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Unnecessary protests – The Nation

  • Citizens for and against Yusuf Usman’s reinstatement demonstrate an absurd side of democracy

It was quite a shameful scene at the premises of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) on Tuesday, as two factions protested for and against the reinstatement of the scheme’s executive secretary, Prof Yusuf Usman, last week, by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Prof Usman was suspended in June, last year, by the Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, following his indictment by an administrative panel which found him culpable of alleged mismanagement of N919million NHIS funds, and gross insubordination. The reinstatement drew flaks from many Nigerians who accused the president of nepotism, adding that the alleged offence over which the executive secretary was suspended was too weighty to be handled in such a cavalier manner.

Even as the dust over the reinstatement is yet to settle, rival groups in the system have taken it upon themselves to protest, either in favour of the reinstatement or against it. Whilst the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria, (ASCSN), led by the branch chairman, Mr. Razak Omomeji, was against the reinstatement, the other faction under the aegis of Unity Group and Concerned NHIS Staff arrived the premises of the building wielding placards with various inscriptions in support of the embattled secretary. They said he was appointed to sanitise the place and his efforts are already yielding fruits. Indeed, Unity Group’s leader, Dr.Uchenna Ewelike, said the protesting members of the union are beneficiaries of the rot in the system who are resistant to change.

We concede that in a democracy, people are free to air their grievances through protests provided such are conducted within the ambits of the law; that is provided the protests are peaceful. The point must be made too, and unambiguously, that circumspection must be the watchword in exercising such inalienable right to peaceful protest.

We are particularly worried because of Nigerians’ penchant to demonstrate sometimes over issues they know next-to-nothing about. The practice has been with us for long; perhaps since the military era, following the politicisation of the armed forces. We saw instances of protesters, for instance, in support of the late General Sani Abacha’s transmutation to civilian president with placards that they carried upside down. When some of them were asked by reporters why they were demonstrating, they said they had no idea but they were just paid to carry the placards. This has been repeated over and again in the country; the rent-a-crowd phenomenon, that is.

We are not saying that is what obtains whenever people demonstrate. But the point we are making is that protests can be functional or dysfunctional. In this particular instance, it is uncalled-for. The issue on ground is not about an Abacha transmuting from military head of state to civilian president, but serious allegations bordering on fraud. And both the civil service and the country have extant laid-down procedures of dealing with them. That was what was being done until the president truncated the process by reinstating the suspended NHIS executive secretary.

We understand the plight of ASCSN who urged President Buhari to take another look at the reinstatement. Indeed, their fear that some of their members who had testified against Prof Usman before the anti-graft agencies could be marked as whistleblowers and victimised should be allayed. This is important.

Without doubt, the two factions in these protests cannot be right. The country’s moral fibre has been so severely devastated. That is why some people will make themselves available for protests over the most reprehensible issues. Since we are not in a position to determine which faction is right or wrong now, we must warn that polarisation of NHIS over this matter is an ill-wind that will blow no one any good.

It is bad for the work environment; bad for the civil service; bad for the anti-corruption war and bad for the country. They need not worsen an already bad situation. The issue at stake is grievous; just as the allegations are weighty. But then, what is required at this point in time is caution; extreme caution. This is perhaps the more reason why government must reflect deeply before taking a decision on a contentious issue like this.

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