BY GIMBA KAKANDA
As one of the frontline salesmen of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the former Minister of Information, the late Prince Tony Momoh set the tone for President Muhammadu Buhari’s government. A few months through Buhari’s first term, and amused by the mass hysteria of the time, he made a frightening appeal to Nigerians. “At the end of the day, if Buhari doesn’t perform, stone us,” he said. He was convinced that the man he marketed aggressively across the country as the answer to the people’s prayer was “going to perform.”
When Buhari returned to seek votes for another four-year term, Momoh insisted the government’s performance had not reached the point of provoking the violence he once requested to keep them on their toes, and that critics of the government merely had “vested interest.” He manufactured a series of excuses to justify the shortcomings of the government, and then underlined the expanding membership size of the ruling party, which was a measure of palpable sycophancy by political opportunists, as proof of the government’s popularity.
Momoh’s partisan allegiance to the APC was unfaltering till his death in 2021. But his appeal for violent intervention as a method of measuring Buhari’s performance, which he restated in various interviews, underlined the audacity of the political class in their dealings with the public. The party stalwart must have studied the psychology of Nigerians and found as unlikely the scenarios of such violence in a society where victims of poor governance submit themselves as willing foot-soldiers of their oppressors in elective and appointive offices. President Buhari and his cabinet stand out for their characteristic commitment to refusing to take expressed responsibility for national tragedies under their watch, and wherever they do, they are merely bowing to sustained public outrage.
Less than a year to the end of Buhari’s terms in office, Nigeria is far from the dreamland promised when the late Momoh began to paint the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) as villains of the Nigerian story. At the time of writing this, Nigerian public universities have been shut down by the striking Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) for about four months, Nigerians are enduring fuel scarcity at filling stations, diesel scarcity and price hikes have disrupted operations and costs of businesses, the national grid has collapsed (again!), passengers abducted during the March attack on Abuja – Kaduna train are still in captivity, and the politicians tasked with fixing the problems are competing to outspend and outsmart one another in procuring delegates to emerge as presidential flag-bearer of the ruling party in the 2023 presidential elections.
If Nigerians were to take up Momoh’s challenge, the rains of stones that would fall on Nigerian politicians would have been fatal. Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, until recently Buhari’s Minister of Transportation, would have been engaging in something other than running for President. He would have probably been nursing his wounds and struggling to explain to Nigerians not just why the train was bombed, but the reason some of the passengers are still in captivity.
Were Nigerians to take up Momoh’s challenge, the Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, who had theorized solutions to end ASUU strikes in his days as an influential armchair critic, would have long left office and embarked on a quiet life in hiding. Nigeria has endured four long strikes since Buhari took charge, and about seventeen months of Nigerian students’ academic calendar have been wasted under his watch. The wasted months are enough for earning two master’s degrees abroad.
President Buhari doubles as the nation’s Minister of Petroleum Resources and is responsible for the energy crises rippling across the country, including the politics of fuel subsidy. Nobody has come forward to take responsibility for this nationwide hardship. Not even Timipre Sylva, the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources. Mr. Farouk Ahmed, the chairman of the newly created Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority, an agency tasked with overseeing the local value chain of the product, is also enjoying his time in office. The fourth of them is Mele Kyari, the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). None is at any risk of losing their job.
Nigeria’s descent into near anarchy is also a tragedy for which those in charge of the nation’s security have escaped the wrath popularized by Momoh. Their rush to fawn over the regime while national security suffers has allowed them to get away with their excesses. Buhari’s first set of service chiefs—Chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Olonisakin; Chief of Army Staff, Lt-Gen. Tukur Buratai; Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok Ekwe Ibas; and Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar—were underwhelming and, despite the sustained outrage to have the overstayed quartet sacked over their glaring failure to protect the country, the President was indifferent. Of course, nobody could even flirt with the idea of stoning them. At least, not after what happened in Zaria in the very year Buhari was elected.
On 12th December 2015, the Nigerian Army cracked down on the Gyellesu neighborhood of Zaria after an unflattering encounter between the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai, and members of the Shiite group, Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). The consequent carnage shocked the world. About 350 members of the Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky-led group, which was the official estimate, were killed during the two-day siege. It was Buhari’s first opportunity to demonstrate his admission to being a “reformed democrat” during his campaign less than a year earlier.
That chance to show Nigerians his sensitivity to human rights came during his inaugural media chat. Reminded of that mass murder in Zaria, he asked the interviewer why the Shiites would touch the chest of a military officer, playing down the real tragedy—extrajudicial killings of hundreds of the very citizens he was sworn into office to protect. The President was more hurt by the reported disrespect for the institution that produced him even when the panel set up to investigate the killings was yet to submit its findings.
That incident could have been the first window to remind the APC government of Mr. Momoh’s case on their behalf, but the sectarian hatred of the Shiites in the Muslim North eroded such sympathy. The victims were left at the mercy of trigger-happy policemen who shot at them to disrupt their protests for justice. The horror el-Zakzaky and family endured until their acquittal last year by a Kaduna High Court was far from the promise that propelled Buhari to power.
Nobody has paid for that crime. The judicial commission of inquiry into the massacre indicted the Army officers who authorized it, recommending their prosecution but Buratai ended up as the hero of the story. This blood-stained legacy earned him a high position as Nigeria’s Ambassador to the Benin Republic when he vacated the office six years after overseeing the disintegration of Nigeria’s internal security.
Like Buratai, Buhari’s ministers seem sure that there are no consequences for their performance in office. This was also the story of his first tenure. Aside from the Minister of Agriculture, Sabo Nanono, and his counterpart in the Ministry of Power, Saleh Mamman, none of them has had a reason to fear cabinet reshuffle or compete to stay in office despite the documented corruption scandals that trail them. The President’s serial indifference even provoked the House of Representatives last April. Alarmed by the escalating security crises in the country, for which nobody had been held responsible, the lawmakers called for a state of emergency on the nation’s security and the sacking or resignation of the National Security Adviser, Major-General Babagana Monguno (rtd.), and the Minister of Defence, Major-General Bashir Magashi (rtd.). The lawyers were also quick to admit that they had not done enough in their oversight of the executive arm.
The peak of Buhari’s sheer disregard for the people is the announcement of state pardon of 159 prisoners by the National Council of State, among whom were former Governors Jolly Nyame and Joshua Dariye, who had been jailed for stealing billions of Naira during their stewardships as Governors of Taraba and Plateau States, respectively. The symbolism of such a decision was haunting because their conviction came at a huge cost, and it took the prosecutors about thirteen years to secure the justice.
Even for the half-finished trials initiated by the Buhari-led government, which are mostly interventions triggered by media coverage and public outrage, the eventual lack of definite verdicts seems like systemic cover-ups or soft-landing. Since the former EFCC boss, Ibrahim Magu, was relieved of his command over allegations of corruption, the findings of the investigative panel set up to assess his stewardship are yet to be made known. Instead of a verdict, he was promoted to the rank of Assistant Inspector-General of the Police.
This was also the story of Hadiza Bala-Usman, who was suspended as the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority over allegations of corruption only for the same government that relieved her of that plum office to say, after a long silence, that she wasn’t guilty of the charges. This has also played out in the case of DCP Abba Kyari. This impunity is the norm. The chaos that’s consuming the country is the invention of this culture of letting transgressors get away with their crimes and the indifference of the public officials. If Nigerians had taken up Momoh’s challenge, there wouldn’t have been a country left to run halfway through Buhari’s government.
GIMBA KAKANDA Founder of DMC, an Abuja-based communication and strategy consulting firm, Gimba Kakanda is a notable public affairs analyst, media and foreign policy consultant and author. He is a regular contributor for Aljazeera and several Nigerian publications, including Daily Trust. Kakanda holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE) and is an alumnus of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.