Personal Assistant to Muhammadu Buhari on Social Media, Lauretta Onochie, easily comes across as the controversial aide of the president. In the public space, through her Donald Trump style tweets, she has tended to rub opposition parties and other key members of the public on the wrong side and in the process launched attacks on opponents of the Buhari administration. In this interview, Onochie looks back at her years as Buhari’s aide.
President Buhari’s first tenure will end in just two days. How will you rate it based on the three promised he made to Nigerians in 2015?
I will say we cannot build something on nothing, we have to take into cognizance from where we took over. I will deal with security first. As at the point President Buhari took over, about 14 local governments were taken over by terrorists but within some months later, our army did what many thought they were unable to do. But there again the Nigerian army was underfunded, they were ill-equipped, they were not properly trained before being sent to meet Boko Haram insurgents, who had more equipment than them. So what the president did was to first make sure that the soldiers were well equipped, we also saw were the money for the equipment of the soldiers went during the last administration. The office of the National Security Adviser became a clearing point for corrupt leaders in our nation, where they took money meant to safeguard lives and property. By and large I think this government has done well in terms of security. On the economy, it was actually on its knees when this government came to power. But now, a lot of money has been pumped into the economy to stimulate it, especially supporting the small, medium enterprises which our Vice President has been running creditably well. Today, we have hundreds and thousands of young people going into paid employment. But the National Bureau of Statistics is not really capturing everything that this government has done. This government has empowered so many people through agriculture, education. The National Directorate of Employment (NDE) is doing more than it has ever done in the past.
So, gradually we will come to a point where the aims of government will be achieved. The aim of government is to empower the private sector so that they themselves can create jobs. It is not government that creates jobs, it is the private sector and that is why the ERGP is working now because we are going up in the ease of doing business ladder in the world. Things are getting easier, visa can now be gotten on arrival and even our airports are more comfortable now.
Somebody once described you as the most controversial presidential aide of Buhari’s administration. What is your response to that?
I think what they call controversial is when someone has the audacity to speak the truth the way he or she sees it. That was how I was raised, I don’t like ‘monkeying’ about issues. I say it exactly as it should be said. In Nigeria, everyone says things to please another person; for me when I open my mouth what is in my mind is this nation. I was born and bred in this nation. I went to primary school, secondary, university and NCE education all in this nation before I travelled overseas for my post graduate studies. So, this nation gave me so much. This is not the type of nation I grew up in. I grew up in a Nigeria where the community raised children. If I did something not pleasing and some distant aunties or even people that are not relatives saw me, they would discipline me very well and I wouldn’t dare mention it at home. I was also raised to always call a spade by its name. So, I don’t think I am controversial in anyway. The only thing is that I tend to say things the way I see them. There is only one side of truth to any story but once I have convinced my conscience that what I am going to say is right, I am just going to say it. It may go down well with some people and it may not go down well with others but the most important thing is that I have satisfied my conscience.
Many feel your attack on the Christian Association of Nigeria, Peoples Democratic Party presidential candidate and others, have created bad press for your principal. How do you react?
If there is anything I have said about any of these people you have mentioned that is not the truth, I will like anyone to come up with it.
You even described CAN as can of worms…
I am a Christian myself. My grandfather was a pastor, my great grandfather brought Christianity to where I come from. My father was a pastor. I went to a Bible college and was ordained a pastor in Calabar. I know what the scriptures say. That is why I should be able to hold the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) accountable to their utterances and the way they do things in our nation. If what they are saying has nothing to do with the scriptures then I am going to hold them accountable because they give Christianity a bad name. Christianity is my life and so if I see people representing Christianity in a way they shouldn’t I am going to say something about it. Jesus Christ called them whitewashed sepulcher. He called people like that names, they are hypocrites. If they are Christians, what is their role in this nation? It is to pray for the government, it is to support the people and not to be angry that the former government threw sacks of dollars at them and this one is not giving them. So, I am a Christian and I am speaking from the perspective of a Christian. I am not the government’s spokesperson but when I see things and I call CAN can of worms, that is what they are and I am not apologetic about it.
So was it wrong for them to speak out on where killings were taking place in certain communities and they asked the government to act?
No. That is not the issue; that is not where I came in. I came in when they started saying President Buhari would not win the election, they were not qualified to say that as they were not politicians. Every one of us has one vote, why should they get involved in politics? That is the issue. I have never said anything against CAN for holding the government to account. If they do the right thing you won’t hear me say a thing. But when they delve into politics, then they asked for it. I don’t give the president bad press, those that think I give the president bad press what they want is for us to keep quiet and let the opposition pummel our president, who is doing the best he can for this nation. I will not stand for it: even if tomorrow I am sacked, I want to make it clear, I will pack my things because I have a job waiting for me in the UK. I will go back to the United Kingdom and in six weeks I will get back my license on what I was doing before I came here and I will continue to support President Buhari because for me, he is the saviour of this country for now.
We know your principal has spoken about what Nigerians should expect in the Next Level, which kicks off next month. As one of his aides, what do you think Nigerians should expect?
There is nobody who likes the idea of insurgency but it seems to be the world’s phenomenon at the moment. Nigerians, with the incumbent Inspector General of Police moving in the right direction, should expect that more policemen will be recruited, more training for the existing ones and total reorientation of the way we do policing in our nation. That will help tackle insecurity. Securing the nation is not the responsibility of President Buhari alone but that of all of us because it can happen to you and me. When you hear that somebody has been kidnapped, you feel sad about the whole situation but when you know the person that has been kidnapped, it is not only sadness that you would feel, you would feel apprehension and justifiably confused. So, nobody is praying for some things to continue but we are hoping that the government and the society will play their roles to ensure that we stand on top of it all. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the difference between there and Nigeria is that if somebody sees someone moving in a very suspicious way, straight away they call the police and inform them and within 10 minutes the police would be there to find out what was going on. If someone, for instance, bought more quantity of fertilizer than required, it will be reported. Everyone has small gardens in front and back of their house where they plant flowers so they are expected to use fertilizer. But, if you bought a lot more than you need, the storekeeper will sell it to you but as soon as you leave, he calls the police and informs them because fertilizers are used for manufacturing bombs and stuff like that. So, we need to be alert to our environment. The police also need to make the ordinary citizens to feel that they are safe with the information they are giving to them. If I give out information and the next the culprit starts beating me up, it means the police have told them that it was me. The police need to protect identity and respect the people of Nigeria.
The media needs to report and be patriotic in their reportage. We shouldn’t report negativity all the time; we should also report what the government is doing because the lives that are being lost are people’s relatives. So, I believe the Next Level just like the president said will be a lot better.
Women, many say did not get a fair deal in this administration, will that change in the Next Level?
I do actually expect so because the President promised and he is an honourable man and whatever he has promised he has done it. He has said there will be more women in his administration. The only thing I will add is that we want women who merit the appointment, we don’t want women supplied by men just to make up the number. We don’t want women who will not stand on their own and do their job. We don’t want women who will be looking at godfathers and godmothers but women who will represent Nigeria as a whole and women we will be proud of.
During the elections you were accused of peddling fake news and you were called out on social media to apologise. Why didn’t you?
No. I didn’t peddle fake news. You mean the one where N500 was being strapped to each food pack? It happened 100 percent I have always stood by it. The only issue is that I am protecting the person who sent it to me. The person is still with them, they promised to pay them certain amount but they are still owing those people. They strapped that one to the food and gave to them after eating they refused to pay them the balance that is how I got to know. I don’t peddle fake news please. Once someone sent me some photos and said her neighbour travelled to Plateau State and got the picture. Because it was somebody I trusted, I believed and posted on social media. Straight away somebody drew my attention to the fact that it was not real, I pulled that down and then I used it again to apologise. That is the only time I posted something that was not real. See, I am very good at apologizing but I put a lot of thoughts into what I say and what I do. That was the only one and I have spoken about it when I appeared on a television programme.
Do you regret anything you have done in the cause of doing your job and will you do it differently if given the opportunity?
There are a lot of things I would have loved to do differently but I am not the one in charge and so I would just hug those ones to my heart. Those ones I would like to change I have been approaching them one after the other, telling them what they are not doing right and what needs to be changed. What I would really have loved most is to have team spirit, we don’t know anything about teamwork in this country, everyone works as an individual, nobody wants to inform anybody about anything but with teamwork we can move this nation forward. Everyone should support what they are doing in their team so that we are all on the same page.