In my phone conversation with SaharaReporters publisher, Mr Omoyele Sowore, shortly after he was released on bail by the Directorate of State Security (DSS) last Thursday evening, he informed me of the court appearance scheduled for the next day. What he could not have envisaged was the unfortunate courtroom drama that has become an international embarrassment for Nigeria. No matter how much spin officials have tried to put on the ugly incident, Sowore’s continued incarceration is not in any way helpful to the administration.
On Tuesday, Dr Reuben Abati dealt with the salient issues in his piece titled, ‘Omoyele Sowore: Portrait of a Life in Protest’, which I strongly recommend. Where I slightly differ is the impression created that what is happening is new. It is not. In Nigeria, tension has always existed between those who believe individual liberties can be infringed upon under the guise of national security and those who contend that the courts should be the final arbiter in such matters. The problem is that in a society that has elevated sycophancy to the level of ideology, and where some have arrogated to themselves a monopoly on patriotism, the former almost always wins the argument.
By calling for a meaningless ‘Revolution’ on television, Sowore posed no threat to this government. But you cannot convince those who have been conditioned to believe that regime protection is equivalent to national security otherwise. History has shown that when operatives of a government casually abridge the rights of citizens under excuses hinged on ‘the reason of state’, as is the norm under the current administration, it is the very foundation of democracy that they put in danger. Under no circumstance should the private whim of any individual, however highly placed, be disguised as national security. Nor should we allow autocratic flirtations to undermine our fragile democracy, even with all its imperfections.
What makes the current situation most unfortunate is the manner in which the judiciary has been desecrated by a government that has consistently shown scant regard for the rule of law. With the legislature already tamed, it is noteworthy that condemnations for last Friday’s brigandage are coming from unexpected quarters. On Tuesday, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State, a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) added his own voice: “Will people go and desecrate our courtrooms and we keep quiet? The bar must condemn it. There is no explanation anybody can give you. Somebody calls it drama. How? What we saw was not drama, you must stand up to condemn the SSS for what they did in Abuja.”
Meanwhile, there are also those within government who feel uncomfortable with what is going on; not necessarily because they like Sowore but rather because of the collateral damage his continued incarceration has inflicted on our country. They may not speak out because it is not expedient to do so, but it is important to understand that not all public officials are carried away when security agencies misbehave under the dubious pretext of ‘national security’.
I recounted my own experience in my book on the Yar’Adua years. The summary of it is that on 5th May 2009, there was a rerun election (ordered by the Court of Appeal) in just two local governments to complete a closely fought gubernatorial election in Ekiti State between the then incumbent Governor Segun Oni of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Dr Kayode Fayemi of the defunct Action Congress (AC). An innocuous but suggestive campaign song by the then House of Representatives Speaker, Hon Dimeji Bankole at a rally attended by my late principal, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, drew the ire of the opposition which led to my statement that military troops would not be deployed. Not only did I have the authority of my boss to offer that assurance, I was in fact privy to a meeting he held with the then Inspector General of Police, Mr Mike Okiro on how police would be mobilized from neighbouring states to provide security for the election. There was no role for the military in the plan.
However, on the eve of the election, some powerful forces went ahead to order deployment of military troops into the streets of Ekiti without presidential authorization. Knowing that the integrity of my boss was at stake, not to mention my own credibility, I moved quickly—with the assistance of the ADC, Mustapha Dennis Onoyiveta, who remains till today a close personal friend and then Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Abdulrahman Dambazau who was abroad at the time—to checkmate them in a manner they probably never expected. The troops were recalled within hours. But without deference to my position as presidential spokesman, and probably because the election did not go as planned, I received a letter from the DSS headquarters, asking me to report for interrogation. Despite my initial inclination to ignore them, because I was ready for a fight, I eventually honoured the invitation from which I learnt quite a bit.
I never told President Yar’Adua of my experience and I also kept it away from the media because it would not in any way help the government I was serving. Interested readers can pick up the full account (on pages 127 to 134) in my book, ‘Power, Politics and Death’, but the point I am trying to make is the misuse to which security can be deployed in our country to serve personal cum partisan ends. And the man in whose name and authority the shenanigans are committed may himself be a mere hostage. I am well aware of how dubious security reports, which are never in the public domain, can be used to persuade a president about a course of action that is neither in his interest nor that of the country. Therefore, Sowore’s unfortunate episode has provided an opportunity to interrogate the way the rights of citizens are easily trampled upon in Nigeria by those who are paid to protect us.
Last weekend, PUNCH newspaper published a story of how Nigerians who have been declared missing for years are actually in the detention centre of DSS. Not unexpectedly, because they are not prominent citizens like Sowore, I have not seen any outrage over the report. In genuine democracies, intelligence agencies are subject to the constitution and the judicial process. In the United States, from where we copied and pasted the presidential system of government that we practice today, those who head these agencies and their officers can be subpoenaed in both civil and criminal cases, and they are answerable to the courts. But in Nigeria, people who head some of these agencies act above the law. To compound the problem, we now have an attorney general who gives latitude to pick and choose what court order to obey and which one to disregard.
The fundamental obligation of the state to its citizens is the protection of life and property. What distinguishes civilized democracies from barbaric banana enclaves is respect for the rule of law. Sadly, a discernible gangster ethos now defines the character of the Nigerian state. This manifests in the impunity with which public institutions are degraded to further private ends as we have seen in the Sowore travails and the contempt with which a Federal High Court in Abuja was treated. This utter disregard for all rules explains why citizens presumed to be missing are now found to be in the detention centres of the DSS.
With his government becoming increasingly notorious for trampling on the rights of citizens and rendering the judiciary ineffectual, President Buhari has a responsibility to come clean and rein in those who abuse their powers. This will enable us to look beyond his person and properly focus our attention on those persons and institutions who subvert our individual and collective rights. We must identify, name and shame those who, by their actions, threaten our national cohesion and undermine individual liberty. It is also imperative that the DSS be reformed in line with its mandate “to protect and defend the Federal Republic of Nigeria against domestic threats, to uphold and enforce the criminal laws of Nigeria, and to provide leadership and criminal justice services to both federal and state law-enforcement organs.”
Now that the fight has reached the home-front, no one can pretend all is well in the country. Whatever may be the merit of her case against Mallam Shehu Garba—and the allegations are quite weighty—there is a line in the statement released yesterday by the First Lady, Mrs Aisha Buhari that is very telling: “I had to intervene to save the innocent staff from losing their means of livelihood by involving the DSS in order to ascertain roles played by key actors in the saga.” When you have a vicious power struggle not only within the government but also within the First Family, with everyone trying to outdo the other, it is easy for security agencies to go rogue because they are serving different, often conflicting, interests. As an aside, I do not understand the game Mrs Buhari is playing to continue to publicly call out her husband when conventional wisdom teaches that to whom you can whisper you do not need to shout. The talk on the streets is that the dysfunction within the First Family (to which Nigerians are entertained on a regular basis) is symptomatic of the state of affairs in Nigeria today. The president should call his house to order.
However, the overriding issue now is the infringement of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and the rule of law by the DSS. Ordinarily, on that ground alone, its leadership ought to be subpoenaed by the National Assembly to explain why the agency should ride rough shod over the constitution. Regrettably, under the present circumstance, nobody expects that to happen. But what is ignored in all this is that once the larger national issues of the sanctity of individual rights and the supremacy of the rule of law are subordinated under regime survival, we risk enthroning an autocracy. The reality is nearer because under the current dispensation in Nigeria today, the executive branch has practically consumed both the legislature and the judiciary.
All said, President Buhari must understand that everything being done under the pretext of security in Nigeria today is done in his name. For that reason, he must call the DSS to order not only on Sowore but also on those Nigerians who are being needlessly detained without trial.
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