By Douglas Anele
Irrespective of superficially persuasive arguments by top government officials and stalwarts of the ruling party justifying the huge debts accumulated in the last four and half years, we are in big trouble with this somnambulist debt-loving administration. Of course, both the debt and interest accrued will be paid with resources from southern Nigeria. It is an ironic twist in the country’s chequered history that after British colonisation the south is now squarely in the iron grip of colonisation by the north,
Another example of self-deception is the belief by die-hard buharimaniacs that Muhammadu Buhari was already a converted democrat before contesting the 2015 presidential election. The handwriting was clearly visible on the wall that Buhari, given his age, military pedigree, and purist Islamic weltanschauung cannot be a democrat deep down. Nonetheless, probably due to a combination of naiveté, myopia and selfish interests Prof. Wole Soyinka and many others failed to see what is before their very eyes, that Buhari will always be Buhari in or out of military uniform. The warning that Buhari had not changed from his authoritarian disposition fell on deaf ears. APC’s propaganda machine sold the dummy that Buhari is the messiah that would, if elected President, act solely within the fundamental principles of democratic practice. Unfortunately, events have since proved Buhari-is-a-converted-democrat believers wrong. The judiciary has been systematically degraded by his government, starting with the unwarranted invasion of the homes of judges and Supreme Court justices by officials of the Department of State Services (DSS), flagrant disobedience of lawful court orders, and culminating in the humiliating treatment meted out to former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onoghen which led to his ignominious resignation from office. Additionally, given the crooked manner the APC ensured that yes men who will do the President’s bidding were put into leadership positions in the National Assembly, it will be virtually impossible for the federal legislature to check excesses of the executive branch effectively, which is absolutely necessary to avoid abuse of power and promote efficient democratic governance. Moreover, President Buhari is now in his second and final term of office. As a result, he is not beholden to anybody or group since he cannot contest for the post anymore. Therefore, he will be emboldened to implement any policy he likes, and the Ahmed Lawan-led rubber stamp National Assembly will give him legislative backing.
It is not surprising that President Buhari is steadily manifesting his old dictatorial disposition. Some months ago after his re-election, he justified government’s disobedience of court orders by proclaiming that the rule of law is subordinate to national security. That statement drips with authoritarianism; it leaves open the pertinent question: who determines national security and when should it be used as an excuse to jettison or suppress the rule of law? Those who support the President’s fascist declaration are poor students of history. They forgot that dictators always use national security as a pretext to deal with their enemies, real or imagined, and emasculate responsible opposition to their megalomania. Now, since Buhari believes that the rule of law is subordinate to national security as defined by him and his loyal lieutenants, it means that security operatives can act with impunity by detaining any Nigerian deemed a security risk to him and to the powerful vested interests in government without following due process as prescribed by law. In short, we are back to the blizzard of 1984 without realising it.
As if that is not enough, two bills that threaten freedom of speech are currently being debated in the Senate. The first one, “Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill,” was proposed by Sabi Abdullahi (APC, Deputy Chief Whip). The second entitled “Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill,” is the brainchild of Mohammed Sani Musa (APC, Niger state).
There are allegations that the bills were cloned or plagiarised mostly from similar pieces of legislation in Singapore, indicating intellectual hollowness and lack of originality from the senators that sponsored them. That said, any well-informed adult Nigerian when Maj-Gen. Buhari and Brig. Tunde Idiagbon were in power will notice easily the uncanny similarity between the two bills, on one hand, and Decrees 2 and 4 of 1984, on the other. Decree 2 captioned “Nigerian State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree” gave the Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters powers to detain up to six months without trial anyone he considers a security risk, whereas Decree 4, the “Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree” forbade journalists from reporting any information considered embarrassing to government officials.
As was the case with Decrees 2 and 4, the Hate Speech and Social Media bills are intended to criminalise those who contravene their provisions with punitive measures such as hefty fines and imprisonment of up to three years just for exercising their right to freedom of speech or express views that top government officials do not like for one reason or another. In fact, the Hate Speech bill initially stipulated life imprisonment or and death penalty for offenders depending on the gravity of each case, although after well justified outcry from the public it appears that the section prescribing capital punishment has been expunged. Now, several commentators have argued, correctly in my view, that the Hate Speech and Social Media bills are totally unacceptable in a democratic setting because freedom of expression is a fundamental pillar of democracy.
Besides, the bills are unnecessary: some of the offenses they identified have been adequately covered by provisions in existing laws. For instance, the Cyber Crimes Act and Anti-Terrorism Act address many of the issues the new legislations seek to remedy. Needless to say, it is an index of the extremely low quality of politicians in the country these days that so-called representatives of the people are not ashamed to propose laws that actually mimic draconian decrees issued by the same person, a former military dictator who is currently the civilian President when there are critical issues of escalating poverty, unemployment, killings, climate change and so on that require urgent legislative action. If there is any doubt that from 2015 the APC has rolled back the little distance Nigeria had travelled since 1999 along the road to mature democracy, the two anti-democratic bills sponsored by its senators have erased such doubts.
To hope or believe that President Buhari can midwife positive change in Nigeria’s experiment with democracy is self-delusion. I have just noted the reincarnation of obnoxious decrees 2 and 4 in the two freedom-negating bills before the Senate. About four months ago, precisely in August 20, 2019, the federal government closed the land borders (although there are credible footages in the media showing that smuggling is still going on in the borders of northern Nigeria) and they will remain closed till January 31, 2020. This is reminiscent of the unilateral border closure of 1984 when Buhari was military head of state.
It is remarkable that the President is applying the same hackneyed strategy he used thirty-five years ago ostensibly to curb smuggling, minimise illegal migration and halt the flow of arms from neighbouring countries into Nigeria. Now, in a recent lecture at the University of Lagos entitled “Unilateral Border Closures: Thirty-Five Years of Retrospection on Nigeria and Africa,” Anthony Asiwaju, emeritus Professor of history, wondered whether the recent border closure is not contradictory to professed engagements with democracy and respect for people’s and human rights, including the livelihoods of those in the border communities. Prof. Asiwaju suggested that specialised proactive border-management institutions would have been a better option for handling the complex border issues with countries sharing land borders with Nigeria.
As usual, Buhari apologists inside and outside government who support the closure seldom take time to consider critically and comprehensively the possible impact of government policies before implementing them. These people seem to be thinking with one half of their brains when they claim that the closure has reduced smuggling, increased revenue to Customs, and boosted patronage of locally produced commodities (especially rice) without considering its serious injurious effects on people doing legitimate businesses in the border communities, steep rise in prices of basic food items, and unilateral abrogation of protocols for free movement of people and goods endorsed by countries under the umbrella of ECOWAS. In other words, the closure is a mixed blessing; a case of extreme nationalism that would probably do more harm than good as was the case in 1984. More than ever before, Nigerians are suffering from the radioactive effects of a leadership that acts before thinking critically, lacking in historical vision and wisdom. Suffice it to say that with the second coming of President Muhammadu Buhari, the normalisation of suffering and self-deception has turned full circle. Concluded.