Watching the Watchers (1)

PEOPLE2PEOPLE with Oke Epia; Telephone (sms only): 07059850016 Email: Twitter: @resourceme

Asiege on the National Assembly last week by protesters revealed a subtle but worrisome characteristic of Nigeria’s civil society. The protest which began on Tuesday soon snowballed into a show of shame as two rival groups apparently recruited by divergent power blocs struggled to outshine each other. By Thursday when the baleful bands of parallel hirelings retreated from the gates, the futility of the three-day orchestrated disruption of activities at the federal legislature was visible to even the most casual observer of the charade.  Although the exercise demonstrated once again the power of the citizenry to hold elected officials to account, it however fell short of any measurable impact in that regard. To discerning minds the protest was instead an abuse of that power; indicating quite clearly that abuse of power is not the sole prerogative of leaders as the led also have a propensity for tyranny in relations with those entrusted with public trust.

Shutting down the main entrance to the National Assembly for three days in pursuit of genuine reasons of general public interest can very well be a necessary inconvenience. But doing so for less than noble objectives driven by pecuniary interest of undisguised partisan pursuits pooh-poohs the claims to the watchdog role of civil society. It is even worse when such groups resist demands for accountable and transparent conduct of their affairs. There is a small portion of a Premium Times news story about the ‘Occupy National Assembly’ protesters (published April 29, 2016 on its website) which caught my attention. In case you missed it, let me take the liberty to quote as follows: “The #OccupyNass group however rejected a call to open its internal processes to public scrutiny, describing a PREMIUM TIMES’ question about publishing details of its account as ‘insulting.’

To fully understand and appreciate the enormity of the above quote, it may be necessary to read preceding paragraphs of the report with the headline ‘OccupyNass group received about N400,000.00 daily for National Assembly protest.’ But by way of paraphrasing, the report told the story of how this group claimed to have funded its siege on the legislature with voluntary donations from well-meaning Nigerians it however refused to name. Its explanation was a reaction to allegations that the protest was sponsored to move against embattled Senate President, Bukola Saraki, who is facing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) over charges of false assets declaration and money laundering. Mr. Saraki has been under pressure to step down from office to save the integrity of the Senate and concentrate on proving his innocence in court. Right from when this particular group began its mobilisation on social media days before the protest, speculations had been rife that it was being sponsored by Saraki’s traducers who sought to take advantage of a few unpopular conduct of the Senate (like an aborted move to hurriedly amend the CCT Act and an ill-timed purchase of SUVs for senators at N36million each) to also demand the resignation of the Senate President.

The speculations gained ground when a rival group showed up to drum support for Saraki, thus creating a clash of cacophony fit for comic relief. Inevitably, the supposed message of the siege which should have resonated with the public was lost in the mismatch of opposing partisan positions centred on the Saraki affair. Conversations were soon reduced to who got paid what to do what and by whom. It must have been that silly state of affairs that emboldened the Senate Leader, Ali Ndume to call the bluff of the protesters, dismissing their action as patently impotent to make any senator lose sleep. According to the Borno-born senator, “I contested to be senator for Borno South. I did not force myself on my people and therefore somebody out there, especially the one that did not elect me, cannot force me out because I didn’t get here by force.” Buoyed of course by a perceptible lack of popular support for a derailed protest, the Senator continued to throw potshots freely: “I came in by the ballot, not by the gun, not by placards.

I have posters but not placards. So if for example, I am short of performance and my constituents feel that they don’t have time to waste, there is a clear cut process to collect signatures and ask for me to be recalled. That is the democratic way, not by coming in here to stand and say you want to occupy National Assembly.” What should have ordinarily been regarded as an insolent intervention from a high-ranking senator and one which should easily positioned him for mob media action slipped off on a caveat created by impostors of the public conscience.

And since Ndume supposedly spoke the minds of his colleagues, it was only expected that demands from the occupiers that they be addressed by those they laid siege on were roundly ignored. After three days of a futile sit-out the protesters left their illegal positions with more baggage than they came with. It was against such tainted background that Bunmi Awoyemi, spokesman for the anti-Saraki protesters struggled to dispel allegations that his group had been paid to embark on the march on NASS. Hear him: “As if we have said since the beginning of this protest, it’s not about Saraki. The aim of this protest is not to get Bukola Saraki to resign because he’s a symptom of the entire rot in the legislature. From day one, when Nigerians said they are interested in occupying the National Assembly, contributions started coming in. Nigerians started asking for the account of the movement. Five thousand, N10,000.00, N100,000.00 and even N1million; a Nigerian sitting amongst you today donated N1million to this protest. From US, from UK people were contributing to this movement. We were averaging N400,000 every day.”

Just as the anti-Saraki protesters were trying to extricate themselves from allegations of sponsorship, the set loyal to the Senate President betrayed its tomfoolery by announcing an ill-conceived plan to move its siege to Aso Rock, Nigeria’s presidential seat of power. According to Mr. Ohazuruike Tochukwu, the group’s leader, President Muhammadu Buhari administration had seven days to address economic hardship in the country or contend with a march on the Villa. He said: “We want to let you know that Nigerians demand execution of campaign promises and not persecution of perceived enemies. We want to let you know that we stand for fairness and justice, autonomy to all arms of government. We stand for accountability, and transparency by all public office holders, and that we stand with Saraki and the National Assembly and demand that the Executive should desist from impunity that led to the unpopularity of the last government. If our demands are not met by next week Wednesday, we shall commence a massive unprecedented move to occupy Aso Rock.” Of course not willing to be outdone by the opposing protesters which claimed funding support from ordinary Nigerians, Tochukwu claimed that he singlehandedly sponsored the protest. Wonderful!

But it is surely not a wonderful thing that random individuals lay claim to the toga of civil society to perpetuate self-aggrandisement schemes. This is a challenge the ‘real’ purveyors of civil society organisations must rise up to. Except of course, they have become challenged themselves. And sadly, there are indications that they have become copiously cobbled in this regard. This column will continue in this attempt to interrogate claims of self-righteousness proclaimed by those with the mandate to watch the rest of society, especially those in the public sector.

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