By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Dissent and criticism are not only core structural components of democracy, they, in fact, mark the difference between autocracy and democracy. But it’s precisely these elements of democracy that are in grave danger in Buhari’s Nigeria.
President Muhammadu Buhari has now been literally godified both by his supporters and by the people who work for him. Criticism of his manifest incompetence is now blasphemy in the Muslim north, and his critics are labeled “infidels” worthy of the vilest slanders and even death. A reader of my column once told me he escaped death by a hair’s breadth in Bauchi when he brought out one of my columns to buttress a point he was making about Buhari.
Scores of people send me email and Facebook messages every week to say that although I give expression to the anxieties and frustrations they feel about Buhari and his government, they can’t risk “liking” or commenting approvingly of my columns on Facebook, lest they be labeled “infidels” or even killed. And smearing Buhari critics with intentional, libelous falsehoods is now a religious duty.
I don’t recall any moment in Nigeria’s history when a political leader was ever deified and worshipped with as much fervor and religious excitation as we’re seeing now. Even otherwise intelligent people stand in worshipful awe before Buhari and lose their basic reasoning capacities when he is criticised. A northern Nigerian university teacher whom I used to consider a friend and who loved the choice adjectives I used to criticise Jonathan instinctually exclaimed “subhanallah!” when I expressed a critical opinion about Buhari. You would think I blasphemed God.
On September 23, Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina took the godification of Buhari to a whole new level when he told reporters in New York that if Buhari’s critics “mistakenly get into heaven, they will complain about God.” An exceptionally smart Nigerian medical doctor, whose name I will conceal for now because I don’t have his permission to reveal it, captured Adesina’s deification of Buhari this way:
“We apparently live in a time of perfect big men and their highly-inspired spokespersons,” he wrote on my Facebook timeline in response to my column on Nasiru El-Rufai. “Femi Adesina was so eager to present his boss as unchallengeable that he uttered a string of attenuated Kano market blasphemies: 1. that people who criticise his boss persistently could also criticise God (which therefore places his boss in divine territory), 2. that those who persistently criticise his boss will ordinarily not get to heaven (a declaration that only God can make), 3. that some undeserving persons may get into heaven by ‘mistake’ (a divine mistake is surely unheard of in our God-fearing nation).”
There is nothing to add to this thoughtful decoding of Adesina’s divine exaltation of Buhari except to say that it’s a rampant malaise that afflicts people around the president. Analysts sympathetic to the president who nonetheless recognise that he is failing as a president like to blame his aides for not serving him well. That’s an unfair criticism of his aides. Buhari, many of his aides say, is simply impervious to advice.
I don’t know if Buhari himself imagines that he is some unerring, superhuman creature that is beyond censure, but he sure detests criticism with the vehement self-righteousness of a person suffering from a God-complex. In an address to the annual national management conference of the Nigerian Institute of Management on September 19, 2016, for instance, he said what he needed from Nigerian professionals was support, not criticism. “I want to use this opportunity to urge other professional bodies, corporate bodies and well meaning Nigerians to emulate the kind gesture of NIM by lending their support to this administration instead of seating by to criticise every attempt at governance,” he said.
But Buhari himself criticised “every attempt at governance” in the past—from Obasanjo to Yar’adua right up to Jonathan. In fact, even after Jonathan reduced petrol price from N97 to N87 per liter in 2015, which was worthy of some commendation, Buhari criticised it. “Many people think it is a good decision,” he said. “But it is not. You think you are paying less at the petrol station, but you cannot experience much economic developments this way. Why? The monies that have been budgeted for education, security, constructions and many more will be diverted to pay for subsidy as it was never planned.”
One year later, he hiked petrol price by a higher margin than any Nigerian president, and “education, security, constructions and many more” aren’t any better than they were two years ago.
What, if not God-complex, can cause someone who permanently criticised others to say he wants only “support,” not “criticism”? People around the president have taken a cue. They have learned to worship him and not tell him anything that would cause him any disconcertment. So stop blaming the president’s aides for his missteps.
The other day, my teacher, Garba Shehu, waxed lyrical about the “modesty” of the president’s Daura living room. That’s probably the sort of cloying public relations the president expects of his media aides. But those of us who don’t worship human beings are more concerned about the fact the president has gone in the records as the only president to build a vanity helipad for his exclusive use in his hometown at the cost of millions of naira that could have gone to solve pressing problems for hundreds of people.
The Daily Trust of September 21, 2015 reported that government paid N60 million to farmers whose land was used to build the helipad. If it cost N60 million just to compensate land owners, imagine the overall cost of the project, which would be useless after the president leaves office. That’s the immodesty that is of real consequence to Nigerians, not the “modesty” of his living room.
No one could tell Buhari that building a multi-million-naira helipad in his hometown was wasteful and didn’t square with his reputation as a frugal, modest man because the man wants only “support,” not “criticism.” In other words, he is the source of his own godification. Anybody who thinks himself above criticism has assumed the status of God.
Interestingly, one of the reasons I was initially drawn to Buhari was that someone really close to him once told me he became intimate with Buhari because he always told him uncomfortable truths that other people were afraid to tell him. I was impressed. Anyone whose mind is broad enough and whose heart is large enough to not only tolerate criticism but to embrace it would be a good leader in a democracy, I said.
Now that he is in power, Buhari no longer welcomes or tolerates the criticism of this person. Like El-Rufai who spooks his critics with the metaphysical threat of death, Buhari and his minions can’t stand criticism. But democracy dies the day criticism becomes sacrilege.