Since mid-January, there has been a concatenation of events whose denouement would decide, one way or another, the fate of President Muhammadu Buhari in the 2019 election. In no particular order, the events include herdsmen incessant attacks on farmers and destruction of farmlands and the federal government’s inability, if not refusal, to stop it, culminating in the massacre of 73 people in some communities in Benue State and the ensuing national outrage; the “no-apology” endorsement of Buhari by the Nasir el-Rufai-led G7 governors from the north less than 24 hours after the state-organised mass burial of the Benue 73; the president’s consultations with select APC (All Progressives Congress) leaders in what has been interpreted as subtle re-election moves; former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s public statement knocking Buhari’s poor performance, advising him to forget about second term while proposing a different coalition; and former military President Ibrahim Babangida’s statement also canvassing the need to have a new set of leaders, amongst others. Lost in one of these series of events was Buhari’s Freudian slip while seeming to praise immediate past President Goodluck Jonathan for graciously calling him on telephone to concede defeat in the 2015 presidential election.
On January 19, 2018, Buhari expressed surprise that his immediate predecessor, Jonathan conceded defeat in the 2015 presidential election. Hosting to dinner some select leaders of the ruling APC at the Presidential Villa Abuja, Buhari said he “went temporarily into a coma” when Jonathan telephoned to congratulate him. “After being a deputy governor, a governor, vice president, and president for six years, … he could have caused some problems”, Buhari said of Jonathan before adding, “ having stayed for so long in the corridors of power, he could have deployed all the arsenals within his realm to destabilize the system”.
With that confession, hasn’t the president mistakenly opened a window to his deepest, darkest secrets, or what psychologists call a Freudian slip – in common parlance, slip of the tongue? Was Buhari unwittingly telling us that he wouldn’t have conceded defeat in 2015 were he in Jonathan’s shoes? Or was he implying that should he lose re-election in 2019, as every indication shows he should, he may find it difficult to concede defeat and may “deploy all the arsenals within his realm to destabilize the system”? Buhari’s antecedents made neither of these scenarios an unfair assumption. He never conceded defeat in the three previous elections he lost before winning in 2015, even while his support base was essentially confined to northwest and northeast zones. His disposition had always been any election he didn’t win was fraudulent. Such disposition had always goaded his supporters to embark on violent protests, with that of 2011 in particular marred by hundreds of killings. Of course, rigging marred the elections Buhari lost, like every other election in the nation’s history. However, in none of those elections did Candidate Buhari have the required broad-based support across the nation that could have given him victory. If violence followed Buhari’s refusal to concede defeat in past electoral failures, what would happen should he fail to win as a sitting president in 2019 with power to “deploy all arsenals … to destabilize the system”? Shouldn’t Nigerians be worried?
Indeed, there is every cause for worry. Although Buhari has not formally made known his 2019 plans one way or the other, there has been a loud shuffle by a cross section of APC leaders and government officials persuading and agitating and endorsing and campaigning for his re-election. The el-Rufai-led “no apologies” G7 governors have endorsed Buhari for second term. So have Imo State Governor Rochas Okorocha, and the southeast APC leaders. Communications Minister Adebayo Shittu has even opened a Buhari Campaign Office in Ibadan. Following the growing opposition to a possible second term bid for the president, and the cold shoulders notable APC leaders are giving the idea, the administration’s democratic temper, lukewarm at the best of times, has risen a little. The leadership of a cross section of the security agencies, which ordinarily should have their hands full arresting the deteriorating security situation across the country in incessant herders’ attacks, in kidnappings for ransom, in kidnappings for rituals, in cult killings, and in violent robberies and rape, seem to be more concerned with harassing politicians, blaming the victims of criminality, and curtailing free speech.
Rabiu Kwankwaso, senator and immediate past governor of Kano State had planned to visit his constituents January 30. However, the Kano police command advised him to stay away to prevent a breakdown of law and order. Kwankwaso has been having a running battle with Governor Umar Ganduje who had served as deputy governor when the senator was the state chief executive. It is improbable that the police stopped Kwankwaso’s visit to Kano solely on the strength of his disagreement with Ganduje. Kwankwaso’s problem may not be unconnected with his 2019 presidential ambition. In 2015, he came second to Candidate Buhari in the APC presidential primary. He therefore already has a shared history with Buhari for the control of Kano, the president’s strongest vote grabbing machine, Almajiri under aged voters and all. Like other political heavyweights in the coalition that helped deliver the Buhari presidency, Kwankwaso was not only cut off from the internal workings of the ruling party and government, Ganduje his long time associate and deputy that he installed as governor almost single-handed, led the proxy war to whittle the senator’s political reach and influence in Kano. The state police command’s decision to stop Kwankwaso’s visit, ostensibly to prevent a breakdown of law and order from a possible violence that the maneuvering from the Ganduje camp could precipitate, could only have been one of the strategies to rein in the senator using an institution of state. Is that the route to 2019?
Indeed, the police have been unduly hyperactive on issues that have nothing to do with keeping law and order. Babangida’s spokesman Kassim Afegbua was declared wanted shortly after the statement he issued on behalf of his principal became public. Barely 24 hours after the police apologised, perhaps due to public outcry, when Afegbua reported at Force Headquarters, Abuja, the DSS (Directorate of State Security) jumped into the fray. What offence did Afegbua commit in issuing a statement on behalf of a former president to warrant intimidation from security agencies? In a democracy? Did Babangida make a criminal complaint against Afegbua for Police Inspector General Ibrahim Idris to have ordered his arrest “for making false statement…?” If the police have issues with the contents of the statement, why leave Babangida on whose behalf the statement was issued to harass the messenger? When has it become a crime for a citizen to express an opinion on issues of national interest? Sometime last month, the police arrested the Bring Back Our Girls campaigners for no other reason than organizing a peaceful protest calling for the release of the remaining kidnapped Chibok school girls still in the custody of Boko Haram insurgents. Even the police spokesman, Jimoh Moshood, had the nerve to describe Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom a drowning man ostensibly because the governor called for the resignation of police chief Idris. Are we running a police state now? Is that the route to 2019?
In their desire to curtail free speech, top administration officials have taken off where the police stopped. Defence Minister Mansur Dan Ali recently directed security agencies to monitor social media postings of some notable Nigerians with a view to tackling what he described as “the propagation of hate speeches”. What criteria qualifies one to be a notable Nigerian? Could that be a veil behind which to hound those opposed to Buhari as the 2019 elections draw near? Was the attempt not too long ago by state security personnel to arrest Isa el-Buba, general overseer of Evangelical Outreach Ministries International, Jos, for asking his congregants to use their voter cards to vote out “wickedness” in government the administration’s way of tackling notable Nigerians promoting hate speeches? A presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, has accused a section of the media of promoting hate speech, disregarding decorum and professionalism in the reportage of security issues, and showing disrespect for journalism ethics and press laws. Is the administration preparing the grounds to clampdown on the media? This was how the war against the press in the promulgation of Decree 4 started during Buhari’s first coming as military leader in 1984. It is curious that the headline (Expect More Bloodshed in Benue) of The Sun newspaper that Garba brandished as evidence of media propagation of hate speech was an interview with Husaini Yusuf Bosso, a top executive of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Herders’ Association. Yet there was no indication that any arm of the security agencies arrested Bosso or questioned him for hate speech. Is that the route to 2019?
Officials of Miyetti Allah, an association in which Buhari has long been a life patron, seem incapable of doing no wrong since May 2015 when the president was sworn into office. Its leadership has been justifying the right of the herders to kill and maim and burn and rape, and they have been threatening more bloodshed if the Benue State government failed to repeal the anti-grazing law. And herders have apparently taken that as a green light, particularly with the apparent indifference of government (until lately) to stop the incessant killings and bring those responsible to justice. Since the killings of Benue 73, the body language of top administration officials has done everything but imbue confidence. President Buhari, who ordinarily should have been mourner-in-chief at the mass burial of Benue 73, did not only fail to attend the ceremony, he rather preferred to, while receiving some grieving leaders of the State at the Presidential Villa Abuja, invoke God’s name to enjoin those in mourning to be accommodating of others. Police chief Idris attributed the killings to communal clashes. Defence Minister Ali took the position of Miyetti Allah and blamed the incident on the state government’s anti-grazing law. In all this, no government official has cautioned officials of Miyetti Allah to stop making incendiary statements, the security agencies have not told Nigerians the source and sponsors of the AK-47 rifles the herders carry around with ease, and the police do not appear to have the wherewithal, and the inclination, to prevent another attack, and yet another.
Some state governors, who have tied their political fate to Buhari’s apron strings, have unwisely put their states on the frontline. Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello, mostly nescient, was not only the first to accept cattle colony in his state without consultation with the people, he’s even threatened to remove traditional rulers in communities where there are clashes with herders. When government officials appear to justify, as Minister Ali has done, that it is right to take arms in protest against a law; when the No.1 police chief takes liberty with the facts of an incident as gruesome as the Benue killings; when officials of a tribal association, like those of Miyetti Allah, threaten other groups within the federation without repercussion in a rabid display of Fulani triumphalism perhaps because their kinsman is president; when a state governor is impervious to the concerns of his people simply to please the presidency; and when the president serially appeals to the goodness of the victims of aggression while seemingly not doing enough to bring the aggressors to justice, the administration unwittingly creates the impression that some group of people are above the law.
Such an environment creates room for all sorts of conspiracy theories capable of undermining national cohesion, if not jeopardizing the country’s unity. Is that the route Buhari would want to take to 2019?