It seems that for President Muhammadu Buhari, there appears to be one solution to national problem: more of it.
Is Nigeria facing the challenge of financial corruption? The approach is not to understand corruption as a primal behaviour that will be inevitably unleashed on any society whose social and political mechanisms operate with loose nuts and bolts. Instead, corruption is treated by a further loosening of the system; undermining the rule of law and staging a public crucifixion of those labelled corrupt. To solve the problem of corruption, they thus entangle us in even more corruption.
On Monday, Buhari did it again when he said at an All Progressives Congress caucus meeting that thugs who snatch ballot boxes on Election Day do so at the expense of their lives. He said he had given instructions to the police and the military authorities to be ruthless with alleged election riggers. In essence, the President is saying that his method of dealing with a primitive and criminal behaviour like election rigging is the equally barbaric summary execution of the alleged riggers without even a recourse to the judicial process. He invests both the police and the military personnel with the totalitarian power to locate crime, pronounce judgment on the supposed criminal and execute judgment at their discretion. When you listen to the men of the Nigerian military saying they too are ready to deal with troublemakers during the elections, you begin to wonder if Nigeria left 1984.
To be sure, the rhetoric of “do-or-die” is not new in the Nigerian political system. We were here when, following a particularly bloody post-election violence enacted by Buhari’s followers in 2011, he claimed that “dogs and baboons” would once again be soaked in blood. In 2014, it was the APC national leader, Bola Tinubu, that pronounced that subversion of the elections would result in “rig and roast.” Politicians of all hues and sizes have made similar inflammatory comments; the vocabulary of violence in Nigeria barely metamorphoses. Recently, a rather desperate politician, the Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai, threatened that foreign election observers could go home in “body bags.” El-Rufai of all people should know all about body bags; it was under his watch that 347 Shiites who were massacred by Nigerian soldiers were mass-buried.
There is the temptation to believe that Buhari’s “ruthless” comment is driven by his passion for guaranteeing the integrity of the electoral process, but his history proves otherwise. Lately, in January, he was in Osun State and at some point, he let it slip that his party, the APC, managed to maintain their hold on power in the state through “remote control.” Anyone who witnessed what passed for election in Osun and is not living in denial will connect the obvious and understand the President was gloating about subverting the election in the APC’s favour. As presidential candidate, Buhari has benefit from underage voting and it is not on record that he rues the social failures that make cheating possible and on such scale. Buhari’s asking the police and the military men to forgo the rules of engagement when dealing with ballot boxes snatchers cannot therefore be about guaranteeing the veracity of the electoral process by any means possible. No, it is about power – the use and abuse of it.
Properly labelled, that is “corruption.”
When his supporters, in the bid to justify the President’s gaffe, say that those who have no intention to rig have nothing to fear, they exhibit the extreme of either of two traits: naivete or dishonesty. First, cases of ballot snatching during elections have reduced so significantly that even the President’s aides have had to reach as far back as 10 years ago to find an example to make a case in his defence. Either Buhari is detached from this reality, or he was only just reaching. Second, ours is a country where people have been routinely killed by police and military officers over negligible amounts of money and ego-rubbing. It is wrong – morally and legally – for the President to encourage the use of deadly force against those they suspect to be election riggers without recourse to the law. What stops those policemen from gunning down just about anybody they please and labelling them “ballot box snatchers”? In civilised societies, when a police officer kills a civilian, even an armed one, they have instituted processes whereby they walk back on the incident to make sure that the killing was justified. If the use of deadly force does not pass the smell test, there are consequences for the officer who applied it. That is the ideal we should strive for, not construe ourselves as animals whose lives are so worthless it can be taken on a whim.
Nigeria is a fragile nation, and we do not need the kind of barbarism Buhari promotes. Nobody should be deceived that such a heavy-handed solution will solve the problem of electoral malpractices. We should not be co-opted into sanctioning excessive use of power all because Buhari has to appear “tough.” Where was this “tough” Buhari when herdsmen were rampaging, killing innocent folk from Benue to Kaduna? Was he not bending over backward to make one excuse or the other for their actions? Why was this toughness not extended to cover the cattle rustling, kidnapping and armed robbery in various parts of Nigeria? I acknowledge that people want a society where processes work; where elections represent their unsubverted will. Yes, but we cannot beat a short cut to a functional society if we cannot reason out solutions to the perennial problems of electoral malpractice beyond a resort to violence.
In Nigeria’s history, electoral malpractices such as ballot box-stuffing, snatching etc are not even new. Documented history of Nigerian elections as far back as 1964/1965 shows that such malfeasance was almost a commonplace practice. Rather than recommend violence as a solution, a more introspective leader will ask why certain practices recur in the life of the nation, and how to evolve technological and bureaucratic methods that alleviate these things. Up till the early 20th century, even the US had tainted elections. There was violence, “stomach infrastructure” and open vote-buying. Where would they be today if their presidents had ordered the use of deadly force as a solution? No, a society should be able to leave retrogressive thinking behind and evolve into modernity. In the age of ubiquitous modern technology that can enable instant transmission of results, Buhari’s “ruthless” response brings the same mindset that created Nigeria’s problem as its solution.
Finally, we cannot address the Buhari’s anti-democratic thinking without also confronting the unscrupulous beings who give an intellectual and legal cover to such. No thanks to these fellows, every action and statement that ought to be called out is endlessly justified through a ridiculous stretch of logic. When Buhari claimed that the rule of law could be shelved for the supposedly higher good of fighting corruption, lawyers (some with SAN label) and supposed public intellectuals were there to justify it. These folk should know that to be a Buhari supporter, and a Nigerian should not be mutually exclusive. They should be able to call him out when he strays from the ideals of democracy and not be all over the place, selectively digging out aspects of the law that can help them to justify his faux pas. They should be reminded that election will come and go, and Buhari will eventually leave that office, but the precedent they help to set will come back to bite them. Someday, when they or their loved ones have been ensnared by the evil they helped birth, history will have it written on their epitaphs: this one died in the hands of the monster they helped create.