To toy with the idea of dictatorship, which from all indications Nigeria under President Buhari is doing, is anachronistic in these modern times. Nigeria, Africa’s self-styled largest economy and the continent’s big brother, is giving a bad example.
Increasingly, democracy in the country is being stifled, its tenets and traditions are being trampled upon in a manner reminiscent of the dark days of military rule; a period best forgotten. For instance, the proposed social media bill is a blatant attack on free speech. The legislature is working to close down the space for discourse with a bill that offers death, fines of N10 million or imprisonment for up to 10 years for expression of opinions on social media.
In addition, though the presidency denies it, is the obnoxious Hate Speech Bill in the Senate which recommends, among other punishments, death by hanging for anybody who runs afoul of the law.
The bill, if it is passed, will forbid communication that is hateful, threatening, or abusive, and targets a person on account of disability, ethnic or national origin, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, or skin colour.
The executive is not immune from this dictatorial trait. In the past five years, we have seen executive arrogance and impunity coupled with judicial rascality. We see a gradual return to military era when Buhari-led military government announced that it would “tamper with” the press and followed it up with the enactment of the draconian Decree 4 which made even the publication of the truth a punishable offence. Under this cover, many journalists were jailed. Civil society organizations and professional groups were abolished so that the government could exercise absolute power.
Governors of Cross River, Kaduna and Abia states took the law into their hands and, in collaboration with the police, imprisoned journalists who criticise them without the courtesy of a trial. Freedom of expression or the right to a fair trial are luxuries these days.
When Buhari emerged as the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015, his supporters and apologists insisted that he was a born-again democrat. But in several ways, he is confirming the adage that the leopard does not change its spots overnight.
The federal government under Buhari has refused to release Ibrahim El Zakzakky, leader of the banned Islamic Movement of Nigeria, and Omoyele Sowore, a human rights activist and pro-democracy campaigner who is being held by the government for alleged treason. Though the courts have, at various times, ordered the release of both men it holds them on flimsy excuses which we consider strange in a democratic setting where rule of law is paramount.
Such disregard for court orders does not build trust. It undermines the role of institutions in a democracy.
The charade that happened in both Bayelsa and Kogi states in the name of governorship elections are further testaments and manifestations of tendencies towards dictatorship by the federal government.
The way the country is drifting toward dictatorship is alarming. The executive, legislature and judiciary are necessary for democracy to thrive. Those who occupy these offices today must always bear in mind that they risk undoing the good gained since 1999. Their every action and utterance against the rule of law can be used in turn against them when they no longer occupy the office.
We are in sync with President Harry Truman of the United States who was quoted as saying, “once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of the opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens.”
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