The present times in Nigeria have lately been compared to the days of the dark-goggled general, Sani Abacha. Part of what the folk making the comparison are wondering is how we crawled ourselves back into the hole we thought we escaped. So, here is a quick backward glance on the road that brought us here.
In the run-up to the 2015 elections, when the “anything but (Goodluck) Jonathan” din was at its zenith, one of the absurdities that characterised the period was the rash of amnesties given Candidate Muhammadu Buhari over his repressive actions as military head of state between 1983 and 1985. Trumpeting Buhari as a “converted democrat,” a deluge of essays informed us that if those who personally and grievously suffered his maladministration could forgive him in the interest of the nation, other Nigerians too should forgive him and move on. Nigeria, these essayists insinuated, was at the crossroads and sorely needed a leadership change.
The injunctions to forgive and forget came from surprising quarters that included intellectuals and elders who should have known better. One of the most astonishing for me was by Tunde Thompson. Thompson and his colleague, Nduka Irabor, were the first victims of Buhari’s infamous “Decree 4,” an anti-press draconian diktat that protected public officers from the shame of their bureaucratic shortcomings. In 2015, Thompson endorsed Buhari. That, of course, was his prerogative. What I found repulsive was the unprincipled rhetorical gymnastics he had to perform to extricate Buhari from any moral responsibility for the abuse of power he suffered. I do not believe that Thompson was as naïve about the workings of the machinery of governance as he portrayed himself. He – like other “forgivers” of Buhari’s sins – was probably enthusiastic about the promise of change that they re-victimised themselves to set their abuser free.
There were two important nuggets Thompson and co forgot. One, while they might have been the faces of the excesses of the regime, the wounds sustained from the abuses of that autocracy were not unique to them such that they could unilaterally declare forgiveness and exonerate Buhari from culpability. The trauma of that period cut into the flesh of the entire society and the cicatrix it left on the surface of Nigeria’s body still itches to this day. Nigerians went through abuses that grated our collective psyche, wrecked our senses of personhood and nationhood, and destructively inveighed on our corporate ethics such that some of us can no longer discern right from wrong anymore.
Two, Buhari himself did not deny responsibility for his despotic decrees but instead doubled down on the necessity of inflicting cruel punishment on the nation. Those who are familiar with this column will recall that I have said this a few times: my respect for Buhari dissolved to the last atom when I read an interview he granted during his 70th birthday celebrations. They asked him about his infamous Decree 2 and he, despite the benefit age and hindsight should had granted him to reflect, still maintained his sanctimonious stance that he did what was right. I concluded at the time that this man did not think about things.
It is precisely this lack of rationality – the arrogant unwillingness to engage critical thoughts on history – and how it might shape both his legacy and the future of the nation that makes him dangerous. Add to that the expectations of the Nigerians who voted him to bring an iron hand of discipline to the nation whose dysfunctionality was diagnosed as bordering on the looseness of individual and institutional morals. What you get is a man who makes savage and atrocious attacks on civil liberties. In 2015, to have urged ourselves to show some restraint in the enthusiasm about Buhari’s potential, and insist the man reflect on his brutal past was almost an act of indulgence. Now we can look back and see that those who slapped him with the label of a “born-again democrat,” and forgave him without him soliciting it, created the monster that now haunts us. We are stuck with a government that weaponises power solely for self-aggrandisement and jingoism.
When he became President in 2015, the first omen of what we would contend with was the move to bar AITfrom covering presidential activities as payback for its opposition to his candidature. Although that measure failed because of the blowback, the tendency to “squeeze” people who express their democratic agencies by standing against his administration has been the defining ethos of Aso Rock. They have come up with different ruses of curtailing democratic freedoms either by using legislation such as the one that pretends to tackle “hate speech” or the one that uses the court to declare antagonisms as “terrorism.” These are military tactics being repurposed for an ostensibly civilian era.
The administration has managed to clip the autonomy of other arms of government that could check its excesses. The legislature is full of their minions, and since the raid of the homes of serving Justices of the Supreme Court on suspicion of corruption, the message on how power will play out in his version of “democracy” is clear. There have been many cases of abuses of power from overzealous government officials who take their cues from the Presidency’s body language. This is why we have an abusive military that not only kills hapless civilians (think of the Shi’ites, the IPOB marchers, and even lately, policemen) but will not even condone criticisms of censoring organisations. Someone like Thompson will swear that none of these excesses – also think of that ludicrous instance of that time in 2016 when DSS raided forex dealers to force them to sell at stipulated rates – has anything to do with the man at the helm of leadership. His kind of willed naiveté is why democracy has lost more grounds since 2015.
Today, some of those who criticise the government have been picked up and detained at unknown locations. We live in a democracy where the Presidency has no qualms asking law enforcement agents to be “ruthless” with those they say are election riggers. On Saturday, the President himself gave a mandate to the military to “identify and eliminate” the bandits troubling the country. We live in times when security agents – with their inimical record of cruelty against civilians – are publicly given the charge to be judge and execute crimes without recourse to democratic procedures.
The case of SaharaReporterspublisher, Omoyele Sowore, is another example of what we are losing. Sowore is a DSS detainee, and they are scrambling to something with which to charge him. What they came up with from their so-called “painstaking investigation” would have been laughable if the man’s life and well-being were not at stake. The demands Sowore made with #RevolutionNow were not outside the legitimate claims one can make from a democratic government, but he is being punished for dissent as if it is 1984 all over again.
Recently, Wole Soyinka complained that we are back in the dark, repressive days of Abacha. Well, the truth is, we walked into all of these with our eyes wide open when we handed over the reins of a fragile polity to a man who never atoned for his original sins. When he got to power, the first thing he did was to cast off the pretences and show his true self. Now that developments such as attacks on democratic freedoms and Buhari’s anti-Midas touch on the economy are pushing us to re-engage the questions evaded earlier, we need to return to where the rain started beating us. We cannot afford to spend the next four years fighting a government that wants to take tyrannical liberties with civil liberties while other elemental issues of development get elided.