By Olu Fasan

PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari, a former dictator, told the world ahead of the 2015 general elections that he was a “converted democrat”. The claim was dubious. But if, indeed, he”converted” to democracy, his conversion was superficial because, once in power, he backslid: his actions and utterances violate democratic norms. 

Take President Buhari’s nomination of Lauretta Onochie as an independent electoral commissioner.  She is one of his ultra-loyal aides and one of his party’s most partisan apparatchiks. No true democrat would undermine the integrity of his country’s electoral system so barefacedly!

The London Times once wrote that dictators who become “democrats” tend to “eat out democracy from within”, adding that “they operate according to their own rules”. Truth is, President Buhari defines democracy on his own terms. In his June 12 ‘Democracy Day’ speech, Buhari said: “My commitment to bequeathing a sustainable democratic culture remains resolute.” Beyond the rhetoric, what does he mean by “democratic culture”? 

Take the electoral law. In 2018, President Buhari vetoed the electoral amendment bill that international observers and senior lawyers said would have made the 2019 general elections more credible. Well-informed people say that Nigeria’s electoral system is dysfunctional, that the 2010 Electoral Act is deeply flawed. Yet, a new electoral law may not be enacted before the next general elections,which are barely one and a half years away!

Recently, Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State begged the United Nations to help ensure that the pending electoral bill in the National Assembly was passed and that the president assented to it. But neither is guaranteed. President Buhari rarely talks about Nigeria’s electoral system.

He sees “democratic culture” only in terms of voting, regardless of the underlying conditions. But true democracy is not just about voting; it starts with having a robustly credible electoral system, and a proper electoral law.

That’s not all. President Buhari also sees ”democratic culture” through the prism of partisan politics. Last week, in a misguided statement in which he branded advocates of restructuring”ignorant”, Buhari said: “The majority of those calling for restructuring are people that are so afraid to go into partisan politics.” Well, if he were a true democrat, he would know that democracy is an ecosystem in which partisan and non-partisan individualsinteract to ensure good governance. Democracy is not a space just for partisan or elected politicians.

Are judges elected? Are the media, known as the Fourth Estate, elected? Are traditional rulers elected? Are religious leaders elected? Are members of the professional bodies elected? Are civil society organisations elected? Yet, they all are part of the democratic ecosystem.

In the US and the UK, courts have struck down laws and government policies because key stakeholders were not consulted. Yet, President Buhari believes that only those in partisan politics can advocate change, such as restructuring. He is wrong. In a democracy, non-state actors are as important as state actors; there can be no state without society! 

Well,”democratic culture” means yet another thing to President Buhari. For him, partisan politics isn’t just a condition for governance, it’s also a condition for governing. Thus, he surrounds himself with officials and aides who are politically partisan. All the president’s aides are paid with public funds to give him professional and technical advice. But they are not only deeply loyal to him – they call themselves “Buharists” – they are also politically partisan. But they are not paid by the state to engage in partisan political activities.

For instance, when Femi Adesina, Buhari’s senior media adviser, recently wrote a piece titled: “Why I never liked the PDP” or when he lambasted and abused former President Olusegun Obasanjo in another article, is that what he’s paid with public funds to do? Or is Garba Shehu, another media aide of the president, paid with public funds to insult state governors and leaders of Nigeria’s ethnic groups? In a civilised democracy, they won’t be allowed to play partisan politics while paid with public funds.

In the US, the Hatch Act of 1939, as amended, prohibits employees in the executive branch of the Federal Government, except the President and the Vice President, from engaging in partisan politics. The Act is enforced by the Office of Special Counsel, OSC. During the presidency of Donald Trump, who, like Buhari, obeyed his own rules, the OSC called for the sacking of some of his aides for violating the Hatch Act. A few of them left voluntarily!

Surely, if Nigeria had the equivalent of the Hatch Act – and it should –many of Buhari’s aides, notably Adesina, Shehu and Onochie, would have been sacked long ago. But Buhari demands and enjoys deep loyalty, partisanship and sycophancyfrom his aides, and he rewards them for their obsequiousness.

Which brings us back to Onochie’s nomination as INEC commissioner. Let’s be clear: INEC means Independent National Electoral Commission. The emphasis is on the word “independent”. In their book, Political Systems of the World, Denis and Ian Derbyshire count “impartial electoral body” as one of the basic criteria for credible elections. So, how does making Onochie, a deeply partisan party apparatchik, an INEC commissioner tick that box? 

Leaving aside the insights from world-class scholars, what about the Nigerian Constitution? Section 14(2a) of the Third Schedule says: “A member of the Commission shall be non-partisan and a person of unquestionable integrity.” How on earth would President Buhari describe Onochie as “non-partisan” when she wears her partisanship on her sleeve?

Sadly, President Buhari doesn’t care. Like all dictators-turned”democrats”, he operates according to his own rules. But the question is: Would the Senate do his bidding? 

The Peoples Democratic Party, the main opposition, rejects Onochie’s nomination; the Nigerian Bar Association opposes her nomination; civil society organisations are against it. If the Senate ignores the widespread opposition and approves Onochie’s nomination on a partisan basis, with only APC Senators’ votes, it would have colluded with Buhari to undermine Nigeria’s electoral system. The world is watching! 

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