A Major General and a President

SimonKolawolelive By Simon-Kolawole, Email: simon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com, sms: 0805 500 1961

The first time I heard the name, “Major General Muhammadu Buhari”, it was a compliment — as it were. That was on the evening of December 31, 1983. Early in the morning, we had woken up to martial music, followed by words that stuck to my head: “Fellow countrymen and women, I, Brigadier Sani Abacha of the Nigerian army, address you this morning on behalf of the Nigerian armed forces…” I actually crammed the speech. It was fun. I was very young — a tiny secondary school boy — and quite naïve. My step grandfather explained to me that President Shehu Shagari had just been overthrown and the military had taken over power. I became happier.

Evening time, Major General Muhammadu Buhari appeared on TV and announced himself as the new head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces in a nationwide broadcast. Again, I remember a famous quote from his address: “This generation of Nigerians, and indeed future generations, have no country other than Nigeria. We shall remain here and salvage it together.” Some 31 years later, he would reveal to me that he — and not the speech writer — wrote those particular words. Patriotism was his passion. What “Major General Muhammadu Buhari” meant to Nigerians in 1983 was a clarion call to discipline and love for fatherland.

One amazing thing about “Major General Muhammadu Buhari” was that he did not promote himself, unlike Gowon and Murtala Muhammed who jumped to the rank of full-star general after taking power. Buhari remained a major general alongside his army chief, Ibrahim Babangida. His second-in-command, Babatunde Idiagbon, was a brigadier. More amazing was that when Idiagbon was promoted to major general, Buhari remained on the same rank. The picture that stuck to my mind was that of a man who cared little about self-aggrandisement. “Major General Muhammadu Buhari” was, indeed, a lovely compliment — at least before the tide turned against him in 1985.

Let’s now fast-forward to 2019. Buhari is on his second term as a democratically elected president. PUNCH, one of Nigeria’s most respected newspapers, has written a stinging editorial on him, concluding that at the rate his government has been violating the rule of law and human rights, it was no longer going to refer to him as “President Muhammadu Buhari”. The time has come, it said, to revert to “Major General Muhammadu Buhari” — apparently to remind us of the days of dictatorial military rule. In addition, it would no longer refer to his government as a “government” but as a “regime”. That is definitely not intended as a compliment, no matter the spin.

To be sure, we have been battling with serious human rights abuses and assaults on the rule of law since 1999. Under President Olusegun Obasanjo, soldiers levelled up Odi, Bayelsa state, in November 1999, killing everyone in sight. The death toll was estimated at 2,500. The massacre was replicated in Zaki Biam, Benue state, in October 2001. Obasanjo also unilaterally withheld Lagos state council allocations. He gave state backing to illegal impeachment of governors. At a point, the Insider Weekly magazine did a cover story calling him “Abachanjo” — comparing him to Gen Sani Abacha, the dreaded dictator who terrorised Nigeria between 1993 and 1998.

President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s government was not to be left out. In May 2009, soldiers attacked several communities of the Gbaramatu kingdom in Delta state, including Okerenkoko and Oporoza, using helicopters equipped with machine guns. The death toll was in hundreds. Yar’Adua also ordered the military crackdown on Boko Haram members in July 2009. The toll for the extrajudicial killings in Bauchi and Maiduguri was close to 1,000. This apparently incubated the terrorism. Meanwhile, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu and Mallam Nasir el-Rufai fled into exile alleging persecution. Cases were filed against them in court but many of us deduced that it was all politics.

President Goodluck Jonathan, perceived as the most “gentle” of them all, did not smell of roses. Right under his watch, members of the Bring Back Our Girls movement were harassed and tear-gassed in Abuja in operations personally led by Joseph Mbu, the FCT police commissioner at the time. The data offices of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) were ransacked by the DSS. For defecting from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to APC, Speaker Aminu Waziri Tambuwal woke up one day to discover that his security aides had been withdrawn. Soldiers also seized newspaper vans, accusing them of transporting arms for Boko Haram.
Next came President Buhari. In December 2015, hundreds of Shi’ite Muslims were mowed down by soldiers in Kaduna state. We have also witnessed disobedience of court orders in respect of Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, their leader, Col Sambo Dasuki, former national security adviser, and Mr Omoyele Sowore. As I write this, Mr Mohammed Bello Adoke, the former attorney-general of the federation, is being detained by Interpol in Dubai based on a warrant of arrest that has long been vacated. While the Nigerian government transmitted the warrant to Interpol, it has refused to send the vacation order. This is nothing but an assault on the rule of law.

On the basis of evidence, Buhari is not the worst violator of human rights in this democratic dispensation, but that is beside the point. This is not a competition. We are discussing the rule of law here, not a pageant where beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is about what is right and what is wrong. Another debate is about what PUNCH can achieve by calling him “major general”. Will that make Buhari instruct the Department of State Services (DSS) to release Sowore (and other detainees) from custody as ordered by the courts? Will calling him “major general” make him mellow or worsen matters by toughening him up? It is too early in the day to conclude.

The truth, of course, is that calling Buhari “major general” carries a subtle message: that he is a military dictator in civilian garments. We can argue over this for the next 100 years, but if I were Buhari, I would prefer not to be cast as a dictator. I remember Obasanjo did not take kindly to being called “General Obasanjo” by a Ghanaian journalist in 2012. He quipped: “My friend, I don’t know why you address me as General Obasanjo. In Nigeria where I am the former president, it is my political opponents that address me as General Obasanjo when they want to show me as a dictator. My party calls me Chief Obasanjo. It now depends on which side you belong.”

Therefore, if I were President Buhari, I would sit down and take a critical look at the key issue before me: respecting court orders. Let’s not forget that the immediate trigger for the “major general” tag was the way the secret police handled Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters and convener of the Revolution Now movement. After detaining Sowore for 124 days despite several court orders for his release, DSS operatives rearrested him — without a warrant — at the premises of a federal high court in Abuja. Any way we look at it, the Sowore case has become a massive PR disaster for Buhari. Or, if I may ask, what has Buhari’s government gained from the Sowore fiasco?

PUNCH has been praised and equally attacked for “taking a stand”. I am on professional journalism platforms where journalists and journalism teachers are debating if this violates ethical standards. For me, though, the issue is not ethics. That is neither here nor there. It can easily become an academic exercise. Some are also saying calling Buhari a “major general” is immaterial since he earned it. Once a general, always a general. But we all know words have connotative and denotative meanings. True, you can decide to turn a tag into something positive just to shame your opponents but, in the end, how you are perceived lasts longer than how you perceive yourself.

My central argument, then, is that rather than spend the whole day debating the importance and implications of calling Buhari “major general”, we need to ram home the point that this government urgently needs a course correction. Even if past democratic administrations urinated on the rule of law and spat at court orders, there cannot be any justification for Buhari to continue along that path. No matter what the security agencies say, disobeying court orders or detaining people without court approval can never be acceptable in a democracy. At the end of the day, enforcement of the rule of law is the last refuge for all of us — no matter whose camp we belong.

Ms Hadiza Bala Usman, the MD of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), recently came under attack from hoodlums who waylaid her at the premises of the national assembly. She had just attended the senate hearing on the troubled secure anchorage contract between the navy and Ocean Marine Solutions Limited (OMSL), owned by the ‘almighty’ Captain Wells Okunbo. The security agencies must investigate those behind the attack. The thugs and their sponsors must not go scot-free — except government wants to leave its courageous officials at the mercy of the powerful guys. That would be too bad. This attack must be probed and the perpetrators punished. Imperative.

The sentencing of Senator Orji Uzor Kalu to 12 years imprisonment by a federal high court surprised many Nigerians. The case had been on since 2007 and seemed to be heading nowhere. When Kalu crossed over to APC, the assumption was that this cup would pass over him. But it didn’t. There is an impression that needs to be corrected though: Buhari did not jail Kalu. A court of law did. We must commend the EFCC for becoming more diligent in its prosecutions. Many former governors are now prison tenants — previously unimaginable in a country controlled by buccaneers. Other big politicians on trial must be shivering by now. The wheel of justice! Progress.

The national assembly has done the unprecedented by passing the appropriation bill for the next year before the current year runs out. It has never happened in this democratic dispensation; to the best of my knowledge, neither did it happen in the second republic. President Buhari presented the budget quite early — on October 8 — and it was passed less than two months later. I disagree with the jacking up of the budget by N260 billion as well as the benchmark from $55 to $57 per barrel, but we can at least celebrate this small progress and the fact that we can start implementation from January 1. Next question: where are we going to get the revenue to fund the budget? Headache.

Nigeria has closed its land borders with neighbouring countries for months, alleging violations of trading rules and conventions. Like all policy choices, there will be winners and losers. Government officials are celebrating the fact that local rice farmers will benefit — even though consumers will pay more, at least for now. President Buhari says fuel consumption has reduced by 30 per cent. However, I still maintain my earlier position: that this is unsustainable. One day, no matter how long it is, we will reopen these borders and smuggling will resume at breakneck speed. We are only treating the symptoms. Focus must be shifted to tackling the disease. Vital.