Mr President, this is not 1985
Since coming to power in 2015, President Buhari has walked back on virtually all the promises he made to Nigerians and even the international community.
In his beautiful address at the Chatham House on February 25, 2015, President Buhari promised that if elected Nigeria’s president, he will lead Nigeria to “trigger a wave of democratic consolidation in Africa” where regular elections are not only a constant feature, but where the quality and integrity of the elections are recognised and respected globally.
He also honestly accepted his past as a military dictator but promised to make amends: “So before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms and is subjecting himself to the rigours of democratic elections for the fourth time.” The world was impressed with these assurances, sceptical Nigerians were simply captivated and voted him into office.
However, no sooner had he taken over in the first democratic transition to power than he began to walk back his talk. It started so innocuously by interfering so openly and blatantly with the monetary policy of the central bank. Then he began using extra legal means to arrest and detain opposition politicians under the guise of fighting corruption.
Not long after that, his government began to flout and disobey court orders. Not done, the government began to make moves to outlaw free speech, criticisms and the free press through surreptitiously sponsored bills to criminalise social media, cage non-governmental organisations and outlaw any criticism of government. Nigeria was saved only by the independence of the 8th National Assembly which has always resisted such moves since 2015. Now that the president has gotten his wish by having a rubber-stamp National Assembly, those bills have resurfaced and are certain to be passed into law.
However, the president’s most egregious move towards dictatorship was his efforts to surreptitiously undermine and subjugate other arms of government thus destroying the separation of powers – a necessary safeguard against dictatorship and abuse of power – enshrined in the Nigerian constitution. It started with the harassment and intimidation of some justices of the Supreme Court and judges that gave judgments the government didn’t like and culminated with the illegal removal of the chief justice of the federation just on the eve of the 2019 elections. Although the task could not be completed because of the independence of the 8th National Assembly, it has now resumed in earnest since the incumbent and his party, the All Progressives Congress, won the 2019 elections.
Alas, the promise to lead Nigeria to consolidate democracy in Africa now appears more far-fetched than when it was made. The integrity of virtually all elections conducted since 2015 have been suspect with voter intimidation, despicable violence and sometimes, open falsification of results at collation centres the major hallmark of these elections. As attested to by numerous election monitoring teams, Nigeria has taken several steps backward in the conduct of credible elections.
Since Buhari began his second term on May 29 2019, his government has abandoned any pretences towards observance of democratic norms, stepped up its efforts to prevent free speech, intimidate the media into silence and roll back all the political rights and civil liberties Nigerians have been enjoying since the return to democracy in 1999. Currently, there are many journalists being tried for terrorism, treasonable felony and cyber-stalking for daring to criticise or hold governments to account. The government has also brought back a military era rule authorising it to detain just anyone indefinitely under the guise of “national security and national interest” even in open disregards of the courts.
Under the guise of national security, the president, with the support of his party, the legislature has tried to justify attempts to stifle free speech, disregard for the rule of law and the weakening of other arms of government as necessities. Laws and tools that enabled the transfer of power in a country where the previous boasted of ruling forever are now considered dangers to democracy. They ignore that technology is here to stay in an environment that thrives on information where the genie of social media is long unbottled. They forget as Thomas More reminded William Roper in the play A Man for all Seasons: “And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you, where would you hide?”
Clearly these are not actions of a government or president interested in consolidating democracy or governing according to democratic norms. But like it happened during the worst military era, we will be around to hold the government to account until we see its end. After all, no government lasts forever.