In no part of the world are images of masked men wielding guns ever endearing. Yes they are justly employed by the state in some occasions but those are regarded as special circumstances; crime or terrorism, high-level operations or executions and in the case of Nigeria, hijacking the National Assembly (NASS).
In Nigeria today, you could say one of the above was teased on Nigeria’s democracy. Though it has failed (for now), there is no way this should not arouse ever more vigilance amongst citizens. Democracy is fragile and is only sustained by resistance to the inevitable recurrence of threats to its entrenchment.
Away in London for vacation, President Muhammadu Buhari’s role in the events that have unfolded at the National Assembly are open to speculation. With its actions, the Department of State Services (DSS), an agency under the control of the Presidency, earned itself an extra badge of dishonour that certainly brings the President’s previous use or tolerance of their gestapo-like theatrics into question.
But as the Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo is the man to whom history has belonged to play a leading role. The directive he issued for the sack of Lawal Daura was as much a necessary move in the face of the DSS’s blatant illegality as it was self-redeeming. The “order from above” rationale, as the DSS operatives described their grounds for restricting legislators access to the National Assembly complex, made the Acting President – the man seating highest above – appear complicit. The imperative was on him to act and it should count in the broad analysis that he took action.
However, it presents a greater question on the level of organisation or disorganisation in the Presidency that such an agency directly under its control would flagrantly go out of the will of its overseers to carry out undemocratic acts. It reflects a disunity of purpose and a proclivity for arbitrariness that has characterised other actions of the DSS. Their role in frustrating the confirmation of Ibrahim Magu by the Senate as the EFCC’s substantive chairman, as well as the detention of citizens like Jones Abiri, for long periods without arraignment or bail are just two of many.
As with when the mace was forcefully taken away from the Senate chambers and the recent barricade set up at the homes of the Senate President and the deputy, the events of this Tuesday should give cause to realise that democratic institutions are only as strong as the will of the people to protect them. The outrage and flood of comments on social media remain coloured along party lines and it is reasonable to judge these developments as the mandatory quadrennial squabble Nigerian politicians engage in before elections. “Freedom comes by struggle” but Dino Melaye and his ad-hoc band are fundamentally fighting to protect their seats and interests as the 9th National Assembly approaches.
But this is also about Nigeria. This is about stabilising a union of very different people who have reluctantly agreed to destiny’s will to bind them under one way of life. This is about stabilising a democratic institution that has had meat for twenty years, yet continues to sulk on the breasts of militarism. There were scenes on Tuesday that will serve as good reference for future activists and policymakers desperately searching for signs made by leaders of this generation to stand up to more insidious challenges to democracy. Undoubtedly the image of the day was Boma Goodhead, the member from Rivers state representing Asalga/Akulga federal constituency in the House of Representatives, daring a DSS operative to shoot at her. It will be one of those images that could earn a place beside the gagging, by policemen, of members of the Bring Back Our Girls group while at their regular sit outs at the Unity Fountain. Without ascribing overflowing prestige to her person, the courage to provide a challenge does count in the reckoning of Nigeria’s journey of institutional structuring.
It is not a given that the 2019 elections will come and go if these series of events become progressively unbecoming. The danger is that emotional reactions to these developments, without due consideration of facts and precedents, will so drift collective consciousness away from objective judgments that the enthusiasm to resist wanes. Citizens’ vigilance in these times will require staying true to the aims of our existence; peace, prosperity and, for the continuity of the state, the freedom of harmless association. That is the only way this fragile experiment works.