Our worst fears have been confirmed. The Buhari that returned to the country last August after more than a hundred days lay-off in a UK hospital and the tone of his August 21, broadcast, made no pretence about being a reformed democrat. It signalled the return of the no nonsense General Buhari of 1984 who will brook no dissent and who is willing to unleash the full might of the military on anyone or group who goes against his instructions. But it is possible to rationalise why President Buhari is romancing with autocracy. Nigerians generally have an atavistic longing for a strongman – a tyrant/authoritarian/dictator – who would use his immense powers to brutally clamp down on corrupt officials, rid the country of its woes, and launch it on the path of growth and development.
In a piece I wrote for an Oxford blog “Democracy in Africa” in October 2013, I had noted a deep contradiction in the attitude of Nigerians and argued that despite an apparent preference for participatory, democratic governance, there still remains a deep atavistic longing for a strongman in Nigeria. I had argued that “being a vocal and assertive lot, Nigerians will criticise the authoritarian tendencies of their leaders, but they [still] expect leaders to act swiftly or even brutally and bypass laws, if necessary, in pursuance of the common good. The tendency is to equate ‘effective’ or ‘good’ governance with dictatorship or authoritarianism”. What is more, academics and thought leaders have been at the forefront of championing the cause towards Nigeria’s increasing romance with authoritarianism.
This assertion wasn’t based on some speculative thinking. It was based on a careful reading and analysis of Nigeria’s political history. The British bequeathed a more collegiate Westminster parliamentary system of governance to Nigeria. But given an opportunity to fashion a system of governance, Nigerians were quick to reject the British model in favour of the more flamboyant, but potentially dictatorial American presidential system especially in a context of weak or failing institutions.
The reasoning of the “49 wise men” who fashioned the 1979 constitution is instructive and quite revealing. On the one hand, the ‘wise men’ highlighted the structural elegance and deeper democratic character of the presidential system. But on the other, they were also in full agreement with Leopold Senghor that sharing power between a president and a prime minister in Africa is not feasible. “Presidentialism, the committee argued, was more compatible with African indigenous kingship/chieftaincy traditions. It also has the capacity to overcome the conflict of authority, personality and ethno-political interest between the ceremonial president and the prime minister, which citizens had witnessed in Nigeria’s first republic. What was more, they reasoned that a developing country like Nigeria needed a strong president who could serve as a symbol of national unity and a custodian of the national interest.”
Recently, some of the surviving ‘wise men’ have been expressing regret for their role in creating a virtual democratic dictatorship as president for Nigeria. Ben Nwabueze specifically described their actions then, with hindsight, as ‘misguided’.
Despite the huge powers carved out for Nigerian presidents, however, virtually every Nigerian president since then has sought to emasculate other arms of government, circumscribe the application of the law in respect to his person and office, and to side-step or ignore some aspects of the law in dealing with perceived opponents or officials accused of corruption. It is in that context that we can situate President Buhari’s attempts to circumscribe and appropriate the powers of the courts to determine guilt of accused persons and apply sanctions.
But make no mistake about it, Buhari’s method of fighting corruption, even if it runs contrary to the rule of law, enjoys massive national support and acclaim from a wide section of Nigerians for the reasons discussed above. It was no wonder the #iStandWithBuhari hash tag, stickers, banners, T-shirts and even website came up when the president came under heat for his autocratic actions. I am also tempted to think that the president is aware of these sentiments and is skilfully exploiting them to further tighten his grip on power and railroad the judicial arm of government, especially to do his bidding. Remember he has, on numerous occasions, mentioned the judiciary as his greatest problem in the fight against corruption. Some of us who have dared to express opinions contrary to the popular sentiments have been called names and maligned for criticising the president for ‘daring to fight corruption in Nigeria’. For the most ludicrous of the Buhari supporters, our criticisms are signs of ‘corruption fighting back’.
Against these charges, my standard response remains: you do not fight corruption with impunity or even corruption, for the very act of circumscribing the law itself is corruption. I am often reminded of countries like China and sometimes even Saudi Arabia with far more stringent laws who have succeeded, to some extent, in curbing official corruption. My response here also is that those countries are applying their laws. In Nigeria’s case, however, Buhari is clearly breaking the laws and destroying institutions.
Of course, many commentators and supporters of Buhari cite the corruption in the Nigerian judicial system and the tendency for the rich to exploit loopholes in Nigeria’s justice system to tilt justice in their favour as reasons for supporting some of his autocratic tendencies in fighting corruption in Nigeria. What most of these commentators forget, however, is that the military, of which Buhari was its head in 1984/85, played a prominent role in the circumscription of the powers, and weakening, of the judicial arm of government in Nigeria. And usually, corruption is most rife in the context of weak institutions.
But that is not the only reason. Another reason why the Nigerian state has not been very successful in convicting corrupt officials is also due to its shoddy, lazy, and disorganised prosecution system. That is why, for instance, Ibori will be discharged and acquitted on a 170-count charge in a Nigerian court and plead guilty to the same charges at a United Kingdom court just to avoid a trial that will almost guarantee him a longer sentence. That was also how the state made a mess of itself in the trial of Godsday Orubebe recently, when it was discovered the money he was alleged to have stolen is still safely in the government coffers. Any wonder then the Nigerian state usually does not succeed in securing convictions for even obvious crime cases? It is trite law that he who accuses must also prove. We cannot and do not expect the judiciary to lessen that burden for the state.
The solution to the problem is not to further weaken the judiciary by circumscribing its powers and ignoring its orders, but by reforming and strengthening it to perform its constitutionally assigned functions. In the final analysis, it is the only institution that can protect us from a tyrannical government and leader and if we sit back and watch the president destroy it, there will be no one to defend us when it is our turn to face the ire of the government.
I’m on twitter on @krissakor