Opinion | Democracy @ 20: Media, Judiciary and Return of the Shackles

By Ugo Jim-Nwoko

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more a slave than they are”, says Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French political philosopher. This witticism seems to capture the situation of the judiciary, civil society and media practitioners in President Buhari’s Nigeria in the last four years.

Elected President in 2015 as an opposition candidate in a popularly acclaimed election in which for the first time, the ruling political party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) lost to the newly formed opposition party – the All Progressives Congress (APC), after 16 years in power at the centre and in majority of the sub- national units of government in Nigeria.

Muhammadu Buhari  was  sworn in as President on the 29th of May 2019, for a second term, after being declared winner by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in a very controversially conducted election, which many in Nigeria believe was won by Atiku Abubakar, a former Nigeria’s vice-president and candidate of the PDP. Atiku Abubakar has since taken his matter to the Nigeria’s judiciary where he hopes to retrieve what he called his “Stolen Mandate” by convincing the courts through his lawyers to upturn the result declared by INEC in his favour. Whether Nigeria’s judiciary can do this or not, is a matter to be determined by the future outcome of the substantive matter before the learned justices of the Federal Court of Appeal to the highest court in the land – the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Many in Nigeria are however worried because of recent gruesome and Gestapo–styled treatment President Buhari’s security men have meted out to members of the judicial arm of government.

In the last four years, several judges have had their residences invaded by the Department of State Services (DSS) in the wee hours of the night. Many judges in Nigeria are facing criminal prosecution in Nigeria for alleged financial and professional misconducts levelled against them by the Buhari’s administration. There are serial violations of the rules and regulations, relevant codes in the Nigerian law books about the recruitment, promotion and discipline of judicial officers. The National Judicial Council (NJC), the body constitutionally empowered to handle such judicial matters is gasping for breath, having been reduced to a mere rubber stamp by the executive arm of government.

The controversial removal of Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and head of the judicial arm of government, in a manner that depicts nothing but the worst form of chicanery reminded any observer of the biblical reign of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and confirmed to Nigerians President Buhari’s determination to another travel the road of maximum rulership.

Muhammadu Buhari, a retired military chief, but a self-acclaimed converted democrat disrupted Nigeria’s second attempt at democratic governance with his team of jackboots in a military coup on December 31st 1983, two months after a democratically elected President Shehu Shagari was sworn–in for his second term in office. Buhari ruled Nigeria from then to 27th of August 1985 when he was dethroned also in a military coup by his Chief of Army Staff, Ibrahim Babangida who accused him, among other things of gross human rights violations, lack of team spirit among the ruling military elites and high-handedness.

As the head of Nigeria’s military government, General Buhari ruled with iron fist and under the notorious decree number 4 of 1984, he jailed many journalists and tortured others for reporting events and stories considered offensive to the interests of the uniformed men in power. Famous among those who tasted the wrath of the Buhari’s draconian treatment against the Nigeria media then, were Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor who were jailed for excising journalistic freedom in  reporting the fraud and nepotism in diplomatic postings and closure of foreign missions that were tilted in favour of a section of the country.

During the campaigns for 2015 elections, Buhari who had failed three previous presidential elections in 2003, 2007 and 2011 respectively, as a result of his poor human rights records and religious fundamentalism had promised to be media-friendly should he win election as President. He claimed to have become a changed person and a converted democrat with the collapse of former Union of Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) in 1990. In a string of public relations stunts pulled by his handlers to rebrand him in the eyes of the Nigerian media and shapers of public opinion, Mr. Tunde Thompson, now a veteran journalist and a former victim of Buhari’s oppression of the pen profession was drafted in to work in his media campaign in 2015.

The ancient maxim that “Old habits die hard” comes handy here as a truism where Buhari and democratic institutions are concerned. He comes across as a leader quite uncomfortable with rule of law, press freedom and democratic pluralism. He has in his return as an elected leader of the largest black nation in the world shown his disdain for opposition views and has run his government within the confines of his narrow clan of “cabals”.

In a seeming pursuit of the much-touted war against corruption, a cardinal pillar of his campaign and administration, President Buhari has destroyed the businesses of members of the opposition party in many sectors of the economy. The story of Integrated Logistic Services Nigeria Limited ( Intels) a corporate and logistic giant in the maritime sector, where an opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar has stakes has had its boats pilotage monitoring and supervision contract agreement with Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) cancelled by the Buhari’s government and putting in jeopardy thousands of jobs in an economy already bleeding with massive job losses.

Almost all segments of Nigeria’s social and public sectors have suffered the impact of President Buhari’s human rights violations and oppressions in a manner that ridicules the whole essence of democratic Nigeria. Several public affairs analysts perceived these developments as prelude to the violations of the sanctity of the ballot box and subversion of the will of the people which took place in the 2019 elections and the bid by the Buhari administration to ensure that the judiciary is intimidated from serving the cause of justice. They have since claimed their vindication based on the recent kangaroo set up and trial of Justice Onnoghen and his eventual frustration out of office.

The National Assembly, Nigeria’s legislative arm of government was invaded by armed marauders on the 7th of August 2018 in a bid to effect a forceful removal of the leadership of the Senate following a failed kangaroo trial of the former Senate President at the Code of Conduct Tribunal on false asset declaration charges.

The latest in the series of dictatorial and unconstitutional destructions to Nigeria’s nascent democratic culture and institutions by the Buhari’s administration is the Nigeria media, his traditional nemesis. In recent times, Nigeria’s foremost leader in private sector broadcasting, the DAAR Communications Group has suffered diverse forms of intimidations from Nigeria’s regulatory authorities. The big stick was finally wielded on the 7th day of June against the media group founded by Raymond Dokpesi, a media entrepreneur who has since left the group for partisan politics, pitching his tent with the opposition PDP.

Under Buhari’s first term, journalists and media organisations in Nigeria suffered untold hardships in form of several detentions, assaults, and harassment. Jones Abiri, editor of the Weekly Source, was detained without charge in 2016 and denied contact with his family or a lawyer, for over two years. Premium Times’ Samuel Ogundipe was detained and prosecuted for refusing to reveal a source and the military raided Daily Trust offices in Abuja and Maiduguri. Addressing Nigerian lawyers at their annual conference last year, Buhari stated unabashedly that “rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest”. These bring back sad memories of the press in Nigeria under the long reign of military dictatorships especially that of Decree 4 era of General Buhari.

Nurudeen Abah, Investigations Editor of Daily Trust Newspaper captures the dilemma of Nigerians: “You know Buhari was a military ruler. When he was campaigning for election in 2015, he promised Nigerians that he’s a converted democrat. In the last four years he didn’t live up to his promise that journalists will be safe under his democratic administration. Our offices here in Abuja and our regional office in Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria were raided, closed down and journalists were taken away.”

Today, so many bloggers are undergoing prosecution across the states by governors that are under the same party platform as Buhari. The converted democrat has not lived up to expectations of the media and his own promise to the Nigerian people.

Jim-Nwoko is a Political Science Scholar at the Catholic University of Nigeria, Abuja

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