Much ado about Buhari’s title
Truth be told, nobody has demoted President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired but not tired Army General now president. He ruled as an unelected military dictator from 1984 to 1985. After nearly 30 years in political wilderness and three attempts to regain national reckoning, his fellow compatriots elected him as the candidate for their newly cobbled political party, the All Progressives Congress, APC.
And Nigerian voters, convinced that the once ramrod fit and stern-looking general, having completed the purification ritual and the process of metamorphosis, was now a fit and proper person to lead the new democratic army, decided to cast their votes for him.
And so it came to pass that in 2015, General Buhari was elected by majority vote to usher in change in all its ramifications. A born-again democrat who seemed to have been appropriately schooled in the art of power game, he gave the impression that he had indeed learned one significant lesson: that in the business of democratic politics, images and appearances mattered a lot, that they constitute the intangibles of power – the power of symbolism.
Buhari quickly embraced it and added it to his innate power of integrity coupled with his stern, ascetic upbringing. To prove he knew the efficacy of the power of symbolism, he decided, on assumption of office, to be called and referred to only as President Buhari, sans General as prefix, but with all former documents remaining valid. He had jettisoned the Major-General title which his gallantry in the Army bestowed on him.
I guess that in his new position, he did not want anyone to have any doubt about his bona fide – a newly minted democrat that did not want to nurse the luxury of nostalgia. He didn’t want to be reminded of the years when the need to salvage the country and recreate it in his own image required iron hand; a draconian Decree 4 that punished publications that were capable of embarrassing public officials irrespective of their veracity, or the almighty Decree 2 that permitted the detention of citizens without trial for as long as it pleased the authority. Indeed, the newly reformed democrat had, for all practical purposes, assumed the ultimate position of pride, honour and constitutional authority that did not resonate with the inglorious past.
But President Buhari was not the first to do so. General Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded General Murtala Muhammad in February 1976 as military head of state. Like any other military dictator, he ruled with military fiat. Though he had no cozy relationship with the media, he did not roll out any decree specifically to curb press excesses. But don’t forget that he and his erstwhile boss, General Muhammad were brutally minded enough to appropriate two powerful newspapers, the Daily Times and the New Nigerian, with the clear mandate to transform them – if they can’t be strangulated – into the propaganda arm of the Ministry of Information to project the unacceptable image of military dictatorship.
When he handed over power to the democratically elected government of President Shehu Shagari on October 1, 1979, he retired to his farm as chicken farmer. On the return of military dictatorship in 1983/84 via a coup d’etat, General Obasanjo took on the role of the conscience of the nation. He engaged in serious intellectual pursuit, the major thrust of it directed at curbing the excesses of the new military rulers.
While President Ibrahim Babangida’s regime had an uncanny ability to tolerate the Ota farmer’s vitriol, not so the General Sanni Abachi regime that supplanted the Interim National Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan. To cut a long story short, Abacha jailed General Obasanjo and sent into exile an army of pro-democracy groups that were pressing for the return of democracy in the country. When Abacha suddenly died in 1988, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who succeeded him, said he did not want to tempt fate and speedily completed the transitional programme that ushered in the current democratic experiment.
General Olusegun Obasanjo came again on the scene in 1999 as some kind of reincarnation, a process that can be likened to the Abiku phenomenon. Obasanjo, like Buhari, did not want to look back. He did not want to be reminded of the days of military dictatorship when all human rights were put in abeyance.
To prove his new bona fide as a true democrat, he suspended his military rank which he proudly and gallantly earned. In preparation for the inauguration as president, Obasanjo hosted media top bras to a dinner in a high-end restaurant in Lagos with yours sincerely in attendance. He spoke eloquently about his mandate and asked for cooperation and advice. Everybody had something to say in form of admonition. Yahaya Abubakar (of blessed memory) was a senior executive of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, FRCN. He stunned all of us by telling Obasanjo to go shave off his heavy moustache to look more presidential. But the general took all in his strides. As a mark of his rebirth, he made it known to all that he would now be called not General Obasanjo, the president but Chief Obasanjo, the president. Again, recognition of the power of symbolism.
Punch newspapers said last week that it could no longer tolerate the various human rights violations and other undemocratic practices by this government that came into being proclaiming its democratic credentials. In protest, it decided to withdraw the symbolism of referring to the current administration as a democratic government. What Punch has done, in my view, is merely symbolic. But symbolism is a powerful tool in politics where perception matters a great deal. If it did not matter, I am not sure President Buhari would have willingly decided not to be called General Buhari in 2015. If it did not matter, I am also not sure that Obasanjo would have done the same thing in 1999 before his inauguration as democratically elected president.
There is much ado about titles but don’t forget that the robe does not make a monk. What Punch has done has not demoted President Buhari. What would diminish the Presidency is not what name the helmsman is called; it is the actions of the government and all the agencies of government. It is the respect or lack of it that government shows to human rights and all other freedoms enshrined in the constitution.
The most visible sign that any government is on the right path or is derailing from it is the primacy of the rule of law. A government that is democratic will respect and enthrone democratic practices, not condone illegalities and the abuse of the rule of law. Court rulings, for instance, maybe an irritation because they don’t serve certain determined purpose, but they are the rulings and they can be appealed. That is the only democratic way to go. In a democracy, it is worth noting, elections are not conducted by guns and bullets to ensure a predetermined outcome. That would no longer be democracy; It is called autocracy.
In a democracy, newspapers are free to publish in accordance with the law of the land. Infractions are punished only according to the law. Individuals are entitled to express their views and opinions, even if these views are not palatable. Those who fall foul of the law should be allowed to have their day in court. And when they are set free on bail or discharged and acquitted, they should be allowed to enjoy their freedom.
If you ask my view, I would say that to keep Sambo Dasuki in bondage for four years going to five and to forbid El-Zakzaki and wife from walking the street freely is tantamount to an abuse of human rights and it is against the tenets of democracy. And to add Omoyele Sowore, a weightless and an unarmed political irritant, to those in captivity is to show lack of seriousness because a hunter carrying the carcass of an elephant on his head can have no time for a squirrel or a cricket. President Buhari, this proverbial hunter, can change this image for the better.
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