This intervention has been provoked, not so much by the ambitions of General Buhari to return to power at the head of a democratic Nigeria, as by declarations of support from directions that leave one totally dumbfounded. It would appear that some, myself among them, had been overcomplacent about the magnitude of an ambition that seemed as preposterous as the late effort of General Ibrahim Babangida to aspire yet again to the honour of presiding over a society that truly seeks a democratic future. What one had dismissed was a rash of illusions, brought about by other political improbabilities that surround us, however, is being given an air of plausibility by individuals and groupings to which one had earlier attributed a sense of relevance of historic actualities. Recently, I published an article in the media, invoking the possible recourse to psychiatric explanation for some of the incongruities in conduct within national leadership. Now, to tell the truth, I have begun to seriously address the issue of which section of society requires the services of a psychiatrist. The contest for a seizure of rationality is now so polarized that I am quite reconciled to the fact it could be those of us on this side, not the opposing school of thought that ought to declare ourselves candidates for a lunatic asylum. So be it. While that decision hangs in the balance however, the forum is open. Let both sides continue to address our cases to the electorate, but also prepare to submit ourselves for psychiatric examination.
The time being so close to electoral decision, we can understand the haste of some to resort to shortcuts. In the process however, we should not commit the error of opening the political space to any alternative whose curative touch to national afflictions have proven more deadly than the disease. In order to reduce the clutter in our options towards the forthcoming elections, we urge a beginning from what we do know, what we have undergone, what millions can verify, what can be sustained by evidence accessible even to the school pupil, the street hawker or a just-come visitor from outer space. Leaving Buhari aside for now, I propose a commencing exercise that should guide us along the path of elimination as we examine the existing register of would-be president. That initial exercise can be summed up in the following speculation: “If it were possible for Olusegun Obasanjo, the actual incumbent, to stand again for election, would you vote for him?”
The grounds on which General Buhari is being promoted as the alternative choice are not only shaky, but pitifully naive. History matters. Records are not kept simply to assist the weakness of memory, but to operate as guides to the future. Of course, we know that human beings change. What the claims of personality change or transformation impose on us is a rigorous inspection of the evidence, not wishful speculation or behind-the-scenes assurances. Public offence, crimes against a polity, must be answered in the public space, not in caucuses of bargaining. In Buhari, we have been offered no evidence of the sheerest prospect of change. On the contrary, all evident suggests that this is one individual who remains convinced that this is one ex-ruler that the nation cannot call to order.
Buhari – need one remind anyone – was one of the generals who treated a Commission of Enquiry, the Oputa Panel, with unconcealed disdain. Like Babangida and Abdusalami, he refused to put in appearance even though complaints that were tabled against him involved a career of gross abuses of power and blatant assault on the fundamental human rights of the Nigerian citizenry.
Prominent against these charges was an act that amounted to nothing less than judicial murder, the execution of a citizen under a retroactive decree. Does Decree 20 ring a bell? If not, then, perhaps the names of three youths – Lawal Ojuolape (30), Bernard Ogedengbe (29) and Bartholomew Owoh (26) do. To put it quite plainly, one of those three – Ogedengbe – was executed for a crime that did not carry a capital forfeit at the time it was committed. This was an unconscionable crime, carried out in defiance of the pleas and protests of nearly every sector of the Nigerian and international community – religious, civil rights, political, trade unions etc. Buhari and his sidekick and his partner-in-crime, Tunde Idiagbon persisted in this inhuman act for one reason and one reason only: to place Nigerians on notice that they were now under an iron, inflexible rule, under governance by fear.
The execution of that youthful innocent – for so he was, since the punishment did not exist at the time of commission – was nothing short of premeditated murder, for which the perpetrators should normally stand trial upon their loss of immunity. Are we truly expected to forget this violation of our entitlement to security as provided under existing laws? And even if our sensibilities have become blunted by succeeding seasons of cruelty and brutality, if power itself had so coarsened the sensibilities also of rulers and corrupted their judgment, what should one rightly expect after they have been rescued from the snare of power” At the very least, a revaluation, leading hopefully to remorse, and its expression to a wronged society. At the very least, such a revaluation should engender reticence, silence. In the case of Buhari, it was the opposite. Since leaving office he has declared in the most categorical terms that he had no regrets over this murder and would do so again.
Human life is inviolate. The right to life is the uniquely fundamental right on which all other rights are based. The crime that General Buhari committed against the entire nation went further however, inconceivable as it might first appear. That crime is one of the most profound negations of civic being. Not content with hammering down the freedom of expression in general terms, Buhari specifically forbade all public discussion of a return to civilian, democratic rule. Let us constantly applaud our media – those battle scarred professionals did not completely knuckle down. They resorted to cartoons and oblique, elliptical references to sustain the people’s campaign for a time-table to democratic rule. Overt agitation for a democratic time table however remained rigorously suppressed – military dictatorship, and a specifically incorporated in Buhari and Idiagbon was here to stay. To deprive a people of volition in their own political direction is to turn a nation into a colony of slaves. Buhari enslaved the nation. He gloated and gloried in a master-slave relation to the millions of its inhabitants. It is astonishing to find that the same former slaves, now free of their chains, should clamour to be ruled by one who not only turned their nation into a slave plantation, but forbade them any discussion of their condition.
So Tai Solarin is already forgotten? Tai who stood at street corners, fearlessly distributing leaflets that took up the gauntlet where the media had dropped it. Tai who was incarcerated by that regime and denied even the medication for his asthmatic condition? Tai did not ask to be sent for treatment overseas; all he asked was his traditional medicine that had proved so effective after years of struggle with asthma!
Nor must we omit the manner of Buhari coming to power and the pattern of his ‘corrective’ rule. Shagari’s NPN had already run out of steam and was near universally detested – except of course by the handful that still benefited from that regime of profligacy and rabid fascism. Responsibility for the national condition lay squarely at the door of the ruling party, obviously, but against whom was Buhari’s coup staged? Judging by the conduct of that regime, it was not against Shagari’s government but against the opposition. The head of government, on whom primary responsibility lay, was Shehu Shagari. Yet that individual was kept in cozy house detention in Ikoyi while his powerless deputy, Alex Ekwueme, was locked up in Kiri-kiri prisons. Such was the Buhari notion of equitable apportionment of guilt and/or responsibility.
And then the cascade of escapes of the wanted, and culpable politicians. Manhunts across the length and breadth of the nation, roadblocks everywhere and borders tight as steel zip locks. Lo and behold, the chairman of the party, Chief Akinloye, strolled out coolly across the border. Richard Akinjide, Legal Protector of the ruling party, slipped out with equal ease. The Rice Minister, Umaru Dikko, who declared that Nigerians were yet to eat from dustbins – escaped through the same airtight dragnet. The clumsy attempt to crate him home was punishment for his ingratitude, since he went berserk when, after waiting in vain, he concluded that the coup had not been staged, after all, for the immediate consolidation of the party of extreme right-wing vultures, but for the military hyenas.
The case of the overbearing Secretary-General of the party, Uba Ahmed, was even more noxious. Uba Ahmed was out of the country at the time. Despite the closure of the Nigerian airspace, he compelled the pilot of his plane to demand special landing permission, since his passenger load included the almighty Uba Ahmed. Of course, he had not known of the change in his status since he was airborne. The delighted airport commandant, realizing that he had a much valued fish swimming willingly into a waiting net, approved the request. Uba Ahmed disembarked into the arms of a military guard and was promptly clamped in detention. Incredibly, he vanished a few days after and reappeared in safety overseas. Those whose memories have become calcified should explore the media coverage of that saga. Buhari was asked to explain the vanished act of this much prized quarry and his response was one of the most arrogant levity. Coming from one who had shot his way into power on the slogan of ‘dis’pline’, it was nothing short of impudent.
Shall we revisit the tragicomic series of trials that landed several politicians several lifetimes in prison? Recall, if you please, the ‘judicial’ processes undergone by the septuagenarian Chief Adekunle Ajasin. He was arraigned and tried before Buhari’s punitive tribunal but acquitted. Dissatisfied, Buhari ordered his re-trial. Again, the Tribunal could not find this man guilty of a single crime, so once again he was returned for trial, only to be acquitted of all charges of corruption or abuse of office. Was Chief Ajasin thereby released? No! He was ordered detained indefinitely, simply for the crime of winning an election and refusing to knuckle under Shagari’s reign of terror.
The conduct of the Buhari regime after his coup was not merely one of double, triple, multiple standards but a cynical travesty of justice. Audu Ogbeh, currently chairman of the Action Congress was one of the few figures of rectitude within the NPN. Just as he has done in recent times with the PDP, he played the role of an internal critic and reformer, warning, dissenting, and setting an example of probity within his ministry. For that crime he spent months in unjust incarceration. Guilty by association? Well, if that was the motivating yardstick of the administration of the Buhari justice, then it was most selectively applied. The utmost severity of the Buhari-Idiagbon justice was especially reserved either for the opposition in general, or for those within the ruling party who had showed the sheerest sense of responsibility and patriotism.
Shall I remind this nation of Buhari’s deliberate humiliating treatment of the Emir of Kano and the Oni of Ife over their visit to the state of Israel? I hold no brief for traditional rulers and their relationship with governments, but insist on regarding them as entitled to all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of any Nigerian citizen. This royal duo went to Israel on their private steam and private business. Simply because the Buhari regime was pursuing some antagonistic foreign policy towards Israel, a policy of which these traditional rulers were not a part, they were subjected on their return to a treatment that could only be described as a head masterly chastisement of errant pupils. Since when, may one ask, did a free citizen of the Nigerian nation require the permission of a head of state to visit a foreign nation that was willing to offer that tourist a visa.?
One is only too aware that some Nigerians love to point to Buhari’s agenda of discipline as the shining jewel in his scrap-iron crown. To inculcate discipline however, one must lead by example, obeying laws set down as guides to public probity. Example speaks louder than declarations, and rulers cannot exempt themselves from the disciplinary strictures imposed on the overall polity, especially on any issue that seeks to establish a policy for public well-being. The story of the thirty something suitcases – it would appear that they were even closer to fifty – found unavoidable mention in my recent memoirs, YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DOWN, written long before Buhari became spoken of as a credible candidate. For the exercise of a changeover of the national currency, the Nigerian borders – air, sea and land – had been shut tight. Nothing was supposed to move in or out, not even cattle egrets.
Yet a prominent camel was allowed through that needle’s eye. Not only did Buhari dispatch his aide-de-camp, Jokolo – later to become an emir – to facilitate the entry of those cases, he ordered the redeployment – as I later discovered – of the Customs Officer who stood firmly against the entry of the contravening baggage. That officer, the incumbent Vice-president is now a rival candidate to Buhari, but has somehow, in the meantime, earned a reputation that totally contradicts his conduct at the time. Wherever the truth lies, it does not redound to the credibility of the dictator of that time, General Buhari whose word was law, but whose allegiances were clearly negotiable.
Professor Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright and poet. He is the first African to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature (1986). This article was first published in January 2007 on Sahara Reporters with the title, The Nigerian Nation Against General Buhari.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.