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Harassing Atiku Abubakar

By Obi Nwakanma

I was at the Lambert Airport in St. Louis, Missouri, this past weekend. It was a day to “Veterans Day” – the day the United States of America set aside to commemorate and honor the valor and supreme sacrifice of its Armed Services – the men and women in the United States Military who have fought its wars, and carried arms for its national defence.

Former vice-President Atiku Abubakar

Came time to board, and the flight announcer called first to board, “those who have children with them and those who are on wheel chairs.”

Then followed, anyone who has served in the United States Military – before announcing the rows. And as the men and women – in their varying ages and races – approached, those present erupted in applause for them, and many said to them, as they often say when an ex-military identifies himself or herself, “thank you for your service.”

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It is often a thing of pride to serve one’s country honorably, and to be honored doing this. But gratitude comes from a truly grateful citizenry which shares in the pride of their national army, their national flag, and the symbolic meaning of their institutions. America is by no means a perfect country. But it does many things right. One of its greatest principles is that aspiration towards a fairer, “more perfect union.” It does this through all the constitutional amendments that constantly re-invents, and renews its historical compact with its citizens.

This is what Nigeria currently lacks. Nigeria does not have the kind of citizens, nor the kind of social order, or the idealism that makes citizenship thrive. Nigerians have developed a high, adversarial relationship with their country. Nigerians are more driven to the outward gaze – where everything outside of Nigeria is more beautiful and more perfect than Nigeria, rather than an inward gaze – which ought to compel them to appreciate their nation even as they critique it.

Nigerians cannot be totally blamed for this. It is the “neo-colonial condition” to be self-hating; to detest everything associated with oneself – one’s country, one’s ancient religion, one’s ancestral values – and to wrestle with the meaning of one’s self. It is Fanonian. It is a kind of disease of the mind. A mental ill-health, the result of a fundamental disfiguration of identity. One of the ways this has happened is by trauma. Most Nigerians cannot love or identify with their armed forces or law enforcement agencies because these institutions brutalize them.

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They were designed and oriented as colonial rather than nationalist agencies. The police system in Nigeria is colonial, and was aimed at a different kind or principle of law enforcement: radical suppression of “the natives” often with severe, mindless brutality. Nigeria never managed to create a civil, national police system based on a different doctrine of protection. The operative mission of the Nigerian police was always to enforce the will of a colonizing power or its successors. So is the Nigerian Armed Forces. It was not oriented to defend the nation. It was originally established as part of the West African Frontier Force, to suppress the risings of the Natives with utter brutality. It did not change its orientation or its history at independence. As a matter of fact, the use of the military to establish neocolonial tyrannies and dependencies is its greatest legacies. They whipped Nigerians.

They marched with their flags on the streets and threatened citizens, and frightened them, and kept their masters in power. When they disagreed, they planned coups, fought genocidal civil wars, and compromised the gains of the Nationalist movement by working mostly as outposts and spies for the powers from whom the Nationalists had forced independence. Most of the early officers of the Nigerian Armed Services were trained in Sandhurst and Mons. They later trained their own subalterns at Kaduna. These men took their oaths during the Imperial parades at their commissions to defend the empire, not the new nations coming out colonialism. Many continued to work secretly for their foreign masters as spies and assassins.

The 1966 coups were a fire fight between the “nationalist” officers seeking to establish a proper nationalist army, and a compromised neo-colonial officers corps, intent on maintaining a neo-colonial mandate. This fact continues to linger in the structure of the state, and the doctrine and mandate of these institutions – the National security institutions – were designed, not to protect the state and its constitution, but the “powers that be” and their foreign interests. That is why Nigerians can’t say, “thank you for your service,” to soldiers or policemen who demand bribes, whip them mercilessly on the streets, and who defend their “ogas” rather than the constitution of the nation. But having said that, there is also the bounds of citizenship.

Nigerians fought fiercely for civil, democratic governance, and transited from military to civil rule because they wanted to be governed in a constitutional government and subject to the rule of law. It is true, somehow these old soldiers and “security” types have continued to appear on the scene and dominate the process since the so-called transition.

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But it is because Nigerians do not do enough thinking and diligence about how to organize politically, and who to elect that could truly embody their will, and how they can defend that public will as ferociously as they fought for independence or for a return to constitutional government. Nigerians want God to make Nigeria perfect.

If it is not perfect yet, then break it up, many say! The choices we make, or fail to make, affects our lives, but we don’t take responsibility. There is poor citizenship education. There is poor citizenship orientation. There is all-round ignorance about the workings of public institutions that should guarantee civil governance. But above all, institutions of state are badly designed and oriented, and we have never moved seriously to redesign and re-orient them to the benefit of the citizenry, in spite of the power already available to us to do so, by the legislative process. Besides, many Nigerians are too tolerant of cant. Look at this example.

The PDP presidential candidate, Mr. Abubakar Atiku last week lamented that he was “harassed” by officers of the Nigerian secret services who searched his plane when he arrived from Dubai. Much as we must defend Mr. Abubakar’s citizenship rights, we must equally demand answers from him as a man aspiring to be president of Nigeria. What did he expect the security services to do? Give him a free pass? That should not happen.

I am sorry, Atiku put himself in that situation. Was there probable cause for the secret service to search his plane? Yes. Should they search his plane and interrogate him? Yes? Frankly, they were doing their job as they should! He should not be afraid to answer a few routine questions and submit to search, to make clear that he has nothing to hide, because truth be told, a presidential candidate who goes to Dubai to meet, away from “prying eyes” raises serious red flags for any National security service whose mandate is actually to secure, protect, and gather useful background on individuals in the national interest.

If he is not hiding anything – and nothing in his campaign strategy should be hidden either to the public or to the intelligence agencies – then he should have nothing to worry about routine searches and routine questions at the airport. Any man who puts himself out for public office is no longer a private citizen. Such a person becomes a ward of the state, and whatever he does must come under the scrutiny of the gumshoes. That is the nature of that beast. The Americans as are doing it even to a sitting president. Just as soon as he was inaugurated, the US Congress even under the control of Mr. Trump’s party, compelled the Justice Department to constitute a Special Prosecutor, to investigate allegations of contacts with Foreign Interests, who may have influenced the US elections, leveled against the elected president.

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As a condition for approving his nomination, they compelled the in-coming Attorney General, under whose office the Public Prosecutor derives its operational mandate, to recuse himself, and to allow the public prosecutor to function and get to the roots of these allegations deriving from Mr. Trumps meeting both at Trump Towers, New York, and in Russia during his campaigns. Of course, the President is not amused, but cannot do anything about it.

This is the simple meaning of the rule of law. Public officials, even those appointed by the President are loyal, not to the president, but to the constitution of the republic. That should be the same in Nigeria. The law operating in Nigeria gives the police authority to search Mr. Atiku. What Nigerians must fight for is to protect the rights of Mr. Atiku and any other Nigerians, so that they are not framed, or their basic rights violated by the police – whether it be the formal or the secret police.

Provisions must be established that require (a) that Mr. Atiku’s lawyer be present before any searches are conducted otherwise whatever evidence obtained would be invalid, and (b) that a warrant to search cannot come from any other person, but from a Chief Magistrate or Judge – certainly not from the president or Attorney General in so far as the Attorney General remains a minion of the president.

The president constitutionally has no right to issue a search warrant or arrest order on Atiku. This is where the brilliant judgment recently by Justice John Tshoho of the Federal High Court in Lagos on the Federal Rad Safety Corp, makes clear sense: the FRSC the honorable judge ruled, has no prosecutorial powers.

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Only the courts can fine a motorist since a fine is a form of judgment. If any articles in its establishment gave FRSC that statutory power, the constitution renders it ultra-vires, because the only body empowered to conduct trial or impose a fine on a motorist for traffic violations is the court. In the same vein, if we have not yet made this clear under the constitution, we must insist that the only power that can order the arrest of a citizen, or conduct a search on a citizen under probable cause must be authority properly obtained from a judge or a magistrate of the courts.

So, the question therefore would not be whether Atiku should be searched on coming back from Dubai or not. He should. He is not above the law. The question should be, was the search procedurally correct? We need to decolonize both our minds and sometimes trust our institutions to work, even as we critique them. Nation building takes effort, trust, and work. It takes buy-in from the citizen.


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