maikanti Baru, most senior Executive Director at the NNPC, who was redeployed under the new dispensation as a Technical Adviser in the Ministry of Petroleum. This was like sending Baru to desert territory of the oil and gas sector. How the same Baru eventually got rehabilitated as GMD of the NNPC, to work with the same man who had tried to marginalize him within the system was a poor demonstration of an understanding of human psychology.
It was common knowledge that there was no love lost between the two men, and yet someone thought it was a good idea to force them to work together as a team. Leadership failed at that point, because the arrangement was not going to work. The Ministry of Petroleum and NNPC that emerged at that point was built on a fulcrum of conflict of personality and interest. The key players in the oil and gas sector can only work together as a team if they must reduce the opaqueness and conflicts in that sector, but the pairing of Kachikwu and Baru practically showed a lack of understanding. The crisis that has now erupted between both men was foreseeable, and I dare say, avoidable. Where is the wisdom in forcing two persons who have shown open dislike for each other to work together?
But let us consider the other level of the conflict: and that is the conflict of interest. One major issue in the oil and gas industry, over the years has been the uneasy relationship between the Ministry of Petroleum and the International Oil Companies (IOCs). The Ministry of Petroleum through its parastatals, the NNPC, and more particularly, NAPIMS, regulates the IOCs. Nonetheless, the relationship between the regulator and the IOCs has always been like that between the cat and the mouse. Civil servants not just in the NNPC but elsewhere within the government have a penchant to want to work with their own.
Political appointees are treated with suspicion, as wayfarers, as the civil servants seek to protect their own territory. The battle for territory in the Nigerian government is one of the most vicious fights in the corridors of power. So it has been that in the oil and gas industry in Nigeria, every attempt to appoint an IOC-associated person as head of the NNPC or other parastatals under the Ministry of Petroleum has always resulted in the equivalent of street fights. Under President Olusegun Obasanjo, Edmund Daukoru and Funso Kupolokun could not forge a seamless relationship even if Daukoru spent only five months or so in that position. Diezani Allison-Madueke was also from the IOCs (in her case Shell) and obviously she had issues with NNPC and Ministry officials. She had an advantage though: no GMD of NNPC would dare stand up to her, or by-pass her.
The belief within the Ministry of Petroleum system is that Ministerial appointees from the IOCs have interests that are different from their own traditions. President Buhari made the matter worse by making Kachikwu, an IOC man, from Exxon Mobil, GMD and Minister of State of Petroleum. On the surface of it, the impression was created that he could generate policies as he deemed fit, enjoy direct access to the Minister of Petroleum and gain the authorization to implement the same policies as he liked. From day one, Kachikwu was thus a marked man within the Ministry of Petroleum system. It will be naïve to assume that it is only Maikanti Baru that is fighting him. It will be safer to assume that it is the establishment that is trying to cut him down to size. If you doubt that, then check the history of the system: most of the former Ministers of Petroleum that managed to do well are not even from the system but complete outsiders. Caught in the middle of this conflict, Kachikwu does not want to take the matter lying low. He is fighting back. I’ll comment on whether that is a smart or clever move anon.

I think the other problem signposted so far in this matter, is the role of the Minister of State and the substantive Minister and how power and responsibility are delegated along the reporting lines. The related issue is access to the delegating authority. What we know is that the Minister of State in the Nigerian system has always faced difficulties. He or she occupies the same space in the power spectrum similar to that of a Deputy Governor, even if he or she does not have any Constitutional right of succession, in the event of the death or impeachment of the substantive officer. So serious is this matter that when certain Ministers of State were treated shabbily in the past they had to protest, and force the issue. The Nigerian Constitution, in line with the Federal Character Principle, says there must be a Minister from every state of the Federation. Since it would make no sense to have 36 Federal Ministries, some Ministers end up as Deputy Ministers, but in reality, they are expected to report to a substantive Minister representing another state! The result has been nothing but conflict.

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