Daily Trust

From #EndSARS to Lau­retta Onochie: The un­pres­i­den­tial art of court­ing con­tro­versy

- Nigeria News · Politics · Nigeria · Boko Haram · Abuja

In the last one week, Nige­ria has been in a state of height­ened ex­cite­ment, which is not quite un­usual in a coun­try of one-week-one-drama. Protests have been rag­ing against SARS and have forced the govern­ment to dis­solve the in­fa­mous po­lice squad and re­place it with SWAT.

While pro­test­ers are not as­suaged by this, it is be­com­ing ob­vi­ous that there are a good num­ber of Nigerians, no­tably in the north, who seem to have no quar­rel with SARS and who seem to think there is a po­lit­i­cal mo­tive be­hind the anti-SARS protests.

Their opin­ion should not be dis­re­garded be­cause peo­ple in the north­east, for in­stance, will tell you how ef­fec­tive SARS has been in bat­tling in­sur­gency. They will also tell you that their pri­or­ity is end­ing Boko Haram or ban­ditry in the north­west, which has plagued the re­gions over the years.

These are all valid con­cerns and should have been ad­dressed. But sadly, the pres­i­dent’s ha­bit­ual aloof­ness in this in­stance has turned in­cen­di­ary.

When these ag­i­ta­tions started, it could have been re­solved with the govern­ment mak­ing a firm and sin­cere com­mit­ment to re­form­ing the po­lice, which, in all hon­esty, is the best out­come any­one could hope for. This com­mit­ment should have achiev­able time­lines by which these re­forms can be tracked by Nigerians. This was not done and the shoddy prom­ises that had worked in the past failed.

The fire caught on.

When the pres­i­dent, who has mas­tered the art of not speak­ing to Nigerians but speak­ing over them, de­cided to ad­dress the is­sues, it was af­ter pro­test­ers have fully stretched their mus­cles, tasted blood and re­alised that march­ing as a col­lec­tive, they can move moun­tains, maybe even the pres­i­dent.

While this fire is spread­ing, the pres­i­dent an­nounced an­other con­tro­ver­sial se­ries of ap­point­ments. This list was not con­tro­ver­sial for hav­ing a de­ceased per­son on it, as has been the case sev­eral times in the past. It is con­tro­ver­sial for hav­ing a livewire on it.

Lau­retta Onochie be­ing ap­pointed an INEC com­mis­sioner is a very strange choice and cer­tainly one that would trig­ger some hul­la­baloo. It is not be­cause Lau­retta, a pres­i­den­tial aide on so­cial me­dia, is not ef­fi­cient—any­one who has wit­nessed the ef­fi­cacy with which she has trans­formed her­self into a pro-Buhari at­tack dog and the gusto she de­ploys in so­cial me­dia gut­ter fights on be­half of the pres­i­dent and the rul­ing party will agree.

There is some­thing ran­domly cal­lous in ap­point­ing some­one who is ra­bidly par­ti­san into a body that is sup­posed to be neu­tral, or at the very least ap­pear to be. This is cer­tainly in con­tra­ven­tion of the law that em­pow­ers the pres­i­dent to make such ap­point­ments.

At least, one may lam­bast for­mer pres­i­dent Jonathan for his com­pla­cency in run­ning the coun­try, but one can cer­tainly credit him with giv­ing INEC the free­dom to con­duct a free and cred­i­ble elec­tion, which in turn saw him los­ing the 2015 elec­tions that ush­ered in this govern­ment.

One would think that be­cause of on­go­ing protests in the coun­try, the pres­i­dency might want to avoid an­other con­tro­versy. At least with hands full of an­gry youths, whose anger is snow­balling, one would ex­pect the pres­i­dency to man­age that cri­sis be­fore it grows big enough to con­sume it.

Even though the pres­i­dency might think the wrath of protest is aimed at the po­lice, not the pres­i­dency, those perched on their high thrones in the villa should re­mem­ber that the Arab Spring, which claimed life-long Arab dic­ta­tors in sev­eral coun­tries, was trig­gered by a cal­lous mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cial seiz­ing the wares of a street ven­dor, whose name no one knew be­fore then.

The fact that this anti-SARS protest was needed in the first place is a fail­ure of the govern­ment’s ap­proach to deal­ing with peo­ple’s griev­ances. Nigerians have been com­plain­ing a lot about the state of se­cu­rity in the coun­try, about ban­ditry in the north and po­lice bru­tal­ity. Nei­ther the govern­ment nor po­lice au­thor­i­ties deemed any of these con­cerns wor­thy of be­ing ad­dressed with open­ness and sin­cer­ity. Which was all Nigerians wanted.

This stand­off­ish­ness is en­gen­dered by one thought: that Nigerians are too di­vided to unite for a cause. And once there is a move­ment that could unite Nigerians, all some­one needed to do was to throw in the eth­nic tin­der­box and sure enough, there would be fire.

Yes­ter­day, at Berger Junc­tion, in Abuja, anti-SARS pro­test­ers were at­tacked by thugs armed with clubs, dis­guis­ing as pro-SARS pro­test­ers. It didn’t take long for the nar­ra­tive to shift from “proSARS” pro­test­ers at­tack­ing anti-SARS pro­test­ers. It be­came “Hausa boys” at­tack anti-SARS pro­test­ers. It mat­tered lit­tle that these thugs were spon­sored, re­port­edly paid N1, 500 to dis­rupt the protest. In­ci­den­tally, that was the same amount Jonathan’s peo­ple paid some women to dis­rupt the Bring Back Our Girls sit-in in 2014.

The fact that some­one feels the need to use thugs and at­tack pro­test­ers in the name of a counter-protest is an ex­am­ple of what has been wrong with this coun­try, this in­tol­er­ance for op­pos­ing views and its free ex­pres­sion.

That these peo­ple have re­sorted to this pet­ti­ness in­stead of sin­cerely ad­dress­ing the is­sues raised by them is con­fir­ma­tion that 2014 and 2020 are not all that dif­fer­ent. Only the names at the top have changed.

In a del­i­cate pe­riod like this, adding Lau­retta’s con­tro­ver­sial ap­point­ment to the mix is an­other poorly thought-out strat­egy, if that is what it is. It may sim­ply be that Lau­retta is be­ing re­warded for her loy­alty to the pres­i­dent. Af­ter all, this is pol­i­tics and loy­al­ties are to be re­warded. Ex­cept an INEC ap­point­ment is not a prize to re­ward loy­al­ists with.

Yes, the EndSARS pro­test­ers might not be dis­tracted by Lau­retta’s ap­point­ment, (even if they should be con­cerned about it, if their goals are about holis­tic re­forms in the coun­try), but what this ap­point­ment would serve to do is to cre­ate an­other con­tro­versy that the govern­ment doesn’t need at the mo­ment. If the plan was to ap­point her and ac­ti­vate the devil-may-care mode, as was done with Ibrahim Magu’s ap­point­ment or the con­tin­ued stay of the ser­vice chiefs, it should be clear by now and from re­cent events, that not ev­ery­thing should be sub­jected to this treat­ment.

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