Last week, PUNCH took a stand to start using the military rank of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) in all its titles, as its reaction to Buhari’s dictatorial tendencies. In addition, the newspaper said it would use “regime” rather than administration or the like to describe the government of Buhari.
The punchline in that scathing editorial entitled, “Buhari’s lawlessness: Our stand,” was this: “As a symbolic demonstration of our protest against autocracy and military-style repression, PUNCH (all our print newspapers, The PUNCH, Saturday PUNCH, Sunday PUNCH, PUNCH Sports Extra, and digital platforms, most especially Punchng.com) will henceforth prefix Buhari’s name with his rank as a military dictator in the 80s, Major General, and refer to his administration as a regime, until they purge themselves of their insufferable contempt for the rule of law.”
In the penultimate paragraph, the editorial urged Nigerians to stop being docile: “The regime’s repression cannot succeed but will further polarize the society and weaken national cohesion. The Nigerian Bar Association has vowed to defend the sanctity of judicial authority, while Soyinka has warned that disregard for court orders could beget desperation and civil disobedience. Nigerians need to stop their supine acquiescence to oppression and learn to stand up for their rights as many are doing around the world, using all peaceful and legal means, including the right to protest and of peaceful assembly. It is Dasuki, el-Zakzakky, Sowore and others today, who knows who is next if repression is not resisted?”
The two media aides to Buhari reacted to the editorial differently. While Femi Adesina tried to play down on the import of that decision, Garba Shehu was more aggressive in his response.
Adesina said there was nothing strange in the stand of Punch, noting that Buhari had always taken pride in his military rank, “Major General,” which was not gifted to him. He added that it did not matter whether Buhari’s era was described as “regime”, administration, or tenure, since they all conveyed the same meaning.
Shehu stated inter alia: “It is not within the power or rights of a newspaper to unilaterally and whimsically change the formal official title or the designation of the country’s President as it pleases.
“It is unprecedented and absurd in our recent political history. The PUNCH never changed President Obasanjo’s title from the President to General, despite the latter’s refusal to comply with Supreme Court judgment, ordering him to release N30bn of Lagos State local councils funds.
“When General Ibrahim Babangida who wasn’t democratically elected assumed the title of President, why didn’t The PUNCH challenge him or address him by any title it so desired?
“In fact, IBB closed media houses for several months and years, including Punch.
But the paper didn’t stop addressing him as President, despite the fact that he wasn’t elected.”
Even though some people have argued that the stand of Punch to address Buhari as major general and call his administration a regime is not an effective action against his dictatorial tendencies, it is indeed a strong message to the world about Buhari’s regime. For example, the CNN published an article with the headline: “Nigerian newspaper says it will now call President Buhari a ‘military dictator.’” Note that Punch did not say directly that it would start addressing Buhari as “military dictator,” but that is the way the CNN interpreted it.
No dictator wants to be addressed directly or indirectly as a dictator. Every dictator wants to be seen as a patriotic leader who is trying to protect the nation from “internal enemies and saboteurs.”
The hitherto silence of the media, civil society and other sections of the Nigerian population has been encouraging Buhari to infringe on the rights of the citizens in the name of defending the nation. Even though it is obvious that Buhari does not like to listen to contrary opinions, there has not been a concerted effort to let him know that he has no right to do as he pleases, even as the leader of Nigeria.
When the homes of judges were invaded, there should have been a robust reaction from the judiciary. When Buhari suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, the judiciary should have reacted firmly. But even the call to boycott the law courts was not heeded by many lawyers. The judges also did not see it as an attack on one of the three arms of the government. They saw it as an attack on “corrupt judges.”
Other brazen abuse of personal rights has also been seen in that light: a fight against corrupt or seditious people. There is always a ready-made justification by the defenders of Buhari against any illegal action taken against a citizen. Attention is paid to the political persuasion, ethnicity, or religion of the person involved rather than on the issue at hand.
Even when the action is criticised, there is always a direct or subtle attempt to exonerate Buhari and blame the action on one agency or head of an agency. Buhari is portrayed as never aware of the negative actions of his subordinates. But he is praised for any positive action taken by his subordinates.
It is dangerous for a democracy to have acquiescent Legislature and Judiciary. It is dangerous for a democracy to have a weak opposition. It is dangerous for democracy to have a pliant media. It is dangerous because it breeds dictatorship. The person occupying the office of the leader of a country is different from the country. That person should never have absolute powers. It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
As compiled by knight Fredel