Buhari: The deception of a ‘converted’ democrat

Muhammadu Buhari, one-time military dictator, once said that he became a “converted democrat” after seeing the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he has internalised none of the key lessons from the collapse. For instance, the Soviet Union fell because of the failure of its communist ideology, but Buhari remains wedded to the same command-and-control philosophy. Second, the Soviet Union was dissolved following agitations for self-determination by constituent states, such as Georgia and Ukraine.Yet Buhari responds to such agitations in Nigeria with brutal force. Thirdly, the collapse of the Soviet Union was hastened by Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”).But Buhari is averse to openness and viscerally rejects political restructuring. So, his claim of a Soviet-induced Damascene conversion is very dubious.

But assuming Buhari, indeed, converted to democracy, the conversion was superficial, as evidenced by his authoritarian recidivism. Leopards never change their spots. Dictators who become “democrats” tend to, as someone puts it, “eat out democracy from within”. The London Times recently wrote that “strongmen operate according to their own rules”, which explains Buhari’s statement last year that “Rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the national interest”, as he alone defines it. He prefers personal rule to the rule of law!

In his recent article in the Financial Times, entitled “The rise of the populist authoritarians”, Martin Wolf, the newspaper’s chief economics commentator, referred to a book entitled “Authoritarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know”, written by Professor Erica Frantz of Michigan State University. According to Wolf, citing from the book, personal dictatorships have the following features: a narrow inner circle of trusted people; installation of loyalists in positions of power; and the creation of security services loyal to the leader. Wolf went on to describe other characteristics of strongmen. First, they are populists, who argue that they alone can solve their country’s problems. They assert that their opponents are corrupt, and that experts, judges and the media must be distrusted. Voters are asked to trust in the strongmen’s intuition as they are a living embodiment of the people. Wolf concludes that such arguments are used to “justify the repression of ‘enemies of the people’, making genuine democracy impossible”.

Think about the above features and characteristics. Do they not describe President Buhari? Of course, they do. His inner circle consists of “trusted people” who, as he said, have been with him through “trying times”. Virtually all the heads of Nigeria’s security and military agencies are from his ethnic group. Buhari is also a populist, who believes he is the only person who can solve Nigeria’s problems. For him, his opponents are corrupt, and experts, judges and the media are unpatriotic. Buhari’s supporters tell Nigerians to trust in his intuition and present him as a living embodiment of the people. And, of course, because he believes he is on a messianic mission, and because he believes he embodies the national interest, he justifies suspending the rule of law and undermining democracy to crush the “enemies of the state”, such as “corrupt” politicians and judges.

Thanks to the Wolf-Frantz framework, we can now explain Buhari’s disdain for the rule of law within the context of a pseudo-democratic personal dictatorship or populist authoritarianism. I mean, only an authoritarian would suspend and replace a country’s chief justice weeks before a general election without considering the potential impact on the credibility of the election. Of course, if, as alleged, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, is corrupt, that’s terrible, and he can’t be above the law. But the issue is about constitutionality, process, timing and motives. A president must act constitutionally. But even if President Buhari has the constitutional power to suspend the CJN, the legitimacy of his decision can still be undermined by flawed process, timing and motive.

But the process of the suspension was flawed. The haste with which Buhari acted, within days, on the Chief Justice’s case, rightly raised concerns about procedural fairness. This was the same Buhari who took over a year before reluctantly suspending the former secretary to the federal government, Babachir Lawal, accused of corruption. Buhari said he acted on a court order in the Chief Justice’s case. But he has disobeyed several court orders, including those granting bail to the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki. The timing of the suspension was also wrong. If an incumbent seeking re-election removes and replaces, during the election, the chief justice who would ultimately decide post-election cases, it would be seen, first, as intimidation and, second, as replacing independent judges with potentially friendlier ones. Such perceptionscan undermine the credibility of the election.

Of course, Buhari’s real motive is to weaponise corruption and make it the issue in the election. Indeed, his party, All Progressives Congress, said last week that, “This election is a referendum on corruption and integrity”, and APC’s slogan “Don’t let the treasury looters return to power”is designed to dissuade Nigerians from voting for Buhari’s main opponent, Atiku Abubakar, and his party, People’s Democratic Party, who are widely perceived to be weak on corruption. But in a bid to ride on the crest of an anti-corruption wave to win the election, Buhari is trampling on the rule of law and making genuine democracy impossible.

Indeed, throughout his presidency, Buhari has made his anti-graft war a personal vendetta, using it to attack his opponents. In her book, Fighting Corruption is Dangerous, the former finance minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, narrates how, in 2017, the Buhari government sent police officers to search her house for “illegal currency holdings”. However, when they found only bags full of old newspapers, a police officer asked Okonjo-Iweala’s son to tell his Mum “to keep calm”, saying: “It was nothing but politics.” Recently, Dr Obadiah Mailafia wrote in his BusinessDay column about how the security services harassed him regarding a “missing $7billion” when he was Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, even though, as he explained, the Directorate he headed didn’t “handle money”. At one point, one officer asked him why he wouldn’t support Buhari and the APC “so that everything would be alright”. Of course, as everyone knows, several PDP leaders who were previously named and accused of corruption by the EFCC stopped being treated as corrupt immediately they joined APC and started supporting Buhari’s re-election campaign. That’s the iniquitous way Buhari is fighting his anti-corruption war: using it to extract loyalty from opponents.

President Buhari’s double standards and hypocrisy are indeed beyond belief. Last week, the presidency said that Buhari’s public support for Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano State, who was caught on video allegedly collecting bribe, didn’t diminish his stance on corruption. Really? How could a president fighting corruption publicly associate with and defend a governor caught on video allegedly receiving bribe? Last year, Buhari’s wife, Aisha, ordered the arrest of her ADC for allegedly collecting N2.5billion from politicians and business people in her name without giving the money to her. Nothing has since been heard about the case. Was Buhari’s wife lying? And if she wasn’t, who are the politicians and business people who gave the ADC the money? Buhari said he and his ministers are not corruption, but can they publicly declare their assets and the sources of their wealth?

Lack of transparency and double standards are precisely why, despite nearly four years of Buhari’s much-hyped “anti-corruption war”, Nigeria’s position on the Transparency International corruption perception index hasn’t improved, ranking 144 out of 180, or scoring 27 out of 100, according to this year’s index?

Truth is, Buhari is a pseudo democrat, a populist authoritarian. We know from the Wolf-Frantz framework that such leaders feel they are on a rescue mission and use this to justify trampling on the rule of law, undermining democracy and repressing their opponents. Yet, they are very hypocritical. For instance, Buhari accused the US, EU and UK of interference for criticising his suspension of the Chief Justice, but he relied heavily on such “foreign interference” when running against President Jonathan in 2015.

Buhari deceived Nigerians with his self-proclaimed conversion to democracy. Yet, despite being a pseudo democrat, hemay be re-elected as president this month. Brace yourself!


Olu Fasan

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