By Rotimi Fasan
IN the immediate aftermath of the 31st December, 1983 coup that ousted the Shehu Shagari administration and brought then Major General Muhammadu Buhari into power, a dawn raid was conducted on the residence of one of the main opposition leaders of the Second Republic and key founders of modern Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. As the founder and presidential candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, Chief Awolowo had contested the 1983 presidential election against Alhaji Shagari who as leader of the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, was seeking re-election into the office of president. The election was massively rigged and Shagari was returned into office just as the economy that had been subjected to reckless plunder in the previous four years of NPN control of power was reeling in confusion.
It was in the wake of the violence, both actual and systemic, that had been visited on the country that the military took over power. The 1983 election had been contested, won and lost, for at least three months before the military incursion and Shagari who had stood as the NPN candidate was firmly back in the saddle even if uncomfortably. But there was no obvious reason why Chief Awolowo’s house should be the target of an obviously government-sponsored raid. There was neither sense nor method to the raid on his home by the secret police then led by Muhammadu Rafindadi.
Supporters of Chief Awolowo as were other Yoruba leaders saw the raid on his home as an insult directed at both the person of the man generally considered an iconic leader of the Yoruba as well as an attack on the Yoruba. If Alhaji Shagari as president could be accused as having overseen the plunder of the economy- if as the leader of the NPN Shagari was simply kept in house detention without his property being subjected to a raid, what justification could the government have for raiding the home of another leader who was quietly minding his business following his retirement from active politics? This among others was the question that agitated the minds of Nigerians. The whole episode was seen as a sign of the ethnic bias of and warning from the Buhari junta that it would take no prisoners. The situation was by no means helped when in the following weeks and latter months the junta continued to breathe fire as it went about clamping hundreds of Nigerians into jail. Buhari himself had in his first interview promised to ‘tamper’ with press freedom apparently in the name of safeguarding national security. Any report considered embarrassing to a government official could be read as a threat to national security- things were that open-ended! And those who dared then had sad tales to tell.
But this was the early 1980s when military rule was yet all the rage. Nigerians would want to believe that life has changed since then. But not very much it would now appear. For just a week ago, the executive-arm incarnation of those reprobate years of Gestapo policing, the Department of State Services or DSS as it is now known, conducted a similar raid as the SSS visited on Awolowo on the Abuja home of Chief Edwin Clark. This time the secret police has an alibi: it accused the 92-year old Clark of gun running. They ransacked the old man’s home, turned his house upside down including the inner recesses of his bedroom and harassed members of his household at gunpoint. As Nigerians cry out in horror at what many perceived as a reversion to the best forgotten years of military terror, accusing the government and police of underhand tactics, the ever-voluble Jimoh Moshood, the Police spokesperson, was at hand to defend the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris that he saw as the target of the outcry. Without waiting to find out more about the incident, Moshood warned off critics to allow the police to do its job without holding the IG responsible.
The police would soon after release a cautious statement, deftly deflected attention from itself even as it promised to investigate the incident further. It was not long before it came back with its findings. The raid was unauthorised it said and the officers involved would be brought to account. This was something Moshood could have found out if he had not been too defensive. But what prompted this serious breach of a private citizen’s rights, a citizen who has in recent times been involved in pouring oil on the troubled waters of the Niger-Delta? A mere rumour, indeed a beer room gossip by a taxi driver, we are being told, could have led to the entire charade. A so-called informant, prompted by a taxi driver’s small talk, contacted the police to report a case of gun running! How many Nigerians have been sent away to rot and die in jail for nothing more than side talks like this? If it had been some other Nigeria of lesser stature would the police have tried to be civil, going on to offer an apology and summarily dismissing the officers involved?
Body language matters and so do utterances, we are increasingly being made aware. Could President Buhari’s recent rhetoric that proffered a skewed and de-contextualised definition of national security, thus rating it over and above the ‘rule of law’ or the constitution- could his recent remarks like his 1984 promise to tamper with press freedom have prompted some busybodies within the security agencies to try to justify his utterances by all means? It was a decade after the act, long after Chief Awolowo had passed to be ale to demand an apology that Buhari would apprise Nigerians of ‘fifth columnists’ within his junta and proclaim his innocence in the 1984 raid on Chief Awolowo’s home. Before the President recently spoke, his Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Malami, tried to casually place ‘national security’ above constitutional imperatives by offering a justification that must have cued President Buhari for the remark he made.
The question needs to be asked now: is the police merely flying a kite or were there officers actually dismissed for this latest infraction of right-violation of a senior Nigerian? Has justice been served by this dismissal or have the officers involved merely taken the fall for more senior people? After all, they acted on an informant’s report and did so with a search warrant. Who issued the warrant, if we may ask and who checks when and how operatives procure search warrants? This situation looks like that of police personnel who randomly shoot into the air. Who checks to know how ammunition issued to them are dispensed? Shots aimed at the air like search warrants randomly procured can be utilised anyhow. What safety checks are in place to guide against this?