As Muhammadu Buhari ran for the fourth—and decisive—time for the Nigerian Presidency, his handlers cast him as a man purged of the dictatorial tendencies and inflexible disposition that marked his time as Nigeria’s military ruler. Behold, the candidate’s adroit handlers hailed, a reformed emperor, a convert to democratic ways.
Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has stated that his guarded endorsement of Mr. Buhari owed both to his conviction that Nigeria could not survive four more Jonathanian years and assurances that the former general had abandoned his martial mindset.
Not that every Nigerian was adamant that the then candidate first demonstrate his metamorphosis to earn their electoral love. In fact, one had a sneaking suspicion that many an admirer of the man wished he would bring a soldier’s stern mettle to the Presidency. It is no secret that many Nigerians, exasperated by the tragic turn of events in their country, nurse that famous fantasy about a Jerry Rawlings showing up among us to deal in a capital manner with some of our more egregious looters and wreckers.
Even so, it is a safe bet that Mr. Buhari would have had a harder path to victory in last year’s presidential election had his handlers not refashioned him into a champion of democracy.
Last Wednesday, at his inaugural media chat, President Buhari had an opportunity to avow and demonstrate his credentials as a burgeoning democrat. He not only wasted that opportunity, he also handed ammunition to critics who view him, essentially, as an emperor behind a politician’s mask.
Former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, and leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu, are still languishing in detention, even though separate competent courts had granted them bail. Asked about this anomaly, President Buhari basically defended his government’s clear disobedience of court orders by appealing to the weight of the government’s allegations against both men.
It’s illuminating to quote one newspaper’s account of the president’s response at length. ‘“Technically, if you see the kinds of atrocities these people are believed to have committed against the country, if they are given the opportunity, they will jump bail. See, the former president [Jonathan] wrote to the governor of Central Bank and said ‘give N40 billion to so, so and so, and then he gives account.”
“The President also slammed the plan by the former NSA to seek medical attention in London, saying it would be irresponsible of the federal government to allow such trip.
‘“What of the over two million people displaced, most of them orphans, whose fathers have been killed? What type of government do you want to run? We cannot allow that,”’ Buhari said.
“Regarding Kanu, Buhari said because the IPOB leader holds dual citizenship of Nigeria and Britain, it would be easier for him to abscond, especially since he did not come into the country with [either] of his international passports.
‘“And the one you are calling Kanu, do you know he had two passports—one Nigerian, one British—and he came into the country without any? Do you know he brought equipment into this country and was broadcasting Radio Biafra? Which kind of government do you think should harbor that kind of person? There is a treasonable felony suit against him and I hope the court will listen to the case.”
To be fair, President Buhari has a solid point of view, one eminently worthy of ventilation, but his government has chosen to make that point, a, at a wrong venue, and, b, in a manner so irresponsible and dangerous that all informed Nigerians ought to voice their outrage.
Nigerian military regimes were fond of enacting decrees that included a provision emasculating judges, stipulating that the judiciary could NOT review, scrutinize or invalidate even the most atrocious aspects of any decree. Such sidelining of the judiciary could be explained away as part of the baggage of military rule.
In a democracy, even one as unsteady as Nigeria’s, there’s no justification for a president’s open disdain for a court order. It is not enough to assert that Mr. Dasuki and Mr. Kanu face respective charge sheets that are grave in their particulars. There must have been hearings before the respective presiding judges granted bail. Surely, the prosecuting lawyers had as much of a shot to press the case for continued detention of the accused as the defense lawyers had to argue for bail. If the prosecutors arrived in court and slumbered off, or somehow made light of the accused men’s respective charges, then Mr. Buhari’s beef is with the incompetent prosecutors, not the accused duo.
At any rate, if the president and his advisers felt that the judges who granted bail had ruled incorrectly, they ought to know of a process called filing an appeal. You approach a superior court and ask it to set aside the lower court’s ruling.
The one thing the president—or the executive arm of government—shouldn’t do is to hijack the function of the court. Nor should the president and his cohorts be at liberty to decide which verdicts he would obey, and which disregard. Such arbitrariness in deferring to the judiciary is the worst example of self-help, a monster that should not rear its head even in a fledging democratic setting. If the federal government ignores the judiciary, then who is to stop state governments from doing the same, or rich, politically powerful individuals?
Why does Mr. Buhari “hope the court will listen to the case” against Mr. Kanu when the president apparently would not countenance anything other than a guilty verdict. Should the courts fail to reach such a verdict, then what? Would the president declare the man’s alleged crimes extremely serious, and ask the Department of State Services (DSS) to go on holding the accused?
Some have argued that President Buhari merely misspoke, that he was guilty of a gaffe in communication. If that’s true, and with the brouhaha generated by his unfortunate comments, why hasn’t his government ordered the DSS to obey court orders?
There’s one small point on which I’m in sympathy with the president. I’ve voiced frustration about the predictable application by a certain class of arraigned public official for permission to travel abroad for medical treatment. No British, American or Saudi court would allow an accused to travel to Nigeria to seek treatment, in a hospital or with a dibia. Why do we allow our own suspects to jet off to London, Houston or Dubai, ostensibly for medical treatment?
Yet, the answer does not lie in Mr. Buhari openly denigrating the judiciary. Instead, he ought to offer a proposal for a major reform of the judiciary. It is the failure to act at this level—to articulate broad policies that embody a vision of a different, transformed Nigeria—that defines my disquiet with the Buhari dispensation. Sheer swagger, e.g. in keeping detained men that the courts have granted bail, is no substitute for true, gritty and visionary leadership.