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Author: Eagletale
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Buhari and the fifth columnists



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One of the most chilling claims I have ever heard in my life was allegedly made by the chief security officer to a Nigerian military ruler years ago. Nicely confronted by journalists over his suffocating influence on the head of state as well as the spate of bombings and state-sponsored assassinations in the country, he reportedly replied: “I am the CSO to the head of state and commander-in-chief. I have the duty to protect him with everything and anything, including taking out those who pose a threat to him. Whatever I do is to protect him and he knows that very well. That is my job.” That precisely is the warped logic behind the workings of “state security” in Nigeria.

The drama surrounding the arrest, detention, bail, release and re-arrest of Mr Omoyele Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters and former presidential candidate of the Africa Action Congress (AAC), returned me to the memory lane. Could it be that President Muhammadu Buhari, as generally believed, was behind the recklessness of the Department of State Services (DSS) or the DSS was just behaving like the CSO, believing it can do “everything and anything” to protect the president? The difference does not really matter. The fact is that the DSS was behaving badly and Buhari did not say or do anything to show that he disapproved of the conduct.

I was pleased when the DSS freed Sowore on Christmas Eve following a pronouncement by Mallam Abubakar Malami, the attorney-general of the federation. There was even a bonus: Colonel Sambo Dasuki (rtd), former national security adviser who is undergoing trial over the $2.1 billion security funds allegedly diverted to the 2015 elections, was also released years after being granted bail by a court of law. Dasuki owes his freedom to Sowore, ironically. Unlike Sowore, not many people really cared about Dasuki’s fate because of the nature of the allegations against him. Yet, allegations remain allegations until they are proved and convictions secured in a court of law.

There are several arguments out there over what led to the release of Sowore and Dasuki. PUNCH, which took the rare step of returning to Buhari’s military rank and calling his government a regime in protest against the disobedience of court orders, believes its editorial position paid off. They were released two weeks after the stinging editorial. Some argued that it was because some American lawmakers wrote to Malami to express their displeasure (Sowore is also an American citizen). Many said it was Sowore’s wife, Opeyemi, that did the trick. Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, opposition figure, said key government insiders, led by Mallam Abba Kyari, Buhari’s chief of staff, did the job.

Malami, apparently responding to those who said the decision to release Sowore and Dasuki was influenced by the US lawmakers, said “the only reasons revolved around our commitment to the rule of law, obedience to court orders and compassionate grounds”, maintaining that “even if we received any communication from them that will never be the basis on the part of the Federal Government to obey or disobey court orders emanating from Nigeria”. As for me, all I want is respect for court orders. I would not spend much time wondering if it was PUNCH or American congressmen that got the job done. All I care about is: obey the courts! Just do it!

What I kept asking myself when Sowore was being held for so long by the DSS was: why would Buhari want him kept in the cooler endlessly? How much of a threat is he to this government? I understand well that Sowore made a lot of wild statements in the countdown to the aborted launch of his Revolution Now sit-outs — including saying that the government would be overthrown. The security agencies might have become jittery that the protests could snowball into a nationwide mayhem — the way President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was overthrown by similar demonstrations — but I am still not persuaded that Sowore is such a humongous threat to “national security”.

If we make an excuse for Buhari that he is not behind the actions of DSS — an untenable justification, I would immediately add — it can only suggest that he is not in charge of his government, and that is even more damaging. The Buhari that was sold to the Nigerian electorate in 2015 is one who is strong-willed, one who is a genuine covert to constitutional democracy and one who would offer Nigeria the needed leadership. It, therefore, beggars belief to suggest that he is not in charge, that it is just some power-drunk guys calling the shots. I refuse to believe this. I would not excuse Buhari on any grounds. It is his government and the buck must stop on his desk.

Looking back, I remember when Buhari was military head of state between 1983 and 1985. There were cases of extraordinary highhandedness. One was the invasion of the Apapa home of Chief Obafemi Awolowo during which his chapel was desecrated by soldiers. His international passport was seized and he could not travel for his medicals. Also, the pension of Alhaji Shehu Musa, secretary to the federal government (SGF) under President Shehu Shagari, was stopped. Buhari would, years later, deny knowledge of these infractions, accusing “fifth columnists” in his government of being the masterminds just to discredit him and make him unpopular.

Buhari said that shortly before he was overthrown in August 1985, he got security reports that some members of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) — the country’s highest decision-making body — were unhappy with him, particularly some decisions and actions that affected their interests. He said he brought up the issue himself at an SMC meeting, asking council members if there should be two laws in Nigeria, “one for us as SMC members and the other for ordinary Nigerians”. He said that even though Babangida, after the coup, accused him of arrogating knowledge to himself, no single decision was taken without it being discussed, debated and approved by the SMC.

With this at the back of my mind, I am forced to ask Buhari today: are there “fifth columnists” in your government again and are they working hard to make you unpopular locally and globally under the pretext of “protecting” your government? If I wanted to be nice to them, I would say the “fifth columnists” may mean well for you, not that they are working actively to undermine you and your government. I would say they love you so much that they believe they can do “everything and anything” to protect you and secure your government. But “meaning well” and “doing well” are two things that are not necessarily related.

Mr President, you have lamented several times the big difference between a military regime and a democratic order. Under the former, you held executive, legislative and judicial powers. In fact, Supreme Court pronouncements were subject to final approval by the SMC. Under the latter, the powers are well separated in the interest of checks and balances as integral to the presidential system of government. No matter how slow and frustrating the democratic system is, that is what you signed up for, Mr President, and there is no escape route. So when the security agencies try to undermine the courts, it is your duty to call them to order. You know this.

Mr President, while receiving Abuja residents on Wednesday during the now-traditional Christmas visit, you said and I quote: “I swore to hold this office in accordance with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and God willing, I will follow the system diligently to the end of my term and I hope history will be kind to me…” That is it, Mr President. If you care so much about history, then you have a golden opportunity to write it. Sir Winston Churchill, the war-time British prime minister, once said: “History will be kind to me because I intend to write it.” With the three years and a few months left for you in office, you have to reshape the negative narratives about you.

Mr President, even if all these infractions are being perpetrated by “fifth columnists” in your government and you are not privy to them or you are only playing along because of the general framing as “national security”, you have a golden opportunity to leave a different impression by the time you finish your term in 2023. Do not allow the “fifth columnists” and the hawks in your government to ruin this opportunity under the guise of “national security”. In the end, it is your name, your reputation and your legacy — not theirs — that the future generations will remember. History can be nice to you if you decide to write it with your own hands, figuratively speaking.