Democracy Day without Democracy

President Muhammadu Buhari on June 12, 2020 addressed the nation in commemoration of the Democracy Day celebration. In a pre-recorded broadcast as is now the norm, the president touched briefly on the journey so far before delving deep into the successes of his administration. He talked about the challenges of Coronavirus (COVID-19) and his administration’s timely intervention, the sustained growth of GDP, diversification of the economy and the agricultural revolution, revamping the power sector, arresting insecurity and strengthening of institutions.

Listening to the president speak, one would be forgiven to think that this was a country on the move, with challenges like any other nation and detailed plans for surmounting them. Problem was, Nigerians weren’t listening, and it’s not just because of the president’s inaudibility, or the fact that they’d heard this message – or variations of it – so often he now sounds like a broken record. Many citizens didn’t tune in because they weren’t even aware there was a celebration. Worse still, others didn’t listen to the speech for the simple fact that they couldn’t care less.

It was just another day when citizens were asked to stay at home – throwing back eerily to the doomy silence that gripped the nation on the president’s swearing-in a year ago.

Buhari’s decision to shift the Democracy Day form May 29 to June 12 was generally well received by Nigerians, though its altruism was dented by suspicion of re-election calculations. It had long been the clamour of the south-west – Nigeria’s swing-vote region – where some states already mark the day with public holidays. For the core north, it was a small price to pay if it ensured Buhari got re-elected. Buhari himself never made a secret of his admiration of late dictator, Gen Sani Abacha, under whose watch, Chief MKO Abiola, presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, died.

Yes, many raised an eyebrow at the move. But you know Buhari has done something right when Femi Fani-Kayode, a stalwart of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and fierce critic of this administration, endorsed the decision.

There was no more fitting day to celebrate democracy in Nigeria than June 12 – that indelible marker of both pain and promise in the nation’s peregrination from oppression to freedom. Like the break of dawn after a dark night, Nigeria was bequeathed its freest and fairest elections right after the throes of military rule. Unencumbered by ethnic or religious considerations, and united in the yearning for a new day, Nigerians voted overwhelmingly for charismatic billionaire and philanthropist, MKO Abiola.

MKO Abiola, June 12, Gani Fawehinmi
MKO Abiola, presumed winner of the June 12 1993 presidential election

They’d had their say, but the khaki boys had one more play. They muzzled the voices of the people one more time and annulled the election. To this day, the country is still reeling from the aftershocks of that treacherous act.

The 2020 Democracy Day celebration came against the backdrop of a myriad of contradictions that saw the country’s constitutionality and sovereignty threatened like never before. And perhaps for the first time in recent history, many are grappling with the sickening suspicion that the president is a hostile element to the state owing to his insouciance, aloofness and counterintuitive moves.

Silent after weeks of heavy bloodletting in Kaduna State, the president finally bestirred himself to address the monstrous state of insecurity after almost 200 persons were killed in separate attacks in Borno and his home state, Katsina.

Speaking on the incidents, he said: “I regret recent sporadic incidents with tragic loss of lives in Katsina and Borno States as a result of criminals taking advantage of COVID-19 restrictions. Security Agencies will pursue the perpetrators and bring them to swift justice.”

It was a typical aloof response from a leader out of kilter with the rest of the country. Weeks earlier, Governor Aminu Masari of Katsina State caused a stir when he announced that he was pulling out of a deal with blood-sucking bandits after they failed to “honour their word”. Prior to that, Buhari had warned same bandits to “surrender or be disgraced”, leaving many wondering what kind of president would burden himself with the reputational damage to armed criminals.

Nigeria, however, got the ultimate disgrace when a Premium Times report showed Sokoto residents had turned to Niger’s army for safety with Nigerian forces overwhelmed. That didn’t stop the president making the decidedly mendacious claim in his Democracy Day address that “all Local Government Areas taken over by Boko Haram insurgents in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States have long been recovered.”

As if to give the lie to the president’s claim and remind Nigerians of the true state of affairs in the restive north-east, Boko Haram, on the morning of Democracy Day, released a clip showing the gruesome execution of Police Inspector Yohanna James and Lance Corporal Michael Oscar.

French philosopher La Rochefoucauld, said, “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye.” Quite clearly, he never figured on Nigeria.

Arguably the biggest criticism levelled against Buhari is nepotism and unabashed bias towards the north. This came to the fore recently in the delayed nomination of Justice Monica Dongban-Mensam – a Christian – as president of the Court of Appeal. The incident came on the trail of a scandal at the Federal Character Commission when for the first time, both the secretary, Mohammed Bello Tukur and nominated Chairman, Dr Muheeba Farida Dankaka are from the same northern region.

It’s no different in zoning of national projects. As of today, Daura, the president’s hometown in Katsina, is home to the following: NAF Hospital, Daura; FEDPOLY Daura; N26bn FUDMA Medic School, Daura; NA Battalion Barracks, Daura; Kano-Daura rail-line; Transport University, Daura and the Katsina Refinery. This is in a country where some regions are in dire need for any form of federal presence.

Buhari’s inauguration for a first term in 2015 was considered an epoch-making event, particularly after his famous declaration that “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody.” Five years later, he has only honoured that position in the breach, putting the country’s hard-earned democracy in reverse gear.

Unable to keep silent amid the decay, Col Umar Dangiwa Umar (retd), former Military administrator of Kaduna State, in a letter to Buhari titled ‘Mr President, please belong to all of us’, raised the alarm over the corrosive clannishness of this administration. Without mincing words, he warned that the president’s lopsidedness in appointments would ruin the nation.

Court orders today are flouted at will, citizens jailed on a whim, the judiciary compromised and legislature hijacked. In concentric circles of abuse of power, state governors – taking a cue from the rascality at the centre – have become mini-despots in their own domains. Kaduna under Nasir el-Rufai is a den of arbitrary arrests, Gov Nyesom Wike has turned to a bulldozer for perceived enemies, Gov Ben Ayade in Cross River is hounding journalists while Gov David Umahi of Ebonyi has all but crowned himself the Emperor of the East.

Amid the chaos, the only option for the average Nigerian to keep sane is to tune out of national news. But apathy is poison for democracy and fuel for tyranny.

It’s no surprise that the Democracy Day speech focused on ‘milestones’ of the administration rather than on policy statements regarding growth of democratic institutions and conducts, rights of citizens and strengthening the electoral process by signing the electoral act.

While Buhari’s address failed to elicit enthusiasm from Nigerians, it was however greeted by fireworks in the nation’s seat of power, Aso Rock. Hours after the speech, Nigerians were shocked to learn of a shooting incident involving aides of First Lady Aisha Buhari and the president’s powerful aide and nephew, Sabiu ‘Tunde’ Yusuf. The cruel irony of a palace shooting on Democracy Day wasn’t lost on Nigerians.

Even more ironic was the fact that on Democracy Day, a sitting governor of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Godwin Obaseki, was disqualified from contesting the party’s primaries.

Nigeria under Buhari has rather inexorably confirmed George Bernard Shaw’s satirical definition of democracy as “the substitution of election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.”

As we enter another democratic year, Buhari could start by looking at Chapter 2 of the constitution which mandates composition of government in a way to “promote national unity and command national loyalty”. This is because there can be no democracy without supremacy of the rule of law and inclusiveness.

With these, other pieces of the jigsaw will slowly fall into place and we may truly have something to celebrate.

Time is fast running out.

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