Ending Nigeria’s March Towards Democratic Recession By Ayo Olukotun

The term, democratic recession, may be somewhat fuzzy and hard to pin down; but thanks to University of Stanford Professor, Larry Diamond, it has found its way into academic and popular discourse on democratic backsliding. It was only two years ago that Diamond, in an update of an earlier seminal article published in the influential Journal of Democracy, entitled, Facing up to the Democratic Recession, first used the concept. There is, of course, a debate not just about the concept but about the underlying assumption regarding the extent to which democracy, globally, has retreated.

This is not the place to settle these academic controversies; nonetheless, it is pertinent to recall in the Nigerian context that one of Diamond’s key insights concerns what he called, “the subtle and incremental degradations of democratic rules and procedures.” In other words, the slow, almost imperceptible veering off, in the end tallies into authoritarian regression and the breakdown of democracy. Such matters, for example, as the hounding of journalists and free expression, targeting of the opposition and those who fund them, denial of fundamental human rights such as the right to bail, may at first blush look like minor infractions or negligible errors but over time, they harden and billow into democratic rollback. That is why, for example, the recent withdrawal of accreditation to the PUNCH State House correspondent, Olalekan Adetayo, by the Chief Security Officer to President Muhammadu Buhari, Bashir Abubakar, warrants comment. As some observers have commented, that singular and reprehensible action brings up echoes of the infamous Decree 4 under which the selfsame Muhammadu Buhari, in his first incarnation as military dictator, perpetrated a siege to free expression and detained journalists at will.

True, Buhari has not on the whole in the period since 2015 been hostile to free expression but it needs to be clarified whether the recent clampdown constitutes a one off or signals a new direction. It should be mentioned that Adetayo’s alleged offence was no more than an article he did in Sunday PUNCH on April 23, 2017 entitled, “Fresh anxiety in Aso Rock over Buhari’s poor health.” As Adetayo narrated his ordeal, the CSO who summoned him “was visibly angry about the story…which was about how the President had not been seen in public in the last two weeks except when he made brief appearances at the mosque inside the Presidential Villa for Jumaat services.” To demonstrate his fidelity to journalistic ethics, Adetayo had included in the story, the reaction of the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, who indirectly confirmed Adetayo’s perspective by saying that the President was recuperating and that many were praying for him to fully recover.

Fast forward to a few days later and observe that Buhari was pointedly absent at the scheduled weekly meeting of the Federal Executive Council, pleading that he needed to rest. This points up the fact that the Sunday PUNCH story is far from being a fictionalised account or the output of the hyperactive imagination of a journalist. The underlying truthfulness of the report did not prevent Adetayo from receiving a lecture by Abubakar and to endure the humiliation of having his accreditation tag seized as well as being escorted by a Department of State Services official to fetch his personal effect from the press gallery and barred henceforth from the Villa. Predictably, Abubakar’s harsh reaction has elicited condemnations from a wide spectrum of civil society activists and some state officials including Adesina who claimed ignorance of the putdown and dissociated himself from it. It is interesting to put on record however that at the point this article was being finalised, no apology had been tendered and Adetayo remained barred from the Villa.

Authoritarian and jackboot instincts run deep in our polity and primordial culture. But having operated a democracy for 18 unbroken years, our leaders ought to have lived down the slippery and high handed ways that have led us to the current downturn. If it needs to be restated, the media implement remote sensing and surveillance functions on behalf of society, to the extent that they can warn both leaders and citizens of clear, present and imminent dangers. The story about Buhari’s possible deteriorating health and the attempt to cover it up constituted not an act of rebellion but of patriotism carrying an alert that should prompt all concerned to wise steps. It is a pity and deeply unfortunate that it was not seen in this light and has therefore elicited the contemptuous and demeaning reaction from a state official.

To reverse and heal up the wound which this despicable incident has inflicted on the national psyche, Buhari should reinstate the persecuted reporter and put his aides on notice that he will not tolerate or be silent about blatant violations of the citizens’ right to free expression.

In a related connection, this columnist laments that shortly after the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, raised critical queries about public policy, hints were dropped in the public space that the finances of the Emirate would become a subject of inquiry and that, like his grandfather, he might soon be deposed. Indeed, the Governor of Zamfara State, Abdulaziz Yari, who was berated by Sanusi for saying that the outbreak of meningitis was traceable to the sins of the people, is reportedly leading a caucus to press for Sanusi’s ousting.

The health of a democracy is often measured by its tolerance of opposition and opposition views. It is precisely this factor that distinguishes a democracy which privileges robust debates from non-democratic and tyrannical forms of government in which the leader is always right. If we go down memory lane, we will realise that constructive critics even in their most lacerating, tend to see more than the rest of society. To bring this truism home, Sanusi was excoriated by some when he blew the whistle about the monumental sleaze and corruption in the President Goodluck Jonathan administration not too long ago. How right later events proved him to be! The point therefore is that the hounding of public intellectuals who speak truth to power stifles societal and political development and reinforces a culture of mediocrity in which those at the top cannot be disproved or be wrong. This is not to say that if Sanusi is found to have mismanaged his turf, the matter should not be investigated, but we should stop giving the impression that as soon as someone disagrees with established positions, state agencies and power mongers should begin to put the spotlight on him for the purpose of silencing him.

It is a symptom of democratic recession that this administration is becoming more intolerant of critical opinions and views that depart from the mainstream. It is also ironical because the administration is made up of star opposition figures who advanced the democratic imperative by rigorously interrogating official shibboleths and cant. I do not buy the argument that Sanusi’s outspokenness lowers the bar with respect to his revered traditional office. I think that the nation is lucky to have someone like him who departs from the telling silences and business as usual positions that have put us all in trouble.

The country is groping for redirection and the Buhari administration should stop giving the impression that it resents criticisms of any sort.