Democracies fail in several ways, sometimes it fails with a bang and many a time fails by instalment. The later describes the current state of democracy in Nigeria today. Democracies could be at risk of failure when the political class wilfully allows extremist demagogues with dubious democratic allegiance to hijack mainstream politics. They pretend to be born again democrats but end up as tyrants.
The problem with the emergence of these figures is not about their pretensions or whether they were democratically elected by popular votes, but whether the political elites were vigilante and worked closely to prevent them from gaining power in the first place, because once you accommodate them they literally assume the character of one of the four horse man in the apocalypse.
In other words, dictators do not always arrive at the head of columns of troops with martial music. They win democratic elections and then dismantle democracy by attacking the very constitution they swore to uphold.
For three consecutive elections, the political class wisely kept Gen. Buhari at arm’s length because of his well-known antecedents. As a military dictator he ruled with iron fist. He promulgated the Decree One of 1983 which overthrew a democratic government. He abolished the parliament and seized the courts. He vested all the three great powers of government on the military with himself as the supreme commander of the armed forces.
He enacted Decree 2 of 1984 which gave him the draconian power to arrest and detain anyone without trial on suspicion of breaching national security. Military tribunals were established to try and convict civilians based on retroactive laws. Excessive jail terms were handed indiscriminately on hapless victims by these tribunals.
He also enacted Decree four of 1984 which targeted press freedom. Journalists were jailed and media organizations proscribed. He also enacted Decree 6 which gave him the power to confiscate properties and freeze bank accounts of people on mere suspicion of corruption. Decree 13 of 1984 banned the courts from conducting any proceeding relating to the validity of actions under any of his decrees. For the period he ruled as maximum ruler, frightened citizens lived in horror and fear, yet, 35 years later, the same very political class he crushed without milk of human kindness led by Bola Tinubu, former generals led by Olusegun Obasanjo and intellectuals led by Wole Soyinka for inexplicable reasons but unintelligently handed Nigeria and our democracy over to Buhari on a platter.
President Buhari with promises of ending corruption, providing security, improved living conditions and creating jobs became the beneficiary of Nigeria’s freest and most credible election. But as soon as he was sworn into office, he took steps towards authoritarianism and never hid his contempt for democratic niceties. We were coned.
Elected dictators have recognizable traits; they reject the conventions of democratic life; they will do anything to win power and tell any lie to retain it; they do not just want to defeat their opponents but to destroy them and with them the possibility of change ending in mirage. To justify their assaults on people’s rights and the constitution, they invoke national interest and use the language of war. When their supporters unleash violence they approve with winks and nods. When their opponents criticize, they are not citizens exercising their democratic rights, but demonized as looters and criminals spreading libel or treason.
These traits explain why President Buhari spent nearly the entirety of his first term plotting against his predecessors and undermining the integrity of the National Assembly. It also explained why he became more emboldened and repressive in disobedience of court judgements and assault on judges.
It is no coincidence that judges like Justice Ngwuta who was arrested and humiliated were among the judges that ruled against him in one of his many previous election cases, and judges who wrote dissenting judgements favourable to him like Justice Okoroafor were exhumed from retirement and rewarded with ambassadorial positions.
Buhari’s leadership style is not only dangerous but raises some vital question that so many knew but refused to think we should be asking: Was the victory of President Buari in 2015 the biggest mistake of the political class? Is it possible to practice democracy devoid of the legislature, free press and independent judiciary?
The Punch Newspaper in one of its very recent editorials described President Buhari’s leadership style as ghastly and clueless especially for his attempts to blame the herders’ act of horrific violence on the shrinking Lake Chad and alleged biased media reports. His narrow narrative, according to The Punch, seeks vainly to explain away the campaign of terror and mayhem on hapless women and children on the displacement of herdsmen from the lake area and hang the seeming helplessness of his administration in curbing the rampage on the mass media.
Was the president’s attack on the principle of rule of law at the 2018 Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Annual Conference an advance warning of what to expect if he survives the 2019 election?
Well-meaning democrats must take serious the existential threat by the National Chairman of APC, Adams Oshiomhole, to destroy and wipe out the opposition. The former labour union leader may be emphatically correct in his desire to wipe out opposition but what he doesn’t know is that deep down the heart of the average citizen, he is on the side that must be obliterated at all cost for our democracy to survive.
Many Nigerians are increasingly concerned by the quality of minds that surrounds the president and have expressed disappointment in Itse Sagay, a respected and erudite professor of law whose recent pronouncements are making many students of law to question the purpose of law if he will brazenly encourage his clients to disregard court judgements.
I have always known of influential and powerful citizens, but never reckoned that there will be a time that we have to degenerate to the level where some citizens are above the courts, and could decide what courts to obey and the ones to disregard. I never believed a professor of law could ascribe the appellation ‘Kangaroo’ to a competently constituted Court of Appeal. How can the president and his men violently object to our justice system and yet be charged with the responsibility of protecting our constitution and the values of our democracy?
Given our current situation, I believe the preservation of democratic values and institutions should be more important than the current divisions and multiplicity of aspirants that wants to be President. Democracy survives when democratic leaders fight for it. Therefore, political elites for the sake of enlightened interest and self-preservation must have the courage to put political parties behind them. They must have the commonsense to endorse and rally around a common candidate with a stubborn democratic credential.
Civil societies and the media will need to elevate issues rather than persons, religion or ethnicity as factor in the coming election. The 2019 election must not become a fight between PDP and APC or a fight between Christians and Muslims or North versus South, but a referendum between democracy and dictatorship.
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