By Sam Akpe
Before Festus Keyamo, SAN, joined the government of Muhammadu Buhari, a lot of people, including myself, perceived him to be smart, heroic and intellectually loaded. I think he still is.
The other person whom I equally had the same impression about was Femi Fani-Kayode, for some reasons. Let me recall an incident.
Something dramatic happened when President Olusegun Obasanjo nominated Fani-Kayode for a ministerial appointment. He went to the Senate ready to take a bow and go, after all, he was Baba’s Boy. That did not happen.
When he appeared before the Committee of the Whole Senate for confirmation screening, his nomination was dumped in the nearest waste-paper basket.
The senators took turns to tongue-lash him over his past insults against senior citizens before sending him back to Obasanjo, without a confirmation.
Those were the days, when the Senate, with PDP members in the majority, could stand its grounds against a President produced by the same PDP. At certain points, they had the temerity to override his veto over bills.
The Senate of that era used to turn down several presidential nominees for different offices, including ministerial and ambassadorial. At a point, they demanded that Minister Nasiru el-Rufai be sacked.
However, based on the intense lobbying or pressure which Obasanjo heaped on individual senators and the Senate leadership, when Fani-Kayode re-appeared (I think, for the second or third time), he had a rare chance to address the Chamber.
He was superbly impressive. He took the floor, created a pin-drop silence and held the senators spell-bound with an eloquent narrative.
Almost in tears, he told a pitiable story of his life, apologized repeatedly for his past misdemeanors and declared: “I do what I do, because I am the President’s armour bearer. I take the bullets on his behalf.”
At the end, whether out of pity, conviction or pressure, he was cleared for appointment as minister, with a warning, to go and sin no more.
Back to Keyamo. This man commands a measure of charm in his diction and composure. In those days, anytime I heard him speak, I had this impression that he could have done much good to broadcasting if he were not a lawyer. This was before he joined politics and began to enjoy arrogance.
Shortly after joining politics, he started behaving like those he used to condemn or drag to courts. He tried to talk like them and seemed to enjoy their company. We knew instantly that we had lost a moral crusader.
But something happened on Wednesday when President Buhari summoned all his ministers for a valedictory session. Keyamo did what he was known for before he was conscripted into politics where personal interests are disguised as patriotism.
Recall that Keyamo was appointed Minister of State in the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs in August 2019, but was shortly redeployed to the Ministry of Labour and Employment, still as minister of state.
Unconfirmed reports had it that President Buhari was arm-twisted into taking that decision by those who feared that Keyamo, an obviously highly principled persona, and Senator Godswill Akpabio, who was the senior minister in the same ministry, were strange bedfellows.
While serving in the Ministry of Labour and Employment, Keyamo engaged the National Assembly in an avoidable face-off that almost bruised his ego. He was lucky that it was a National Assembly produced by the Executive where he belonged. Else, he would have been given the el-Rufai’s treatment.
Love him or despise him, after four years as minister, Keyamo has done what only Keyamo can do in Buhari’s cabinet. He has spoken the truth to power.
He told the President, in no uncertain terms, that for eight years, he, Buhari, had breached the 1999 Constitution by appointing Ministers of States—something that is strange to the supreme law of the land.
By so doing, Keyamo has also rubbished himself. The office which he truthfully declared as unconstitutional was where he stayed for four years, earning unlawful salaries and fat allowances.
But wait a second! Why did he keep his mouth shut for so long over something his conscience disagreed with?
The answer is simple: it is a bad table manner to talk while eating. It definitely would have been unwise for Keyamo to deny himself the sumptuous ration of the national cake just because he did not want to breach the constitution. But now, the dinner is over. He can talk freely.
This was how he addressed the issue: “Mr. President, the concept or designation of “Minister of State” is a constitutional aberration and is practically not working for many so appointed.” I can imagine President Buhari looking at him in utter shock.
Keyamo continued: “As a private citizen, I am on record to have gone to court a number of times to challenge unconstitutional acts of governments for the sake of advancing our constitutional democracy.
“So, it will be out of character for me to have gone through government and be carried away by the pomp of public office and forget my role as a member of the Inner Bar and my self-imposed role over the years as a crusader for democracy and constitutionalism.”
Citing relevant sections of the Constitution, Keyamo confirmed with unquestionable legal authority that no section of our laws permits the President to appoint a minister of state, an office he, Keyamo, enjoyed for four years.
He argued that during the confirmation screening by the Senate, every ministerial nominee is grilled and cleared as ministers. None is addressed as Minister of State until when portfolios are assigned by the President.
Many people will surely agree with Keyamo that both Buhari and previous Presidents have carried out this act in total ignorance of the provisions of the constitution. There is no room for senior and junior minsters, because no state is senior to the other.
Another aspect of his revelation that makes sense is the “constitutional impossibility” of a senior minister delegating state functions to the minister of state. Such powers lie only with the President, otherwise, “how can someone who took the same Oath of Office with another delegate functions to that other?”
Quite revealing is the fact that ministers of state cannot present memos during the Federal Executive Council meetings; except with the permission of the senior minister. Isn’t this an anomaly?
With this, it means, as Keyamo argued, that the discretion of the minister of state is subsumed in the discretion of the senior minister. Yet both of them, by their appointments, represent different states in the cabinet.
In addition, he drew attention to the fact that it would be impossible to assess the individual performances of the ministers of state since their discretion is shackled under the discretion of the senior ministers, meaning that ideas developed by a minister of state must be cleared by the senior minister before they can sail through for consideration by FEC.
At every point, Keyamo kept reminding his boss that the drafters of the 1999 Constitution obviously had no such intention. Ministers of states are idle public servants. They earn salaries for doing nothing. Their daily activities are at the discretion of the senior ministers.
So, why did someone not notice and raise alarm on this anomaly since the First Republic? No doubt, Keyamo has sent a strong message to the incoming administration. It is another way of telling the next President to be more constitutional and creative when it comes to appointment of ministers.
The question that is still hanging is why Keyamo had to wait until now before drawing Buhari’s attention to this aberration. He took advantage of a generational illegality only to raise hell while expecting another appointment from the incoming administration.
Truly, the dinner is over. The table has been cleared. It’s time for late night tales, in anticipation of a breakfast at daybreak. What if Keyamo is offered another appointment as minister of state, will he turn it down?
Or, having occupied an unconstitutional office for four years, and having discovered that his earnings, though approved, were illegal since the office he occupied was an illegality, are we expecting a refund?
Seriously, Keyamo has done well to speak out—even if his outcry fits the cliché: medicine after death. It is never too late to correct a wrong act. Henceforth, no more Minister of State.
Akpe, a journalist and communication consultant, lives in Abuja