Special to USAfrica magazine (Houston) and USAfricaonline.com, first Africa-owned, US-based newspaper published on the Internet
Dr. Chidi Amuta is Executive Editor of USAfrica
An urgent threat hovers over Nigeria’s democracy. It is not just the spectre of bad elections or the predominance of atrocious politicians. It is instead the rise and increasing numbers of authoritarian governors all over the country. Though enthroned by our often murky democratic process, an increasing number of state governors now carry on more like banana republic tin gods than elected representatives of the people. This is perhaps the most visible flagrant subversion of Nigeria’s democratic pretensions at the present moment.
Ironically, however, not much of our media focus has been interested in drawing attention to the long term danger of this trend. Instead, people are clapping for these fledgling autocrats seeing them more as entertainers on social media rather than condemning them for the danger they pose to our future culture of freedom and democracy. While we watch and hail the authoritarian content creators, the Nigerian democratic shell now houses islands of the equivalents of the vile autocrats that we see in places that we are too ashamed to be associated with. Let us take a random look at recent trends.
The governor of Zamfara State, Mr. Bello Matawalle recently ordered the shutdown of a number of media houses in the state on account of their coverage of political activities in the state. The affected media houses include the Nigeria Television Authority, Gamji Television, Al-Umma Television and Pride FM Radio in Gusau, the state Capital. Their crime ostensibly is that they covered and reported the campaign rally of the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP), the opposition to the governor’s ruling All Progressive Congress(APC). The government statement on the matter claimed that the state government had suspended political activities in the state while the PDP went ahead and held its rally which was covered by the offending media. By the wordings of the order of closure, the offending media houses are, in the governor’s judgment, in breach of “the rules of journalism”. Reportedly, some journalists from the affected media houses were arrested for entering their respective work premises to perform their legitimate functions.
Predictably, outcries and condemnations by international and national media organisations as well as civil society groups have followed but none of that has impressed the authoritarian despot in the Gusau Governor’s Lodge.
By the illogic of this action, the governor has placed his partisan interests above the fundamental freedom of expression of the media which is a cornerstone of all democracies. Above all, the governor has usurped the regulatory powers of the relevant authorities on media practice and arrogated those powers to his executive fiat. If indeed he felt that the affected media houses had flouted any state laws, he should have reported them to the relevant regulatory bodies like the National Broad Commission(NBC) instead of taking recourse to a line of action which even a military regime would be reluctant to undertake.
Matawalle is not new to authoritarian flirtations and reckless pronouncements. Earlier, he had unilaterally announced that citizens of the state were free to acquire whatever arms they thought fit to secure themselves against the menace of bandits in the state. Of course, in the absence of a federal law granting citizens authority to bear arms, this declaration was in flagrant violation of all existing laws and the constitution of the country. The leadership of all national security agencies were unanimous in condemning the governor’s directive as an open invitation to anarchy.
It would be recalled that Governor Aminu Masari of Katsina state had previously advocated the same self- help approach to citizens’ personal security, encouraging his people to take measures to protect themselves including the acquisition and possession of weapons. Masari’s pronouncement was consequential since he is the governor of the President’s home state.
But nothing compares to Matawalle’s record in terms of recklessness and flagrant disregard for democratic order. This is a governor who had previously entered into all manner of agreements with bandit leaders in the state, sometimes allowing them to roam free in certain areas only to scream aloud each time his agreement with them appeared to be foundering. Meanwhile, he has ceded the state to terrorists to the extent that his state is arguably the epicentre of banditry and rural terrorism in the nation. Most ungoverned spaces in Zamfara are effectively under bandit control even now. Local farmers pay levies to bandits and war lords in order to plant or harvest their crops.
Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi state typifies a different dimension in the descent into low levels of authoritarianism. His contribution is in the area of the conscious cultivation of a political personality cult. A recent viral video in the social media showed Governor Umahi gleefully ‘overseeing’ the open flogging of innocent public servants by soldiers and policemen because they arrived after him during a visit to a government facility. It is uncertain whether the governor ordered the floggings. But it remains doubtful that such an act of open abuse of citizens rights can take place in the presence of the governor without his authorisation.
What is common knowledge is that Mr. Umahi has been consistently intolerant of dissenting views. He has embarked on the use of rough tactics to mzintain his political predominance in the state. To criticize Mr. Umahi in Ebonyi state is to transgress against all known deities. For him, intimidation and harassment of his political opponents seems routine. Opposition politicians, journalists and plain well -meaning citizens have been subjected to this governor’s ire for just holding contrary views or questioning the governor’s half- baked and ill digested ideas and policies. Ig does not matter that he has changed political parties in pursuit of some phantom Igbo presidency project which he saw as his entitlement.
Probably because he is uncomfortable with the growing popularity of Mr. Peter Obi and his OBIdients movement, a peaceful street rally in Abakaliki by the movement was visited with police tear gas and truncheons ostensibly on the orders of the state police commissioner. It remains doubtful whether any state police commissioner can undertake an action that violates the constitutional right of assembly of citizens without the authorisation of the governor of the state. But that incident went down as the first and only state where the rallies and street marches of the OBIdients has been dispersed with tear gas anywhere in the federation.
The governors of Ondo and Benue states belong in a somewhat different category. They have engaged in acts that run in open contradiction to the spirit and letter of the constitution. Reacting to the pervasive insecurity in the nation and the heavy tolls it has taken on lives and property in both states in particular, the governors have responded to what is clearly an emergency. They have pioneered the setting up of state security outfits. In the case of Ondo, it is the Amotekun vigilante outfit which is a pan-South West endeavour. But Mr. Akeredolu has gone a step further than his other South West counterparts. He has vociferously taken federal authorities to task on the matter of the calibre of weapons that Ondo state Amotekun should bear. He has requested for military grade weapons such as AK-47 assault rifles and other high calibre armaments that clearly go beyond the security needs of a state. Mr. Ortom of Benue state has followed suit.
There may be some justification in the stance of both governors. Their argument is hinged on the nature of the threat on their states. After all, the armed herdsmen, sundry terrorists and bandits who attack and kill their citizens are armed with military grade weapons and display a proficiency in weapons use that can only be found among highly trained and professional killer squads. But the insistence of the governors on arming their respective militias with military grade weapons runs counter to the law of the land. Constitutionally, only the authorised security agencies are allowed to acquire and use weapons like assault rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers. The insistence of these governors on their request is in violation of the constitutional provision which places the armed and security services and their equipment in the exclusive hands of the federal government. To insist otherwise is to run foul of the demarcation of powers between the two tiers of government. It is also an open challenge of the supreme sovereignty of the federal government.
Basic constitutional compliance is at the root of the democratic essence of every sovereign nation state. Open challenges to the national constitution except through the judicial process amount to political rascality under the guise of protection of citizens of their respective states. The argument of the federal authorities that a state government cannot be more concerned about citizen security than the federal government is, to some extent valid. But the security of citizens is a joint responsibility of the federal and state authorities.
In Imo State, Governor Hope Uzodinma has tended to pursue political survival and pre- eminence in his fractious state through all manner of authoritarian head butts. For a governor whose legitimacy and ascendancy hinges on the verdict of a handful of Supreme Court judges, his every step seems to be immersed in controversy. He walked into a political minefield with a predecessor that was considerably popular. The state was already charged with challenges. A hostile populace plus a former governor, Mr. Rochas Okorocha, who was embattled over illicit property matters and who is deeply entrenched in the Imo power structure meant that Mr. Uzodinma has to fight for every inch of political foothold he enjoys.
Add to this the weaponization of politics in Imo and the enlistment of factions of IPOB separatist militia and other opportunistic criminal gangs into the Imo fray and you have the makings of a battle field of sorts. A small Mexico! A state like this can only be conducive to anarchy and violent insecurity. The rapid descent of a hitherto peaceful and happy- go- lucky state into a hell hole of violence and anarchy is a study in the convergence of bad politics and opportunistic criminality as an enterprise.
Mr. Uzodinma is clearly an embattled governor from many fronts. Arguably, therefore, the niceties of democratic civility may not secure him the power longevity he desires as a politician. He has tended to adopt autocratic measures to survive while pretending to catering to state security and restoration of order. He has, for instance, enacted a law authorizing him to arrest and detain citizens who may not share his views or those whose activities and views he adjudges inimical to peace and order in the state. He has also reportedly cooperated with federal security agencies to levy acts that amount to war against communities in parts of the state where separatist militants allegedly have calls and camps. The trouble in these so called special ‘security operations’ has been how to distinguish between the governor’s armed political opponents and genuine criminals or IPOB activists.
This war-like situation has exposed federal security operatives deployed to the state to great risk leading to a high casualty rate among policemen and soldiers and of course grave human rights violations. This has perhaps become a license for more authoritarian measures. In the process, the governor’s credentials as a democratic leader have become badly tainted as his state has descended into a permanent state of undeclared emergency. And states under some form of ‘emergency rule are never the best venues for democratic civility or genteel displays.
In present day Rivers state, we come face to face with all the facets of the abuse of democratic mandate to propagate the worst traits of authoritarianism and despotic rascality. The most recent initiative of Governor Nyesom Wike is a plan to recruit no less than 100,000 ‘special assistants’ predictably to act as authorised political thugs in the 2023 election season. Prior to this, Mr. Wike, who is in the political trench with his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as a factional leader, has used undisguised intimidation, harassment, blackmail and violence against his political enemies within the state. He has closed the businesses of his adversaries, demolished houses and hotels of his enemies and withdrawn titles, privileges and patronage from political allies who now believe and align differently. He has unilaterally converted the apparatus of state to an instrument of political blackmail, authorized gangsterism and reckless charity.
In utter devaluation of all democratic norms, Mr. Wike has barred political campaigns in public premises including schools. He has used the State House of Assembly to instigating the de-listing of Mr. Omehia as former governor despite earlier recognizing and rewarding the same man as an ex governor. The fact that the list of Mr. Wike’s political victims and adversaries corresponds to all those who now support his opponent, Mr. Atiku Abubakar, who roundly trounced him to emerge as the PDP presidential candidate, is interesting.
In terms of general political conduct, Mr. Wike has descended from the high pinnacle of an elected state chief executive to adopt the language and mannerisms of an undisguised gutter snipe and motor park bus conductor. The candour of expression, respect for decorum and consideration for public sensitivities are utterly lacking in the dictionary of this elected autocratic upstart. In his embodiment of all the anomalies in Nigeria’s democracy today, Governor Wike may have unwittingly ended up more as an online comic content creator than a serious politician. The most lowly in the public merely laugh off his foibles for entertainment.
Taken together the multiple transgressions of this diversity of governors amplify the crisis of Nigeria’s democratic pretensions. Nothing in our constitution amounts to a code of conduct for state governors in a democracy. We are therefore left with only the schedule of duties and responsibilities of state governors in the constitution to guide our basic assessment of the conduct of our 36 governors.
Perhaps the most compelling indictment of the current spate of authoritarianism among many governors is democracy itself. Democracy in itself should impose an ethical code, requiring basic civility on the part of those elected to rule over us. This implies respect for the rights of the citizenry as the prime enablers of power, privilege and authority in a democracy. It also implies strict observance of the rule of law and the observance of the rules of democratic civility by those in positions of authority. A good number of our current crop of governors are in defiance of the basic tenets of democratic governance.
To remind us all, especially our tyrannical governors, the job of state governor does not include certain defilements that we are now witnessing. A governor should not insult his opponents for believing differently. A governor should not spend or ‘donate’ public money without legitimate appropriation. A governor should not bulldoze the property of their opponents or deny people their right to free expression. Governance in a drunken state is worse than drunk driving; its casualties could include the driver himself and other innocent road users!