Egbuna: Is every form of change desirable?

MOST Nigerians are poor historians, they easily forget. Nigerians have nostalgia about the past, no matter how bad. The days gone by are always somehow better than the present days. The national relief which greeted the overthrow of the Buhari/Idiagbon military junta in August 1985 is suddenly forgotten, and skilful propagandist artists have repainted life in Nigeria under Buhari’s rule as the best we’ve ever had.

   But if Buhari indeed did well as Head of State from 1984 to 1985, why are we just suddenly remembering that now? Why didn’t we recall the wonders he did while in power, as he was losing three presidential elections in a row between 2003 and 2011? How come the majority of his supporters both North and South are the younger generation who had little or no idea of what was going on when he was in power?

   In a widely circulated 2007 piece on Buhari which was written by Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate attempted to rigorously examine the candidature of the then ANPP presidential aspirant. Soyinka had this to say: “The grounds on which General Buhari is being promoted as the alternative choice are not only shaky, but pitifully naive.  History matters. Records are not kept simply to assist the weakness of memory, but to operate as guides to the future. Of course, we know that human beings change. What the claims of personality change or transformation impose on us is a rigorous inspection of the evidence, not wishful speculation or behind-the-scenes assurances. Public offence, crimes against a polity, must be answered in the public space, not in caucuses of bargaining. In Buhari, we have been offered no evidence of the sheerest prospect of change…” Eight years on, and there’s still little or no reason to suggest that Buhari is now a changed man.

   One of the defining features of Buhari’s 20-month rule was the forbidding of any discussion on democracy or handing over power to civilians. His conversion to democracy is believed to have occurred sometime in the early 90s, when in an interview with a leading newsmagazine, he said about democracy: “with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a whole empire, and a socialist system, to some of us it is conclusive that democracy is the best system… As an avenue for change without shedding blood, democracy is the best. Democracy does not make sense if elections are rigged; if the manner in which the elections are organised continues to be corrupt then that type of democracy is not acceptable.” That was 1993, meaning that he never believed in democracy until age 51! During the dark days under Abacha, while other major national figures were speaking out against Abacha’s misrule, Buhari maintained a studious silence and instead helped lend credibility to the brutal regime by accepting to chair the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF).

   Convicted under the vicious Miscellaneous Offences Decree 20 of 1984, Bernard Ogedengbe, Lawal Ojuolape and Bartholomew Owoh were executed by firing squad for drug peddling despite strident local and international appeal for their pardon. In Ogedengbe’s case, the decree was applied retroactively as it wasn’t yet in force as at the time the offence was committed. Buhari’s highhandedness and intolerance of dissenting opinion set the stage for the atrocities that were committed by the two military juntas, which succeeded his. His infamous Decree Number 2 of 1984 gave him unprecedented powers to order the arrest and detention without charges of individuals deemed to be a security risk to the state for up to three months. Strikes and popular demonstrations were banned and the secret police, the National Security Organisation (NSO) cracked down on public dissent by intimidating, harassing and jailing individuals who broke the interdiction on strikes. Using Decree 2, the late afro-beat legend Fela Kuti was arrested on spurious charges of trying to smuggle foreign currency and sentenced to prison for 10 years. The Protection Against False Accusations Decree Decree Number 4 of 1984 was stridently enforced and would go down in history as the most obnoxious press law ever enacted in Nigeria. Examination malpractice by any student above the age of 17 years was to attract a sentence of 21 years imprisonment.

   Perhaps, an across board application of the laws to all offenders might have been more sufferable. Instead the Buhari regime recognised sacred cows. Shehu Shagari, the leader of the monumental corruption which Buhari ostensibly came to clean up, was placed on cozy house arrest in Ikoyi after he was overthrown. Alex Ekwueme his unfortunate deputy, however, was to languish in Kiri-kiri prison for years despite having been a mere spectator in the whole charade. Key actors like Uba Ahmed, the NPN secretary general, Umaru Dikko the Minister of Transport and several others were allowed to escape. The list of Buhari’s abuses is almost endless. When he was toppled by his military co-sojourners in August 1985, the whole nation collectively breathed a sigh of relief. His regime wasn’t mourned, his methods weren’t missed. In fact, to gain popularity the new junta under Ibrahim Babangida reversed most of his draconian policies and freed many prisoners convicted under Buhari’s bestial decrees, including Fela Kuti. Nigerians weren’t sad to see Buhari toppled in 1985. Why does it now appear that many can’t wait for him to return as head of state?

  Our collective national amnesia has facilitated the success of self-serving revisionists working under the garb of change agents. They have almost succeeded in convincing us that the erstwhile head of a brutal regime loathed at home and abroad is suddenly the panacea to all our national ills. Following his tenure as chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), there were allegations of misappropriation of funds under his watch. The civilian regime under Olusegun Obasanjo probed the PTF’s activities and came up with nothing substantial. This major allegations of fraud levelled against the former dictator, was not proven to be true. Such examples may have helped reinforce his reputation as a honest public servant. In a democratic setting where he can’t recourse to obnoxious decrees and arbitrary arrests, how would Buhari get along with sleazy operators within his political base?

   APC stalwarts repeatedly try to denounce the notion that their political movement is bereft of any ideological underpinning. Professor Yemi Osinbajo their vice presidential running mate has tried to place the APC as left of centre party. Buhari’s antecedents on the other hand very easily place him as right-wing politician. We may look to the developed world for guidance in such times as these. In the 1930s, Germany was suffering from the twin ailments of the great depression that struck the global economy and a heavy reparations bill from World War One designed to keep her economy comatose. The German people were unhappy, and the German state was floundering. Seduced by Joseph Goebbels’ fascist propaganda which was laced with grand romantic ideas of Aryan greatness, and in protest against the failings of the Weimar republic, the German people voted Adolf Hitler into power. A great and civilized people were successfully hoodwinked into believing that any kind of change represented progress. However, the unspeakable horrors that ensued under the Nazi regime and which culminated in the unprecedented devastation of Germany in World War Two is a poignant lesson we can learn from.

   At the end of the day nobody could stop Hitler and he proceeded to plunge Europe into a ruinous catastrophe. Unmindful that the law is no respecter of persons, Buhari’s incoherent logic about the certificate saga takes the tone and meaning of Hitler’s 1940 argument that it was late to avoid a holocaust. The difference, however, is that while Goebbels spoke many years after the Germans had made the costly mistake of voting Hitler into power, Buhari’s Kano press conference came when Nigeria strictly applying the law can still prevent a catastrophic blunder.

• Egbuna, a political analyst, lives in Lagos. 

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