Babachir Lawal: The inviolability of SGF’s assumed power

By Reuben Abati

When last week, President Muhammadu Buhari decided to suspend the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, and the Director General of the Nigeria Intelligence Agency, Ambassador Ayo Oke in order to allow unfettered investigations of both public officers, the most striking immediate reaction was the SGF asking: who is the Presidency? State House correspondents had accosted the then SGF as he left a meeting with the Vice President. It is standard practice at the State House for correspondents to lay ambush. Babachir Lawal obviously did not know that he had been suspended from office.

If the Vice President knew, he did not tell him. Again, that is how the Nigerian Presidency works. Once you fall out of line or favour due courtesies may not be extended to you. I was instructed on many occasions to wait until certain persons left the Villa, before issuing their sack statements. I once announced the disengagement of an important public official from the Presidential wing of the airport, as our aircraft taxied on the runway en route France.

In Babachir Lawal’s case, he was asked to react to something he knew nothing about. When he sought clarifications, the correspondents told him that the Presidency had suspended him from office. Anybody in his shoes would have been just as shocked as he was. He was right there in the Villa, and nobody told him there was a knife at his back. Besides, he occupies a very strategic office. The SGF’s office is the engine room of the Presidency.

The Chief of Staff may be the political, administrative head of the State House, but the engine of the Presidency is in the office of the SGF. He is in charge of Council meetings, the Ministers must interface with him, the civil service also, and he is directly in charge of more than 30 government agencies and parastatals. No key government event or appointment can take place without that office. Presidential power is delegated and distributed. The office of the SGF arguably has a larger share, in other words, in real terms, that office is probably more influential than every other office in the Executive arm of government.

The problem with privileged people in government, holding political appointments, however, is that they often get carried away. They forget that they are mere agents, exercising delegated authority. The illusion of power and the delusion of agents constitution

In Babachir Lawal’s case, he was asked to react to something he knew nothing about. When he sought clarifications, the correspondents told him that the Presidency had suspended him from office. Anybody in his shoes would have been just as shocked as he was. He was right there in the Villa, and nobody told him there was a knife at his back. Besides, he occupies a very strategic office. The SGF’s office is the engine room of the Presidency.

The Chief of Staff may be the political, administrative head of the State House, but the engine of the Presidency is in the office of the SGF. He is in charge of Council meetings, the Ministers must interface with him, the civil service also, and he is directly in charge of more than 30 government agencies and parastatals. No key government event or appointment can take place without that office. Presidential power is delegated and distributed. The office of the SGF arguably has a larger share, in other words, in real terms, that office is probably more influential than every other office in the Executive arm of government.

The problem with privileged people in government, holding political appointments, however, is that they often get carried away. They forget that they are mere agents, exercising delegated authority. The illusion of power and the delusion of agents constitute one of the major threats in the corridors of power.

But the delusion of relatives, associates and wayfarers is even worse. I have seen ordinary relatives of the President threatening to be powerful, and mere acquaintances claiming to be in charge of the Presidency. It got so interesting at a point that a colleague, who had a First Class and whose only dream was to get a Ph.D in his lifetime, kept insisting that he would devote his doctoral thesis to a study of the impact of informal agents on Presidential powers and authority. If waka-pass characters in the corridors of power can lay so much claim to power, there can be no doubt that privileged persons with big egos would be worse.

At that moment therefore when Babachir Lawal asked the question: who is the Presidency?, he must have thought of all the powers and influence in his custody and imagined himself as being indeed the main engine of the Presidency. His response to the correspondents was actually a retort: “who will dare take such a decision behind my back? I am the Presidency and I have just held a meeting with the VP. You reporters don’t know anything. You are telling the Presidency that the Presidency has suspended him from office?” By now, a week later, Babachir Lawal must have learnt one basic lesson about power.

The lesson is simply that it is power that gives power, when power withdraws power, what is left is powerlessness. For example, another person has since taken Babachir Lawal’s place in acting capacity and there is nothing he can do about that. Some other politicians are also already being positioned to take over that office eventually, so far three names have been mentioned- Ogbonnnaya Onu, Adams Oshiomhole and Olorunnimbe Mamora and it looks like there is a serious hustle for that office. Nobody is likely to reject the job if Babachir Lawal loses it. Meanwhile, the Presidency continues to move on while Babachir Lawal is under interrogation. In the last week alone, the suspended SGF should also have learnt a few more lessons about human beings. He may no longer ask that question: who is the Presidency? He is more likely to be asking: who is Babachir Lawal?

But that is a private question. No matter how concerned we may be, we can’t answer it for him. It is a kind of question, manifesting in form of a cross which every person must carry at certain critical moments in their lives. When he asked that other question however: who is the Presidency?, Babachir Lawal, beyond his egoistic slip, threw up something anagnoristic, which is of significant public interest.

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