We must remember this fact: free speech is a mark of a free society. It is also a measure of the political health of a country.
Two interviews published in The Sun of Saturday, 8 December 2018, contained outrageous allegations against former military leaders and leading opposition politicians in Nigeria. Almost in a choreographed fashion, two dedicated supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari alleged that former military leaders and politicians were undermining Buhari’s aspiration for a second term. They argued that such a coalition constituted treason.
As everyone knows, treason is a serious offence punishable by death. It is therefore extraordinary that, in a democracy, supporters of the president are campaigning to shut down free speech. Constraining free speech and the freedom the press has to express critical views against the president is contrary to fundamental values of democracy.
The hare-brained allegations were made by Mohammed Lawal, a strong supporter of Buhari and the deputy director of the Buhari Presidential Campaign Council in 2015. The second set of baffling allegations was pronounced by Festus Keyamo in his capacity as director, strategic communications, of the Buhari campaign organisation.
Lawal was unrestrained in his claims that former army generals have plotted to oppose Buhari’s re-election. He identified Olusegun Obasanjo as the leader of the “gang” of army generals who have allegedly committed to ensuring that Buhari was defeated at next year’s presidential election. It is amazing that citizens who express adverse opinions against Buhari should be accused of treason. Yet, in 2015 when the All Progressives Congress (APC) led a national campaign to unseat President Goodluck Jonathan and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) through a coordinated diet of lies, that action did not constitute a high crime against the Nigerian state. How duplicitous!
People who express their personal opinions relating to the qualities of political candidates contesting the 2019 general elections cannot be guilty of treason. We are supposed to be operating a democracy. Ours cannot be different. However, in an increasingly changing world, a world that has seen various governments roll out legislation in support of national security that also impede free speech, violations of free speech and press freedom are on the rise. This is the more reason why citizens must scrutinise political leaders. We cannot perform that basic duty if our freedom to express ourselves is constrained by those who are elected to govern. We must remember this fact: free speech is a mark of a free society. It is also a measure of the political health of a country.
In his interview, Keyamo continued along the same lines that depicted people opposed to Buhari as a “gang up”. His words: “It appears to me that this gang-up; this coming together is by deliberate design,… I want you to be observant of most of their complaints against this man they are ganging up against; their complaint is about rigidity.” Keyamo is wrong.
In the past 58 years since the country attained political independence, Nigerian political and military leaders have treated criticisms as toxins that should never be allowed to contaminate the minds of the public. In authoritarian societies, there is an unwritten rule that critics of governments must bear the consequences of their impudence. In such societies, autocratic leaders have their own preferred way of dealing with critics which, in some cases, involves jailing them without observing due process or, in extreme cases, eliminating them outright through asphyxiation.
No leader in history, whether despotic or liberal, has been able to close down totally and successfully the pipelines of public debate. Buhari’s supporters can continue to make fierce allegations against the critics of their boss but that will not snuff out critical comments.
In a few months’ time, when Buhari casts his eyes back over the past four years of his government, he must be wondering why the goodwill and public support he enjoyed in the early phase of his presidency have disappeared like the brief splash of light created by a meteor in the night sky. Whatever happens during and after the presidential election next year, no matter how he appraises his government, Buhari must take full responsibility for the opportunities he lost or misused. His failure to stamp his authority over his government and discipline bumbling members of his inner cabinet, coupled with unhelpful advice from the platoon of aides he assembled from his own region of the country, have all helped to construct Buhari in the image of a clueless president who is just playing for time, waiting for his re-election. This is what you can expect when a highly cynical audience loses faith in a government in which the citizens had invested so much trust.
Look at the way Boko Haram terrorists have been killing very young and gallant soldiers who are engaged in the defence of their fatherland. Soldiers fighting insurgents have their own lives and their beloved family members. Nigeria has an obligation to protect them by training them in modern guerrilla warfare, and by equipping them with state-of-the-art weapons with which they can match the insurgents.
A number of people have posed the question: Is Buhari an unlucky president or a president weighed down by the misfortunes of governing at a time of rising insecurity and growing public demands on national leaders? Regardless of what his horde of supporters might say, Buhari must understand that he has not impressed ordinary citizens with his style and pace of government, his inability to fight corruption, his failure to improve on decrepit infrastructure as he met them on assumption of office, and his inability to identify, stick to, and work on key projects that should impact positively on the lives of the people.
Buhari, I would argue, has received major kicks on the butt because he has paid lip service to the fight against corruption, because he has failed to move beyond rhetoric in his campaign to deal with the much troubled and intractable power sector, and because of his inability to improve on various aspects of national political and economic lives. While it is true that these problems existed before Buhari was elected president, nevertheless Nigerians expected him to hit the ground running to fix these problems, not necessarily all of them but a significant number that have made life difficult for everyone. Buhari was elected president to solve national problems, not to evade them.
Unfortunately, Buhari has been weakened by his own leadership style, his failure to demonstrate accountability and transparency by dealing vigorously with mounting cases of corruption by senior officials of government, his refusal to drop from his cabinet unproductive ministers, the lack of solution to the escalating state of insecurity across the country, and the general feeling in the public that the government talks more but achieves little or nothing.
Ahead of the 2019 presidential election, Buhari will be assessed not by the number of promises he made during the 2015 election campaigns but by the number of meaningful projects he completed in the past four years. After all, the government serves as the trustee to whom voters have assigned authority. That authority can be withdrawn by the people at any time. An active, vocal, and responsible civil society acts as the watchdog of the people. You cannot shut down the voice of civil society.