There is something that always works against President Muhammadu Buhari each time he appears to be getting it right. In a manner of the mythical incubus, that unseen factor has a way of making him lose momentum when history beckons on him to have his name written in gold. Incidentally, the President does not seem to give this a serious thought. Recall the #EndSARS protests last year, in which the government initially appeared to be recording some applause in the civilised manner it was handling the protesters before it lost it by unleashing security agents on the youths. Nigeria is yet to recover from that misguided outing.
Now, take a look at June 12 that has come to be institutionalised as Democracy Day in the country. Since the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election and the subsequent death of the presumed winner, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola, in captivity, Nigerians, regardless of political persuasions, have recognised that date as a watershed in the country’s history. It was an election that was adjudged free and fair on all accounts. It was particularly an exercise that saw Nigerians rising beyond the divisive factors of religion and ethnicity in the country’s politics in casting their votes. Abiola and his running mate, Babagana Kingibe, were Muslims, in a country of sensitive religious leanings. Their political platform, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), also won in many parts of the country, including Kano, the home state of Abiola’s rival, Bashir Tofa, the presidential candidate of the National Republican Convention (NRC).
Given the unconvincing reasons adduced by the then military administration of Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, for annulling the election, Nigerians had insisted that June 12 represented a day for a new beginning for the country. Neither the beneficiary government of President Olusegun Obasanjo nor the succeeding administrations of Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan had acceded to demands by Nigerians for June 12 to be recognised as Democracy Day. They had all insisted on May 29, when they were sworn in. It was Buhari that yielded to the demand of the people. That was a significant feat.
The President also had the unique opportunity of supervising the country’s transition from May 29 to June 12 as Democracy Day, thus exploring the windows of the two events to advertise the achievements of his administration in the last six years. Trust politicians in the game of razzmatazz and propaganda. His image handlers have shouted from the rooftops the giant strides of the President in infrastructure rebirth, social re-engineering and political inclusion.
But all these developments that should have coalesced into a shining moment for Buhari have been overshadowed by the needless assault on the citizens’ freedom of information and expression by the administration.
The President can thus sing and dramatise how he inherited a broken system and has been able to fix it in many ways. He is entitled to the claims. But for whatever they may be intended, the claims border esentially on the tangible side of democracy. Dictators in history like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Muammar Gaddafi and back home, Sani Abacha, had even done more in infrastructure uplift of their respective countries.
The President is yet to record outstanding credits on the intangible side of democracy. These are such issues as respect for rule of law, sanctity of the legislature, freedom of expression by the people and sustainable peace for the country. They are the real democracy dividends, aside from building bridges, constructing highways and erecting skyscrapers. They are the measureable standards that differentiate democratic governments from autocratic regimes and military contraptions. Why the President does not avert his mind to these crucial principles is an issue perhaps known to him. And while he continues to side-step or skirt around them, they keep haunting him and making a mockery of his stay in office.
The government’s spat with the social media network, Twitter, is, for instance, uncalled for. No matter the reasons by officials of the government to justify the ban on the portal, Nigeria will continue to lose in the row. To be sure, this is an encounter Buhari and his administration cannot win in substance and in the court of public opinion. Even if the curtains of the engagement are lowered today, the President has done incalculable damage to the reputation of the country by that intemperate action.
The measure by the government is a direct assault on Nigerians in the area of freedom of information, a fundamental principle that no genuine democratic system toys with. The pettiness demonstrated in the exercise is enough to discourage investors. For a fragile economy that is in dire need of foreign direct investment, any action that tends to discourage investors is tantamount to a shot in the foot. It also shows how power corrupts and makes one forget his past, easily.
Two things stand the Buhari administration out. His election in 2015 was the first time an opposition candidate would be dislodging an incumbent President. His party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), also came to power on the crest of social media platforms, including Twitter. At all times, these are considerations that should be guiding the actions and activities of the President. It amounts to biting one’s finger in the President turning against the same medium through which he gained power.
Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt are right in their book, “How Democracies Die”, that “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders – presidents of prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.”
Buhari falls into this, squarely. While seeking power, he personified all the attributes of democracy, by frequenting the courts to challenge his losses at the polls, embarking on street protests to register his anger, making extensive use of the media to let out his feelings. But on getting to Aso Rock, he developed cold disdain for the judiciary, began to loathe the press, snub the legislature and has, perhaps, more than any other President, done everything to suppress open protest and expression of contrary opinions. These are not helpful to democracy.
So, while the President enthuses on institutionalizing June 12 as Democracy Day, he needs to reflect on his understanding of the term ‘democracy’ and change his attitude at it. For now, his conduct and utterances can be anything but certainly do not represent democracy, which the legendary American President, Abraham Lincoln, described as the government of the people, by the people, for the people. That is a big problem.