One major issue that was used against the presidential ambition of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) from 2003 when he began to contest elections until 2015 when he was successful was his dictatorial background. His career was all in the military. It culminated in his becoming the head of a military dictatorship that ran Nigeria from December 31, 1983 to August 27, 1985.
During his era as a military dictator, Buhari was known and feared, especially because of his Decree 4 (Public Officers Protection against False Publications), which he promulgated soon after sacking the civilian regime of Alhaji Shehu Shagari.
That decree made it an offence to write anything that embarrassed the regime of Buhari – whether it was true or false. That law effectively gagged the media and the public.
The next action that showed his inflexibility, even when wrong, was the decision to backdate the death penalty decree against drug trafficking and using it to execute Bernard Ogedengbe in 1985, who had been arrested before the law was promulgated. In spite of the pleas to spare his life – as an action that was against all tenets of natural justice – Ogedengbe was tied to the stake and executed by a firing squad at the Bar Beach, Lagos with two others.
Given the fear that Buhari would find it hard to subject himself to the constitution as a civilian leader, he gave several assurances that he was a “converted democrat.” One memorable assurance was in the speech he delivered at the Chatham House in London, United Kingdom on February 26, 2015, a month to the election that made him President. That speech helped him to win the hearts of many. He said among other things:
“I have heard and read references to me as a former dictator in many respected British newspapers, including the well-regarded The Economist… Let me say without sounding defensive that dictatorship goes with military rule, though some might be less dictatorial than others. I take responsibility for whatever happened under my watch.
“I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future. So, before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms and is subjecting himself to the rigours of democratic elections for the fourth time.”
However, old habits die hard. Having been used to issuing commands all through his military career, Buhari has not been happy with the demands of democracy which insist on one following laid-down procedures to get every policy executed. The process is usually slow.
In addition, those whom his aides have investigated and found culpable of one infraction or the other cannot be summarily tried and sentenced as done within the military. They have to go through the courts, which are not controlled by him. Sometimes, he watches as those he believes are guilty are set free by the law court based on one technicality or the other. In addition, he watches as legislators argue over his policies. Sometimes, those policies are delayed or even aborted by the legislators.
Therefore, he sees the judiciary and the legislature as enemies of the nation that need to be dealt with. And so he has disobeyed the decisions of the courts on many occasions, like the decisions to release Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. In addition, the homes of some judges were invaded at night; they were arrested and tried. Not much was achieved through that. Last August at the 2018 Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in Abuja, Buhari made it clear that national security must take precedence over rule of law. That comment drew much criticism from Nigerians.
The recent onslaught against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, was another episode in that drama. However, because Onnoghen is the head of the judiciary, it is attracting a lot of attention locally and internationally.
There are three arms of government: the Legislature (the Senate and the House of Representatives), the Executive (the President and his aides), and the Judiciary (the Supreme Court and other courts of the country). The Judiciary usually comes first because without laws, there is no country or democracy. It is the law (constitution) that empowers someone to be president over others. It is also the law that stipulates how long the person should hold that post and what functions the person should carry out while in office. Without the law, there will be anarchy.
However, the Executive has a larger-than-life image because it is in charge of implementation of policies as well as administration. It is the arm that has more items on its plate. While the Executive carries out its roles, the Judiciary ensures that the Executive does not overstep its bounds. Above the three of them is the Constitution.
There is separation of powers among them. None of them lords it over the other. They serve as checks and balances to one another. None of them can be disciplined, suspended or sacked by the other. For any of them to be suspended or sacked, there is a stipulated procedure, which usually involves the two thirds of the National Assembly endorsing it.
The three arms of government are like three directors of an organisation on an equal rank but with different functions: the Marketing Director, the Finance Director, and the Human Resources Director. The Marketing Director is usually the most visible and most influential. He is seen more in the media. He controls big projects and programmes. But he does not have the powers to sack the Finance Director or Human Resources Director.
By suspending the CJN and appointing a so-called acting CJN, Buhari has placed himself above the constitution. His speech while purportedly suspending the CJN betrayed his mindset and lack of understanding of the principle of separation of powers. He assumes that as President, the Judiciary and Legislature are like ministers and other aides who are there to help him achieve his goals. In reality, the Judiciary and the Legislature exist to achieve their own respective goals, not that of the Executive.
In the speech, President Buhari said inter alia: “As you are all aware, the fight against corruption is one of the tripod [sic] of policies promised to Nigerians by this administration. Needless to say that it is an existential policy which must be given adequate attention and commitment by all the three arms of government. The efforts of the Executive will amount to nothing without the cooperation of the Legislature and especially the Judiciary.
“It is no secret that this government is dissatisfied with the alarming rate in which the Supreme Court of Nigeria, under the oversight of Justice Walter Onnoghen, has serially set free persons accused of the most dire acts of corruption, often on mere technicalities, and after quite a number of them have been convicted by the trial and appellate courts.”
In the mind of the President, he is fighting against corruption and trying to save Nigeria from evil people. That is the messianic persona that makes a leader break the law, because he believes he is acting in the interest of the nation against enemies of the nation. The result is that rights of the people are breached according to the whims and caprices of the leader. The constitution of the country is routinely disregarded by the leader because he believes he is doing what is right.
That is completely against the tenets of democracy. Democracy does not run on the goodwill of a leader. It runs on the goodwill of the law. Because it is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, democracy frowns on the possibility of any leader breaching the law to do what is assumed to be right. It is the law that determines what is right, and not the leader. Once the leader usurps that role, he becomes a dictator. Sadly, Buhari has gradually moved to that realm.