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