sage or serpent?

In Nigeria, El-Rufai tossed out in political storm

By Eniola Akinkuotu

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Posted on August 22, 2023 12:42

Nasir El-Rufai leaving court in 2010 after a case dating back to his time as FCT minister was dismissed. (REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde)
Nasir El-Rufai leaving court in 2010 after a case dating back to his time as FCT minister was dismissed. (REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde)

In an alternate universe, former governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State would have been Nigeria’s current vice president.

In the past year, he has been dropping down the pecking order in Nigeria’s political hierarchy and has now failed to secure a ministerial appointment. Could this be the end of his illustrious career?

When President Bola Tinubu nominated ex-Governor El-Rufai as a minister in late July, many assumed that his screening at the Senate would be a formality. He was expected to take over as the next minister of power to drive the much-needed reforms.

The former governor, who holds degrees from the University of London and the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University, read out his résumé and responded to questions regarding the epileptic power supply.

“Without electricity, industrialisation is a pipedream. Without electricity, even agriculture is not viable, so President Tinubu is committed to that, and he has asked that I work with him to address these problems and I will do my best,” he said.

During the session, one of the senators pointed to some petitions bordering on security, which had been written against El-Rufai, saying they ought to be considered in the vetting.

In the end, the former governor failed to sail through, having been out-schemed by some of the president’s top men who saw him as a threat and divisive figure.

With little options left, El-Rufai met with Tinubu at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa where he recommended that one of his former appointees in Kaduna State be picked as a replacement. He then flew out of the country.

One too many

This is not the first time that El-Rufai, 63, has suffered a political heartbreak.

Ahead of the presidential primary of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in June 2022, he was one of the northern governors who insisted on the party’s candidate being a southerner. This contributed to Tinubu’s eventual victory at the primary.

After Tinubu clinched the party’s ticket, El-Rufai, a staunch northern Muslim, was among those considered for the position of vice presidential candidate.

His achievements as governor of Kaduna, where he built key infrastructure and quadrupled its internal revenue, were stated as reasons for his suitability for the job.

Even so, Tinubu settled for Senator Kashim Shettima of Borno State, to the chagrin of the Kaduna governor who would later state publicly that he would be leaving the country after the elections.

Yet Tinubu drew El-Rufai closer saying: “I am openly begging Nasir El-Rufai not to run away for additional degrees… We are not going to let you run away. Your vision, creativity and resilience in turning a rotten situation to a bad one is necessary at this critical time.”

El-Rufai went the whole hog, even publicly taking on some of President Muhammadu Buhari’s men who were reportedly frustrating Tinubu’s campaign.

When Buhari’s failed naira redesign policy began to affect Tinubu’s campaign, El-Rufai sued the then administration, intensifying his support for the latter.

Though he had previously had a strained relationship with Tinubu, his efforts during the campaign were acknowledged.

Mr controversy

His controversial style has, however, often pitted him against religious and rights groups.

In 2015, just months after his inauguration, soldiers went on the rampage, killing hundreds of Shiites in Kaduna State for blocking the convoy of the head of Nigeria’s Army.

El-Rufai ordered an investigation into the incident, and it was determined that hundreds of Shiites, including children, were indeed gunned down by soldiers.

El-Rufai, however, chose to prosecute the leader of the Shiite group, Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzakky, for causing a crisis in the state, even though El-Zakzaky also lost three sons in the attack.

He remained in detention for four years while El-Rufai’s administration prosecuted him. This sparked weekly protests and human rights concerns that eventually reached the ICC.

Nasir’s penchant for reputation savaging is almost pathological…The worst is his inability to be loyal to anybody or any issue consistently for long, but only to Nasir El-Rufai

In the build-up to the 2019 poll, he vowed that any foreign citizen who meddled in Nigeria’s election would leave in body bags.

He also did away with the state’s long standing political tradition of having a governor and his deputy representing different religions. This led to protests from the Christian community and further heightened religious tensions in the state.

El-Rufai defended his decision saying: “No matter who I choose as my running mate, even if I choose the Pope, 67% of the Christians in Southern Kaduna have made up their minds that they will never vote for me.”

He further ordered the demolition of properties belonging to opposition politicians.

El-Rufai had previously made utterances that were found repugnant, such as mocking the late President Umaru Yar’Adua.

“I have fought with two presidents. Umaru Yar’Adua ended in his grave, while President Goodluck Jonathan ended in Otuoke,” he said, referring to Jonathan’s birthplace in the Niger Delta.

Under his administration, thousands were killed by gunmen while many more were abducted by bandits. This led to a petition that saw him get disinvited from the conference of the Nigerian Bar Association where he was to be a keynote speaker.

After Tinubu’s victory, El-Rufai told a gathering of Islamic faithful that “because religion was used, Allah gave Tinubu victory. What we successfully did in Kaduna (Muslim/Muslim ticket) has now been replicated all over the country. No liar will ever contest as a Christian and win [the] election ever again”.

Sources say Tinubu’s allies saw El-Rufai as untrustworthy, given the role he played in the feud between then-president Olusegun Obasanjo and vice president Atiku Abubakar in the early 2000s when he was a minister.

In his book titled My Watch, Obasanjo said: “Nasir’s penchant for reputation savaging is almost pathological…The worst is his inability to be loyal to anybody or any issue consistently for long, but only to Nasir El-Rufai.” Obasanjo was El-Rufai’s boss from 1999 to 2007.

His former political associate turned foe, Senator Shehu Sani, described him as a serpent that could sow seeds of discord and cause disaffection within Tinubu’s cabinet.

What’s next?

Following his failure to make Tinubu’s cabinet, the controversial ex-governor has stayed away from public life and was even absent from his son’s wedding.

In recent days, he has been posting cryptic messages on Twitter (now X), alluding to betrayal and injustice using lyrics from Bob Marley’s song ‘Who the Cap Fit’.

“Man to man is so unjust, children. You don’t know who to trust. Your worst enemy could be your best friend and your best friend your worst enemy,” he said on X.

El-Rufai is reported to have travelled to Lebanon, and is expected to settle in The Netherlands to complete his doctorate.

His influence in the running of Kaduna State, where his protégé — Uba Sani — is serving as governor, remains seemingly intact.

Even so, whether the former governor will return to Nigeria or even contest in a legislative election in 2027 remains to be seen, as he has publicly stated that he has no interest in ever becoming a legislator.

With Tinubu reported to be eyeing re-election, the chances of an El-Rufai presidency on an APC platform remain slim. Could this be the end of his political career?

Dan Kunle, president of DDK Business Strategy Limited and a public affairs analyst with ties to El-Rufai, tells The Africa Report that he expects the former governor to bounce back quickly.

“He transformed Abuja as a minister and then Kaduna as governor. I expect him to get an international job in the Gulf, the Middle East where countries are going through transformation.

“People like El-Rufai can never be out of [a] job. He could also become a lecturer or could take a break from public life to reflect on life. President Tinubu could also give him a national assignment much later,” Kunle says.

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