Buhari: Democracy in full bloom or autocracy in the ascent
There is the argument, for example, that the real reason why supplementary elections in Rivers State have been delayed for long is because of the fear that the ruling party in the state is well positioned to win. The idea, therefore, is to wait for an opportune time when circumstances would favour the state opposition party. While this position would be most certainly refuted by the INEC and the Federal Government both of which have always given insecurity as the cause of delay in concluding the elections, the point needs to be made that it is dangerous and fatal to democracy to allow such consideration to influence the date of elections.
The role of opposition and constructive criticisms in the sustenance, vibrancy and consolidation of democracy cannot be overestimated. It is the expression of divergent views, existence of virile platform(s) to project alternative policy viewpoints and the recognition of the rights of citizens to critically appraise public policies that, in part, distinguish democracy from authoritarianism.
Some of the prominent issues under President Muhammadu Buhari administration relate to its dealings with members of the opposition, anti-corruption efforts and the rule of law. There is the allegation that the government is intolerant of dissenting views, targets members of the opposition and critics in its anti-corruption war and conducts affairs without due regard for the rule of law.
It may seem trite to state, but certainly worth emphasising, that corruption is essentially the bane of Nigeria’s development. Addressing the problem of corruption, therefore, is absolutely imperative and requires the support of all Nigerians. The responsibility to fight corruption should be seen as a collective one and not the sole responsibility of the government.
It is necessary to state, however, that it is counter-productive to introduce prejudices and biases in anticorruption war. Corruption in Nigeria is not restricted to members of a given political party or ethnic group or section. It has equally not been confined to a particular level of government. As has been submitted, “any attempt to classify people belonging to a particular group or political party as corrupt and those belonging to the other(s) as saints is fundamentally fallacious” (Obiyan, 2016:10). And, as further argued
Political corruption has largely been a product of a conspiracy among privileged elites to plunder the resources of the state for their personal gains. There seems to have been a consensus among the political elites and their collaborators that appropriating public funds for personal purposes is normal. Thus, corruption has been more of a consequence of the failure of Nigeria’s political class.
A consequence of the foregoing is that an enduring and successful anticorruption war in Nigeria must per force be balanced, non-discriminatory and sincere.
It is incumbent on the government to ensure that anti-corruption crusade is devoid of the following:
. Selective investigation, arrest and prosecution;
. the use of anti-corruption war as propaganda;
. the use of anti-corruption war to conceal deficiencies in governance;
. the use of anti-corruption war to demonise and annihilate members of the opposition as well as perceived enemies and critics; and
. the deployment of corrupt techniques to fight corruption.
There is no doubt that the government has a duty to fight corruption, especially given the centrality of anti-corruption crusade in Buhari’s government. It is, however, helpful to the cause of anti-corruption that the law is always respected and upheld in all cases.
The arrest and prosecution of Barrister Ebun Olu-Adegboruwa, a Lagos-based legal practitioner, in circumstances that give room for suspicion, for instance, is unhealthy. Olu-Adegboruwa claimed that his arrest was necessitated by his criticism of the government and his legal representation for Chief Government Ekpemupolo (popularly known as Tompolo) and Mr. Azibaola Robert, a cousin of former president Goodluck Jonathan accused of corruption (Ezeobi, 2016). It is interesting that Adegboruwa has since been acquitted by a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos. The Adegboruwa experience gives the impression of harassment, by the government, of lawyers who handle cases for clients that the government appears determined to punish.
In a broader context, the constant attacks on lawyers and judges by government officials are capable of being interpreted as a deliberate attempt to intimidate and subjugate them. This is certainly unhealthy for democracy.
It is also important to note that Robert up to that time had been in the custody of the EFCC without trial for several months. This is similar to the experiences of many other persons detained for weeks or months without trial. Femi Fani-Kayode is an example.
The fight against corruption as well as the relationship between the government and citizens ought to eschew impunity. In June 2016, the bank account of a sitting governor, Ayodele Fayose, the governor of Ekiti State was frozen by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) (Abdulah, et al, 2016). The case is presently in court for adjudication.
Without prejudice to the eventual decision of the court, the freezing of the bank account of a governor who possesses immunity from prosecution by virtue of Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) would appear strange to many people. This is particularly so in view of the fact that Fayose is a constant critic of the Buhari administration. While nobody is above the law, democracy and the application of the rule of law require patience. A governor who is protected by immunity ought to be so respected and, of course, can be made to account for his/her actions after leaving office. While it has been established that a sitting governor can be investigated, it is quite doubtful that a person can be justly punished without being tried by a competent court (as in the case of freezing the governor’s bank account when it is obvious that he cannot be tried for an alleged crime while he remains as a governor).
Analysis of democratic practice in Nigeria under the Buhari administration indicates some areas of concern as shown in the paper. In order to deepen democracy in the country, it is imperative to promote the rule of law as well as strengthen the independence and capacity of key institutions and agencies.
In this regard, the INEC, for instance, has an important role to play. To the extent that INEC lacks independence, and the capacity to impartially and competently superintend elections, democracy is imperiled. The government should always resist the temptation to interfere with INEC’s operations in the overall interest of democracy and the country. The ‘must win mentality” of some political actors ought to be moderated. A legal reform mandating INEC to conduct/conclude elections within a time limit should be put in place. This should address the kind of embarrassment posed by INEC’s conduct in the by-election in Rivers State.
The fight against corruption must be embraced and supported by all Nigerians. This is one of the ways to salvage our beloved country. To fully command the people’s support, the government and its agencies need to demonstrate neutrality and absence of ill-will. A process that is seen to be skewed against opposition and critics would tend to lack legitimacy. The guiding principle should be the often-quoted adage that, not only should justice be done, but it must be seen to have been done. Anti-corruption agencies such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Commission, and the Code of Conduct Bureau should be strengthened and allowed to operate without interference from the government. For, as long as these agencies are tied to the apron strings of the government, their activities would signify disaster for democracy. It is equally important for professionalism to be maintained by security agencies.
The executive needs to accord respect for the principle of separation of power and respect for other arms of government. Just as there can be errant behaviour by some members of the legislature and the judiciary, the same is also true of the executive. That, in part, explains the essence of checks and balances in a presidential democracy. A judiciary that is subservient to the executive is a potent threat to justice, democracy, peace and the survival of the society.
A weakened or compromised judiciary equally poses serious threat to the society. It is in the overall interest of the society, therefore, to have an independent judiciary with the overall capacity to function. Any misconduct by a judicial officer ought to, and must be dealt with in a serious manner but without compromising due process and the rule of law. The executive should avoid actions capable of ridiculing and weakening the institution of judiciary.
In a democracy, criticisms are essential. Democracy itself is anchored on debate, criticisms and choices. A government does not necessarily have the best solutions to societal problems. Besides, it is important that government be kept on its toes. These, among other factors, make criticisms not only important but beneficial to a government. In any case, the right to freedom of speech is of necessity guaranteed in a democracy. The flourishing of space for critical debate is part of the beauty of democracy. Thus a government ought to encourage or at least be used to criticisms and not resent critics.
The open and widespread deployment of money to buy votes as witnessed recently in Edo State gubernatorial election is damaging to democracy. All stakeholders have a role to play in educating the people. The ability to monitor the actual choice of voters can only be successful on a large scale with the connivance of INEC officials and/or security agents. This issue should be dealt with.
The civil society has an important role to play in protecting democracy. Unfortunately, it would appear that the civil society in Nigeria is today at about its lowest point in Nigeria’s history. It seems to have been seriously undermined by the country’s societal ills. Apparently, blackmail, intimidation, cooptation, ambition and corrupt tendencies seem to have reduced the vitality and vibrancy of civil society. Yet, I submit that civil society must overcome its challenges to take its rightful place in the country’s democratic space if the country is to make meaningful progress in consolidating democracy.
• Prof. Obiyan delivered this lecture at Centre for Constitutionalism and Demilitarisation, Lagos.