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Buhari: Between a reformed democrat and general president

By Olawunmi Ojo
05 September 2019   |   3:14 am
When the convener of #RevolutionNow protests, Omoyele Sowore, was arrested by agents of the Department of State Services (DSS), it was for his mobilising a critical mass of Nigerians across various platforms in readiness for protests against what he termed bad governance.

President Muhammadu Buhari

When the convener of #RevolutionNow protests, Omoyele Sowore, was arrested by agents of the Department of State Services (DSS), it was for his mobilising a critical mass of Nigerians across various platforms in readiness for protests against what he termed bad governance. The protests were scheduled for kick-start on August 5, 2019, across the country.

A spokesperson for the DSS, Peter Afunanya, told the nation the day after his arrest that Sowore was taken into custody because he called for a revolution in the country. And while he could not confirm any credible intelligence about Sowore’s ‘plans’ to execute a takeover, he stressed that the agency knew that Sowore had been in touch with foreign actors to destabilise Nigeria.

The Nigeria Police Force also accused Sowore, in company with the Global Coalition for Security and Democracy in Nigeria, of trying to force a regime change. The police said inciting Nigerians, home and abroad, to join the planned ‘revolution’ march against the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria amounted to treasonable felony and acts of terrorism.

Of course, the state ensured that the protests did not see the light of day. And where a few ‘dissidents’ gathered and attempted to go against the ‘order from above,’ they were muzzled in a show of force.

The constitution of Nigeria provides that anybody who is arrested by the police shall be taken to court within 24 or 48 hours. The law also provides that before you search or arrest a Nigerian, you must obtain a court order from a Federal High court. If any security agent must seize a citizen’s phone, the law provides that such agent must get a court order because the right to liberty, to the privacy of home and correspondence, are constitutionally entrenched.

It is now over a month since Sowore, the pro-democracy activist and former presidential candidate was arrested. In spite of widespread calls for his release, the state has stuck to its guns.

To validate its stance, the DSS later approached a Federal High Court in Abuja, seeking permission to detain Sowore. In a filed ex-parte application, the agency sought to keep the activist for 90 days to investigate him over his call for revolution through the #RevolutionNow protests. And Justice Taiwo Taiwo approved 45-day detention, saying that the detention order was renewable after the expiration of the first 45 days later this month. The implication is that Sowore is to remain incarcerated for a 3-month period. And, it sure could be more.

Since the arrest, however, a chain of events had also occurred where the Muhammadu Buhari-led government, through its security agencies, attempted to or outrightly muzzled Nigerians, denying them their right, as enshrined in the constitution, to peacefully gather and express their opinion, be it for or against the state. And predictably, President Buhari came under criticisms for the foibles of the security forces.

The recent anti-protest moves come on the heels of Buhari administration’s extension of the ambit of the Terrorism Prevention (Amendment) Act to cover individuals and organisations that are critical of official policies or perceived marginalisation within the country.

It is the situation that led to the prescription of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) as a terrorist body in 2017 for agitating for the excision of the Republic of Biafra from Nigeria. It was also the premise for the proscription of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) for organising rallies to compel the FG to comply with a court order to release their leader, Sheikh Ibraheem Elzakzaky and his wife from custody. 

While some commentators say the actions of the government reminded Nigerians of the military days, others opine that similitudes actually predate Nigeria’s independence. There were re-assertions of government’s intolerance to criticisms; many described the development as a gradual descent to authoritarianism, just as the naysayers to Buhari’s reformed democrat gospel had a field day.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria and human rights activist, Femi Falana, in condemning the continued harassment of protesters by security operatives, said the last time Nigeria experienced such level of harassment was in 1948.

Falana said, “The President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration is taking us back to the pre-independence era. The last time we had this kind of harassment of Nigerians over the use of the word revolution was in 1948 when members of the Zikist movement demanded a revolution to end ethnic politics.

“At that time, myself and fellow protesters were not charged for treason but for sedition. But the provisions in the Criminal Code on sedition have now been declared illegal and unconstitutional since July 1993 by the Court of Appeal, because the Constitution guarantees the freedom of Nigerians to expression and free speech.”

Falana recalled that in 2011, Buhari, who is seemingly afraid of a revolution-focused protest now, publicly recommended Egyptian-style revolution for Nigeria.

According to Falana, “The president is now being challenged with his own involvement in protests in the past. Nigerians are now saying there must be consistency on the part of those now in government, some of whom were in NADECO and took part in protests with us.”

The renowned lawyer noted that the last rally organised by leaders of All Progressives Congress (APC) in Abuja in 2014 was against insecurity in the country. He wondered why a government being run by APC would now be intolerant of Nigerians protesting against insecurity and poor governance.

“You cannot a clampdown on them and it is important for you to recognise our rights as yours was recognised. There can be no justification for what the government is doing now. I also think that the government has not been exposed to sound legal advice before embarking on clampdown on protesters.”

After the Sowore arrest, security operatives also tried to stop a pro-democracy gathering in Lagos, organised by a group under the aegis of Coalition for Revolution, where Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka was billed to speak. In his reaction, Soyinka warned against the use of force to clampdown on citizens, especially when they are exercising their fundamental human rights.

He said, “One of the beauties of existence is the ability to express oneself. It’s a fundamental human right which we cannot compromise and it is important to send this strong message to this government and to the security services to stop trying to muzzle people when they come together to exchange ideas.”

He stressed that government institutions must respect the right of Nigerians who wish to deploy demonstrative means to question its policies and programmes, decrying the recent attempt by security operatives to stop a pro-democracy gathering in Lagos as a display of intolerance by the Buhari government.

“Those who are afraid to listen, usually, are guilty people; that is why they do not want to listen. The reduction of the freedom of any one of us, however small, however minor; the reduction of the rights to expression of any one of us is an infringement and assault on the rights of all of us, whether we are part of that particular exercise or not,” the Nobel Laureate insisted.

While the clampdown on protesters does seem to be a fresh stroke, it must be said that it is only a manifestation of some poor traits President Buhari has been showing since mounting the saddle, which a democrat should, ideally, never be caught exhibiting. Blatant disregard for people’s rights and outright disobedience or selective obedience of the rule of law are sore thumbs that have blighted his administration from inception.

In the run-up to his election in 2015 and faced with questions as to his suitability as a leader in a democratic dispensation given his antecedents as a draconian military dictator, Buhari had told the world that he was a born-again democrat. He swayed Nigerians with his ‘reformed character, who respects civil liberties and rights’ gospel.’ But under his watch, that perhaps could best be taken as a mere aphorism, as not many occurrences have been in tandem with that talk.

The Executive Secretary, Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Ezike Ibuchukwu, said that all over the world, citizens could protest the activities of government that they believe are not in tandem with respect for their human rights or which offend their personal beliefs. But he expressed dismay that on several occasions when Nigerians have protested the activities of this government, they were arrested, adding, “When the court directed that some of those persons be released, this government refused to honour the court’s pronouncements and have remained recalcitrant.”

Only recently, Falana disclosed that he has compiled a list containing 32 court orders that have been disobeyed by the Nigerian government, noting that it was not the responsibility of a president or even an attorney-general to handpick which court order to obey. While stating that such conduct was not in line with the rule of law, which the democratically elected government swore to uphold, he sounded a warning that such disposition was capable of reducing the country to a banana republic.

He went a step further to challenge his ilk at the bar to rise up to its duty of upholding the law, further warning, “Unless proactive steps are taken, nobody will respect the rights of Nigerians, because there is no penalty for impunity in our country.”

Retaining Mr Abubakar Malami as Attorney-General, many argue, does not bode well both for the rule of law and respect for human rights under Buhari. In the first four years of the Buhari administration, Malami and his boss showed a clear disregard for the rule of law and lack of respect for the rights of Nigerian to freely associate. Malami’s open confession on the floor of the Senate while being screened, where he prioritised what he deemed public interest over human rights, has continued to cause disquiet among legal minds and rights campaigners.

According to Malami, “I concede that I have a responsibility as AGF to protect individual rights but looking at the provisions of Section 174 of the constitution, I want to state further that the Office of the AGF is meant to protect public interest and where the individual interests conflicts with the public interest of 180 million Nigerians that are interested in having this country integrated must naturally prevail and I think that position has been stated by the apex court in the case of Asari Dokubo Vs Federal Republic of Nigeria that when an individual interest conflicts with public interest, the public interest will naturally prevail.”

Thus with Malami on the saddle yet again as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, Nigerians can only expect the worst as a nebulous public interest claim will always be cited to muzzle their rights. If this continues, then Buhari’s protestation about being a democrat could only be read as a ploy he deployed to hoodwink the real democrats to ascend to power.