The Onigbinde incident had been preempted by a similar one that occurred this year when the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, appointed a columnist and critic.
President Muhammadu Buhari
A chain of events in the past one week gave me pause about this unpopular government and an agenda it is executing at our expense. It happened that the co-founder of BudgIT, an NGO that advocates fiscal transparency, Seun Onigbinde, had taken an appointment as a Technical Adviser to the Minister of State for Budget and National Planning.
Before now, he was a harsh critic of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, who used his social media handles to share his passionate opinions of the government. To forestall the now familiar habit of cybercitizens quickly rummaging through the social media account of a recent appointee to find evidence of why they are undeserving of the honour, Onigbinde took down his Twitter account.
Despite that desperate move to block his own record, people went after him all weekend. They managed to produce a screen munch of a social media exchange where he had practically sworn he would never take a job with this government. The defence he put up – that he was hired by an organisation and was being seconded to the ministry on their behalf – did not placate his critics. If that was true, why didn’t the organisation announce his appointment to the public in the spirit of accountability? With such a backlash, Onigbinde must have felt the job jinxed. On Monday, he announced he was walking away from the offer.
By now, a pattern is emerging. A well-known critic of this administration gets a job with them after publicly lampooning them. Both the supporters and opposers of the government cry foul. Pressure builds up. Although the critic loses the job eventually, the damage is already done. The administration gets brownie points for being open-minded enough to admit its virulent critics into their circle, thus slyly propagating a myth of its liberalism. They win. The critic, on the other hand, is diminished by the affair. He can no longer criticise without the baggage of the episode weighing him down. And so, another loud voice among the class of civil society activists winds down.
The Buhari Administration 1, Nigerians 0.
The Onigbinde incident had been preempted by a similar one that occurred this year when the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, appointed a columnist and critic, Festus Adedayo, as his special adviser on media and publicity. The backlash that followed that appointment was so heated Lawan rescinded the appointment. In his response to his critics, Adedayo made some curious revelation that perhaps offered some insight into why people could go work with a government they had publicly ridiculed. He said he was like a prophet who delivers his “venomous” criticisms and moves on; that he had no attachment to his own words (and by implication, the conviction underlying them). That disclosure – that the critic makes a psychic disconnection from the ideas that he shares with the public and over which they bond with him – perhaps also explained why another critic, Aliyu Abubakar, from Kaduna State, was going to work with the state governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, whom he had previously insulted. Of course, Kaduna lawmakers rejected his nomination. These various instances are bothersome because they have implications for the future of civil society in our tottering democracy.
As one critic after the other goes down, people become more cynical. They see civic activist-advocacy enterprise as another means of getting called into government service to “come and chop.” Then comes the most pernicious consequence of all: self-censorship. Most of the people who have watched this drama unfold several times this year have told themselves, “that could be me.” In order to not fall victim of their own words that are forever archived on the Internet, they shut themselves up. You can be sure a few people have even scrubbed their social media account now. These issues deserve some reflections that should go beyond mere labelling those who have been involved in the “crossover” from the side of the people to that of the government as merely amoral.
I will firmly disagree that someone like Onigbinde is unethical. You do not set up an organisation like BudgIT if you are not a genuine patriot. BudgIT destroyed the mystique of the Nigerian budget as an impenetrable document with a distant relationship to our collective existence. They crunched the big data of the Nigerian governmental magic into sizeable chunks for us to see the gaps in the thought that produced it and be empowered to demand more accountability of our government. I think Onigbinde fell into the same error that has consumed several critics who have worked with the government, both under the military and civilian rule: that they can change Nigeria’s political destiny if they get on the inside.
Such idealism is endearing, but the reality is that neither Onigbinde nor anyone like him can make as much as a dent in the dysfunctionality of the Nigerian administrative machinery. Instead, and one after the other, they get swallowed up by the gigantic corruption machine in the government. That is because Nigeria is not the way it is presently because the government is short of competent advisers. Some of the best brains in Nigeria already work with the government in one capacity or the other. Nigeria is a chaotic heap that it is because the powers that be want it so; they thrive in the decrepitude. The Nigerian budget is one of the means through which corruption has become institutionalised, and those who are behind the heist are not faceless. They wine and dine with power. They are never going to wait for a lone crusader, coming in the guise of a “technical adviser,” to dislodge their career. They would probably have frustrated him and sent him his way in disgrace. To that end, I believe hiring Onigbinde was merely a mere tactic to corral a critic that has been exposing their privates into their camp.
All of this brings me to this one point that bothers me about the meeting of civil advocacy and the Nigerian social reality: can the critic who takes a principled stand against a corrupt and unpopular government like the present one even afford their stance? By that, I mean, what other avenues of self- actualisation are available for people outside the government given how Nigeria is presently constituted?
Think about it, reasonable economic opportunities for upward mobility are limited in Nigeria and are, in fact, shrinking by the day as the impact of Buhari’s economic policies takes its toll. Almost all the few opportunities available have their life source connected to the government. To be a staunch critic of the government could turn you into a pariah and cut you off from access to those resources. So, how do you survive? It is no longer enough to judge those who take up a job with the government as unprincipled people without considering the disciplinary power that the government wields, and how they use it to pummel us into submission. This is one area of victory they have recorded in the past four years. If you look around, you will see that the previously strident voices of the civil society advocates have all but died down.
In places where economic opportunities are broad enough, a critic can take up many other jobs to sustain themselves while without having to walk back from the things they have stood for. Nigeria is a much different ballgame. People are pushed to eat their own words; otherwise, they will just starve. That is why people who criticise the government publicly still go behind everyone to do other jobs for them like writing their speeches and ghostwriting their memoirs. That is why critics form no attachment to the virulent criticisms that drip from their “acidic” pens because they know they will be still interviewed for jobs with those same people.
All through last weekend, I lost count of the number of Buharists saying the Onigbinde episode should teach people to be “moderate” in their criticisms. But, how can you be moderate when you are dealing with a government that lacks any capacity to hear unless you shout and break things?
Written for the Punch by Abimbola Adelakun