Incroyable Mais Vrai: International Dimensions of and Issues in the DSS Re-arrest of Omoyele Sowore

Sowore struggling to get off the grips of security agents as they forcefully rearrested him

Bola A. Akinterinwa

One major problem in the political governance of Nigeria under President Muhammadu Buhari is that, more often than not, government acts before thinking deeply in the making of very critical policy decisions. Even when it tries to think deeply, it hardly considers the foreign policy dimensions and implications. Many foreign policy observers in Nigeria also often look at foreign policy as an offshoot of the domestic setting and hardly as foreign policy as a possible resultant of the external environment.

The truth is that the foreign policy of any serious country, that is worth its name and has the protection of its people and national interest at heart, cannot but be a reflection of both the domestic and external settings. In Nigeria, however, Government often presents Nigeria to the global community as if it is an island unto itself where the rule of interdependence does not apply. In this regard, most unfortunately, it is when policy decisions become a serious, controversial, public issue that arguments are given in defence of government’s decision, but which often compound Government’s problem, rather than solving it. It is also then that Government would think of having a mirror to look at, look at itself and then set up panels of inquiry to investigate the anomaly after much damage would have been done. Not carrying out in-depth analyses of possible consequences of policy decisions can only damage the image of Government and particularly that of Mr. President.

Put differently, the image of the Government of Nigeria and that of PMB has been seriously tainted with the mania of re-arrest of Mr. Omoyele Sowore, a journalist and social activist, who organised the #revolution now and for which he was arrested and accused of treasonable felony by the Department of State Services (DSS) on August 3, 2019. He was charged to court and the DSS secured approval to detain him for ninety days. At the expiration of the approval, the DSS sought court approval for further detention but was not granted. Mr. Sowore’s lawyers, led by Mr. Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, applied to the court for the bail of his client after 124 days of incaceration. It was granted but the DSS refused to comply with the court order. The DSS gave different excuses that only damaged its image: the defence lawyers were not available to do the necessary for his bail; DSS officers to deal with the matter of bail were not in the office, etc.

In fact, within the context of Mr. Sowore’s re-arrest, the DSS argued that it had produced Mr. Sowore in court in obedience to the court order. This is most unfortunate an argument. It is very insulting to the discerning minds of Nigerians. Were there no previous court orders directing that Mr. Sowore be released? If there were, why did the DSS refuse to comply with the earlier court orders? Why did the DSS wait until a 24-hour ultimatum was given to it before it dawned on it to accept the need to comply? Was it not in light of the non-compliance with the earlier court order that an ultimatum was given? Even if we accept that the DSS wanted to obey, how do we explain the re-arrest within the precincts of the court without a prior warrant of arrest? Policy makers and government agents appear to be more of PMB’s problems and, of course, the major impediments to good governance in Nigeria. Let us illustrate this observation with some of the most recent cases and pronouncements of some government spokespersons.

Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu

Let me make two preliminary points here: Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu are competent professionals on their own right. It is partly in light of the recognition of their competence that they must have been considered for their positions. The problem, however, is that they often go beyond the limitations of their professional competence to make statements that are very irritating to other competent professionals in other disciplines. They unnecessarily arrogate to themselves the competence in other disciplines, which they should not have done. This is also why PMB’s attitudinal disposition is always perceived negatively and why PMB is at logger heads with the general public. The truth is that Femi Adesina, as a professional journalist, should be differentiated from Femi Adesina, as a political appointee. This brings us to the second preliminary point.

Femi Adesina is a Special Adviser while Shehu Garba is a Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity. A Special Assistant, junior or senior, is different from a Special Adviser. In the Nigerian Public Service, the position of a Special Adviser is very political and is more associated with policy advice, which can be taken or rejected. Besides, a Special Adviser is necessarily an outsider, coming out of the Public Service.

On the contrary, a Special Assistant comes from within Ministries, Departments and Agencies of Government (MDA). When I was first appointed as Special Adviser to the Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs, attention was drawn to the fact that the institution I came from, The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, was under the supervisory authority of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Consequently, my designation was changed from Special Adviser to that of ‘Special Assistant.’ The office of a Special Assistant is less political, but more technocratic. Both Special Assistant and Special Adviser can have the same educational qualifications and even common experience, their official functions are still different. The functions of an adviser are as requested, while those of an Assistant are as directed.

The implication of this is quite clear: a Special Assistant is to assist the Honourable Minister or his principal to achieve whatever objective he is officially pursing. If there is any advice to be given, it must only be for the purposes of attainment of government’s set objectives. In this regard, a Special Assistant is necessarily an assistant to his principal and an implementation agent of policy. A Special Adviser is not. This is how Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu should be seen and differentiated in terms of their official functions. Perhaps more interestingly, at the level of the presidency, a Special Adviser is at times considered to have the ranking of a Cabinet member.

In this regard, Shehu Garba often makes policy pronouncement in the mania of a Special Adviser, even if such a pronouncement is authorised. The problem here is that the two spokespersons make conflicting statements on the same issue at times, which raises the question of coordination. It is against this background that statements made by the two of them in defence of PMB should be explicated and understood in terms of Government’s lack of in-depth considerations before making public pronouncements.

The first case is that of the editorial policy of The Punch Newspapers which want to address PMB as Major General and not as President. The thinking of The Punch Editorial Board is that PMB does not appear anymore to be governing as a democrat and as an elected President of Nigeria, and, therefore, believes that the title of a president can no longer be appropriate. The same argument is advanced in the refusal to use ‘administration,’ but ‘regime,’ for his government.

As explained in the editorial, ‘as a symbolic demonstration of our protest against autocracy and military-style repression, Punch (all our print newspapers: The Punch, Saturday Punch, Sunday Punch, Punch Sports Extra and digital platforms, most especially,, will henceforth prefix Buhari’s name with his rank as a military dictator in the 80s, Major General, and refer to his administration as a regime, until they purge themselves of their insufferable contempt for the rule of law.’

What is noteworthy about this quoted editorial policy is that, it is a reactive protest, a protest against perceived PMB’s contempt for the rule of law. The protest is to last until a stop is put to the contempt. The form of the protest is not to make the general public see in PMB a democrat, but a violator of democratic etiquette and a promoter of manu militari governance. And more interestingly, the protest is said to be symbolic, meaning that there may still be an aggravation of the protest.

The response of Femi Adesina and Shehu Garba on December 11 and 12, 2019 respectively did not attempt to respond to the issues raised by The Punch editorial. As argued by Femi Adesina, there is ‘nothing untoward in it (editorial). It is a rank the President attained by dint of hard work before he retired from the Nigerian Army. And today, constitutionally, he is also Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. All over the world, just as in our country, a large number of retired military officers are now democrats. It does not make those who did not pass through military service better than them.’

More significantly, Femi Adesina has it that ‘rather than being pejorative, addressing President Buhari by his military rank is another testimony to free speech and freedom of the press, which this administration (regime, if anyone prefers: it is a matter of semantics) has pledged to uphold and preserve.’ It is quite clear in this statement that Femi Adesina is only begging the issue. First, is it press freedom or free speech that is at stake? Is the issue that PMB did not merit his military rank as a Major General? The Punch, it should be noted, is angered by the contempt of court orders by the PMB government. This is the litigious issue.

Secondly, if The Punch says it will henceforth use PMB’s military title, it is also an acknowledgment of the fact that PMB merited his military title and not a denial of it. The beauty of the policy stand of The Punch, which many people have not come into grips with, is crystal clear: PMB as a Major General in a military dispensation was simply ruling by decrees, under which the military are required to obey the last order. He was simply a military dictator. A Major General in a democratic setting, on the contrary, is required to remove completely his toga of dictatorship in order to qualify to be called a democrat.

This is why every military leader, who managed to get elected, always prefers to remove his or her military toga and opt to be called simply as President. General Olusegun Obasanjo did it. General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida did not like his military title.He asked to be addressed as President. Contrary to the pretension of Shehu Garba on this issue (vide infra), Nigerian academics drew attention to the anomaly and corrected it by adding the epithet, ‘military’ before his ‘President.’ In other words, General Babangida was never a President but a military President of Nigeria.

This brings us to the more serious aspect of Femi Adesina’s statement: consideration of ‘regime’ and ‘administration’ as the same in international political governance. It is quite wrong to suggest that there is no fundamental difference between a regime and an administration, even when the two words are considered in their ordinary, non-technical sense. In the science of politics and international law and relations, regime is, grosso modo, used for dictatorial governments while the use of administration is reserved for elected governments. Etymologically considered, and usage since the time of their origins, the difference between the two words has always remained clear. It is therefore simplistic and embarrassing to talk about semantics in the same way the Governor of Kaduna, Mallam Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai, argued that interference and intervention are the same.

In fact, the intervention of Shehu Garba only worsened the defence attempt being put in place by the two spokesperson with unnecessary insinuations, not to say unsubstantiated allegations that have the potential to backfire and put PMB on the corridor of another controversy. According to Shehu Garba, The Punch ‘has sinister motives for its current curious editorial judgment. Its personal hatred for and animus towards President Buhari should not be allowed to becloud its good judgment.’

The main problem with the statement of Shehu Garba is the inability to differentiate between persons or organisations on the one hand, and issues raised, on the other. The basis of the protest of The Punch is what the general public wants the spokesperson to address and help Mr. President. It is not to seek to confuse the general public with insinuations or sinister motives. For instance, Shehu Garba said: ‘it is not within the power or rights of a newspaper to unilaterally and whimsically change the formal official title or the designation of the country’s President as it pleases.’ This is quite arguable in light of the constitutional provision requiring the media professionals to monitor political governance and hold Government accountable (Section 21 or 22 of the 1999 Constitution as amended).

This observation is interesting in many ways. First, there is a general misunderstanding of the use of titles in Nigeria. People who are given honorary doctorate degrees want to be called Doctor. It is not done in all civilised climes. An honorary title cannot be used by its recipient as a prefix to his or her name. The title of a ‘doctor’ is an educational qualification that has to be earned through academic works and not by philantrophy. When it is earned by philantrophy, it is honorary, it is simply a mark of honour. Again, only career diplomatists who have attained the ambassadorial level can use the title of an ambassador even after their retirement. The title is not to be used by political ambassadors following the official end of their tenure as ambassador. In the same vein, only holders of MBBS and PhD degrees can answer the title of a doctor.

Many people have not attended any wall of a university, but have gone for six or twelve months, and even in some cases, two years, theological education, only to graduate and claim the title of a doctor. It is absurd. Even in the academic setting, many scholars purport to be professors. The revelation by the National University Commission of existence of 100 fake professors in the university system last week is a pointer. Besides, professors who do not have a PhD degree are discriminated against, to the extent that those who possess a PhD degree always put at the end of their name, PhD.

The point being made with the foregoing is that there is a standard protocol, an accepted mania in international practice as regards usage of titles. For instance, one should say Mr. Dictator Punch, Professor of Editorial Policy; or Mr. Adviser Adesina, Doctor of Public Affairs; Dr. Joseph Garba, Professor of Military Science, etc.

It is useful to recall the experiences of medical surgeons here. They are all called by the title of a Dr. But after attaining national and global fame, they simply adopt the ordinary title of Mr. The cases of Dr. Akinla and Akingba of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital in the early 1970s refer. Consequently in the very case of PMB, the appropriate way of calling him should be Major General Muhammadu Buhari, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This title not only shows his military feats and rank, but also the carriage of such feats from the military to the political terrain. But possibly for fears of not wanting to remind of his period of repression and to which The Punch wants to specifically draw attention in protest against PMB’s contempt of court orders, PMB ignored his military rank of Major General and simply settled for PMB.

For Shehu Garba to be asking The Punch why it did not query President Olusegun Obasanjo for not complying with the Supreme Court judgment, ordering him to release N30 billion of Lagos State Local Councils funds, or why The Punch did not challenge General Ibrahim Babangida for calling himself President simply shows a little understanding of environmental conditionings in both psychology and philosophy, and particularly, as dynamics of policy making.

Military president Babangida was a dictator per excellence, therefore, what will it matter complaining about it? The unilateral manner General Babangida directed that he should be called a president is the same unilateral manner PMB also gave a directive that he should be called PMB. ‘President,’ as a title, is not and cannot be an educational qualification. It is not a professional title. It is simply a designation to differentiate between a leader who is elected and those that are not. Many leaders do not even answer the title. Muammar Gaddafi never answered such a title.

Even when ‘President’ as a title is justified on the altar of the Constitution, the Adesinas and Garbas of this world easily forget that the most critical controversy and source of political instability in Nigeria is the so-called 1999 Constitution as amended. Why is it so? The Constitution began with, ‘We, the People of Nigeria.’ In the eyes of people who want a united and vibrant Nigeria, completely free from all togas of irrationalities and political chicanery, it is a military Constitution, and therefore, very fraudulent, a Constitution. The mere fact of tolerance of the Constitution does not remove the hostility against it.

PMB and the NDDC Act

Last week, President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) was reported to have written to withdraw the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Board nominees earlier sent to the National Assembly for screening. The withdrawal was in light of its contradiction with the NDDC Act. It obviously breached the provisions of the NDDC Act in terms of the nomination of Dr. Pius Odubu, from Edo State, as Chairman and Mr. Bernard Okumagba, from the Niger Delta, as the Managing Director. This is the main issue and source of protests against PMB.

The provision of the NDDC Act is that the office of the Chairman shall be rotated amongst Member States of the Commission in alphabetical order. The immediate past Chairman, Senator Victor Idoma-Egba, is from the Cross River State, implying that his successor should naturally come from the Delta State and not from Edo. In other words, the letter ‘C’ necessarily comes before letter ‘D’. This argument is also valid for the appointment of the Managing Director. As a result of these preventable protests, PMB has been compelled to withdraw his list of nominees earlier on sent for consideration by the National Assembly.

The point of concern here is the neglect of the rule of law. In other words, didn’t all those advisers or those who suggested names to PMB, know that there is an NDDC Act? Why is PMB always induced into error-making? Whatever is the case, thinking after action is a major source of official corruption in the governance of Nigeria. Corruption is another name for, and an act of, dishonesty. It is a manifestation of a crime per excellence.

The truth of the matter is that, in Nigeria, the more the war effort against corruption is made, the more also the public engagement in sharp practices and embezzlement of public funds, to the extent that corruption has not only been institutionalised, but has also been engaged in, and for that matter, in a scientific manner. The statement of the former Governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu illustrates clearly our point.

Mr. Kalu was charged for embezzling state funds running into billions. He went through a trial that lasted for about 12 years. Before the Court convicted him last week, Mr Orji changed membership of his political party, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), to that of the ruling party, All Progressives Congress (APC), in the ultimate expectation of political protection and avoidance of court conviction. This was not to be and Mr Orji regretted bitterly and said he was used and dropped. Mr. Orji’s clearly shows how Nigeria is governed and why functional development cannot but remained far-fetched.

Sowore’s Re-arrest: Issues and Implications

As regards the re-arrest of Omoyele Sowore, there is nothing to suggest again that Government thinks deeply before acting. The case of Sowore has seriously sent the wrong signals to the international community. Democracy in Nigeria is now internationally seen in very bad light. And true again, the action of the DSS, it should be noted, is not as bad as that of the official justification for the DSS action. Government’s explanation was, at best, an expression of poverty of ideas. Espying the physiology of the re-arrest, three main issues are discernible: threats from the domestic setting, threats from the external setting, and conflict in effective nationality.

At the level of domestic setting, the continued incarceration of Omoyele Sowore has the potential to serve as a catalyst for popular uprising against the Government. For instance, a coalition of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in the country has given a 14-day ultimatum to Government for the unconditional release of Omoyele Sowore as per his bail terms. The coalition is asking PMB to show accountability as President and Commander-in-Chief and address the nation on his commitment to the rule of law and human rights; to release all illegally detained persons by the DSS; and that Government should obey all outstanding court orders.

Additionally, the Nigerian Bar Association has expressed dismay ‘at the exhibition of primitivity, thuggery, insane passion for lawlessness, contempt and disrespect for the rule of law by the agents of the DSS within the precincts of the Federal High Court, Abuja, while attempting to re-arrest Citizen’s Omoyele Sowore and Olawale Bakare.’ In the eyes of the NBA, ‘the disrespect of the court by the DSS is legendary and unrivalled… [T]he officers of the Nigerian Police Force exhibited similar traits when it also invaded the precincts of the High Court, Effurun, to arrest Mr. Ademi-Akpeto, Chairman of Sapele branch of the NBA.’

In light of this, the NBA has demanded that Government and the National Assembly should immediately investigate the DSS assault on the judiciary; the immediate suspension of the Director General of the DSS; the review of the laws setting up the DSS and other security agencies; and the taking over by the Attorney-General of all the political cases or cases involving politically exposed persons currently being handled by the DSS. These demands not only reflect the standpoint of the general public, but also clearly suggest that Government has many battle fronts to contend with. In this regard, in the event Government is unable to quickly douse this deepening tension, Government may have to prepare for the type of mass uprising of the type of Venezuela or Hong Kong, etc. This is why there is always the need for an extensive and deep analysis of foreseeable implications and the need for scenarios building

Apart from the foregoing domestic threats, there are two very disturbing international threats: PMB’s announcement in Egypt of a visa-free policy for all Africans to enter Nigeria with effect from January 2020 and likely sanctionary measures against Nigeria by virtue of the competing Nigerian and American citizenship of Omoyele Sowore. In the case of visa-free policy, it is a very dangerous policy that was once contemplated under former President Olusegun Obasanjo. For various reasons, including the issue of reciprocity; attacks on Nigerians in Africa, especially in South Africa and Ghana; modality of issuance of the visas at the point of entry; problems of duration of stay; and how to deal with overstay of the African visitors; etc, the policy had to be suspended.

Now that PMB has revisited Obasanjo’s policy, the main challenge is now how to deal with the insecurity that is intrinsic in the policy: all manner of people with dual nationality of which one will be African, terrorists who hold many passports, the Al Qaeda terrorists in West Africa, etc, now have unsolicited freedom to come to Nigeria and eventually seek ways to settle down. Land acquisition will become another source of trouble. The controversial agenda of Fulanisation cannot but create monumental uncontrollable problems for Government, especially that, in the thinking of many informed Nigerians, the visa-free policy is to facilitate the inflow of Fulanis into Nigeria. In addition to this, the Boko Haram cannot but also easily have new adherents in such a way that Government will have what it never bargained for. Before implementation take-off of the policy, it is useful to think deeply about the consequences.

Regarding Sowore’s re-arrest by the DSS, the Americans are much interested in the matter because Mr. Sowore has American nationality, which is effective like that of the Nigerian. Mr. Shehu Garba is on record to have said that Nigeria does not take any dictation from any country. Femi Adesina even said that there are many military officers abroad who have joined democratic politics and those politicians who had not gone through the military institution are not necessarily better. Both of them may be right on their points of observation, but they are both missing the point: on the basis of their own hypotheses, is PMB better as a military Head of State or better as an elected president?

Whatever is the case, they have not told us how military-turned politicians abroad have abused or have not abused the rule of law, to enable the determination of whether they are better. Apart from the choice between military and civilian politicians, Shehu Garba has also not told us Nigeria’s capacity to cope with international pressure if Nigeria’s international responsibility is called to question by the international community in the event of charges of human rights infractions.

Nigeria is not thinking deeply before acting. As the French people say, it is ‘incroyable mais vrai, that is ‘unbelievable, but true.’ International conspiracy against the Buhari administration is gradually mounting, for giving the impression that it does not care about the rule of law first. Consequently, in the event Government makes the mistake of not reaching an entente with the civil society organisations on their demand and public protests have to begin, the situation of the protests cannot but have the potential to be more serious than what obtains in Algeria, Hong Kong, Venezuela, etc. In fact, people are most likely to take advantage of the many complaints of nepotism, anti-rule of law sentiments, situation of insecurity, etc, to lead Nigeria into an unwanted disintegration. Thinking before acting is therefore a desideratum in the handling of the Omoyele Sowore saga.