By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
“Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”
(Stanley Baldwin, Queen’s Hall, London, 17 March, 1931)
When he took over power at the end of December 1983 after overthrowing the elected administration of President Shehu Shagari, Muhammadu Buhari, then a Major-General in the Nigerian Army, had all the trappings of a high priest of a regimental cult. His entire programme was boiled down to three letters -“War against Indiscipline” – which went by the deliberately suggestive acronym, WAI.
To implement this, Buhari the General arrived in power armed with a hatful of decrees, nearly all of which required everyone to accomplish his diktat “with immediate effect.” On some issues, such as corruption or drug trafficking, even this impossibility was too dilatory for him.
Drug trafficking was just bubbling up the policy food chain as Nigeria was then on the foothills of emerging as a major transit point in the global drug trade. General Buhari’s answer to this was the Special Tribunal (Miscellaneous Offences) Decree Number 20 of 1984, which elevated a laundry list of 19 offences into the league of crimes punishable with death. One of those was drug trafficking.
Although promulgated eight months after he assumed office, General Buhari took such a dim view of drug trafficking, he had the decree back-dated to the end of 1983. These offences were to be tried by tribunals comprising a high court judge as chair with three other uniformed persons as members, including two soldiers and one police officer.
By an instrument issued on 28 August 1984, General Buhari constituted the Tribunals, five of them to sit respectively in Ibadan, Kaduna, Kano, Lagos, and Port Harcourt. In Lagos, he designated the urbane Justice Adebayo Desalu to head the tribunal.
After their arrest at the end of 1983, Bartholomew Owo, Bernard Ogedengbe, and Lawal Ojuolape, were arraigned as suspects on charges of drug trafficking, which was then a felony. They were 26, 29, and 30 years old, respectively. Regular courts had jurisdiction to try the offence. Decree number 20 changed all that, railroading them long after the fact to be tried before Buhari’s mongrel tribunals on charges that had become man-eating.
Convicted in March 1985, General Buhari quickly signed the death warrants, condemning these three young men to be killed. On 8 April 1985, a squad of soldiers duly obliged, shooting these three in a public execution at the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison in Lagos in a process that “took 5 minutes to complete. The victims were loaded into rough coffins for burial at Atan cemetery in Lagos.”
Four months after this event, in August 1985, General Buhari’s Chief of Army Staff, Ibrahim Babangida, overthrew his boss and, by Decree number 22 of 1986, undid Buhari’s imposition of capital punishment for drug trafficking.
Seven years thereafter, in 1993, following an investigation into a Nigerian heroin trafficking ring that lasted nearly five years, a United States District Court in the Northern District of Illinois issued forfeiture orders for the sum of $460,000 in respect of 10 accounts held in the name of one Bola Tinubu. In 2015, 30 years after his ouster from power, Muhammadu Buhari, claiming to be a “born-again democrat,” returned to power in Nigeria as an elected president, his electoral victory made possible by a political marriage with that same Bola Tinubu.
At the beginning of June 2022, Bola Tinubu emerged as the candidate chosen by Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to fly its flag in the vote for president in Nigeria’s 2023 elections. Chief spokesperson of the APC presidential campaign, Festus Keyamo, himself also a Cabinet Minister and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), explains with reference to the forfeiture orders from the District Court in Chicago 30 years ago, that his principal was “roped in the drug trafficking case of two Nigerians who once stayed in separate flats in the same building where the ex-governor stayed at a time in the US.”
Had General Buhari not back-dated the decree all those decades ago, Lawal Ojuolape could easily have been alive today. If he were, he would have been about 68 years, not much younger than the official age of the candidate whom President Buhari’s party has chosen to succeed him as the APC’s presidential candidate.
Some people will miss the irony in the fact that Buhari’s party political successor could be a man whom he would happily have had shot by firing squad in his first coming for involvement in drug dealing, preferring instead to see this turn of events as proof of his “born-again” credentials. They may even see in this evidence of the kind of implicit bargains that make politics the ultimate art of the possible in pursuit of political power.
In democratic politics, these implicit bargains begin, of course, with the understandings that govern membership of political parties. In return for enjoying the platform and economies of political scale provided by the convening capabilities of the party, members with political aspirations enjoy the privilege of being advanced by the party to the electorate in order to eventuate their ambitions. The fidelity of members to their party is a central part of this bargain. It is the underlying responsibility that makes politics such a historically tribal sport.
This fidelity is often tested the world over. Hartley Shawcross, Clement Atlee’s choice as Attorney-General after Labour’s victory in the United Kingdom in 1945, so tested the loyalties of his party with his political flirtations that he acquired the sobriquet “Shortly Floorcross.” Floor crossing is supposed to be the ultimate act of rending one set of political accoutrements in favour of another. It also advertises changed political loyalties.
As Nigeria prepares to go to the polls next month, however, harlotry is emerging as a new political normal. While still in the party, some luminaries of the ruling APC, such as former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal; and former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara; for instance, have elected to work for the opposition Labour Party and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), respectively.
In return, at least five governors of the PDP, four of whom are indeed running for office in these elections on the ticket of the party, are on the political dance-floor cavorting with the other side. Effectively, they ask their supporters to split tickets in the ballot, committing to another party for the top of the ticket and for their party down ballot. In a general election where multiple seats are in play, this could be a recipe for confusion.
Former Minority Leader in the Senate, Enyinnaya Abaribe, who left the PDP and now flies the flag of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in the contest for the Abia South Senatorial seat against one of Wike’s peers in the Gang of Five Governors, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, declaims the conduct of the governors as “without integrity,” a riposte to the Governors’ self-identification as “Integrity Group.”
Waziri Adio has recently traced the history of what appears now to be a practice by senior politicians to “openly flirt with all interested political suitors while still in a serious relationship,” concluding that “of late, Nigerian politicians are not the most faithful.” In other words, politics, supposedly an exercise in high ethics of envisioning how power is best accessed and managed for the benefit of society, has been replaced by low harlotry, complete – in typical Nigerian fashion – with Aso Ebi.
This may be best evidence of the failure of Nigeria’s political parties of all hues to fulfill their mission of aggregating societal interest or earning public trust; the ultimate proof of failure of responsibility in the power game. The future of elective government in Nigeria may depend on whether the politicians realise that this cannot continue much longer.
A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org