Strong indications emerged Tuesday that President Muhammadu Buhari granted approvals for oil deals, including some of those generating controversy in the polity, to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) during the time he was on his sick bed in London.
The Group Managing Director, Mr Maikanti Baru, it was also learnt, had approached President Buhari in London on his sick bed when efforts to get approval from Acting President Yemi Osinbajo for critical operations at the NNPC was declined on the account that Mr Kachikwu’s consent must be obtained first before he could exercise presidential powers of approval.
The Minister of State for Petroleum, Mr Ibe Kachikwu had blown off the lid on the purported award of huge contracts at the NNPC without his approval or that of the NNPC Board.
Kachikwu had done a memo on the issue to President Buhari while media had feasted on its content after a copy leaked.
But the embattled Group Managing Director of NNPC, Mr. Maikanti Baru had in his own defence said he didn’t need the approval of the NNPC Board chaired by Kachikwu for the contracts.
Documentary evidence indicated that Mr. Baru claimed that President Buhari approved at least two separate oil contracts on July 10 and July 31 worth $1 billion and $780 million, respectively.
The contracts are part of those in issue in Kachikwu’s memo.
Mr Buhari is the substantive Petroleum Minister who delegated his chairmanship of the NNPC Board to Mr Kachikwu.
The NNPC Act designates the board to oversee the affairs of the state-owned oil giant.
Specifically, the Act states that the Minister of Petroleum must be the chairman of the NNPC board.
But he is allowed by the NNPC law to delegate powers, including chairmanship of the board.
However, the law also allows Mr. Buhari to act concurrently as the chairman of NNPC board even while the appointment of the person he delegated powers to is still valid.
Legal analyst, Liborous Oshoma, said the president’s action may be “un-procedural” but might not be entirely illegal.”
“This is similar to what we have witnessed since the president was away yet, he was still issuing presidential statements and taking calls from President Donald Trump and other presidents to discuss matters concerning Nigeria.
“All that happened despite the fact that we had an acting president in place and Nigerians raised concerns at the time,” Mr. Oshoma said.
He said Mr. Buhari might not be in a good state of mind when the presidential approvals were procured and their validity could be challenged in court.
“The contracts could be challenged and possibly rendered invalid by the courts because he didn’t have presidential powers at the time he was exercising same,” Mr. Oshoma added.
“The acting president ought to have approved those contracts because no one knew what state of mind the president was at the time.”
Recall that Mr. Buhari was flown to London on May 7, barely two months after he returned from his first 2017 medical vacation which saw him spend 50 days in the United Kingdom.
On May 9, a letter Mr. Buhari wrote to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and President of the Senate notifying them that he had relinquished presidential authorities in accordance with the Nigerian Constitution was read on the floor of both chambers.
Despite rumours of his early return, Mr. Buhari ultimately spent 103 days receiving treatment in London, returning on August 19.
On August 21, the president notified the National Assembly of his return in writing, saying he had “resumed” his “functions as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria with effect from Monday, 21st August, 2017.”
But on Monday, the NNPC revealed that Mr. Buhari had been exercising presidential powers by granting approvals for NNPC joint venture contracts when he was supposedly on his sickbed and not exercising presidential powers.
The NNPC gave details of the contracts.
The Corporation had responded – on behalf of Mr. Baru – to the allegations of contract fraud and insubordination raised by Ibe Kachikwu.
Mr. Kachikwu, the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, had in his August 30 memo to Mr. Buhari said Mr. Baru unilaterally approved contracts without recourse to him or the NNPC board, amongst other concerns.
The memo surfaced on social media on October 3, sending ripples through the country’s polity.
On October 9, the NNPC responded to Mr. Kachikwu’s allegations by publishing the above contract details, which it said was at the instance of Mr. Buhari, who had kept mum since the scandal broke.
But a look at the dates of the three contracts shows that two of them received presidential approval on dates Mr. Buhari was not in the country, July 31 for the second contract with Chevron Nigeria and July 10 for the contract with Shell.
Mr. Baru’s name was placed against the contracts as the person who administered the contract in his capacity as the Group Managing Director of the NNPC.
Only the September 1, 2015, contract which Mr. Kachikwu oversaw during his tenure as the GMD of NNPC received presidential approval on a date Mr. Buhari was in the country and wielding presidential powers.
A compilation of Mr. Buhari’s travels reveals that he was in the country from early August 2015 when he returned from Cotonou until September 7 when he visited Accra.
But while it is clear that the presidential approval granted when Mr. Kachikwu was the head of NNPC happened when Mr. Buhari was exercising presidential powers; it appeared like Mr. Baru received his approval when Mr. Buhari was in London.
In his memo to Mr. Buhari, Mr. Kachikwu stated that when Mr. Buhari was unwell in London for several months between May and August, Mr. Baru tried to get direct approval from Acting President Osinbajo for some personnel changes at the NNPC.
But Mr. Osinbajo asked Mr. Baru to go back to Mr. Kachikwu and get his input and approval first before making the changes.
Mr. Baru refused to consult Mr. Kachikwu on that.
For weeks, the changes were not made, until Mr. Buhari returned on August 19.
By August 29, Mr. Baru announced the changes.
This prompted Mr. Kachikwu’s letter to the president on August 30, complaining that he learnt of the development in the media.
Sources at the presidency corroborated Mr. Kachikwu’s claim that Mr. Osinbajo rebuffed Mr. Baru’s attempts to get presidential approval behind Mr. Kachikwu.
Neither the vice president’s office nor Mr. Baru also denied that claim by Mr. Kachikwu.
It is not immediately clear if Mr. Baru also attempted to get approval for the multi-billion dollar contracts from Mr. Osinbajo.
But presidency sources said it was unlikely that Mr. Osinbajo, who did not allow Mr. Baru to make personnel changes, would allow the NNPC GMD to circumvent Mr. Kachikwu with such high-profile contracts.
Ndu Ughamadu, spokesperson for the NNPC, would not confirm or deny if Mr. Baru got the approval from Mr. Buhari in London.
“Presidential approval is presidential approval,” Mr. Ughamadu said.
When he was reminded him of potential legal implications of Mr. Buhari exercising presidential powers even when he had relinquished same in accordance with the constitution, Mr. Ughamadu dug his heels in.
“Presidential approval is presidential approval,” the spokesperson insisted.
For several hours on Tuesday, presidential spokespersons Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, did not respond to requests seeking their comments about this and other problematic parts of the NNPC revelations.
Yet, the N640.8 billion oil contracts might not be the only one Mr. Baru got Mr. Buhari to approve while he was still unwell in London.
For instance, the NNPC announced on February 2 that it received 128 bids from local and international firms willing to participate in its 2017-2018 Direct-Sale–Direct-Purchase crude programme, which was adopted by the Buhari administration last year to replace the crude oil swap initiative and the offshore processing arrangement.
Mr. Buhari was not around in on February 2 when the announcement was made, having been flown to London on January 19 for his first medical trip of the year. He didn’t return to the country until March.
On May 19, when NNPC sources told Daily Trust and a few other media houses that it had finally entered into a $6 billion deal with 10 companies for 2017-2018 edition of DSDP contracts, Mr. Buhari was also not in the country.
The NNPC spokesperson declined comments about DSDP contracts.