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Reading the government’s body Language

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President Buhari. Photo/Twitter/AsoRock

The season for the commemoration of all things democratic is firmly upon Nigeria. The Executive branch at federal and state levels began new terms of office on the 29th of May and this week will mark the first time the celebrations of June the 12th will be observed at federal level. Our politicians do not do symbolism well, so it was not a surprise that many people considered it a Greek gift when the Buhari administration accorded the late MKO Abiola the long-overdue recognition.

Nonetheless, it was a gesture that was appreciated by the Abiola family and, for those who could move beyond their initial cynicism, there was a symbolism in the gesture. It moved ‘June 12’ as a cause and a democratic signpost away from merely the South-West onto the federal agenda. It suggested that the government was committing to the legacy and legitimacy of what many still refer to as Nigeria’s freest and fairest elections to date.

As June 12 approaches, it is perhaps a good opportunity to look at other signalling in the governmental and political atmosphere and draw inferences about the intended democratic posture of the executive and legislative branches over the next four years; and there is a lot to chew on.

For one, there has been a raft of executive orders issued over the last few weeks. In my opinion, executive orders are probably the laziest and most disingenuous form of governance. They pretend that problems can be solved with a scowl and a flourish of the presidential or gubernatorial pen. They avoid the tough and necessary work of consultation and policy formulation, as well as the accountability that comes with proper legislation. How, for example, is an executive order the solution to the critical logjam in Apapa? Was it the absence of an executive order that has kept the access roads in abject disrepair and other ports across the country unfit to receive cargo? Is this how the government generally intends to tackle the knottiest challenges it faces?

Consider also, the curious case of Kano State, which must be the location of irony’s final deathbed. When videos broke last year of the sitting and now re-elected governor receiving dollared kickbacks – President Buhari says he is unsure of the technology used in recording those videos, By the way – all that happened was a result of the state legislature’s feeble attempt to investigate. The last few weeks have shown however, that Kano has an Anti-Corruption Commission! The state government, with the sort of speed clearly reserved for the removal of out-of-favour functionaries, purported to break up a centuries-old institution as a reprimand for the Emir. Is this how the government intends to exercise its powers?

Consider, yet again, if newspaper reports are to be believed, that the federal government’s favoured candidate for Deputy Senate President is supposedly the same ‘distinguished’ gentleman whose greatest distinction is that he led thugs into the Senate to forcefully remove the mace. What kind of behaviour would the government be condoning here? Even more worrying is the news that a Senator who yielded to the government’s preferred candidate for Senate President, the next day, had the EFCC withdrawn from the prosecution of his N25bn corruption trial.

There is perhaps no greater indicator of the government’s democratic mood than the recent events culminating in the suspension of Daar Communication’s broadcasting license by the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission, chronicled almost gleefully by the Aso Rock social media handle. Now, on the one hand, there is a debate to be had around Daar’s handling of the affair and perhaps the conduct complained of itself. However, much more pressing is the heavy-handed response of the NBC to a 15-minute segment of a television show and the NBC’s extremely conservative interpretation of the provisions of the Broadcasting Code.

The irresistible conclusion from the NBC’s intervention (and, again, Aso Rock’s heralding of it) is that the broadcast of views not in support of the government puts television stations at the risk of losing their licenses. This is a terrible position for a democracy to be in. For if democracy is a government for the people, it is the Press – a free Press – that keeps the government accountable to the people. And even the Broadcasting Code permits operators to acknowledge their biases.

1993, the year of June 12, was 26 years ago. 1999, the year of May 29, was 20 years ago. So, in some ways we are still a young democracy. However, this excuse should only be available when we inadvertently fumble our way into a cul-de-sac through inexperience. It is not nascence that makes a governor cavalier with his states cultural and historical assets, or causes a party of progressives to elevate a buccaneering member to a position of leadership, or move directly from a warning letter to taking a broadcaster off the air. That is deliberately pivoting to kakistocracy.


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