I sit here with a clear conscience,” Muhammadu Buhari last week appealed to Mary Beth Leonard, the new ambassador of the United States to Nigeria. “I took an oath and I am honouring the office.’’
It was painful to hear the Nigeria ruler attempting to explain to a diplomat how difficult it is for him to unify Nigeria, pleading, “I am doing my best.”
To make matters worse, he discredited the same age-old information mechanism the US has used in Nigeria for 60 years.
“During your stay in the country I am asking you to ensure that your sources of strategic information cut across,’’ Buhari told Ms. Leonard.
In the Buhari years, the United States has reported every year, through the Department of State, that Nigeria remains hostage to massive corruption, bad governance and impunity. Buhari never got angry, perhaps because those reports did not challenge him personally.
Daily, local and international journals have reported on the crime scene that is governance in Nigeria, a scene so bad the ruling party actively seduces the biggest crooks in the country.
It is a crime scene so bad he abandons his people to bad hospitals or no hospitals while he spends their money abroad to look after himself, all the time claiming the baban riga of “integrity.”
But then came the Omoyele Sowore trap. The SaharaReporters publisher didn’t set the trap; he was the trap.
But I suppose that when you are an all-powerful General, you do not need the gift of vision. Why look at an ant when you can just crush it?
By last week, curiously, there were only recriminations after those powerful boots failed to crush the ant, Abuja choking under humongous international and local pressure.
The new US ambassador arrived at the crest of the crisis, her country itself adding to its human rights concerns in Nigeria a charge of violation of religious intolerance. President Donald Trump had warned Buhari about it during his state visit last year.
The immediate scandal was the refusal of Nigeria’s secret police to obey court orders to release Sowore. The government had said Buhari could not intervene in the matter. the minister of justice and Attorney General, Abubakar Malami, similarly demurred.
But something, somehow, cranked up the heat, and three days before Christmas, Buhari was seething with anger.
“In international relations, you respect the internal affairs of other countries,” spokesman Femi Adesina grumbled on television. “The U.S. itself has enough to chew solving its own problems not to talk of poke-nosing into that of another country.”
(By the way, children, “pokenose” is not a word in the English language.)
“No man, no country, nobody has appointed them the policeman of the world, let them face their own issues,” Adesina said.
I understood him to mean that Buhari would continue to do whatever he pleased, including nothing at all…that if he wanted to hold any citizen, he would. Just like in the good old 80s.
But then, just days later, the man they said could not be set free was a free man. Sowore did even better (or worse): The SaharaReporters publisher deployed an exclamation mark on his way out, as he set former National Security Adviser, NSA, Sambo Dasuki free as well. It was one of those incomprehensible ironies of life, as Sowore had been a critical reporter of the NSA story.
But think about it: only hours earlier, Buhari was exchanging an ambassador’s Letters of Credence with the colour of his conscience: “I sit here with a clear conscience…”
But that inadvertently illustrates part of the problem. Buhari should be serving, not sitting. Doing good things for an ambassador to report is service.
And Sowore did not lead us here; Buhari’s refusal to embrace democracy did. Only the week before Christmas, he was still regretting that he does not have the absolute powers he enjoyed as maximum ruler nearly 40 years ago, telling his aides that democracy is too slow for his taste.
“…When I came in uniform, I got those who were leading, took them to Kirikiri (prison) and told them they were guilty until they could prove themselves innocent…”
And now, here we are: a government which begs foreigners for favourable reports. How do you write a story of peace in a war, with bloodshed all over?
Back to the rule of law, let us remember how the story began: in February 2016 and July 2017 when two federal courts independently ordered the Buhari government to publish a full record of recovered stolen funds since 1999, including detailed information on the total amount of stolen public assets that had been recovered; what had been spent; and the details of the projects on which they were spent.
The second court ordered the publication of a list of the high-ranking public officials from whom the government had recovered funds since it assumed office and the sums recovered from them, affirming that it owed the legal debt to identify all suspected looters of the public treasury. Both courts ordered the government to disseminate publication of the information widely, including on a dedicated website.
Buhari ignored the first order. And the second.
Worse still, within hours of that second order, the government began a major disinformation plan, with Malami announcing that the government fully agreed with the court and would comply.
Two weeks later, he met with a delegation from SERAP, the organisation which had floored the government in court in both cases. Yes, the Attorney General repeated—but you could smell his insincerity a thousand miles away—the government would publish the information.
He was lying, and that was two and a half years ago. The identity of Nigeria’s biggest looters is Nigeria’s biggest security concern, and nobody was going to breach it. In effect, the fictitious anti-corruption regime has now kept two decades worth of kleptocrats well-protected.
Rule of law? This same Malami was quoting the constitution last Tuesday concerning the release of Sowore and Dasuki, somehow suggesting that his government cares about the law.
If so, where was Malami in September 2018—to take one example—when Buhari accepted the N45 million “contribution” of the Nigeria Consolidation Ambassadors Network towards his re-election, a gift which clearly violates the constitution, the Code of Conduct for Public Officers, and the Electoral Act?
In that light and of the recent governorship chaos supervised by the same government, it is ironic that Buhari is pledging in 2023 to “make sure, using the law enforcement agencies, that elections are free and fair; that nobody uses his office or his resources to force himself on his constituency.”
The truth is that Buhari snatches opportunism from every opportunity, which is why he is redefining Nigeria very badly. Only he and his worshipers, therefore, can understand what he meant at Christmas when he described 2019 as “a very successful year… politically and ethnically.”
And if this is his best, as he told the US, it is no mystery the country is doing far worse than before he arrived. It is the direct result of these new depths of corruption and depravity, nepotism, divisiveness, and contempt for excellence.
(This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials)
Sonala Olumhense, is a former Ombudsman, Editorial Page Editor, and Editorial Board Chairman of The Guardian, his Sonala Olumhense Syndicated (SOS) is currently in syndication by some of Nigeria’s best-known newspapers and websites, including The Guardian, Sunday Trust, Nigerian Observer, and SaharaReporters, where this article was first published.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.