Seun Onigbinde’s dagger through the heart of civic activism
I have a distant acquaintanceship with Seun Onigbinde, meaning, if I wanted to, I could have privately congratulated him on his appointment as Technical Adviser (Budget & Planning) to the Minister of State for Budget and National Planning. My congratulations to Onigbinde will be public, via this critical piece. If he accepts it in good faith, he would have successfully passed his first post-appointment test ahead of assumption of duties: the grace to accept constructive criticism. It would mean, too, that he has learnt that having crossed to the other side, he has now turned himself in to millions of Nigerians as a subject of periodic criticism. It won’t matter if he doesn’t; he has an initial, renewable six months on this job, long enough to become accustomed to dealing with criticism, plus many years of what I predict will be a lengthy political adventure. Congratulations!
Did I just congratulate him? Withdrawn! Instead, my congratulations go to the Ministry of Budget and National Planning, and, by extension, the government of Muhammadu Buhari, which Onigbinde has a history of lampooning, and whose supporters he has variously branded “worshippers of mediocrity’, “haters of Nigeria” and “closet ethnic jingoists”. Very big congratulations to the budget ministry for poaching Onigbinde, who, by virtue of his brilliance, competence and track record of financial advocacy, is, under the right circumstances, a near-perfect fit for the bill. Onigbinde’s competence, though, is the least of at least three important victories secured by the ministry, with this appointment. The more important two are the shutting up of a vociferous critic of the government, who evidently can now not criticise a government he is working for, and the overnight conversion of one of Nigeria’s brightest minds and hardline critics to a “worshipper of mediocrity and closet ethnic jingoist” — by his own carefully selected choice of words, of course. By way of reputation, the government gains so much while Onigbinde stakes even more. This, he has already discovered to devastating effect.
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The social media, Twitter in particular, was agog with vitriol on Thursday when news of his appointment filtered out. The height of it all was the exhumation of the much-loved Professor Pius Adesanmi’s April 2018 please-don’t-join-politics tweet, which Onigbinde responded to with a conditional promise not to. Onigbinde’s explaining away of the appointment as “an advisory role underwritten by an [unnamed] international development agency” would have sunk in had he not momentarily deactivated his Twitter account. Unfortunately — quite unfortunately — this one move obliterates the potential validity of his argument. There is something about the appointment that conflicts with his past critical view of the Buhari administration. So, one thing is clear, regardless of the underwriter, this is a government appointment.
Having established that, there is the question of whether or not Onigbinde should have accepted the offer. That, I will answer. But, before then, I consider it more crucial, in the interest of the bigger picture, to first answer the question: Should people like Onigbinde be in government? My answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’, without attempting to sit on the fence.
In only eight years of its existence, BudgIT, co-founded by Onigbinde, has done incredible work in exposing gaps in the country’s fiscal processes, independently researching and releasing credible reports on the economic health of states and indeed the country, and raising citizen consciousness and civic demand for accountability in public offices. I am, in particular, a staunch fan of BudgIT Tracka’s vastly underestimated and underreported strides in uncovering the legislative fraud called ‘constituency projects’, with which lawmakers most despicably siphon public funds without a pin to show for them. In the field they operate in, people like Onigbinde know exactly what the country’s problems are, and sometimes have the solutions. We need people like him in government. YES.
But Onigbinde can’t join a Buhari government. In whatever capacity. NO. If he so wishes, he can join politics from 2023, at the end of Buhari’s tenure. But not this government — not because he criticised this government, but because he did it extremely, consistently, vehemently and belligerently. I do not support the popular argument that restrains social critics from holding public offices; critics, if they are competent, deserve every chance in government as anyone else. However, any critic who so caustically criticises a government, as Onigbinde has, stays away from it. To accept an appointment from such a government is to throw a dagger right through the soul of social criticism and intellectual contestation of ideas. By accepting this appointment, Onigbinde desecrates the institution of civic advocacy which he has recently been a leading member of. Clearest evidence of that is the renewed commentary on how every critic is no more than a lobbyist only shouting for as long and as loud as possible, until he gets noticed by the establishment. This move inflicts serious reputational injury to the image Onigbinde has built for himself over the years, and also to the few honest critics out there who continue to reject invitations to government on the strength of their public comments.
Hopefully, he will have the last laugh. Hopefully, he succeeds. He has to. This is what every true Nigerian must wish him, going forward, because, in the end, if he manages to, national advancement would have trumped reputational disadvantage. Two big worries, though: How does a technocrat succeed in a country like ours that infamously corrupts and conspires against its best, and how does one rate the success of a technical adviser? An advisory role never comes with the powers to enforce. Onigbinde can only advise; and if his principal ignores or rejects solid advice, what can he do? This is my challenge with the go-there-and-make-the-change advocates. What change, for instance, can a Chief Press Secretary make? Media advisers are glorified errand boys, many of them never truly important outside the pages of newspapers. I worry for how much of a departure from this practice a Technical Adviser is. I worry, too, how our best brains quickly transform from sheep to wolves once they relocate to Abuja. Just look at Tolu Ogunlesi or Femi Adesina.
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One standout feature of Onigbinde’s move to government is the lesson it serves in capacity building: Public commentators may or may not support a government, or make all the noise they can, but their usefulness to any government or the society itself will be largely determined by their expertise and competencies. Those deceiving themselves by thinking they’re carving a career out of barking insults at a government must realise their expendability in the wider scheme of national politics. The competent lot, to which Onigbinde belongs, can also not underrate their durability; had Onigbinde rejected this appointment, many more would have come. Such is the relevance he has built for himself in the country’s public financing. He has taken it and he now must succeed, in his own interest and in Nigeria’s.