Nigeria’s tale of the coronavirus pandemic
Mixed reactions trailed the February 28 announcement from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) that the first case of the coronavirus in the country had been confirmed. On the one hand, there were those who believed strict measures were not in place at the entry terminals in the country with some even suggesting that airport authorities could have compromised and let the index case in, even when the symptoms were noticeable.
Officials have countered this suggestion, claiming that the index case showed no symptoms at the point of entry and only reported feeling unwell two days after returning to the country. On the other hand, some Nigerians expressed optimism that the coronavirus would be contained in the same manner the Ebola outbreak was. Clerics declared that people were to be steadfast in their faiths and count on God to lead the nation through “these dark times”, while still casting doubt on the reality of the outbreak in the country.
But while the rest of the world was steeply focused on battling the novel virus, most Nigerians had no inkling that the battle for survival would be waged on two fronts.
Within 4 weeks of the initial announcement, the number of cases in the country surged to over a hundred with Lagos and Abuja accounting for the vast majority of reported cases. The government responded by imposing total lockdowns in the two cities in a bid to contain the spread of the virus, although it allowed local markets to open every few days for people to procure “essential items”.
The NCDC launched a huge media campaign to sensitize Nigerians, especially those in rural areas, on how to protect themselves against the coronavirus. Most Nigerians were shocked, however, to discover that months after the outbreak was reported in China, construction of isolation centres were still underway. Perhaps, the government did not expect the disease to come in to the country; therefore, time that could have been spent ramping up the country`s medical infrastructure and securing critical medical supplies were wasted on wishful thinking.
The president of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) painted an even darker picture when, on the 26th of March, he warned that Nigeria`s health infrastructure would be overwhelmed in the event of a large outbreak in the country, an epidemic. He cited years of government neglect of the health sector as being responsible for the current state of affairs while expressing hope that some medical doctors who had embarked on an indefinite strike would resume in the interest of ordinary citizens.
But not all Nigerians panicked at this stage of the outbreak. The virus continued to be downplayed in several quarters as several individuals questioned the authenticity of the government`s reports on confirmed cases and deaths. It seemed most people were more concerned about the impact of the lockdowns on businesses, especially when the price of food and other basic items began to surge.
However, as the number of confirmed cases rose in more states, the question was no longer on whether the outbreak was a hoax. Rather, it was if Nigerians would be able to survive weeks or even months of extended lockdowns. Many who believed the coronavirus outbreak could be contained quite as easily and quickly as that of Ebola began to rethink as data from global health institutions showed that compared to Ebola, the coronavirus was more transmissible even though it had a lower mortality rate. Regardless, the country needed to brace up for the challenge it could face protecting millions from the scourge of the disease.
Little was said on how the country planned to obtain millions of test kits, personal protective equipment, ventilators, and a host of other critical supplies. At that time, It was common knowledge that countries like the United States and the UK had struggled in the first few weeks to ramp up production of critical medical equipment and safety gears to meet local demand. Perhaps, the government hoped that just as it was with Ebola, western countries and China would donate medical equipment and staff to help combat the virus.
Nigerians were, however, highly disappointed when, on the 31st of March, the Federal Ministry of Finance and Budget appealed to an American business man, Elon Musk, for at least a hundred ventilators. Musk had announced on social media that he was going to ship “extra” ventilators to any country in dire need. Many wondered why an open plea by the government to a private citizen of a foreign country became necessary, since billions had already been donated by individuals and private organizations within the country. The government quickly deleted the post shortly after but without giving any detailed explanation to citizens on what steps it would take from then on in procuring much needed medical supplies.
Despite the apparent lack of plans to cater to its citizens in the face of an epidemic, the government brutally enforced the lockdowns. The first sign of trouble, however, came when reports of fatal shootings by security operatives surfaced.
In Delta state, it was reported that security operatives who were enforcing the stay-at-home-order of the governor had shot and killed a 28-year-old unarmed man who was accused of violating the order and refusing to stop when flagged down. The exact circumstance of the shooting remains unclear but opinions are hardly divided on the fact that the fatal shooting occurred before any coronavirus-related death was reported in the state. It is also difficult to tell if a detailed investigation would be launched into the case as demanded by the state government and if justice might be served should there be an indictment.
In any case, Nigerians were not necessarily shocked by the increasing reports of fatal police shootings as security operatives viciously enforced the coronavirus lockdowns. After all, incidents of intimidation, harassment, and killing of presumably innocent civilians by security agents were quite common in this part of the world. So, there was hardly any surprise that most people were more focused on how much relief the government could provide to those stuck in their homes and at the brink of starvation.
The news that basic food items were to be distributed in “poor “areas in Lagos and other states under complete lockdown was initially met with skepticism. The government, however, appeared to have lived up to its promise when shortly after the announcement, hundreds of men, women, and children were seen scrambling for loaves of bread, rice, and noodles.
One question most people asked after the initial distribution was whether the government could sustain the scheme throughout the pandemic. Others were quite shocked that beneficiaries, as well as some government officials, did not put on any protective equipment like face masks nor did they observe social distancing during the distribution. More politically inclined groups wondered whether the relief efforts could be hijacked by politicians and bureaucrats as is often the case with government welfare programs in the country.
The government`s efforts, however, went beyond food distribution. The Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management, and Social Development had also announced there would be conditional cash transfers to families registered in the National Social Register of Poor and Vulnerable Households that was established in 2016, four years before the pandemic broke out. But artisans, for instance, who were likely not captured on the list and could not earn as a result of the strict coronavirus lockdowns were indirectly omitted from this aid. The government seemed to realize this as the human affairs minister went on to state that those in that category could still be catered for.
However, several months passed and very little was heard concerning the relief programs. Had the government managed to reach out to all the poor and vulnerable without drawing attention from the media? What happened the tons of food and cash donated by private entities? These questions hung in the air like a putrid smoke. Clues were, nevertheless, soon to emerge.
Meanwhile, reports of police brutality had resurfaced and this time there was public outcry. Perhaps, young Nigerians realized that corruption and impunity were much bigger threats to the country than the virus ravaging the world. Unlike the corona virus reported to have infected a few thousand, some believed corruption had infected every facet of Nigeria, infecting both the young and old, rich and poor, and male and female alike.
In the days that followed, large crowds of peaceful demonstrators took to the streets to call for an end to police brutality and bad governance. Young Nigerians had decided to confront the “virus” that had done much more in shattering the economy and plunging millions into poverty, literarily destroying lives. No matter how long the coronavirus lingered, its overall impact would surely pale in comparison with that of government corruption.
The government was quick to respond. It announced that the Special Anti-Robbery Unit Squad (SARS) that was accused of gross human right violations and extrajudicial killings had been disbanded. It even pledged to establish “judicial committees” across the states to investigate the reports. These kind of promises, however, ought to be taken with a grain of salt, especially when in a matter of hours there were frightening reports of soldiers shooting at peaceful demonstrators at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos.
Footage reportedly taken by eye witnesses the night of the shooting were rife on social media and appeared to show the soldiers opening fire on demonstrators who had defied the curfew. The footage showed many of the protesters seated and waving the Nigerian flag when the lights suddenly went out, after which sporadic gunshots and chilling screams could be heard. Later, reports from Amnesty International and other media outlets placed the number of people killed at 12. Despite the outrage that followed, there was no official comment from the military on the incident, and the president subsequently ignored the reports of the incident in his address to the nation.
Protests that had all the while been peaceful quickly turned violent. Rage mobs poured into the streets and wreaked unimaginable havoc. Stores were looted, business premises ransacked, police stations set ablaze: utter chaos.
Security operatives clamped down on the rioters who were no longer distinguishable from peaceful demonstrators. Before long, rumors filtered in that some government officials hired thugs to disrupt the protest so it could lose credibility and more importantly, public sympathy. It was also suggested that the thugs could have been hired to precipitate violence which could help justify any brutal move the government could make in dispersing the protesters. That footage of thugs hopping into what seemed like government vehicles surfaced did not help in dispelling the rumors.
The protests soon took a dramatic turn when rioters began “stumbling” into government warehouses filled with branded relief items that were supposedly distributed months earlier. The manner in which the location of such warehouses in different states of the country kept popping up could hardly be considered coincidental. The backlash that followed meant that the government clearly needed to give an explanation.
In defense, some state governments claimed that the said items were being stored for distribution during a possible second wave of the pandemic. But it begs the question why they were being stored for the “second wave” if thousands of starving households had not obtained any form of relief since the outbreak?
To further discredit such explanations, one of the daughters of the president quickly took to social media to blame state governments for apparently hoarding the items. And, as if it could not get any worse, rioters discovered some of the branded food items in the house of an official. The official in question claimed he had planned to distribute the items during his birthday celebration. It did not help matters that his birthday had already passed while the palliatives were still tucked away inside his home. For most Nigerians, it was reasonable to assume the items were meant to be diverted as soon as the dust from the pandemic had settled. Such conclusion might not be far from the truth in a country where branded relief items from both local and international donors regularly end up in the market. In any case, the government rallied security operatives to brutally secure the warehouses that had not been looted.
It seems that while the rest of the world chases the holy grail of a coronavirus vaccine, Nigerians might be better off searching for an antidote to corruption.
Trump and the Resilience of American Democratic Institutions
In what was a strong departure from centuries-old tradition, President Trump boarded the Air Force One, few hours before the inauguration ceremony on January 20 and headed for his home in Florida, bringing an end to a tumultuous four years in office. Trump`s decision to not attend the inauguration of his successor certainly did not come as a surprise to many, considering his claims of election fraud since the results of the election were announced. The decision fit his persona and certainly pleased his base who had largely bought the claim that the election was “stolen”. But while this bold claim and the resulting drama, including the violent assault on the US capitol on January 6, will remain a dent on Trump`s legacy, countries like Nigeria whose democracies are still infantile must look at important lessons that can be learned from the disputes that emanated from the US general elections.
To object to the outcome of an election on the belief that human or technical errors helped to change the overall outcome is one thing; to claim that an election was intentionally rigged in favor of one candidate is another. The latter was Trump`s claim which in itself calls into question the legitimacy of American institutions saddled with the onerous responsibility of ensuring elections are always free and fair. Trump, of course, had a right to raise any objection—no matter how spurious— to the outcome of the election as long as he was within legal boundaries. The former Republican president, George Bush, touched on this point in his congratulatory message to Biden when he stated that “Trump has a legal right to request recounts and pursue legal challenges, and any unresolved issues will be properly adjudicated.” However, he did not hesitate to point out his belief that the “American people can have confidence that this election was fundamentally fair…and its outcome is clear.”
But instead of vigorously pursuing legal challenges and hoping for a favorable outcome, Trump decided to start a whole new campaign centered around the outrageous claim that the election was stolen, and at a point, even declared himself to have won the election. His actions seemed not to have any parallels in US history and all but few of his fanatical supporters saw no merit in the claims. Aided by his allies in the right-wing media, Trump began a fierce battle to overturn the outcome of the 2020 general elections. As the legal challenges continued to be thrown out in state courts for essentially having no merits, Trump’s desperation grew to new heights.
What could pass as the biggest moment of the fiasco came when the US Supreme Court refused to entertain the lawsuit filed by Texas against other so-called battleground states where Trump had lost by narrow margins. Prior to that moment, Trump was probably under the illusion that the three Supreme Court justices he had managed to appoint would somehow help his cause if the elections resulted in litigations that wound up in the apex court. But he was terribly disappointed because as it turned out, all three Trump appointees, including Justice Barrett whom he had fought a highly contentious last-minute battle to “install” few weeks before the election, sided with the majority in ruling that the state of Texas had not “demonstrated any cognizable judicial interest in the manner in which another state conducts its elections.”
Trump lambasted the Court after the decision was made, claiming that it “lacked courage” and had “let down” all Americans. In the same vein, he either fired or threatened to fire cabinet members or federal employees who did not propagate the claim of a “stolen” election. Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, an agency which in Trump`s own words was to ensure “that [the US] confronts the full range of threats from nation states, cyber criminals, and other malicious actors of which there are many,” was dismissed for his howbeit sarcastic claim that the 2020 election was the freest and fairest in US history. Not long thereafter, Trump`s attorney general, William Barr, was “forced” to resign after he made it clear that he believed “there was no evidence of widespread electoral fraud” during the 2020 elections.
The events from November 3 to Inauguration Day could have made the United States resemble any third world nation. “Stop the Steal” marches were organized across the country by Trump supporters who had decided without any shred of evidence that the election had truly been stolen. The president was of course quite patronizing of the events and in one instance drove through the marches with his motorcade to show his support. At the other end of the spectrum, a handful of Republican lawmakers were already threatening to object to the certification of the results on January 6. And when Trump supporters began clashing with left-wing “counter-protesters” during the marches, political violence seemed quite inevitable.
Somewhere in the whole drama, it is believed that Trump expected “loyalty” from fellow Republicans in his bid to overturn the results of the election. But Republican leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell seemed to have accepted the outcome of the result by offering their best wishes to Biden while Trump was spouting conspiracies. Not surprisingly, Trump turned to Republican lawmakers who controlled the houses in certain battleground states, as well as election officials, in his desperate attempt to remain in power. The meeting which he held in secret with state lawmakers from Georgia generated a huge backlash from within and without. But the lawmakers told news outlets afterwards that though the meeting with the president was routine, they had made it clear to him they would respect “the will of the people” by certifying the results in Georgia.
Something even more scandalous than Trump`s clandestine meeting with Georgia lawmakers occurred on January 2, four days before the certification of the election results by Congress. In a leaked phone call, the president could be heard telling Georgia`s top election official, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, that all he wanted was “to find 11780 votes” just enough to eclipse Biden’s narrow win in the state of Georgia. Raffensperger had voted for Trump in the election and reportedly contributed to his campaign, but when faced with intimidation from the president as he described it, he simply chose duty over loyalty. He completely dismissed Trump`s outlandish claim that 5000 dead persons voted for Biden in Georgia, insisting the number was just 2 and that investigations were ongoing to unravel the identities of the impersonators. This, of course, was not to be the last of Trump`s misfortunes.
There is certainly no doubt that Trump believed that if all else failed, his vice president Mike Pence would somehow manage to keep him in power. He thought that since the vice president was charged with the constitutional responsibility of counting the electoral votes before they are certified by Congress, he could manage to “block” votes from “fraudulent states.” Speaking at a rally in Georgia, he made it quite clear that he “hopes that Mike Pence comes through for us…he is a great guy of course. If he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much.”
Pence`s letter to congress on January 6, at first, seemed to pander to Trump`s wishes. He stated that “after an election with significant allegations of voting irregularities and numerous instances of state officials setting aside state electoral law, I share the concerns of millions of Americans concerning the integrity of the election.” He went further to assert that as presiding officer he was going to “ensure that the concerns receive a fair and open hearing in the Congress of the United States…Objections will be heard, evidence will be presented, and the elected representatives of the American people will make their decision.”
But in a sharp twist, he stated that given the controversy surrounding the election, some have come to erroneously believe—probably alluding to Trump and his legal and media allies—that the vice president should be able to unilaterally accept or reject electoral votes. He was quick to debunk the notion, pointing out that all through US history no vice president had ever asserted such authority and that, indeed, any such move would be antithetical to the spirit of the constitution. And in what was the final nail to the coffin of Trump’s highly improbable dreams, Pence declared that his oath to support and defend the constitution constrained him from claiming unilateral authority over what votes should and should not be counted.
In a stern rebuke of Pence, Trump roared that the vice president “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our constitution, giving states to certify a corrected set of facts and not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to certify.” Having exhausted all “legal” options at this point, President Trump embarked on what would become the defining moment of his presidency.
On January 6, few hours before the joint session of Congress would meet to certify the result of the election, Trump gave a speech at a “Save America” rally near the White House—a speech that would later be termed an “incitement to insurrection”, resulting in the resignation of some of his cabinet members. In the speech, Trump charged his supporters not to “give up” or “concede” since “theft was involved” in the election. “We will not take it anymore…we will stop the steal…we won [the election] by a landslide…we didn’t lose,” he thundered. Taking aim at the vice president once again, he continued: “all vice president Pence has to do is send [the electoral votes] back to the states to recertify and [I] become the president and you are the happiest people.”
Turning to the Supreme Court, President Trump made no secret of his unhappiness: “They love to rule against me. I picked three people. I fought like hell for them…and they couldn’t give a damn…but it almost seems they are going out of their way to hurt all of us and to hurt our country.” And at the end of his protracted speech, Trump urged his followers to “fight.” “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you are not going to have a country anymore…and we are going to the Capitol, and we are going to try and give [weak Republicans] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country,” he boomed.
But just about the time the president finished his speech, an attack on the United States Capitol, where lawmakers had convened to formally certify the results of the election in favor of Joe Biden, had already commenced. Hundreds of Trump supporters had breached the Capitol, giving way to lawlessness, looting, and destruction of property. In the violence that erupted, five persons including a police officer lost their lives. While the families mourned the loss of their loved ones, the rest of the country scrambled to make sense of what had occurred. And as expected, the debate of whether or not President Trump was responsible for the violent attack on the Capitol will continue for a long time despite him being acquitted by the Senate on the charge of “incitement to insurrection”.
Meanwhile, Trump, in his rather unapologetic farewell speech on January 19, disowned the “rioters and looters” who stormed the US Capitol claiming they “do not represent [the] country,” and that they “would pay.” He did not, however, shrink from praising the “patriots” who had come to the rally to “peacefully” make their voices heard. The seeming insensitivity in his utterances certainly did not help the cause of “repairing” his image, but he seemed not to care.
And no matter what one might think of Trump and his last days in office, there is no question that he made for a good test of the strength of American institutions—institutions that proved wholly capable of checking one man`s lust for power. And as Andre Perry of the Brookings Institution noted: “Win or lose, Trump was the mirror that America needed.” He was right.
The Buhari Regime and the Aftermath of the EndSARS Protests
There is no doubt that social media has created new spheres of interaction particularly in the way it has helped democratize the media landscape. Social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter have challenged the mainstream media oligarchy, with the result that narratives can no longer be controlled by hierarchies. The devolution of media power caused by social media has enabled minorities and hitherto voiceless groups to rise to the center of the political debate in recent years. This sentiment was echoed by the Facebook founder when he stated that social media networks have given a voice to groups that have been under-served, misrepresented, or suppressed by the traditional media establishment. The ubiquity of social media has enabled all forms of communication especially news information to travel at speeds unparalleled by the mainstream media. One further allure of social media is that unlike traditional media, it is not subject to much government regulations, and in most democracies, it is free of censorship.
The lack of censorship and bureaucratic regulations combined with mobilization potential is exactly what has made social media platforms attractive to activists. It can even be argued that social media has led to the proliferation of activists. For, it is much easier and more convenient and sometimes even more effective for activists to take to what has been described as “digital streets” to advance a cause. But a vast majority of socio-political movements in the last two decades have mainly used social media to generate initial public discussions on issues and then in the mass mobilization of willing participants. This implies that digital activism is readily transposed to the real world in the form of protests or as in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, revolutions, whose momentum is bolstered by social media. Although the degree to which social media plays a role in social movements is still debated in scholarly circles, it is not in doubt that social media can be a powerful tool in the hands of activists.
It is therefore not surprising that, considering the ubiquitous nature of social media in Nigeria, activists challenging police brutality and calling for the disbanding of the notorious SARS unit of the Nigerian police, utilized social media platforms such as Facebook and twitter to mobilize protesters. The protests that rocked Nigeria because of the EndSARS digital campaign is a testament to the power of social media. Little wonder the Buhari regime is hell-bent on clamping down on all those who participated in the EndSARS campaign, particularly those who “led” the protests on social media. But the Nigerian experience of a social media propelled socio-political movement must be situated within the broader context of digital activism comparable to those of Egypt, Spain, Canada, and the United States to which it bears a lot of resemblance
Just like activists of the Indignados movement in Spain besieged Puerta de Sol in Madrid, EndSARS activists in Nigeria occupied the Lekki Toll gate in Lagos on October 20, 2020. This is very similar to how Egyptian revolutionaries spent several nights at Tahir square, as well as the occupation of Zuccotti Park close to the New York Stock exchange by the Occupy Wall Street Movement in September of 2011. The various marches across Nigeria during the EndSARS campaign also bear resemblance to the so called “Indignant Marches” across various cities in Spain following the lifting of various protest camps. And just as the Occupy Wall Street movement was originally named with a twitter hashtag #occupy Wall Street, the protest against Police brutality in Nigeria also got its name from the twitter hashtag #EndSARS. These movements highlighted have as a common feature the use of social media platforms like twitter and Facebook to garner public support and mobilize participants.
The EndSARS movement in Nigeria can also be described as populist in the same sense as the Spanish Indignados and American Occupy Wall Street Movements, despite the latter agitations being anti-austerity movements in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In the EndSARS movement in Nigeria, the hardworking, average man of contemporary populist movements was recast as the struggling Nigerian Youth who could fall victim of police brutality or even be hacked to death on unfounded accusations of being a cybercriminal. So, in typical populist fashion, the movement sought to unite the Nigerian Youth against the corrupt and violent Police institution. The vulnerable youth in the country in that sense became “the people” who needed to take on the corrupt establishment.
But the EndSARS, Indignados, and Occupy Wall Street Movements go further beyond a mere re-adaptation of the populist “common man”. These social movements sought to, according to Paolo Gerbaudo, transfigure the populist common man into the generic internet user. The broader significance of these movements being that anyone with access to the internet is predisposed to active political participation. Access to the internet and possession of social media accounts can become a “springboard to collective social mobilization”, Gerbaudo insists.
However, since social movements are confrontational; that is, they act to challenge the existing social and political order which in effect calls into question the legitimacy of the State, it is no surprise that governments have evolved different techniques to contain and even suppress dissident political movements. And, in the age of social media, States have exploited certain “vulnerabilities” of social media as a tool of mass mobilization. Because social media functionalities are designed to maximize profit, there exist certain features of social media platforms that conflict with interests of online activists which cannot be reconciled with the commercial interest of social media networks.
For instance, social media platforms such as Facebook and twitter do not give room for anonymity as such, as stipulated in their terms of service. Although there are certain mechanisms through which activists can maintain anonymity online, it has become particularly difficult when governments can coerce social media networks to part with users` information. Furthermore, States have passed legislations and developed highly intrusive surveillance mechanisms that are bent on stifling social media mobilization and online protests.
Israel is a good example of a country where bogus legislations have been passed which, using the broadest legal interpretation, criminalizes all forms of dissent on social media. The social media legislation prohibits the use of social media platforms to “incite” violence against individuals or the state. Framed in the context of national security, the law has been used to target Palestinian activists in Gaza and the West Bank.
Elsewhere in Canada, the famous Bill C-309 criminalizes the use of masks by protesters. The Canadian Parliament capitalized on the violence and destruction that erupted during the Vancouver Stanley Cup riots in 2011 to push the bill through. Some critics, however, have argued that the main purpose of the bill was to make the job of policing during protests easier, at the detriment of human rights and freedoms. Specifically, they point out that donning of masks is an effective method a protester could use to avoid identification by authorities especially when large amounts of data—pictures and videos—that emanate from protests are circulated and preserved on social media platforms. With the absence of masks, it becomes quite easy for security agencies to identify and track protest participants from data generated through social media
In Nigeria there has been growing calls for “social media regulation”, calls which reached fever pitch in the aftermath of the EndSARS protests which left so much destruction in its wake, prompting the government to declare that the demonstrations had plunged the nation`s economy into its present state of recession. There is no question that the protests took a violent turn after the alleged massacre of protesters who had occupied the Lekki toll gate by Nigerian soldiers in October 2020. Businesses were looted, shops were burned, sporadic clashes between protesters and law enforcement left scores dead. This is exactly the kind of crisis that authoritarian regimes would capitalize on to pass draconian laws or even dismiss human rights altogether.
Shortly after the dust settled on the EndSARS protests, there were reports that some of the “leading” figures of the online campaign had their bank accounts blocked. It was reported that the directive to block the accounts came from the Central Bank. The apex bank, it was gathered, had secretly obtained court orders allowing it to block certain accounts it deemed to be linked to “terrorist activities” in the country. Branding activists as terrorist and a threat to national security is almost always the first step States take in suppressing and criminalizing dissent. But Nigeria`s case is somewhat ironic because it has been locked in a seemingly endless battle with the Islamic terror group Boko haram for over a decade with hardly any report of the bank accounts of local sponsors being identified and blocked, despite a former president confirming that the insurgents have infiltrated the highest level of government.
The economic emasculation of social media activists might well be a tip of the iceberg when one considers the threatening statement made by the Inspector General of police, Muhammad Adamu, that “The protests were not against the police, but the Nigerian government. But the demands of the protesters were already met; yet, they went about destroying national assets, without remorse. The Nigerian Police will never again tolerate and accept that kind of violent protests in this country. Your protest must be peaceful and the moment it becomes violent, you will be met with maximum force.” Nothing in this statement indicates the police will distinguish between rioters and peaceful demonstrators in the use of “maximum force”. In effect, anyone who participates in a demonstration can be subjected to gross human right violations under the guise of containing a “violent” protest.
But the proposed “social media bill” being deliberated by lawmakers certainly dwarfs any effect economic strangulation and police brutality might have on future demonstrations in Nigeria. The bill stipulates the stiffest penalties for any form of dissent that is expressed on social media platforms. The lawmakers have argued that the bill was necessary to clamp down on misinformation on social media which they claimed triggered the EndSARS protests. One lawmaker even declared that the protests were sponsored by rival political parties and was geared towards regime change or outright dismemberment of the country. Hence, social media has got to be “regulated” or else the country might “cease to exist in 5 years”.
A cursory examination of the bill, however, can only leave one with the impression that the government is bent on monopolizing truth and suppressing dissent. According to the bill, a person must not transmit a statement that is “false” through social media. In addition, statements that might “affect the security of any part of Nigeria; affect public health, safety or finance; cause hatred towards persons or group of persons; influence the outcome of an election to any office in a general election” would constitute a violation punishable by three years imprisonment or fine or both. As Nigerians wait to see if the bill scales through, the Buhari regime seems to be toying with other ideas.
There have been reports that the recent scheme for mobile phone users across the country to synch their SIM cards with their National Identification Numbers was borne out of the frustration security agents encountered in tracking down “criminals “who had “terrorized” government officials with “threatening text messages” during the EndSARS protests. One is not entirely sure what the overall aim of the scheme might be but considering the short deadline, and the threat of complete disconnection from mobile services, it is quite likely that the scheme brings the Buhari regime one step closer in its clampdown on digital activists.
Even though the steps taken by the Buhari administration in clamping down on digital activism mirrors those of some first world nations, the totalitarian posture of this government should be a source of grave concern to all Nigerians whose civil liberties might be sacrificed on the altar of policing online revolt in the aftermath of the EndSARS protest. The greater concern, however, should be whether the events of the 2020 EndSARS protest will altogether deprive Nigerians of the right to protest in the future.
A Dance of Chameleons: “Cross Carpeting” in Nigerian politics
The recent saga of the defection of Governor David Umahi of Ebony State to the All Progressives Congress (APC) should rekindle the debate on the so-called “cross-carpeting” in Nigerian politics. Switching of political parties in Nigeria is not something new. In 1951, some members of the Nigerian Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC) defected to the Action Group led by Obafemi Awolowo. The move was a calculated attempt to deprive Nnamdi Azikiwe and the NCNC of having the majority in the Western Regional House of Assembly at the time. It was believed that the move was birthed by the ethnic tension in the NCNC and an attempt by one ethnic group to resist what was perceived as ‘foreign domination’ by another although this has sometimes been dismissed as a misconception. Nevertheless, it set the stage for the kind of political manoeuvring that continues to dominate Nigeria`s political landscape.
Because of the political tension and instability that was often associated with inter-party defections, there was a strong demand for the government to weigh in. Section 68 of the 1999 constitution, for instance, makes it clear that a member of the Senate or House of Representatives who got elected on the platform of one party cannot defect to another party before the expiration of the term for which that member was elected. The only condition where it might be acceptable is if the defection is as a result of an internal squabble or a split or merger. This clause, in effect, nullifies the law for the simple reason that inter-party defections are almost always the result of internal divisions, splits, or mergers.
Politicians sometimes become disgruntled with their party for ideological reasons and seek to leave. The decision to switch to another party can also be made to further personal interests as is often the case when one candidate fails to secure nomination under one party and switches to another to boost their chances.
It is true that inter-party defections occur even in advanced democracies like the United States and the UK but there are sharp contrasts. Both former Republican president, Ronald Reagan, and Democratic presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton, have switched parties once during their careers. While Reagan started as a Democrat, he later switched to the Republican Party, declaring,” I did not leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.” The same is true for Clinton who went on to become a Democratic senator despite her affiliation to the Republican Party in her early years.
There is, however, almost no similarity between these two examples and the chaotic defections that occur in Nigeria. Both Clinton and Reagan had not held any political office before switching parties. In fact, it would be several years after switching party allegiance before either of them would be elected.
The same is also true for Democratic senator, Elizabeth Warren, who was a registered Republican for 5 years before switching sides in 1996. She claimed the reason for the switch was because she felt that the Republican Party was “no longer principled in its conservative approach to economics and the markets.” And, just like Clinton and Reagan, it would be well over a decade before Warren would be elected to the US senate as a Democrat. Indeed, examples of politicians switching parties in recent times while holding an elected position is hard to find in the United States.
The case of Nigeria`s former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, is quite remarkable. In order to further his presidential ambition, and possibly as a result of not receiving the blessings of the president, Olusegun Obasanjo, to run for president under the People`s Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar decided to switch to the Action Congress and was able to secure nomination for the 2007 election.
This was a watershed moment in Nigerian politics. For the first time, the president and vice president were members of different parties. The president, however, did not take this ‘act of betrayal’ kindly. He announced that he had dismissed the vice president and that the office had become vacant.
In a letter to the senate president, speaker of the house of representatives, and the attorney general of the federation, Atiku Abubakar claimed “the president was not entitled to remove his deputy who was elected with him by the Nigerian people”. He further stated that the only course of action open to the president was to table the matter before the National Assembly or to seek ‘clarification’ from ‘a competent court of law.’ The Action Congress also echoed the same sentiment, declaring the dismissal of the vice president as unconstitutional and an act of tyranny.
On the 20th of April 2007, the case reached the Supreme Court. This was after an appeal court had ruled that it was unconstitutional for the vice president to be dismissed on the grounds of having defected to the opposition party. The appeal court also held that the vice president could not be deemed to have resigned because he switched parties, and therefore restored him to office.
Although the Supreme Court ruled that the president lacked the powers to dismiss his vice for any reason, it raised significant points on the conduct of the vice president. The court held that the constitution envisaged a harmonious relationship between the president and the vice that ought to be maintained throughout the tenure, noting that there was no separate election for the vice president who, in the first place, was nominated by the president from the same political party.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court insisted that while the action of the vice president did not violate the constitution, it was unconscionable for Atiku Abubakar to openly criticise the government, campaign for another political party, or switch parties. This, however, did not mean, from the court`s perspective, that the vice president was slave to the president and could not voice his opinions even if they did differ from those of the president.
This landmark decision reached by the court in 2007 has continued to create ripple effects in Nigerian politics till today and might have set a dangerous precedent for wanton inter-party defections in the country. Indeed, it is no longer uncommon for politicians to switch parties soon after winning elections. The case of Imo state where a significant number of PDP lawmakers quickly defected to the APC as soon as the PDP Governor was sacked by the Supreme Court and replaced with Hope Uzodinmma of the APC is quite instructive.
The situation is even more disturbing when one takes a look at what transpired in Edo State over the last 4 years. The present governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, was elected in 2016 on the platform of the APC after a fierce battle with Ize Iyamu, the governorship candidate of the PDP. One thing most people remember from the 2016 campaign was that the PDP sought to undermine the candidacy of Godwin Obaseki by filing a bogus lawsuit of certificate forgery that sought to disqualify him.
The move came after Obaseki claimed that some of his hitherto missing credentials had been discovered in the United States by relatives. The PDP chairman in the state even challenged Obaseki to take to any of the media outlets in the state to showcase the certificates but the governor’s campaign team responded that such measures were unnecessary. And in any case, the agenda of the PDP in filing the lawsuit failed to materialize as Obaseki was eventually elected the governor of the state.
However, in the build up to the 2020 election, Governor Obaseki found himself at loggerheads with the “kingmakers” of the APC. And in a bid to ensure his re-election after being disqualified by the APC`s screening committee, he defected to the PDP.
In a rare feat of political gymnastics, the APC accused the governor of certificate forgery and filed lawsuits seeking to disqualify him. It might have been quite amusing to the people of Edo state to find that the APC was fielding Ize Iyamu against the governor: both candidates had switched parties. This kind of fluid switching suggests that Nigerian politicians are not bound by any discernible ideologies in the same manner the parties are not founded along ideological lines.
This is what can be deduced from the case of Atiku Abubakar. The former vice president returned to the PDP after failing to clinch the presidency on the platform of the Action Congress in 2007. His “second coming”, however, was fruitless as he lost the PDP primaries to eventual winner of the 2011 presidential election, Goodluck Jonathan. In typical Atiku fashion, he abandoned the party again in 2014 to join the APC in a bid to bolster his chances in the 2015 race. But he told the BBC that his defection was not borne out of his desire to become president, it was part of his wish to “see a strong second party for the country”. What then are Nigerians to make of his switching back to the PDP as the 2019 presidential election approached?
Just like Atiku Abubakar and other defectors in time past, Governor David Umahi, the most recent high-profile defector in the country, has assured all that he did not defect to advance any personal interests even as rumours swirl that he is aiming for the 2023 APC presidential ticket. He claimed his defection from the PDP was a “protest against the injustice being done to the South-East zone by the PDP.” The injustice, he said, was that the PDP had never “considered the South-East Zone to run for president”. The governor also claimed that his political career was ‘God`s project’ and that he had become some sort of martyr by leading the crusade against the injustice in the PDP.
Umahi’s defection, as expected, triggered strong reactions. First, some members of his cabinet resigned in protest, feeling confused and betrayed. Some felt he had been ungrateful to the party while others believed his action could harm the South-East. The governor of Rivers state, for instance, claimed that the defection of Umahi had the potential to destroy the South-East politically, while alleging that Umahi also practiced the same injustice he accuses the PDP of: placing his brothers in key positions in the party.
The PDP in its official statement refrained from attacking the governor. Instead, the party thanked him for his services and wished him well for the future but also made sure to point out that his defection was for personal reasons that “Nigerians would later realize.”
Of course, the news of Umahi`s defection was cheered in some quarters. His deputy hailed the move and stated during the ‘defection ceremony’ that he was a faithful disciple who would stand with his boss on whatever decision he made. President Buhari did not also hesitate to commend Umahi for the “bold move driven purely by principle rather than opportunistic motives”. He acknowledged that the governor might be ridiculed but pointed out that was part of the price “men of principles have to pay for acting according to their conscience and convictions”. The president also noted that the defection would herald a new dawn for Nigeria`s democracy as “voters will be more motivated by the records of parties and their candidates”, even though it is not quite clear what he meant.
Regardless of what one thinks of Umahi`s defection, it must be said that political parties are not to be vehicles that advance the selfish interests of politicians. Parties should have a clear vision of the nation that they seek to build, visions that are hinged on a clear set of economic, political, social, and moral ideologies.
Political parties should be distinct from one another based on the ideologies they profess. If political parties in Nigeria are structured in this manner and strong institutions prevent the advancement of the selfish interests of politicians, it is possible to have the rate of inter-party defections minimized since ‘political prostitutes’ such as Atiku Abubakar and most recently, David Umahi could easily lose credibility. The United States has set a good example in this regard and Nigeria must follow.
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