By Sufuyan Ojeifo
The military is a disciplined institution with a command structure that brooks no disrespect for constituted authorities. Hence the tendency by the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai to be finicky in dealing with any directive from the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, who is himself a retired army general.
Since last Monday, when Buhari said he would direct the nation’s security forces to deal ruthlessly with ballot box snatchers, including ensuring that influential politicians who mobilised thugs to the polling units to snatch ballot boxes, did so at the expense of their life, there have been arguments and counter arguments as to the propriety of the presidential directive.
While some administration officials and leaders of the All Progressives Congress (APC) have defended his position, many Nigerians, especially leaders of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have vehemently kicked against it.
Two issues must be quickly interrogated and cleared before I proceed to consolidate on the theme of this piece. First is the fact that Buhari did not attach partisan preference or bias to the directive. His usage of “any politician of influence” was tantamount to anybody, regardless of party affiliation, religion, ethnicity and gender. Buhari did not mind the potential collateral damage weighing more on his side of the political divide. That speaks volumes about his sincerity on the issue.
The second issue is the perceived unlawful nature of the directive to the military to shoot on sight perpetrators of the electoral violence of ballot box snatching. The prevailing argument is that the president has endorsed extra-judicial killings; that he has decided to take solace in jungle justice when, in fact, there are provisions of extant Electoral Act and the 1999 Constitution as amended that specifically define punishments for electoral offenders.
Regardless, rabid administration supporters have continued to justify President Buhari’s unlawful order. But liberal and independent agencies have come out to assure Nigerians and the international community that electoral offenders would be dealt with in accordance with the extant laws. Deliberate effort is being made to redirect the narrative by the opposition that Buhari had prepared the ground for a full-blown civilian dictatorship.
Besides the small community of political elite and party leadership that are always poised to manipulate electoral processes and results for the sake of hijacking power, the vast majority of Nigerians who are non-card-carrying members of the existing political parties, constitute the huge silent majority of Nigerian voters who are unhappy that their votes are always made not to count.
To the silent majority, including yours sincerely, electoral manipulation of any variant is an anathema. It violates the pristine nature of a free, fair, transparent and credible exercise of democratic choice. Fundamentally, it assaults the integrity of the process and the outcome, thus making it difficult for “losers” to accept defeat.
The idea of ballot box snatching is barbaric and reprehensible. It is robbery. It is the same as the shameful act of those who sit in the cozy offices of the electoral body, acting in cahoots with some influential political actors, to doctor election results in favour of their collaborators.
I do not support the perfidy that ballot box snatching is or that the totality of electoral malpractice typifies. I share Buhari’s passionate opposition to it and believe all well-meaning Nigerians also do. But the point of divergence, spawning anxiety in the polity, is the President’s “shoot-on-sight” directive to the military.
It is absolutely wrong to attempt to deal with a criminality using an illegality. The President’s directive to kill those who snatch ballot boxes is not a lawful order. The degree of punishment lies within the jurisdiction of the court while the prosecutorial powers are exercisable by the executive under the headship of the President. The President should keep within the remit of his constitutional powers.
I submit that administration officials should be cautious in carrying out the presidential directive. The Yoruba have a proverb, which goes thus: “Ti a ba ran ni ni ise eru, a fi ti omo me”, meaning “If we send someone on an errand meant for a slave, he or she should deliver the errand as a child.” This brings me to the theme of this piece, which is a call on the Chief of Army Staff, in particular, to exercise restraint in effecting the President’s unlawful order.
Going by the zealousness that Buratai has invested in harvesting the directive and cascading it vertically in the army, particularly with the three-day ultimatum given to officers who are partisan and unable to demonstrate loyalty to resign, it is important to counsel him not to show unnecessary brutality in the course of obeying the unlawful directive of his Commander-in-Chief.
After all, the truth is that the armed forces have no constitutional role to play in elections. The presidential candidate of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, spoke to this fact in his reaction during the expanded meeting of the national executive committee (NEC) of the party in Abuja, on Tuesday. He was very categorical in his submission that the military institution has no role to play in the general election. Even at that, he was only reinforcing the position of the law on the issue.
In 2015, at the height of the partisan frenzy to oust then President Goodluck Jonathan, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila of the APC had instituted an action in a Federal High Court in Lagos to determine the legality and constitutionality of deployment of soldiers in the conduct of the election without the approval of the National Assembly. Justice Ibrahim Buba had ruled that the armed forces have no role in elections.
Read Buba‘s summative verdict: “The time has come for us to establish the culture of democratic rule in the country and to start to do the right thing particularly when it has to do with dealing with the electoral process which is one of the pillars of democracy.
“In spite of the behavior of the political class, we should by all means try to keep armed personnel and military from being a part and parcel of the electoral process. The state is obligated to confine the military to their very demanding assignment, especially in this time of insurgencies by keeping them out of elections. The state is also obligated to ensure that citizens exercise their franchise freely and unmolested.”
Prior to the ruling by Buba, a Court of Appeal in Abuja had, relying on a judgment by a Federal High Court in Sokoto in January 2015, barred the deployment of soldiers in the conduct of elections. To deploy them, according to the appellate court, was tantamount to acting contrary to Section 217(2)(c) of the Constitution and Section 1 of the Armed Forces Act.
While Buratai is obligated to obey his Commander-in-Chief, he must ensure he does so within the ambit of the law and there is a surfeit of extant laws that bind him. Otherwise, he will be carrying out an unlawful order by a constituted authority. I sympathize with Buratai who is understandably beholden to a benefactor that considered extension of his military service by a year or thereabout.
I hope he will not, in furtherance of personal interest, write his name in history books as an army chief who, in the time of national anxiety and collective doubt, upheld the rule of the gun rather than the rule of law and civil engagement. To insulate himself against the temptation of overzealous obedience to a constituted authority, he should remind himself of the majestic place of posterity in human affairs. Sancta simpliciter!
*Ojeifo contributed this piece via email@example.com