Beyond the tantrums of a president
When President Muhammadu Buhari suspended the operations of Twitter, a micro-blogging platform, many Nigerians accused him of throwing temper tantrums and even likened him to a child who took his ball after a trump in a match.
However, this is an innate feature of Buhari. The president has always been believed by many to be control-hungry and a top-class dictator waiting to manifest in a democratic era.
After taking an active part in Nigeria’s civil war as a soldier assigned to the 1st Division under the command of Mohammed Shuwa, a lieutenant colonel, Buhari later clinched power and became the military head of state in 1983, after he executed a coup.
In a speech on January 5, 1984, something that sounded like a pre-warning, Buhari told the press to report the activities of his government with accuracy. “We cannot stop you from publishing, but please anything you publish about us let it be accurate,” he said.
Soon, the press reported that N2.80 billion was missing in the oil ministry while Buhari headed the agency in the late 1970s. This brought out the real him.
Buhari, at a press conference, lashed out at the press and said that he was going to “tamper” with the press freedoms enshrined in the 1979 Constitution.
With that, Decree No.4 emerged on March 29, 1984. Under this decree, Buhari severely dealt with any person who published ‘in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement that is false (or true) in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or a public officer to ridicule or disrepute.
Buhari later warned that if any private newspapers over-stepped their bounds they would be shut down, as his government would not allow private newspapers to publish news and views not in the public interest.
“We will not allow irresponsible views capable of creating trouble or instability in whatever form to be published by these private newspapers,” he noted.
The press was under siege. His government also established Decree No 2 of the Nigerian State Security (Detention of Persons) in 1984, which allows for indefinite, incommunicado detention of Nigerian citizens.
Under this Decree, the state security and the chief of staff were given the power to detain, without charges, individuals deemed to be a security risk to the state for up to three months. Strikes and popular demonstrations were banned. This was a most controversial Decree, according to reports, as it sought to stifle civil liberties.
By July 1984, Buhari had issued 22 Decrees, including two retroactive to December 31, 1983, prescribing the death penalty for arson, drug trafficking, oil smuggling, and currency counterfeiting.
It was his regime that launched the ‘War Against Indiscipline (WAI),’ what is today, the task force that has caused a lot of economic woes to Nigerians; and also, a Decree that allowed the head of state to freeze assets of those suspected of corruption.
Buhari’s ascent to power in December 1983 would be remembered as a period of crackdowns on civil liberties and freedom of speech. But it was this same man that would later become president in a democratic era.
After four failed attempts at becoming the president of the most populous black nation on earth, this ex-military dictator decided to contest again.
Nevertheless, this time, he must rebrand. So, he campaigned under the “Change” mantra, and as a “converted democrat”.
Many Nigerians, especially the older folks, knew the person of Buhari; still, they campaigned and voted for him in droves—including Tunde Thompson, who was one of the many journalists Buhari jailed as military head of state.
Like Thompson, many bought into Buhari’s ‘reformed democrat’ narrative and hoped that he would use his iron hands to deal mercilessly with terrorists—a major reason Goodluck Jonathan was voted out.
Buhari clearly has not changed and the recent Twitter ban is just an excuse for him to express his disdain and hatred for dissenting voices, just like he did during his military regime.
Unlike in the 1980s, communication has evolved and social interactions have increased fostered by social media.
Buhari’s government has been heavily criticised for gross failure and underperformance at all fronts of leadership, and Nigerians cannot stop talking about it. There have been killings by herdsmen marauders, Boko Haram, bandits.
Protesters were killed and others had their bank accounts frozen for weeks. There is increased poverty, inflation, naira devaluation, and more senseless killings and incidents of rape, which all climaxed in the heavy censuring of his government on social media.
Instead of taking responsibility, he would not be held accountable. So, he and his All Progressives Congress (APC) acolytes began plotting to muzzle the press and shut down the internet in Nigeria.
They introduced the Social Media Bill, which sought to regulate social media. Media organisations were heavily fined and threatened with licence withdrawal.
While the ‘illegal’ Twitter ban is generating a lot of anger among Nigerians, the government is reportedly on a mission to replicate China’s censorship through the creation of a firewall to regulate social media.
If this happens, Nigeria will become a full-blown authoritarian state. And with a man like President Buhari on the wheels of affairs, Nigerians will largely become unsafe.
Yet, there is hope and this hope lies in resisting his draconian policies just as he was resisted by the people as a military ruler.
While the National Assembly remains silent, this current ploy to trample on the rights of Nigerians can and should be resisted. Even if it is through a Virtual Private Network (VPN), Nigerians, resist it.