The political education of Kachikwu

Ibe Kachikwu, Minister of State for Petroleum while answering questions from the Senate Committee on Petroleum Downstream on the lingering fuel scarcity in the country at National Assembly Abuja on Tuesday 29/03/16.Photo Ladidi Lucy Elukpo.

Ibe Kachikwu, Minister of State for Petroleum

Dr Ibe Kachikwu, minister of state for petroleum, is a fine technocrat. His credentials stretch the length of Eko bridge. Oh, well, not quite. At his ministerial confirmation, a senator friend of mine was full of praises for his intelligence and his full grasp of what goes on in the one industry that has managed, quite remarkably, to insinuate itself into every aspect of our lives. I think his public performance on the floor of the senate made many Nigerians take more than a casual interest in him.

Few Nigerians have had Kachikwu’s rich and varied experience in the oil industry. When President Muhamadu Buhari appointed him group managing director of NNPC, he could not, in my view, have made a better choice. Buhari needs a man like Kachikwu to work with him to help him clean up the rot and end the corruption, all of which have bedevilled the corporation since Nigerians learnt to milk the cow.

Kachikwu has been at the international end of the oil industry where the fate of the product is decided, crude oil being a buyer’s market. He knows the tricks and the shenanigans at that end that often befuddle the oil-producing countries who have no say in how their product is priced. No one can hoodwink him. He knows what goes on at the production level back home where it has been difficult these many years to truly ascertain the quantity of crude pumped out and exported. No one can deceive him. I did not intend this to sound so conclusive but the point is I can find no better policeman than he at policing perhaps the most secretive industry in the world.

So, you see, right from the start, many Nigerians believed that Kachikwu might be the man the country needs to end the shame of a petroleum-producing country that is import-dependent for its domestic petroleum needs. He has not been in the system here; therefore, he is untainted by the mud that has turned many a man’s immaculate clothes the colour of Ajegunle gutter. Many of us see him as wielding the moral authority and the magic command to hurry the arrival of tomorrow. Magic. Remember that.
That is the problem.

Kachikwu comes from a culture where people rely on scientific facts and calculations to solve problems and make projections. They do not do God; therefore, they do not expect miracles.

That is the problem.
His calculated scientific approach to the fuel crisis has the feel of someone knocking at the gates of heaven. It would take eternity for the security man to answer. I am sure the minister is embarrassed that under his watch the blight of petroleum shortage hit us when we least expected it. This is the demon we have been battling now since General Yakubu Gowon was in office. As a matter of fact, given our faith in change under APC as the change agent, we no longer expected the country to be pulled through this wrenching and excruciating pain of fuel shortages any more. We expected the demons that have ruled our petroleum industry and complicated our lives and our businesses to take due note of the change mantra and take a running jump to hell.

Kismet intervened with its diabolical sense of humour. The demon appears to be winning. We began to wonder what happened to the man we thought had the magical answer to what had hobbled a succession of his predecessors in office.

Our frustration got to the ears of the minister. He too felt frustrated by our mounting frustration. He could not remember telling anyone he was a magician. He said so last month. “I was not trained as a magician,” he said. This is what is called political diplomatic faux pas.

Senator Ahmed Bola Tinubu, national leader of the ruling APC, was instantly out with the whip. He lashed at Kachikwu, calling him a “bad advertisement for APC government.” He said he should resign. I am sure the minister must have been quite shocked by Tinubu’s vehemence. Welcome to Nigerian politics 101.

You could say the APC leader over-reacted. But politicians are in permanent search for someone to carry the can each time a well-laid plan goes out of kilter. No one blamed the minister for the fuel crisis until he let slip about his lack of training in magic. He spoke the truth. He is not a trained magician. Why is that simple fact the cause of such embarrassment to the leaders and foot soldiers of the ruling party? The problem is that this is not the sort of truth that sets a man free. The minister promptly apologised and mollified other politicians baying for his blood. If he finds all this confusing, it is because it is truly confusing.

My take is that the minister would do with a quick refresher course in political education. He has to learn and appreciate the cultural differences between politicians and technocrats. He has to learn something about the proper use of language in a political setting. He got into trouble because he failed to realise that as a minister, he is operating in a totally different environment from what he was used to. In this environment, we do God. And because we do God, our public officers are all sold on the art of turning impossibilities to possibilities. We call them miracles. What this means is that our public officers do not lie to us; we encourage them to speak to us diplomatically. When they tell us that what is patently impossible is possible, we recognise it as political diplomatese at work.

The first thing the minister needs to know is that he is in politics, even if he does not feel or believe that he is a politician. He must learn how to speak like a politician, not like a technocrat any more. It is a turf with its own culture and a language that need to be carefully studied. I know of technocrats like him who here came from abroad to serve only to find they did not understand the essential cultural differences between the world of politics and the world of technocrats who reason on the basis of scientific evidence. By the time they were through, they knew that the manipulation of language is at the heart of political communication.

Kachikwu too came from an environment where facts are sacred because they carry the weight to scientific research. In politics, no one pretends to employ science to solve problems. Political solutions employ no empirical evidence.

Here is the basic difference between the politician and the technocrat: the technocrat likes to give all colours their proper names: black, white, red, blue, green, yellow, etc. On the other hand, a politician enjoys the liberty of mixing colours. Thus black becomes white; yellow becomes red and blue becomes brown. The politicians who calls black white is not colour blind and he is not lying. In his line of business, you do not say it as it is. You say it as it suits the circumstances.

It is important for the minister to remember this and know what to call whatever colour he happens to be confronted with. If he sees black and promptly calls it black, he could risk Tinubu’s ire and horse whip. He did not need to tell us that he was not trained as a magician. In politics, you do not need to be trained as a magician to perform magic. We do not need trained magicians; we need those who can perform magic.

You see, politics thrives on promises. The good politician promises an instant solution to a problem for which he has not the slightest clue. I believe the minister would not have ruffled Tinubu’s feathers if he had promised that the fuel shortage and the suffering it has visited on Nigerians would end in the time it takes to say fuel subsidy. It would not mean that he is a magician; it would mean that he is on top of a complex problem made more complicated each day – and he performing.

The proper political education of Dr Ibe Kachikwu must begin with his not being afraid of performing magic. We do not know the difference between a magical solution and a miracle. Just let this bitter cup of fuel crisis pass us by.

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