Buratai’s alert and imperative of a fortified democracy in Nigeria

The announcement made last week by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, warning officers and men of the Nigerian Army against engaging in political activities, was only a terse statement but it has far-reaching implications for the survival of the country’s democracy.

The statement touched the sore point of Nigeria’s political development and democratic growth and, especially in the prevailing circumstances, highlighted suspicions of threats to the survival of the country as an entity.

The COAS, in a statement by the Director of Army Public Relations, Brig. Gen. Sani Usman, informed the public that he had received “information that some individuals have been approaching some officers and soldiers for undisclosed political reasons.”

Buratai therefore cautioned such persons to desist from acts that can politicize the army and also warned officers and soldiers “interested in politics to resign their commission or apply for voluntary discharge forthwith.”

The general reiterated that “the Nigerian Army will remain apolitical and respect the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria” adding that the institution is thoroughly professional, disciplined, loyal and apolitical.

Considering the timing of the statement, the seriousness of the message and the caliber of the source it emanated from, many Nigerians are already looking at its implications for the continuation of the country’s democracy.

With President Muhammadu Buhari on a medical vacation abroad to treat an illness that has prevented his presidency from performing at optimal level amid signs of a divided polity where a section of the country is allegedly preventing constitutionalism by promoting an ethnic agenda against Acting President Yemi Osinbajo and the possibility of a powerful group instigating the Army to seize power on its behalf, the Buratai statement has elicited more than a cursory interest from Nigerians.

For a country that had been dragged back several times from democratic course by persistent military incursions into politics, the statement appeared as a warning of preparations for a coup d’état by some elements in the Nigerian Army who are being encouraged by civilians.

In the 56 years of Nigeria’s existence as an independent nation, 28 have been under military rule and the longest, in the country’s history of democracy, is the current Republic, which commenced in 1999, 18 years ago.

Although, following the Buratai alert, the Army is said to have began the process of gathering intelligence about the allegations with possible arrest of the suspects, fortifying the political class and proclaiming allegiance to the constitution, a resounding rejection from the generality of the people seems to be the only antidote to military intervention.

While representative governance stands on feeble grounds in Nigeria because of the loose unity of component units, ethno-religious and regional divisions and anti-democratic impunity of operators of the country’s democracy, the current experiment is hopefully, getting rooted in firm soil.

Analysts believe that one of the main reasons the current Republic lasts this long without the usual dawn broadcast and martial music heralding forceful change of baton, apart from global resentment against military rule, is the involvement of retired generals who have been holding sway on the political scene to act as buffer against ambitious officers.

The involvement has however come at a price as the generals have brought into the system, some dictatorial tendencies that are at variance with democratic norms in their quest to “enforce” representative government.

But the fact of global outrage and local resistance to military is not enough to prevent ambitious soldiers who could play on the socio-political and economic sentiments of Nigerians, as it had been in the past, to get initial supports from unwary patriots.

One clear fact about the Buratai statement, which is making many Nigerians to take it seriously, is that every military intervention in the country was always preceded by warnings to the authorities in terms of prevailing conditions that could make a coup welcomed or even direct pronouncements from some quarters.

Sometimes in 1982, as Nigeria’s first experiment with the American presidential system began on jerky notes, Buhari, then the General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Jos Division of the Nigerian Army, called on soldiers to familiarize themselves with the 3-year old Nigerian Constitution for a “future role” they might be called upon to play. The “future role” came a year later in form of a coup that swept the Second Republic away and Buhari became the Head of State.

While the call by Buhari was from the military which in its puritanical guise always pose as an instrument to clean the nation of civilians’ misrule, a similar one by Senator Joseph Waku, which confirmed disclosures that politicians are the ones calling on the soldiers to seize power for selfish reasons, was made in 2000 when the current Republic was barely a year old. An incensed political class however rose as one against Waku who received condemnations from all angles.

The anger of the nation against the Senator was not misplaced because apart from the damage the military has done to the country’s democratic journey, examples of civilians actually sponsoring a coup had been found in Great Ogboru who was named in the failed Gideon Orkar coup of 1990. There were also several allusions to many politicians who have, at one time or the other, allegedly invited the military to take over the reins of government.

In 1997, Buhari, who incidentally could be the target of any putsch if the Buratai alert holds any water, confirmed this assertion when he blamed politicians instead of the soldiers for military intervention.

Delivering a lecture at the Centre for Democracy of the Bayero University, Kano, Buhari, who obviously had not envisaged himself emerging as the country’s civilian president said, “In 37 years of independence, Nigeria has had four separate successful coups and several other unsuccessful attempts. While these frequent changes have no doubt been quite disruptive, the political class has no moral right to present this fact as its excuse for failing to learn the ropes. And like all other patriotic Nigerians, members of the Armed Forces have every right to resent the mismanagement of affairs by the politicians.

“Nigerian politicians have no one to blame but themselves when they find themselves out in the cold. They are their own worst enemies. They have very little commitment to democracy beyond Election Day. And as I said elsewhere, many Nigerian politicians are not true democrats; they are democrats of convenience, extolling the virtues of democracy when they campaign, that’s the rule of the jungle with the added burden of having to vote for it. Conversely when they lose, politicians refuse to accept the verdicts and invite the military to return.”

And like they reacted to the Waku call, Nigerians have spoken in unison against any attempt, as revealed by Buratai, to truncate the current democracy.
The Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere said Buratai should do the country a favour by naming those politicians and military officers that contacted one another so that the full weight of the law could be brought upon them.

The group’s spokesman, Yinka Odumakin said the announcement was a sad reminder for the country because the military institution seems to have turned into another whistle blower instead of investigating the matter before coming to the public to raise the tension.

According to him, “To clear the fear and anxiety already created in the minds of the people that a ground is already being created for unconstitutional government, Buratai should do thorough investigation to unravel names of the officers approached and those who contacted them.

Odumakin warned it is not something Nigerians should overlook as he recalled what happened in 1982 when the nation ignored warnings of military intervention before the soldiers disrupted the Second Republic.

The group’s counterpart in the Southeast, Ohanaeze Ndigbo also spoke in the same vein by asking the COAS to expose those that had approached the Army for political reasons. It also warned against attempt, by anybody or group, to take advantage of Buhari’s illness “to take power through the back door.”

According to the group’s spokesman, Chuks Ibegbu, “The COAS should name those people, so that Nigerians will know who they are, and their motives. People should not take advantage of Mr. President’s health condition to take power through the back door.

“Whoever they are, they should know that any attempt to scuttle democracy in this country would be resisted by Nigerians. Military rule is no longer welcome in this country. But Buratai should start by naming these people; Nigerians need to know who they are so as to stop them.”

In its reaction, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), while condemning any coup attempt in whatever guise, applauded Buratai for warning the soldiers to steer clear of politics.

National Publicity Secretary of ACF, Muhammad Ibrahim said, “Nigeria, at this time of our democratic experience, cannot afford any distractions by some unpatriotic individuals who want to use the military or other security agencies to disrupt our hard-earned democracy. Nigerians must expose those who wish to turn the hand of the clock backwards.”

Another northern politician and former governor of Old Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa said Nigerians does not need any form of unconstitutional government, not even a military intervention.

He warned whoever is nursing a coup ambition to bury the idea in the interest of peace, progress and future of the country saying, “There is nothing outrageous about this democracy that should warrant anybody to think of truncating it, not even a military coup.”

Musa however shared different view with those who felt the COAS ought to have done his investigation before the announcement.

According to him, “I want to disagree that Burutai’s statement was mere sensitization like some have said. To me, he must have done his investigation appropriately and as well consulted widely before coming out, otherwise such sensitive issue couldn’t have been trivialized by the military top authority. I hope the military authority would go beyond the announcement to expose those behind the act.”

Even the divided house of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) spoke with one voice on the matter as both the Ahmed Makarfi and Ali Modu Sheriff’s factions, condemned any coup plan.

Spokesman of the Makarfi group, Dayo Adeyeye urged the COAS to disclose the identities of politicians involved in the alleged plot saying, “It is only reasonable that he exposes those involved. What are those politicians making these contacts asking for? The truth is that as a nation, we cannot go back to Egypt, because democracy is our Promised Land.”

Speaking on behalf of the Sheriff faction, Bernard Mikko said Nigerians would resist any unconstitutional means to change government in the country adding, “We all swore to uphold the constitution and any means to force a constitutional government down in the country should be resisted.”

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mallam Yusuf Ali, in his reaction, said, “It is no more fashionable for soldiers to take over government anywhere in the world. We saw what happened in The Gambia and what is even happening in Cote d’Ivoire now. I think we should all remember that almost 50 per cent of our problems today were caused by military rule, in the first place.

“Mention any problem we have – corruption, deficit in infrastructure and even militancy and others – was caused by the intervention of the military in governance. “I think the call by the COAS is quite timely and I pray that reason will prevail. The problem we have here is not as much as what they have in India, and the Army never took over. So we should be allowed to make our mistakes and correct ourselves.”

In another reaction, Malam Olawale Rasheed, a media entrepreneur said coup is no longer fashionable in Nigeria because events have proved that the worse of civilian administration is far better and acceptable than the best military government.

He said Nigerians should commend Buratai for having the boldness, commitment and the respect for elected government, to expose such move.

According to him, “Military rule is no longer fashionable across the world where people prefer to elect government through the ballot. There is outrageous about this democracy neither is the present administration doing totally bad. Even at that the people should be allowed to change any government that they dislike through a constitutional means.”

On why such runmour is coming at this period when the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo is Acting President, Rasheed warned Nigerians, particularly the media, to be careful not to put a wedge between Buhari and Osinbajo, saying, “in the history of Nigeria, Osinbajo is the most engaged vice president. Buhari entrusted a lot of responsibilities to his office and he has so far conducted himself in a reasonable manner. We should only be careful not to use the issue of coup to crate a crack between the duo. What should be paramount is the country.”

But by far the most instructive of the comments against the coup threat came from the United Kingdom whose High Commissioner, Paul Arkwright said, “anybody seeking change in Nigeria must follow democratic process.”

Speaking hours after the Buratai alert in Abuja, the diplomat said the UK would continue to support democracy as the only system of government in Nigeria.

According to him, “The British Government believes that democracy is absolutely critical in Nigeria. There is a democratic process here; there are elections. If you are not happy with your leaders, then you should change your leadership process through your leaders and through elections.

“That is exactly what happened in 2015 and it is what the British Government will expect to happen in Nigeria. So, our position is very clear; we stand for democracy, we stand for the democratic process and we stand for change, if that is what the people of Nigeria want. It has to be a choice that the people make and not a choice that is imposed upon them.”

The major lesson from reactions to the Buratai statement, as was the case with the ones against Waku 17 years ago, is that Nigerians are tired of military rule and if the latest statement was to test the waters, then it has gotten a negative response.

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