The Sun News

2017: Aso Villa’s highs, lows

Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Abuja

There were defining moments for individuals, groups, institutions and countries during the year that just ended. The seat of power, presidential villa, Abuja, was not an exception. 

 It was a year that saw a thick cloud hovering over the country as a result of the serious health challenge that President Muhammadu Buhari faced for the better part of the year.

 Buhari’s long absence from the country gave birth to intrigues that included budget signing drama. It was a year where replacing two ministers or reshuffling the cabinet became a daunting task.

 Buhari’s health /vacations and its many challenges 

 President Buhari’s health was on the front burner throughout the year 2017. On January 19, he left the shores of the country for the United Kingdom on a medical vacation. He transmitted a letter to the national assembly, notifying the federal lawmakers that he has transferred power to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in line with the constitution.

  No sooner had the president left than the rumours mills went on overdrive with reports that Buhari was dead. It was a period where fake news gained bizarre acceptance with the height being the cloning of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) website to announce the president’s death.

The media handlers went on a frenzy insisting their principal was fit like a fiddle but was only staying put on doctor’s orders. On March 10, he that was pronounced dead returned triumphantly to the country. In his first address to the nation, he rubbished the ‘fit like a fiddle’ theory and confessed to Nigerians that he has never been so sick in his entire life; to the extent of undergoing blood transfusion.

But another round of apprehension came when his media handlers said he would be working from home and he again was not seen in public for a while. The same Nigerians who demanded for his return suggested he returned to London to tend to his health.

 On May 7th, he was back to London for what his media handlers described as “medical follow-up”. Presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, on his twitter handle, said the length of the president’s absence from the country was to be determined by his doctors, while government would function normally under the vice president.

 He left the country a day earlier than planned after he received the freed 82 Chibok girls. The girls who were kidnapped in April 2014 were released by Boko Haram in a swap deal that also saw the release of some terror suspects.

 The day he left was also a day before he was to be handed the report of the Osinbajo-led three man committee that investigated former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal and National Intelligence Agency (NIA) boss, Ambassador Ayo Oke.

 This time Buhari’s medical vacation lasted 104 days in London, prompting a sit out action led by” #ourmumudondo# “ group, championed by Charley Boy, demanding the president resumes duty or resign.  Notwithstanding that Osinbajo was at the helms of affairs, political watchers insisted governance had slowed down. 

On August 20th, the president returned to a rousing welcome but continued working from an office in his residence, his handlers say. The most bizarre explanations for his continued stay from his office was that of Mallam Garba Shehu, the president’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, who said rodents had taken over the office and Julius Berger was fixing the mess. Of course, what followed were torrents of criticisms, accusing the presidency of making mockery of the country.

 Osinbajo, in Buhari’s absence

 In the absence of President Buhari, the clamour for secession heightened and the fear of a repeat of the civil war gripped the nation, with many of the older generation appealing for calm.

 Weeks after leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, was released on bail, his utterances and activities pushed the temperature of the country to a boiling point. He demanded for the Republic of Biafra and with his cult-like followership, he was gaining ground. In his response, a Coalition of Northern youth groups issued an ultimatum to Igbo living in the north to vacate the region before October 1. That singular action further heightened tension in the country.

Osinbajo, who was then acting president, was left with no choice than to act fast to save Nigeria from disintegration. Quickly, he summoned a meeting comprising leaders of Thoughts from the north and the south east, governors and traditional rulers. At the meeting, he cautioned against hate speech, which had trailed the agitation for secession and the quit notice issued by the Arewa youths. He urged elders especially those who witnessed the civil war to caution the youths, noting that violence and war would not do anyone any good. Government, he assured, will deal with the grievances.

 Osinbajo also extended his meeting to the Niger Delta as well as media executives appealing for calm and reassuring all that all grievances would be addressed. His moves was hailed by political watchers who commended him for the peace moves as it went a long way in calming frayed nerves in the country.

 Suspension of SGF, NIA DG/ Mainagate

 The suspension of former SGF, Lawal and erstwhile DG of NIA, Oke on one hand and the reinstatement and promotion of former chairman of Presidential Task Force on Pensions, Abdulrasheed Maina, were two events that tested the anti-corruption fight of the Buhari administration.

 Lawal was accused of using N200 million to cut grass in one of the IDPs camps. The senate committee that carried out the probe found him culpable and demanded for his sack and prosecution. Curiously, President Buhari absolved the SGF of any wrongdoing through the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF). But after much outcry, the duo of Lawal and Oke were sent on suspension. Lawal who was at the presidential villa when his suspension was announced in a statement, emerged from a meeting with Osinbajo to the waiting arms of State House Correspondents. And while responding to question seeking his reaction he said, “Who is the Presidency”.

The Osinbajo committee that probed Lawal had Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, (AGF) Abubakar Malami and National Security Adviser, (NSA) Babagana Monguno, as members. 

 Buhari received the report after his return from his medical vacation but failed to act on the report. Two months later, Buhari sacked Lawal and Oke, and appointed Boss Mustapha as the new SGF. By yesterday, he named Ahmed Rufai Abubakar as Oke’s replacement. Curiously, while Lawal’s replacement came from the same state and zone as Lawal, Oke’s replacement is from the north, whereas Oke is from the south-west.

 Like Lawal and Oke, Buhari also ordered the immediate sack of Maina, following public outcry. But the drama is far from being over.

 2017 budget controversy 

 Apart from the disagreement between the Executive and the National Assembly on gray areas, the issue of who signs the budget was also a huge debate during the year under review.

 Recall that controversy over who would be saddled with the responsibility of assenting to the budget had arisen following dissenting voices from different quarters that the acting President may not be the one to sign the budget.

 Recall also that the House of Representatives on May 11, passed the 2017 Budget of 7.441 trillion Naira.

 But, fielding questions from State House Correspondents after the Federal Executive Council, (FEC) meeting at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed also disclosed that ministers were studying the budget as passed by the National Assembly.

 The Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on National Assembly Matters, senator Ita Enang, did not help the debate when he said that President Buhari would assent to the 2017 budget while the then acting President Osinbajo would take it up from there.

 However,  the Office of the acting President later cleared the air over the assent to the 2017 budget affirming that it would be signed into law when and if the acting President expresses satisfaction with the bill.

 On June 12th, Osinbajo signed the 2017 Appropriations Bill into law, saying it was an important milestone in the administration’s economic recovery and growth plan. 

  Presidency-Senate rift over Magu

 The insistence of the Presidency to retain Ibrahim Magu as Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) chairman, did not go down well with the senate and to show its displeasure, it rejected the confirmation of Magu twice, citing a damning report from the DSS against him. The year ended with Magu still on his seat as the acting chairman of the EFCC, against the extant law establishing the Commission.

 But Osinbajo, a professor of law is of the view that the senate’s powers to confirm nominees were limited. And citing Section 171 of the constitution, he said Magu’s case falls under that exception. Like the Mainagate, the Magu/senate drama is still on.

 Sorry state of Aso Rock Clinic 

 In the months of September and October, the State House Medical Centre otherwise called Aso Rock Clinic was in the news for the wrong reasons.

 In late September, it was President Muhammadu Buhari’s daughter, Zahra, who chose the social media to raise concerns over the poor state of State House clinic.

 She specifically called out the Permanent Secretary, State House, Mr. Jalal Arabi, asking him to explain why things were the way they were in an hospital meant  to treat the first family, second family and other top government officials, despite the N3 billion budgetary allocation in the 2017 budget. 

 Her outburst forced Arabi to explain the true situation of things, hinting that for such complains to cease, the medical centre would have to be commercialised.

 According to him, the clinic, which currently offers free medical services to patients, would be repositioned to offer qualitative and efficient services.

Exactly a week later, it was the turn of the Wife of the President, Aisha Buhari, to speak on the state of the clinic.

 She also lamented the lack of drugs and equipment at the State House Clinic, insisting that the management must explain the use of funds allocated to the medical facility.

 Mrs. Buhari specifically put the blame on the State House Medical Centre, Chief Medical Director, Dr. Hussain Munir. She was furious that she could not get treatment at the Clinic when she fell sick because the x-ray machine was not working despite the huge funds allocated to the clinic. The controversy continued in the National Assembly with the committees in the Red and Green Chambers agreeing after a visit that the Clinic lacked basic drugs and equipment.

  Restructuring and Confab report 

 President Buhari has never hidden his intention not to implement the 2014 report of the National Conference organised by former President Goodluck Jonathan. According to Buhari, it is a report meant for the archives. His stance is that the last administration didn’t get its priorities right. He said instead of addressing the demands of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) who were on strike then, the government was busy spending billions to organise the conference. This is even as the then SGF, Lawal, described the conference as “job for the boys.”

 The president’s remarks elicited reactions from some of the delegates who advised him to implement the key recommendations of the conference.  But in his independence address to Nigerians, Buhari put a final nail on the coffin of the 2014 national conference, saying national debates should be handled by the federal legislature and not some lopsided, undemocratic body with predetermined set of objectives.

 The accident 

 On December 26th, Buhari’s only son, Yusuf, had a motorbike accident that left him with a head injury and a broken limb in Gwarimpa, Abuja. He has been receiving treatment at Cedarcrest Hospital, located in Gudu District, Abuja, where dignitaries have been pouring in to sympathize with the first family over the incident.

  Dead men appointed into boards.

 The most embarrassing moment for the Buhari’s administration in 2017 was the appointment of dead men into the governing boards of agencies and parastatals positions.

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