IT has become clear more than ever that Nigerian democracy exists only in the imagination of its lovers. It never quite formed well since 1999, nor was it really guided and guarded by the right democratic and political sentries, and was consequently in constant danger of unravelling; but in the few weeks this column was on break, it watched from afar how this government inspired a rampage in the country, redefining and misinterpreting terms, baring its fangs, instituting undisguised parochialism, and preparing to redirect the country far away from the original ideas proposed and propagated by the country’s founding fathers to build a democracy and a country united by common objectives. Democracy in Nigeria was never in danger of breathing well or flourishing; but now, only a flicker of it still exists.
In his first term, President Muhammadu Buhari blamed every other factor, person and institution for his inability to proceed with the speed and depth needed to remake and reinvigorate Nigeria. He groaned that the legislature had been hijacked, the judiciary was too corrupt and inefficient to shake off years of stasis, and the rest of the country reeked of so much corruption that if he had not been hamstrung by democratic tenets and constitutional restraints he would have filled the prisons to overflow. In short, everyone else or thing was responsible for the general stagnation the country suffered as a result of his government’s paralysis. And so, rather than seek to engage the people, policies, politics and politicians of the country, as the constitution envisages, he made only a half-hearted attempt in that direction, and then very quickly gave up. His temper was unalterably opposed to what democracy presupposes. He didn’t say it clearly, but for his second term he quietly schemed to take over the entire system in order, as he and his aides think, to have unfettered access to all the powers the constitution vouchsafed to citizens, regions and institutions.
Fortunately, this column, after watching the president and his aides for only a few weeks after his assumption of office, realised where the problem was located and never really believed that a second term, which he was set to win in 2019, would bring about the change and drive the country so desperately needed to renew and rediscover itself. It took the president nearly six months in 2015 to constitute a cabinet; now it is taking him about three months to constitute another cabinet that is at bottom not substantially different in personnel and philosophy from his first cabinet. The judiciary was inept and corrupt, he moaned; now he has taken it over completely, not by reforming it or nudging it to produce and promote exemplary jurists into positions of power and influence, nor by coaxing it into a deeply philosophical institution capable of defining and redefining judicial concepts, principles and precedents capable of inspiring other jurisdictions, but by herding it into a body of judicial officers loyal to him and his government and inoculated against the virtues of knowledge and independent thinking.
The legislature was overpaid, overfed and irredeemably corrupt, the president and his supporters concluded dismissively. That the 8th National Assembly put some semblance of check on the humongous powers the president had accumulated to his office far beyond the intendment of the constitution only served to provoke him the more and to widen the distance between him and the lawmakers. The lawmakers of the 9th Assembly are of course no less overpaid or overfed, nor significantly better intellectually or ethically than their predecessors, but it is at least satisfying to the president that they are substantially loyal, if not even grovelling. They showed their limited mettle — in character, intellect and courage — in the screening of President Buhari’s proposed cabinet. Former Justice minister and attorney general, Abubakar Malami, stuck to the heresy of subordinating the constitution and the people’s rights to the amorphous national security interests of the government, not the nation; and no senator was bright enough to take him to task, to redirect his calloused attention to the ennobling virtues Nigeria’s defective constitution promised.
Furthermore, the senators listened with great bemusement the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad, trip over himself in explaining and defending the judgement given by the Supreme Court in the Osun governorship case. Deploying technical and technicality interchangeably, and it seems blithely, the CJN gave the frightening impression just what kind of justice the oppressed would get in the courts from now on, or just what landmines legal practitioners with some depth would step on if they as much as display a scintilla of the reconditeness of their illustrious predecessors. But who cares? Not the senate, which has served notice where their loyalties lie; nor the president who has at last got the kind of judiciary and legislature he dreams of — institutions displaying the same speciousness only the executive had mustered in the past four years.
The complete takeover of all institutions and every sector of the society by the executive undoubtedly portends turbulence and acrimony ahead. Already, the Buhari presidency has casually hurled heavy and dangerous labels at critics and opponents. The legislature seems too preoccupied with trivia to pay attention to the careful and orchestrated denudation of the rights of the people. And with the judiciary broken and weakened and remoulded, it would be a miracle for the oppressed to get justice, and for a bold judge to defy the ongoing rampage to dispense justice in its truest sense. It is curious and disheartening for a government that couldn’t classify violent herdsmen as terrorists to so facilely define Omoyele Sowore and his motley assemblage of uninspiring protesters as terrorists, and their protests as treason — this in a country of highly educated people, with some of them boasting great pedigrees of activism. Well, did the same government, which took a mild and sectional view of Boko Haram, not also without compunction describe the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) as a terrorist organisation? Having succeeded with these blatant and brazen missteps, there is no telling who next would be accused of treason, or opponent and groups classified as terrorists, or which courts would accent to the government’s distressing and notorious classifications with as much carefreeness as the government would prompt them.
The constitution gave the executive as much powers as they would need to run the affairs of the country properly and firmly. Neither the president nor governors, however, seemed satisfied with what they have, considering how very monarchical they have become. Governors take over their states totally, taking no prisoners and brooking no opposition. The presidency has done worse. With the complete takeover of the parliament and the judiciary, those left out of the president’s circle are going to read infamy into many of the government’s policies and programmes. They will be puzzled by the president’s insistence on selecting his security chiefs from one part of the country, with all the attendant stultification and paralysis that connotes. They will see his lack of resolve on the herdsmen crisis and the consequent insecurity overwhelming the country as proof of his sectionalist agenda. And they will inevitably interpret the government’s Rural Grazing Areas (RUGA) policy and the budgetary outlay for it as an indication of a dangerous Fulani agenda, an agenda underpinned by further steps such as the befuddling Water Bill suspected to be poised for resuscitation in the parliament. And they will regard the now comatose herdsmen radio station as final proof that in fact a concerted plan to promote and entrench Fulani exceptionalism exists.
If the president had problems with the 8th NASS and the Walter Onnoghen-led judiciary, it is not because a more astute president could not work with them; it is in fact more a reflection of the weaknesses and limitations of the Buhari presidency itself. A statesman demonstrates his competence and depth by his ability to work with opponents, mollify their anger when it arises, coax a consensus out of parliaments and squabbling ethnic groups, and show devotion to high and noble principles and values. But by capturing the other arms of government, the stage is now set for impunity and other forms of lawlessness. When this column took the government to task a few years back over its abrasive anti-corruption war, it was because it saw that the president and his supporters did not appreciate the delicate nuances that festooned that war. The column feared that a dangerous foundation of impunity was being laid for the country, where the end would justify the means. Now the chickens have come home to roost.
Impunity has overwhelmed the country. There will be more arrests in the months ahead, more terrorist label casually flung around, otherwise harmless dissent equated with treason, intimidated courts give perverse judgements in cases involving government, National Assembly will make tame and futile statements, soldiers and policemen will train their guns on each other and on other unarmed citizens, presidential spokesmen will sneer at the people and speak roughly to the public, states will bargain with bandits, and supporters of the president, many of them averse to introspection, will continue to make extenuating and exculpatory statements to justify the government’s subversion of the constitution. Law and order has virtually broken down in the country, and the only panacea the government thinks of is the deployment of more soldiers in the streets and checkpoints.
The Buhari presidency has learnt absolutely nothing from history, including recent Nigerian history. Under the president’s nose, ex-president Goodluck Jonathan is pining away in regret over his many missed opportunities to lay a solid foundation for democracy and help entrench it in such a manner that the parliament and the judiciary would operate independently as the constitution envisages, and the executive would not deploy overbearing power against citizens and the opposition. Dr Jonathan left office in 2015 and has been at the receiving end of poor and oppressive government policies and actions in which the opposition has found it difficult to operate in the classical sense or win elections, or even live peacefully under the rule of law.
Ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo had the best chance to set democracy firmly on the right course. He lost that great opportunity to make Nigeria a wonderland of democracy and rule of law, and has himself become either obsessed at trying to right the many wrongs he inspired while in office or has become a victim of the breakdown of law and order. He is not safe. No one is. It was clear neither Dr Jonathan nor Chief Obasanjo possessed the depth of understanding needed to help entrench democracy. Worse, they did not also have the discipline. President Buhari, as indifferent as he is to criticism, is tarred with the same brush. Having birthed the worst environment for democracy and the rule of law, and having pushed the country to the precipice of total collapse of the rule of law, he will also live out of office railing against his successors who will invariably hound him and his men, for they have done enough to deserve being hounded. What is more, they will get no reprieve from a parliament or a judiciary they have done their worst to castrate so brutally.
Many critics have warned of creeping fascism, a phrase this column first used in late 2015 when it observed the transmutation of the government from democratic to authoritarian. Others have warned that democracy might be lost altogether. Both sets of critics are right. But the diagnosis is a little more nuanced. What is afoot is the Buhari presidency’s alarming lurch towards the Chinasation, Pakistanisation and Russianisation of Nigerian democracy. That this is incompatible with the borrowed presidential system of government is a mere inconvenience to the Nigerian government. Worse of all is the fact that these ‘inasations’ are being authored by a group of shadowy characters in the government, echo chambers who in addition to promoting primordial interests incompatible with national interest have seemed to convince themselves that Nigerian democracy does not have to reflect the principles and values that undergird the constitution they have so gracelessly borrowed and inexpertly implemented.
Nigerians must live in apprehension of an uncertain future from now on. If the shadowy characters influencing the direction of government manage to keep this country that has become groggy from their machinations in one piece till 2023, they will do everything in their power to concoct a post-2023 system that fits their cracked worldview. Already, the careful observer can see and feel in the president’s cabinet appointments the entrenchment of a worldview and post-2023 Nigeria that are dangerously inimical to the future and wellbeing of the country. The shadowy characters will neutralise as many powerful interests as possible, and use ambitious individuals who are too blinded by the present jostling to see the divide and rule traps being set for them. All things considered, and despite the loud protestations of leading All Progressives Congress (APC) chieftains, not to say the feeble complaints of the weakened Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leaders, neither democracy nor the economy, nor yet the rule of law and individual rights, will fare better in the months and years ahead. The clouds of repression are gathering; Nigerians must hope that the lights do not go out completely over their country where moving from one point to another and staying alive from day to day have become a terrible and bone-crushing ordeal.