By Sam Akpe
Uninformed comments have been made and questions raised on the court case instituted by Senator Ifeanyi Godwin Araraume against President Muhammadu Buhari and the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited.
For those who call themselves Buharists, and believe that their political idol is untouchable, Araraume’s action amounts to a deliberate profanation of a sacred institution whose actions are unimpeachable.
A few days ago, certain unknown groups were rumoured to be planning a public protest and other illegal actions against the ruling of the Federal High Court in the case.
In addition, they were said to be preparing a release of some dooming information which they believe would expose Araraume’s perceived unpatriotic or criminal acts in attempts to nail him in the court of public opinion.
What bothers me most in all of these is that only a few people have dared to study the facts of the case and establish why Araraume took Buhari and NNPCL to court; and why the court gave that ruling in his favour.
Two words—right and privilege—govern appointment to public offices in Nigeria. It is your right because you are a Nigerian and are probably qualified. But except you are privileged or favoured by those in power, your qualifications will come to nothing.
That means besides your statutory qualifications, there must be something extra that works in your favour—academic attainment, industry experience, integrity, closeness to power, or ability to lobby or bribe your way through, among others.
But there are some Nigerians who enjoy both worlds without much efforts. They have the qualifications and are equally highly favoured, based on undisclosed factors.
Such people are usually sought after whenever quality service is required. Perhaps, Senator Araraume is one of them. He is a Nigerian and is also privileged within the political circles.
Between 2018 and 2021, Araraume was appointed by President Buhari to serve on the boards of two juicy federal establishments.
First, he served as Commissioner at the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and also represented the NCC on the board of Universal Service Provision Fund. In 2019, he voluntarily resigned to stand for election in his state.
On October 20th, 2021, Buhari again appointed Araraume to a higher office as a Non-Executive Chairman of the newly formed Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited, based on the passage of the Petroleum Industry Act.
That appointment gave him the powers to spearhead the take-off NNPCL, a limited liability company incorporated under the Allied Matters Act, 2020. It came with a fixed term of five years except where the board of the company sacks the appointee or he voluntarily resigns.
Shortly after the appointment, Araraume was said to have jealously embarked on functions associated with that office. Everything seemed to be working well as the new company took off seamlessly to fulfil its mission.
Araraume’s name is said to have been registered in the Memorandum and Articles of Association of the NNPCL with the Corporate Affairs Commission in accordance with the Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020. He assumed duties on November 12, 2021.
Certain official functions of the NNPCL, including its presence in the 23rd World Petroleum Congress in Houston, Texas, on December 4, 2021, had Araraume in attendance. He had started enjoying the luxury of his new appointment.
But the signs that something was wrong started to emerge when the scheduled November 23, 2021 inauguration of the board was postponed without reasons. No one asked questions because it was supposed to be merely a ceremonial event, not required by law.
Then something happened on January 7, 2022. President Buhari appointed someone else to replace Araraume. Wait a minute!
In Nigeria, it is often believed that he who hires can also fire. Here was Araraume, sitting at home and watching on television the inauguration of his successor while the totality of the instruments of that office was still with him.
Some days later, precisely on January 17, 2022, he was finally served a letter withdrawing his appointment. The letter, “approved” by the President, indicated that Buhari was exercising powers bestowed on him by unidentified laws.
Genuinely alarmed, Araraume read the letter line by line. I can figure his face twisting and concern spreading across his eyes as he went through the two-paragraph letter delivered to him personally at his private office in Abuja.
Nothing in that letter indicated why his appointment was withdrawn. With his little knowledge of the law guiding the establishment of NNPCL, Araraume said he was convinced that his removal from office was without any legal foundation or justification.
Let’s note that Araraume’s successor was appointed and inaugurated while Ararume was yet to be sacked or his appointment withdrawn.
That sounds quite humiliating and even bizarre. The other point to note is that Araraume’s removal from office was approved and executed by President Buhari and not the board of directors of the company. So, what does the law say?
While no one questioned the appointment of Ararume by President Buhari, the moment he got embarrassingly replaced or fired, people started asking distasteful questions and making inelegant suggestions.
It therefore became necessary for Araraume to find out why he was fired. If it did not mean a lot to him, the people around him were interested and curious, because his exit was loudly publicized and indecently questioned.
The unanswered question is: why was Ararume sacked from NNPCL? Going further, what does the law say about removal from such an office? Was the appointee at the mercy of the law or those who appointed him?
The answers to these questions have come in different shapes and contents. Most people depend on the provisions of the 1999 Constitution which gives the President the powers to appoint and fire board members of federal agencies.
Yes, that can happen even if it is wrong in law to do so. My concern is that NNPCL is no longer a wholly government-owned agency.
Araraume’s lawyers have cited Section 63(3) of the Petroleum Industry Act alongside Articles 21.3 and 21.4 of the Memorandum and Articles of Association of the NNPCL, which state in clear terms the tenure of the board members, which is five years, subject to renewal for another five years.
The argument by the lawyers is that while the law permits the President to directly appoint the first set of directors of NNPCL, the same Section 63(3) and Section 288 of the Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020, specify conditions upon which any appointee should be sacked.
If the lawyers are to be believed, there was obviously no compliance with any of these provisions of the laws. I think the President was wrongly advised—just my thoughts.
This is because none of the laws cited above permits the president or any other individual to sack any board member, except such a person sacks him or herself through resignation.
What Araraume did next, based on legal advice, was to assemble a team of tested legal minds, led by four Senior Advocates of Nigeria, to study the circumstances of his appointment and removal from office and advise appropriately.
After hearing from his lawyers, he proceeded to court to challenge what he called “the lawless manner” of his removal from office and also seek damages.
Beyond the humiliation he claimed to have personally suffered, Araraume believed that President Buhari acted with “executive recklessness” when he interfered with the affairs of a limited liability company without regard to consequences.
I personally got interested in this case because it presents a rare occasion that an individual is challenging such executive recklessness by putting his reputation and even his safety on the line. Araraume has dared Buhari without regard to consequences.
His strongest reason for the protest is that his integrity has been called to question by the manner of his removal from the board of the company without any credible or cogent reason—in fact, no reason whatsoever was cited by the President.
So, he asked to be reinstated and paid some compensation. It was another way of saying: Mr. President, you now have opportunity to tell the world what I did wrong to justify this public humiliation and psychological trauma.
As soon as the case was mentioned in the media last year, someone told me that Ararume would be soon exposed and humiliated by government.
His argument was that Ararume must have committed serious crimes which government suddenly discovered and decided to sack him silently.
He continued: now that he has chosen to embarrass the President, watch-out for what is going to happen.
So far, what has happened is that a court of competent jurisdiction has ruled on the matter in favour of Ararume. What about that!
In one of the articles published, one lawyer went as far as arguing that Araraume’s name was submitted to the Senate for screening and approval, and that the Senate found him unworthy of such appointment based on security reports.
That is absolutely false. As a limited liability company, appointment of directors of NNPCL does not require Senate screening and approval. The President simply approved and caused the appointment to be made as directed by law. No Senate screening was required.
By the way, if President Buhari has earlier appointed Araraume as Commissioner at the NCC and later as board member of the Universal Service Provision Fund, a position he voluntarily resigned to seek elective office, then what suddenly happened?
The ruling by the Federal High Court in Abuja based on the applications submitted by Araraume’s legal team justified the assumptions made by the plaintiff, that his removal from office was not in line with procedures stated in laws governing such actions.
Besides asking for reinstatement and financial compensation, Araraume stepped forward to exercise his rights and clear his name from every kind of public misconception regarding his reputation and qualification to hold public office.
The court, in its wisdom granted most of the prayers contained in the petition. It demanded that the Araraume be reinstated and paid five billion naira as damages; because the office he occupied is “exclusively governed and regulated” by specified laws and that government could not sack him without compliance with such laws.
From all indications, the orders issued by the Federal High Court is just the beginning. This case will climb up to the Supreme Court where several technical and political issues will come into play.
My interest is that a precedent would at the end be established. A point must be made to guide government in appointing and relieving people of appointments without stating why such actions were taken.
Most times, people hide under the unexplainable cloak of ‘security reports’ to rubbish the integrity of others.
It is expected that before public appointments are made, every security issue concerning the appointee would have been settled. Where fresh findings or discoveries are made, the public should be duly informed, as it is done in other places.
Watch my lips, something tells me that President Muhammadu Buhari might not even have been aware of the non-procedural removal of Araraume from office after approving his appointment.
Akpe is a Journalist based in Abuja