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The regression towards dictatorship in Nigeria

By Tochukwu Ezukanma


President Buhari’s war on corruption struck a responsive chord in Nigerian minds because corruption has, for long, been the bane of Nigeria. It convoluted our value system and rendered every institution dysfunctional, and portends to unravel the social fabric of the Nigerian society. A successful war against corruption in Nigeria will nudge the country towards a renaissance and herald her joining the ranks of the prosperous nations of the world. So, we enthusiastically supported his determined assault on this national malady. Just, as we were ready to vote for him, even, if, “he presented a NEPA bill for his certificate”, we celebrated his anti-corruption fight, even, if, it breached the law.

Many Nigerians saw his administration’s disobedience to the law as a necessary evil in the fight against corruption. They felt that the subordination of justice to order, while undemocratic, was tolerable extremism in a laudable crusade against this most hideous national monster. After all, had earlier German political philosophy and jurisprudence not subordinated justice to order? And had that most famous Black American leader, Martin Luther King Jr., not distinguished between kinds of extremism, when he wrote, “the question is not whether we (are) extremists but what kind of extremists we (are)” – a logical parallel – to Barry Goldwater’s famous proclamation, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice”. Analogously, we thought that extremism in extirpation of corruption is no vice.

However, with time, it crystallized to Nigerians that Buhari’s defiance to court orders were not motivated by the public good. They were natural penchants of an inveterate dictator. By four years into his presidency, his dictatorial bent was rattling the institutional moorings of Nigerian democracy: the independence of the judiciary was compromised; freedom of the press and free speech, stifled; peaceful protesters, arrested and detained indefinitely; and the authority of the legislature, weakened. Evidently, in perceptible gradations, the country is regressing towards a dictatorship.

The unconstitutional replacement of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, with Ibrahim Mohammed paved the way for the emasculation of judiciary independence. Onnoghen put up a despicable defense because he came to equity with unclean hands. His hands were soiled by glaring acts of corruption, including feigned amnesia: he “forgot” to include a significant portion of his assets in his assets declaration. According to legal experts and other observers, the new Chief Justice, Ibrahim Mohammed, is unqualified for the job and totally, clueless; he can only function as a malleable tool of the presidency. Not surprisingly, the travesties of justice recently emanating from the courts, especially, in election petition cases have been repulsively evident.

Disappointed by unfulfilled electoral promises, and roiled by encompassing economic misery, more and more Nigerians are driven to protest against the government. Despite the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Nigerians to peaceful protests, the Buhari administration suppresses peaceful protests. On August 3 2019, the Directorate State Security (DSS) arrested Omoyele Sowore. His only “crime” was planning to lead his group known as “Revolution Now” on a peaceful protest. Paradoxically, he was charged for treason. In its distastefully colorful parlances, the DSS accused him of “threatening public safety, peaceful co-existence and social harmony in the country” and calling for a revolution – “forceful overthrow of government”. He remains in jail, even, after perfecting his bail conditions. To call a planned peaceful protest a revolution because the protesters gathered under the auspices of “Revolution Now” is nauseatingly disingenuous. The word revolution in this context is hyperbolic; to define it literally, as forceful overthrow of a government is Machiavellian humbug.

With the increasing Machiavellianism – unscrupulous despotism – of the Buhari administration, we are witnessing increasing repression of the press (harassment and arrests of journalists) across the country. For example, a journalist, Agba Jalingo, for writing an article accusing Governor Benedict Ayade and the Cross River Micro Finance Bank of corruption, was arrested and charged for treason and disturbing the peace. He has remained in jail since August 22nd, 2019. And the security detail of Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo beat up a photojournalist, Abayomi Adeshida, and damaged his professional camera. In the words of the journalist, “I was shocked when the DSS started beating me for no reason. They tore off my accreditation tag, and dragged me on the floor while hitting and kicking me”. He was hospitalized.

In his inexplicable ingratiation of the president, the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, scandalized Nigerians by stating the willingness of the senate to grant all the president’s requests. He said, “Any request that comes from Mr. President is a request that will make Nigeria a better place …and the senate will act expeditiously to” grant his request. It was a statement that impugned the independence of the senate. It cast the senate as an obsequious institution willing to pander to the whims and caprices of the president. Constitutionally, the senate is a formidable bulwark against presidential excesses.

The social media provides a superb forum for the governed to express, and the governing to appreciate, the prevailing moods and sentiments of the masses. If the Nigerian political class is committed to democracy and its attendant sensitivity and responsiveness to the legitimate aspirations of the people, it would have been enthused by the social media. But consumed in their cupidity and sordid ambitions and totally unconcerned with the plight and yearnings of the people they were elected to serve; the Nigerian power elite are weary of the social media. This is because it provides unparalleled spaciousness for free speech. Uncensored, it gives voice to even the dregs of the society and places no one, irrespective of his status, above criticism and censure. It allows even the forgotten destitute, at the bottom of the economic ladder, to take swipes and haul insults at the rich, famous and powerful. In addition, it is a potent instrument for mobilization and coordination of mass protests. It is a redoubtable safeguard against despotism, and all forms of abuse of power. Not surprisingly, the Buhari administration wants to gag the social media. It is angling for legislative enablement to muzzle the social media.

The attacks on free speech and the whittling down of the independence of the judiciary and legislature reinforce Buhari’s dictatorial powers. However, his dictatorship will remain circumscribed by that bastion of free speech, the social media. It will take a successful suppression of the social media to complete Buhari’s dictatorial grip on Nigeria.

Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria; maciln18@yahoo.com; 0803 529 2908

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