Nigerian politicians are unwilling to curb the excessive powers of the executive because they want to wield such powers themselves. In a sense, Nigerian politics is a contest between despots in power and despots in waiting. What Frantz Fanon once said of the native is also true of Nigerian elites: “The native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor.”


President Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC) were elected on a platform of change. This meant a qualitative divergence from the way government had done business in the years before 2015. This also meant, among other things, a departure from using law enforcement and security institutions to execute partisan or personal agendas. To the extent to which they have failed to live up to these ideals, they must be judged. But let us be clear on one thing. The current standoff between the Police (and by implication, the presidency) and the Senate is neither unprecedented nor extraordinary. Amid the histrionics that have greeted the Police invitation to Senate President Bukola Saraki to answer questions regarding his alleged links to thugs in Ilorin, some perspective is needed.

First, let us dispense with partisan amnesia. On March 22, 2005, President Olusegun Obasanjo gave a 30-minute broadcast in which he indicted the president of the Senate, Adolphus Wabara and six other federal legislators for receiving a N55 million bribe from the minister of education, Professor Fabian Osuji. Obasanjo summarily fired the minister, while Wabara did not remain Senate president for much long thereafter and was subsequently prosecuted along with his colleagues. Even though he had acted as prosecutor and judge on national television and assailed the integrity of the National Assembly, there was considerable public approval for what was perceived as the president’s commitment to fighting corruption. ThisDay hailed the broadcast as “a defining moment in governance” and praised the president for his “exemplary leadership.”

During his presidency, Obasanjo also sanctioned the abduction of Anambra State Governor Chris Ngige by his political cronies and orchestrated the impeachment of political opponents, including leaders in the National Assembly and two state governors, often using underhanded and illicit means. In November 2014, President Goodluck Jonathan ordered the police to seal off the National Assembly to prevent the then speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, who had just defected to the APC, from presiding over a session. The administration also withdrew the speaker’s security details, while the inspector general of Police ordered his arrest.

To grasp the main lesson of that political moment, we must look beyond the episode to the broader tapestry of the Fourth Republic. The biggest revelation in the current drama is not the administration’s intolerance of opposition but the fact that in the nearly two decades of the Fourth Republic, the behaviour of political elites has not changed. Buhari has disobeyed court orders, just as Obasanjo did in his time. Executive lawlessness has been a problem since the inception of the Fourth Republic. Jonathan violated the sanctity of the National Assembly to a far more significant extent than Buhari is being accused of doing. Buhari’s version of presidential overreach represents a scant difference in degree rather than category. (Thus, where Obasanjo disobeyed court orders, Buhari has both disobeyed court orders and ordered raids on the homes of judges). The problem is not that all presidents are tyrants; it is that the presidency is inherently tyrannical.

Lawmakers should see this drama as an opportunity to take up police reform, to challenge executive impunity and show that all Nigerian lives matter. They could, for example, repeal section 9 of the Police Act which gives the president operational control of the police. No serious democracy grants political actors such power over law enforcement agencies.


The Club of Aspirant Untouchables

On the face of it, this drama began over a month ago, when the Police arrested Senator Dino Melaye and the inspector general of Police, Ibrahim Idris refused to answer the summons of the red chamber, instead pleading a busy schedule and sending subordinates to represent him. Irked by what they believed to be the police chief’s disregard for the institution, the Senate branded him an enemy of democracy. The episode dramatised a basic principle. In Nigeria, no one really “breaks the law”. You offend someone richer or more powerful than you are and their wrath, not the “law”, happens to you. Senator Melaye and his colleagues saw his arrest, not as an encounter with the law, but as an encounter with the raw power of political adversaries. They understood it as an example of a big man using state power to deal with another big (though relatively less powerful) man. This is also largely how they interpret the Senate president’s travails.

Following Melaye’s arrest, Senator Ben Murray-Bruce tweeted: “If a senator can be treated like this, who can be spared?” The tweet was meant to inspire sympathy for Senator Melaye, but it lacked impact. Ordinary Nigerians routinely suffer extrajudicial violence, state terror and official barbarism. What Murray-Bruce was really arguing was that Melaye is a big man and should have been beyond the sort of ill treatment that the police customarily dishes out to regular citizens. Being a big man means that one is untouchable, immune to the law and exempt from the state’s predatory proclivities and the woes that it inflicts on ordinary Nigerians. Murray-Bruce was not arguing that the rights of all Nigerians should be respected but that the privileges of big men should be preserved. This may explain why neither he nor his colleagues have backed initiatives to end police brutality such as the #EndSARS campaign. It would also explain why although Melaye’s travails occurred in the same period that protesting members of the Bring Back Our Girls group and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria were teargassed and harassed on the streets of Abuja, the Senate did not invite the inspector general to explain why the rights of Nigerian citizens were violated.

Because politicians are often surrounded by servile cops who act as body guards, bag carriers and messengers, they typically do not see the police as law enforcers but as uniformed goons. A big man does not see police officers as agents of the law but as mercenary instruments of power that can be bought and paid for. The broader danger is that, yet another generation of Nigerians is being socialised to conflate might with right and to perceive the law as the whim and wrath of the powerful.

Lawmakers should see this drama as an opportunity to take up police reform, to challenge executive impunity and show that all Nigerian lives matter. They could, for example, repeal section 9 of the Police Act which gives the president operational control of the police. No serious democracy grants political actors such power over law enforcement agencies. But the lawmakers have not done this, and they are not likely to. The reason for their refusal to resort to the obvious task of using their legislative powers for reform lies at the heart of our democracy’s crisis.

It is all very well to talk about the legislative institution being violated by a dictatorial executive but the National Assembly itself has scarcely been a bastion of democratic tolerance. This, after all, is the place where dissenting lawmakers have been silenced with suspensions, and debate is heavily circumscribed.


The Toxic Fantasy of the Oppressed

As Claude Ake once said, although “our attention is always focused on the government in office,” the government in office “matters far less than the elite in power which supplies the government in office from among its factions” and who “share the same political culture and the same antipathy towards democracy.” Nigerian politicians are unwilling to curb the excessive powers of the executive because they want to wield such powers themselves. In a sense, Nigerian politics is a contest between despots in power and despots in waiting. What Frantz Fanon once said of the native is also true of Nigerian elites: “The native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor.” Nigerian elites who have suffered official impunity and repression would rather oppress others as they have been oppressed, rather than dismantle the infrastructure of oppression entirely. Nearly every politician’s ultimate fantasy is to enjoy the same degree of impunity and immunity as the president, hence the disinterest in curbing executive powers.

Consequently, we are confronted both by executive impunity and legislative inertia. This is not a Buhari problem; it is a problem with the political class. It is a profound crisis of moral and political courage among the elites, which is subverting our democracy. We are mostly authoritarians by nurture. Today’s victims of abuse of power would rather be tomorrow’s abusers of power, rather than its reformers. Many of the actors in the current administration have been on the receiving end of oppressive arbitrary power; their tribulations did not imbue them with a resolve to eradicate arbitrariness and oppression in public life. Instead they have become ardent practitioners of the evils they once condemned. It is all very well to talk about the legislative institution being violated by a dictatorial executive but the National Assembly itself has scarcely been a bastion of democratic tolerance. This, after all, is the place where dissenting lawmakers have been silenced with suspensions, and debate is heavily circumscribed.

The situation calls for a counter elite driven by enlightened self-interest, by the realisation that a sustainable society cannot be built on the latent or manifest tyranny of an unchecked executive or the exclusionary privileges of big men or secured by law enforcers that are hirelings of the powerful. Ironically, by being used as a battering ram by the executive branch, the police force is losing what is left of its institutional credibility. And yet the biggest obstacle to police reform is posed by political actors who rightly fear that an independent, apolitical and efficient police force will cast unwanted light on the close links between politicians and their patronage networks on one hand and gangsterism, cultism and organised crime on the other. Nigerians are not naïve about how the struggle for power by the elite fuels diverse formats of violent crime and why the police often seem helpless in the face of endemic political violence. As a certain law lecturer at the University of Lagos explained to the African Concord in January 1987, “In political killings, particularly where top government functionaries may be implicated, the police reach a stone wall, because they cannot arrest their bosses.” That law lecturer was Yemi Osinbajo, Nigeria’s current vice president.

Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.