It has been 20 years since Nigeria returned to a hard-fought democratic system of government. Four since President Muhammadu Buhari, reinvented himself as a “converted democrat” in a well-received Chatham House speech in London, and only a few short months since Buhari was reelected for a second term in office. By all means, it would seem that democracy has been good to Buhari – he won the 2015 elections on his fourth attempt. But has Buhari been good for democracy?
Walking the talk is very different from mouthing well-sounding words and President Buhari has shown over and over again that he is far from committed to the basic tenets of democracy. As a matter of fact, it would seem that the Buhari administration has little clue as to how democracies function. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the continued detention of Omoyele Sowore, the activist and former presidential flagbearer for the African Action Congress (AAC).
Sowore, a former student leader and founder of the New York-based news site, Sahara Reporters, was picked up in his hotel room in August by men of the Department of State Security (DSS), two days before the start of #RevolutionNow, a series of planned protests which he was championing. The federal government has held on to Sowore well beyond the 45-day limit set on keeping political detainees in custody without trial, only recently sticking him with spurious charges of treasonable felony, cyberstalking and money laundering.
Despite two separate court orders demanding his release and weeks after meeting bail conditions, according to his lawyers, the Buhari administration has continued to infringe on the rights of a citizen of the federal republic by keeping him in custody.
The office of the DSS has been particularly irresponsible, bending the limits of common sense, constitutional law and rational argument in a bid to justify the impunity with which it carries out attacks against the collective will of the people. This month, DSS operatives opened fire to disperse demonstrators and journalists covering protests calling for Sowore’s freedom outside the agency’s office.
One has to wonder what it is about a man and his voice that has made the Buhari administration terrified enough to deploy the entire might of the state against an individual where it should be using the same resources to protect his life and guarantee his dignity. But it is far from surprising as the Buhari administration has a long history of holding on to political opponents and disobeying court orders. Dasuki Sambo, the former National Security Adviser and Nnamdi Kanu of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) readily come to mind. The media and press has particularly borne the brunt of the Buhari administration’s aversion to criticism as journalist Jones Abiri was released after spending over two years in detention.
If Umaru Musa Yar’Adua envisioned the sanctity of the rule of law as a guiding principle by which governments must submit to, Buhari has done exactly the opposite, riding roughshod over the judiciary by unconstitutionally removing the former Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen from office merely weeks to a general election and paying only casual regard to court pronouncements. All of these regardless of advice and protestations from experts and concerned Nigerians alike.
It is a crying shame that the only language the Buhari administration understands and wields so liberally is that of force. This force is repeatedly being used to mete out violence against citizens and violence against institutions that are responsible for protecting the state. This is after all a government that in 2019, considers closure of land borders a rational economic and trade policy.
But on the matter of Omoyele Sowore, the Buhari administration has got it hopelessly wrong. This newspaper calls for the immediate release of a man who since his University undergraduate days has been in the trenches, fighting for freedom and the rights that Buhari and members of his administration so casually enjoy now.
The constitution guarantees not just freedom to exist, but freedom of speech, assembly and protest. No government, however legitimate its mandate is above criticism and as has been demonstrated loudly from Hong Kong to Chile, citizens are entitled to their rights of protest. A citizenry that is alive to their responsibilities of holding government to account makes for an active, inclusive society and such a society is indeed better for it.
When the history books are written, Muhammadu Buhari is likely to go on record as the democratically elected president who has done the most to weaken important institutions of state through brazen antidemocratic, irresponsible and unconstitutional acts. The continuous detention of Omoyele Sowore is a stain not just on democracy but an assault on human decency. Until he is released and Nigerians from all walks of life should rise to the challenge, and must not tire of denouncing such bad behavior.
The Buhari government is losing its mind on the matter of Omoyele Sowore and we are here to tell them so. #FreeSowore