Buhari’s Unwinnable Anti-Media War

By Emmanuel Onwubiko

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. Thomas Jefferson.

Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. Thomas Jefferson.

The history of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration won’t certainly be complete without a detailed mention of his contrived but well sustained war against media freedoms.

The cantankerous relationship between the Present federal administration in Nigeria with the media is a direct reflection of the kind of opaque government that is in place which substantially is devoid of transparency, accountability and integrity.

But this situation is diametrically opposed to what should be expected from a nation that has consistently practiced constitutional democracy for well over twenty years at a stretch after about four decades of military subjugation of the delocratic forces under the whims and caprices of the barrels of the guns.

Media scholars in the United States of America affirmed categorically in a recent scholarly book that “the main arguments against the notion that the media reflect the already existing norms, values, and realities of society are that the media construct and change events rather than just reflect them. Think about events that happen in real world but that are also presented extensively in the media-events such as Princess Diana’s Funeral, the Academy Awards ceremony, and sports events such as the Olympic Games, the World Cup, and the Melbourne Cup. These events happen independently of the media events, constructing rather than just reflecting them (Wark 1994).

The Melbourne Cup is an Australian horse race that is celebrated nationally (and more recently, internationally, thanks to worldwide media coverage) as ‘the race that stops a nation.’ It is presented in the present tense, as though it has always and will always be true. Historically, the race dates back only to the nineteenth century but, more importantly, stopping the nation only became a real possibility once media communication could transmit this event live across the nation, through the telegraph, then radio, then television. At this point the media allow the possibility of a simultaneously shared, national event (the significance of the Melbourne Cup relates to Australia’s search for national identity). Events that bring the nation together into what cultural analyst Benedict Anderson (1983) calls an imagined community’ help Australians to define themselves and their culture. One national character aspect celebrated in the case of the Melbourne Cup is the triumph of leisure over work and the pleasure of gambling. We can think of few other countries that make a horse race such a significant national event.

The media hype up the significance of such events. Newspapers, radio, and television networks start reporting and speculating on the Melbourne Cup several weeks in advance. (It fits neatly into the annual sports calendar by coming in early November after the Australian football and rugby seasons has ended, and before the cricket, tennis, and other summer sports seasons are fully under way, so there is plenty of media space available for it.) It becomes a feature on non-sports media programs, a major news event, so that, for example, ABC Radio National news programs actually broadcast from the race meeting. The speculation about who will win is linked to gambling and commercialism; participation in the event means being involved in some form of a bet.

Two points the writers observed emerge from this media event thus 1. Stopping the nation is only possible via the media, so we can say that the media construct this event rather than reflect it. 2. If you are a regular media consumer, you should ‘naturally’ be interested in this event, particularly if you identify yourself as Australian. Indeed, the media suggest that not being interested in the race would mean being UN Australian. (Media & Society fourth edition by Michael O’shaughnessy & Jane Stadler). From these few lines what have emerged clearly is that the media do not just set agenda for the citizens but the media deliberately conveys information in such a way as to educate, inform and entertain the citizens and to portray events of significance into social symbols for the whole of the nation. However, from the crude encounters the media practitioners have had in the hands of some reactionary forces embedded within the government, what these manifestations of media repressive practices is that the political class are really and truly not ideologically driven. I just recently picked up a well written book on political parties in divided nations and I will drop just a little citation to demonstrate the link between the fear of media freedoms, and the attack against mlexercise of the fundamental human rights to freedom of expression and association to the weak structures under which the existing political formations evolved.

In the new democracies that have emerged across the globe since the beginning of what Huntington has called the “Third Wave” of democratization -whether in Southern or East-Central Europe or else- where in the world- parties often either did not exist or were heavily controlled prior to the regime changes and, therefore, effectively had to be built from scratch. Party membership in these countries remains relatively low and, with a few exceptions, the levels of electoral participation have been declining, especially in comparison with the early phases of democratization. In the context of a relatively weakly developed civil society, political parties tend to lack strong links with their constituencies. Even in cases where they had initially espoused strong grassroots mobilization as part of their liberation struggle, parties such as the ANC in South Africa, ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, SWAPO in Namibia or FRELIMO in Mozambique eventually turned their attention elsewhere as they became absorbed in the life of the institutions. ( see the book titled, ‘Political Parties in Conflict-Prone Societies Regulation, Engineering and Democratic Development’, Edited By Benjamin Reilly and Per Nordlund).

If there is anything the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration would be remembered for many years to come if the ethically challenged country remains, is the strong aversion and hatred it has for media freedom, free speech and freedom of association.

The government has in over the last seven years being preoccupied with Sinister plots after plots on ways to muzzle media freedoms. Although the president is a former military despot known for some draconian anti media decrees such as the Decree 4 of the 1984 under which some Journalists were convicted without proper trials and confined to underground dungeons for years until that brutal dictatorship of the early 80s was overthrown in a ‘place coup’.

But notwithstanding the past profile of Muhammadu Buhari during the military Junta, his Campaigners who wanted voters to trust him in 2015 told Nigerians that his past aversion for media freedom was in the past particularly when he and a few of his party officials were constantly embarking on civil protests against what the then opposition party considered to be policies that did not favour democratic practices.

About seven years down the line after voters elected this erstwhile military ruler as a civilian President, Muhammadu Buhari has manifested his innate intolerance of media freedoms and free speech.

His government has done everything under the sun to smuggle in legislations that would curtail media freedoms but each time these retrogressive legislations are tendered before the National Assembly, Nigerians have had to fight so hard to get the bad pieces of legislation discarded.

There is also the tendency within the administration to classify any dissenting opinions as a rebellion just as the officials are known to be in mortal fear of freedom of speech.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration is known to have supervised the killings by police of dozens of peaceful protesters including the diabolical handling of the nation-wide protests in 2020 against police brutality in which time unruly soldiers shot directly at protesters in Lagos killing and maiming many peaceful protesters. Many journalists covering protests have also been killed by the police.

Besides, the Department of state services operatives have on many occasions been used to disperse protests and they are known to have made a lot of arrests just so that dissenting voices opposed to that of the Central government are drowned.

In the last one year, the nation has come under ferocious attacks by series of armed non-state actors, terrorists, herdsmen kidnappers and mass killers.

The breakdown of law and order all across Nigeria has assumed disturbing dimension just as prisons are been broken into and thousands of prisoners including terrorists have escaped without trace.

The other day, terrorists invaded Abuja and attacked Kuje Prison freeing over 600 prisoners including some of the top commanders of terrorists.

In the area of economy, there is no gain saying that inflation and costs of living have ballooned out of control just as youth joblessness is at the highest peak.

Also public sector corruption has spiked even as organized crimes have become phenomenal thereby exposing the incapacity of President Buhari to discharge his duty. I will lift just a few line from a very recent editorial of PUNCH newspaper on the crass incompetence of President Muhammadu Buhari in handling terrorists and kidnappers.

THE revelation by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), says PUNCH, that the Abuja–Kaduna train kidnappers failed to release all their remaining victims as agreed reinforces the argument against paying ransom to, or making deals with criminals. It also highlights the need for the government to adopt an inflexible posture against terrorists, rescue all kidnap victims, neutralise, and punish the perpetrators.

Kidnappers operating under the tag of “bandits” and other terrorist groups have created a monstrous multibillion-naira business. One newspaper calculated that so far, the train kidnappers had realised at least N2 billion in ransom payment from the 47 persons they had released as of August 20. Twenty-three others remain in their captivity.

Regrettably, the government demonstrates helplessness amid the epidemic of abductions for ransom across the country. It should devise a new approach to secure the release of the 23 persons still being held after 150 days by August 25 and other kidnap victims. Buhari and the security agencies can do better; the abductees are on Nigerian soil, not in a foreign land.

It is so tragic that Nigeria has such an incompetent President that is being reported that at a meeting with the relatives of the kidnapped victims of the Abuja-Kaduna train attack, the President lamented the failure of the kidnappers to honour their promise to release the victims after government had released their (bandits’) relatives. A presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, said, “The government also released seven children of the members of the terrorist gangs, as demanded, but they reneged in releasing the train passengers.” This is very discomfiting. Only in a failed state is a government reduced to such pitiable position. Serious governments avoid negotiating with terrorists.

Amidst this cacophony of failures calls have been made for President Buhari who is grossly incompetent to resign honourably or be impeached. The Senate of the Federal Republic that has remained subservient to executive manipulations of the office of president Buhari, got so frustrated and is afraid that terrorists could take over Nigeria and majority moved to impeach the President. However the Senate President who is a lackey of president Buhari decided to suspend the doomsday scenario for the non-performing president. Spokesperson of president Buhari who is so crude jeered at the senators for threatening to impeach the president.

And because these boot lickers are beneficiaries of the failed system, they are absolutely intolerant of any call for the impeachment of President Buhari.

The Guardian is one of the most fearless media outfits. It has just called for the impeachment of president Buhari and gave sound reasons.

The Guardian was instantly attacked for speaking truth to power. This time around, Garba Shehu was the spokesman that attacked the position of the Guardian.

But what the Guardian published is what even a two year old infant is asking for impeachment of the most incompetent president that Nigeria has ever had.

In the editorial of August 22nd 2022 the Guardian said: All social malaise erstwhile alien to the old general – terrorism, banditry, kidnappings, daylight robbery, infiltrations and sabotage of security agencies, oil thieving cartels, corruption, economic free-fall, widespread inefficiency, administrative ineptitude – are riding roughshod over Buhari’s government.

Not only is he seemingly incompetent to fix the challenges, but he appears also to have given up trying. It is therefore a no-brainer that a group of lawmakers did call for his impeachment. In reality, the pushback is roundly justified.

Globally, modern governments have twin primary responsibilities – security and welfare of the citizenry. No administration that fails in these constitutional remits can be adjudged credible, deserving of the peoples’ mandate or another day in office. It is based on that standard that Muhammadu Buhari was elected into office in 2015 as a rebuke for the failings of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan.

Buhari and his ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) promised so much in the areas of security, economy and anti-corruption in pre-2015 electioneering campaigns. Yet, it delivered so little in the last seven years of gross incompetency, nepotism and culpable negligence.

Across the board, the wreckage piles to the high heaven, especially in the area of security, economy and anti-corruption fight that Buhari curiously scored his administration higher than the actual realities.

As a General in the Nigerian Army and a former Head of State, the choice of Buhari for a country ravaged by insecurity in the pre-2015 elections was only logical. He was expected to revamp and rally the troops as an experienced commander turned Commander-in-Chief and to end the crises forthwith.

Rather than stem the tide, insecurity blew out of proportion dovetailing into banditry, ISWAP-led terrorism, kidnappings and killings by ragtag criminals that Buhari’s administration for so long refused to pronounce terrorists. Today, they are nationwide, masterminding jail breaks, high-profile kidnappings and threatening to hold Mr President hostage someday!

Clearly, the very embarrassing situation is not for lack of funding for the war against insecurity. In fact, since he came onboard in May 2015, security has routinely raked in a huge chunk of the yearly appropriation budget.

In the first six cycle budgets, security and defence gulped a total of N12 trillion, in addition to N2.41 trillion proposed for 2022. The end result is terrorists declaring war on the country and controlling a swath of territories. Nigerians became unsafe at home, schools, roads, rail and worship centres.

The Presidency, came hard on The Guardian newspaper over its editorials, which evaluate President Muhammadu Buhari’s leadership style, particularly its call for impeachment of the President over failure in governance generally.

The Presidency pointedly accused the nation’s flagship medium of alignment with the opposition to deploy what it describes as ‘partisan weapons in their arsenal’ to facilitate the removal of President Buhari.

In a statement signed by its Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, the Presidency also accused the newspaper of embarking on a “headline grabbing stunt just months before Nigeria’s next presidential election.”

The statement made available to newsmen last night reads: “The Guardian newspaper, which has taken up the role of regular antagonist and political opponent of the President and his party, APC for a long time now, has surpassed itself with its latest call for the impeachment of the President.

“The newspaper editors clearly do not like the way the President is running the country and therefore, they believe he should be impeached. They debase both the political discourse of our nation and public understanding of the law and Constitution by doing so.

“Impeachment is a process undertaken after high crimes and misdemeanours have been proven. It’s not a process undertaken against a leader whose politics you do not agree with, or who you personally dislike.

“It appears impeachment has become a newly added partisan weapon in their arsenal – wielded by those who have established a track record of hatred towards the President and an attempt to remove from office one who was democratically elected by the people.

“In a recent editorial published in the Washington Times, the American political leader and commentator, Saul Anuzis, stated: ‘There are exceptional circumstances when presidents and other office holders deserved to be impeached… slam-dunk cases of malfeasance in the highest office.

“Referencing attempts to call an impeachment vote in the Nigerian Senate a ‘headline-grabbing stunt,’ Anuzis observed: ‘It is no coincidence this occurs just months before Nigeria’s next presidential election.’

“The fact is, it should be for presidents to govern and for opposition politicians and the media to hold them to account. The circumstances of his election in 2015 – the first time a sitting president had been defeated in a re-election attempt and the first time any party, save the PDP had won the presidency – was a vast shock to Nigeria’s political and sections of the media establishments. As far as they were concerned, it was not how things were meant to be.

“So, from day one, they set about attacking this President more than any other in Nigeria’s history. The fact they could not defeat him at the ballot box when he was re-elected in 2019 – and now with his APC party very likely to retain the presidency despite all their best efforts – they now turn to all and any means, no matter the political, legal, or constitutional consequences to bring him down.

“For the benefit of the ones who have forgotten, The Guardian newspaper has in the past, been worshipped as the flagship of the nation’s press; the one that had won every ‘Newspaper of the Year’ awards. Now, they have sadly fallen from the height it once occupied as a medium that sparked intellectual thought and discourse for a fiddler of poorly scripted invective and ad hominem.

“The Guardian newspaper may never be friend or ally of President Buhari, but they should know better than to support this ‘headline-grabbing stunt.’

Garba Shehu needs to be told that the highest manifestations of misdemeanours are one, his unwillingness to combat terrorists of the Fulani Ethnic stock under the aegis of Miyetti Allah cattle owners association who are known to be sponsors of most of the mass killings targeting farmers but rather than arrest and prosecute these mass murderers that have killed thousands of farmers in Benue, Southern Kaduna and Plateau State, President Muhammadu Buhari pampers them. Fulani terrorists killing Hausas in Zamfara are being pampered. Terrorists are released under nebulous arrangements that they are repentant. These are all crimes that directly dovetail into high crimes that are impeachable offences. Under the nose of President Muhammadu Buhari, the terrorists that shut down military jet in Zamfara are being pampered and the President is building infrastructures in Niger Republic without Appropriation. What other crimes are worst than these?

  • EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA) and one time National commissioner of the NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF NIGERIA.

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