El-Rufai: Nigeria’s accidental public servant & reluctant Vice-President?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Friday, 18 March 2022 13:29

Executive Governor of Kaduna State Nasir El-Rufai speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kaduna, Nigeria
Executive Governor of Kaduna State Nasir El-Rufai in Kaduna, Nigeria November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Nigeria’s self-acclaimed accidental public servant and Governor of Kaduna State Nasir el-Rufai, claims he has no intention of becoming the next Vice-President. However, the controversial governor now seems to be having a change of heart going by his latest attempt to remove All Progressives Congress (APC) caretaker chairman, Governor Mai Mala Buni. Will he take the plunge?

Governor el-Rufai is no stranger within the corridors of power. Since taking public office as an economic advisor to Nigeria’s last military Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, in 1998, he has served as the director-general of the Bureau of Public Enterprise where he supervised the sale of some key government assets; risen to become the minister of Nigeria’s federal capital where he embarked on radical reforms, and is now rounding off his second term in office as Governor of Kaduna State, the political capital of northern Nigeria.

And having put Kaduna ahead as the most economically viable state in the north despite a rise in killings, kidnapping and banditry, the governor says he is seeking to end his tenure on a high note. However, the question that he has been asked at almost every public event is “what’s next after leaving office?”

‘I could accept Vice-Presidency’

Although he has always responded by saying that he has no interest in running for office and that the next President should be a southerner and not above the age of 65, el-Rufai eventually made a concession last week, claiming that he would accept to be the Vice-Presidential candidate of the APC if President Muhammadu Buhari pressures him.

El-Rufai revealed that it was President Buhari who pressured him to run for governor in 2015 and that he would reluctantly accede to the President’s request once more especially if the minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, is picked as the Presidential candidate at the party’s primary in May.

“That would be a different conversation. I’ll explain to him (Buhari) why I don’t think it’s a good idea but of course, if he insists, I will (contest). But I’m tired,” he told Channels Television when asked if Buhari could make him change his mind about contesting the Presidency.

Critics, however, believe that el-Rufai’s concession is actually a ruse to get the President to anoint him.

“El-Rufai wants to contest. He always claims to be an accidental or reluctant public servant. That is his style,” says Chidi Odinkalu, a former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission who is also a known critic of the Kaduna governor.

The ‘coup plotter’

Despite his constant denials of having any ambition, however, the governor’s actions in recent weeks paint the picture of someone with an agenda. Last week he led an attempted coup against the chairman of the Caretaker Committee of the APC, Mai Mala Buni, who was on medical leave in Dubai.

Buni had asked Governor Abubakar Bello of Niger State to act as the chairman of the APC in his absence. With Buni indisposed, el-Rufai visited President Buhari at the Aso Rock Villa shortly before the President travelled to London for a two-week medical leave. He told the President that Buni was colluding with some fifth columnists in the party to postpone the party’s elusive national convention for the 5th time. The Kaduna governor alleged that a secret court order barring the APC from holding the convention had already been procured by Buni’s minions.

The Kaduna governor, who described the order as a “secret nuclear weapon” alleged that the plan was to postpone the election until May which would coincide with the party’s Presidential primary. El-Rufai claimed that Buhari verbally sanctioned Buni’s removal and asked Bello to take over as the chairman of the party and superintend over the national convention on March 26 which will produce a new chairman of the APC.

“We got to know of a court order last year. It was obtained in November. A member of the party went to court to say there must not be a convention until his case against the party is disposed of which can take months or years and the lawyers of Buni went to court and agreed with the person and nobody knew about this order.

“We reported to the President that no action had been taken on the order. He said the Niger state governor must take over and we should use whatever legal means necessary to make sure that the convention is delivered,” said el-Rufai.

Bello subsequently wrote a letter to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) informing it of a planned National Executive Committee meeting and asked the electoral umpire to attend the meeting in accordance with the law. But INEC quickly responded by saying that Bello had no power to sign any correspondences as Buni remained the only recognised chairman of the party.

INEC further stated that it would require a 21-day notice for any NEC meeting targeted at removing a party chairman. This effectively thwarted the plan of the ‘rebel governors’ to oust Buni.

Aftermath of the attempted ‘coup’

After the botched coup, it had become clear that Buhari may not have sanctioned the attempt to remove Buni. Rather, it was an attempt by el-Rufai and a clique of governors to wrest power from Buni who himself is also believed to be scheming to become the Vice-Presidential candidate of the party.

A letter signed by Buhari ahead of the meeting would eventually save Buni.

The letter, which was addressed to the Chairman of the APC Governors’ Forum, Governor Atiku Bagudu, stated clearly that there would be no leadership change.

The letter dated 16 March 2022, which carried the seal of the President and was obtained by The Africa Report, read in part: “I would like to direct as follows: The issue of the leadership of the Caretaker Extraordinary Convention Committee should immediately return to status quo ante.

“The Mai Mala Buni-led Caretaker Extraordinary Convention Committee should accordingly be allowed to proceed with all necessary preparations to hold the convention as planned- unfailingly on March 26, 2022.”

With Buhari’s open backing, Buni has not only returned to Nigeria but has also cancelled the planned meeting, effectively aborting the coup.

What next for el-Rufai?

Having failed to remove Buni and unable to put himself in a vantage position in the party ahead of the Presidential primary which holds in less than 70 days, governors who are in Buni’s camp are back in control of the party while el-Rufai is now an outsider.

The worst is his inability to be loyal to anybody or any issue consistently for long, but only to Nasir el-Rufai.

Apart from el-Rufai, about four other APC governors in the core north will be completing their second term in office soon. They are: Abdullahi Ganduje (Kano), Bello Masari (Katsina), Atiku Bagudu (Kebbi) and Mohammed Badaru (Jigawa).

Any of these governors could be picked as the Vice-Presidential candidate of the APC if a southerner gets the Presidential ticket. But Ganduje and Bagudu could pose a moral challenge for the APC as they are both facing corruption allegations. This puts el-Rufai at an advantage, an easy pick.

Will he take the plunge?

However, the Kaduna governor’s many controversies, including his reputation for scheming, may be his albatross or his ladder to the Presidential Villa.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was el-Rufai’s boss from 1999 to 2007, described him as a schemer in his book titled My Watch, saying: “Nasir’s penchant for reputation savaging is almost pathological. Why does he do it? He is brilliant and smart.”

Obasanjo adds: “The worst is his inability to be loyal to anybody or any issue consistently for long, but only to Nasir el-Rufai. He barefacedly lied which he did to me against his colleagues and so-called friends.”

  • Some portray the Kaduna governor as having contributed to ethnic and religious tensions. El-Rufai, who is a Fulani Muslim, broke convention ahead of the last election by picking a Muslim running mate, arguing that the Christian minority groups would not vote for him even if he “picked the Pope” as his running mate.
  • He has been constantly accused of mismanaging the religious and ethnic diversity in the state which has contributed to the many conflicts in Kaduna State where roughly 1,000 are killed yearly.

“A man whose state has turned into a large cemetery has no business contesting for the Presidency of Nigeria. Governance is not just about the economy but about the security of lives. Kaduna State is just about 46, 400sqkm and has 55 ethnic groups and he failed to secure their lives. What will happen if he is put in charge of Nigeria’s 923,000sqkm and over 530 ethnic and national groups?” Odinkalu asks.

But some groups think otherwise. Last year, Nasiriyya Organisation 2023 filed a suit before a High Court in Kaduna State seeking to compel el-Rufai to succeed President Buhari in 2023. The case is still pending in court.

Recently, a group known as the ‘Good People of Kaduna Movement’, embarked on a 10km walk, appealing to the governor to contest the Presidency.

‘El-Rufai is no exception’

Attempts to speak with el-Rufai’s Spokesman, Muyiwa Adekeye, proved abortive as he did not respond to several calls. But an associate of the governor said el-Rufai is crafty and would never reveal all his cards.

“I don’t know any politician in this country that will not contest if he feels he has a strong chance of winning. El-Rufai is no exception. He claims not to have any ambition but he is only saying this so that his opponents would let their guard down and he can strike.

“He definitely wants to contest but is seeking the President’s endorsement hence his claim that he will only run if the President convinces him to. And if he doesn’t get the endorsement, he will claim that he was never interested in the first place so that it would not appear as if he lost. It’s a strategy,” he says.

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