On Sunday July 13, I attended the BringBackOurGirls coalition’s “sit-out” to mark the 90th day since the Chibok abduction, and the 75th day since a group of Nigerians first decided to gather daily at the Unity Fountain in Abuja to clamour for the government to ensure the safe return of the girls. It was my first time at the sit-out, and it was intriguing to see the passion in the air.
There was one constant refrain, a call-and-response pattern that punctuated every speech:
“What are we demanding?”
“Bring back our girls now and alive!”
“What are we asking for?”
“The truth, nothing but the truth!”
“What do we want?”
“Results from the rescue operations!”
“When shall we stop?”
“Until our girls are back and alive!”
“Demanding accountability is different from insulting the government,” Oby Ezekwesili, a former Minister of Education and World Bank Vice President, and one of the leaders of the group, clarified, in her speech. “Our singularity of purpose is – what – ? ”
The crowd shot back: “Bring back our girls now and alive!”
Another speaker listed the several ways the government/authorities had fought back. First, it allegedly sponsored a fake version of the movement, the absurdly-styled ‘Release Our Girls’ movement.
Then at one point a motley crowd of women showed up to disrupt the protests. And then, the police authorities in Abuja summoned the leadership of the movement and told them their security could not be guaranteed, and that there was a strong possibility the sit-out could be infiltrated by Boko Haram.
When all those failed, the DSS spokeswoman, Marylyn Ogar, pointedly accused them of having turned into “a franchise” driven by pecuniary benefit. My take on that is this: If you can’t prove any of the allegations you rabidly throw at a bunch of civilians, what are you the DSS for? And why should we trust you with bigger matters?
And why would the government or its sympathisers be spending all this energy to discredit an ad hoc movement whose raison d’etre is keeping the plight of the abducted girls in the news?
The answer to that may be found in the web of paranoia and prickliness that appears to surround the government, actively encouraged by none other than the President himself.
When, on October 1, a bomb went off at Nigeria’s 50th Independence anniversary celebrations at a public square in Abuja, Mr. President wasted no time absolving a Niger Delta militant group, MEND, of responsibility (even after MEND had claimed responsibility), by saying that, “It is erroneous to think that my people who have been agitating for good living will deliberately blow up the opportunity they have now.”
That “my people” quip was early evidence of his “us versus them” mentality, which we have now seen play out again and again since then.
When, in January 2012, Nigerians took to the streets to protest the removal of fuel subsidies, the President was again quick to believe (and this has come out in several comments made by him since then, including as recently as at the last Presidential Media Chat, and the World Economic Forum in Abuja) that the only reason people were protesting was because they had been paid to do so by disgruntled opposition elements.
And when, in January 2013, a Lagos-based private television station, Channels Television, broadcast a damning expose on the derelict state of the Ikeja Police College in Lagos, President Jonathan responded to the outcry by paying a visit to see things for himself. But to the surprise of many, the most memorable thing he could find to say was that, “this is a calculated attempt to damage the image of the government, as the college is not the only training institution in the country.”
A President like that, who sees in every unfavourable assessment of his government a “calculated attempt” to undermine him and his authority, is a dangerous phenomenon, in any country, to put it mildly.
Because the President seems to believe in these conspiracy theories, a climate that encourages belief in such appears to have been created in the uppermost levels of government.
Which explains the gaffe by the painfully ignorant, context-less American Public Relations firm, Levick PR, hired to help manage the government’s response to the local and international backlash that has followed the abductions.
On July 15, Levick PR in conjunction with the ever-unrestrained Doyin Okupe, the President’s Senior Special Assistant on Public Affairs, issued a press statement accusing the movement of being “terrorists.” Their reason: That it was the BBOG leaders who convinced the Chibok community to shun the President’s invitation for a meeting. (On her visit to Nigeria, the Pakistani girl-education campaigner, Malala Yousafzai, had finally convinced the C-in-C to meet the girls’ families).
The reality appears to have been different. The notice given by the President’s office to the Chibok community came at too short a notice, and the community came with a request asking for the visit to be rescheduled.
Unaware of this, or perhaps aware but driven by a characteristic sense of malicious mischief, Okupe conspired with Levick to attack the BBOG leaders.
Unfortunately for the Okupe-Levick coalition, at the time they were busy issuing the disgraceful statement, the Chibok community was already in possession of a letter from the President’s Chief of Staff shifting the date of the meeting to June 22 (tomorrow), in consideration of the Chibok community’s request.
Do you, like me, wonder: What sort of lapse of judgment allows a PR company funded by money belonging to the citizens of a country, to without any evidence, label those citizens – concerned as they are about the fate of missing girls – with the same tag applied to the murderous group responsible for the sad fate of the girls?
When news broke, a month ago, of the signing of Levick for $1.2m, to help the Nigerian government take control of the “media narrative” regarding the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency, we all assumed the strategy was to present the President as genuinely concerned about the plight of the girls (and all other Boko victims) and seriously committed to checking Boko Haram.
Sadly, recent events have confirmed our worst fears; that the real strategy is more likely to be advancing the government’s obsession with discrediting everyone who demands responsibility and accountability from the Nigerian government, by conflating them with the opposition, the All Progressives Congress, and with Boko Haram.
Months before the Okupe and Levick combo targeted at the BBOG, another presidential assistant was implicated in a not-very-different plot. Pastor Reno Omokri, the President’s Special Assistant on New Media, operating under the alias ‘Wendell Simlin’, sent out to journalists a document that sought to link, again without any evidence, Mr. Lamido Sanusi and Alhaji Umaru Mutallab to Boko Haram. The move backfired, earning the puppet (‘Wendell Simlin’) and the puppet-master (Reno Omokri) mentions in several international media outlets.
Today, clearly, no lessons have been learnt. This government is so focused on attacking every perceived enemy that it has very little time or energy left to convincingly sell any successes.
The buck stops on Mr. President’s table. He needs to stop peddling in these cheap, “everyone-is-against-me” conspiracy theories. And he needs to start reining in his aides, before they squander his remaining good luck and goodwill.
From the evidence available to us, Jonathan’s biggest enemies may very well be inside his government, not outside.
Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from his PUNCH Newspaper.
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