Buhari’s Nigeria is a suffocatingly fascist, illegitimate rigocracy, and it will only get worse in the coming years. Dissent is now violently suppressed. Opposition is pathologized and criminalized. Elections are militarized and rigged blatantly—and with criminal impunity. Rule of law and due process are officially disdained and murdered at the highest levels. The judiciary is now a pitiful poodle of the presidency. Rank nepotism and total disregard for even the wispiest pretenses to meritocracy are now normalized.
What we are seeing now is Hitler-level fascist conquest of the Nigerian democratic space. The imperfect but nonetheless emergent culture of democracy that re-sprouted in the country from 1999 is now being systematically annihilated and replaced with fascist totalitarianism.
Buhari’s ascendancy to the Nigerian presidency and the ravages he and his puppeteers are inflicting on democratic culture remind me of German philosopher Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. In this book, Adorno took issue with the conventional Marxian understanding of the nature of the progress of history. Marxian (and, before it, Hegelian) dialectics takes for granted that the resolution of the contradictions between the thesis and the antithesis of historical epochs often leads to a synthesis, which is invariably positive.
But that’s not always true. Adorno, a German Jew, witnessed Adolf Hitler’s unspeakable fascist brutalities firsthand; he lived through fascist barbarities that negated the high-minded promises of the European Enlightenment and of modernity. I will vulgarize Adorno’s insights to make sense of Buhari’s pollution and reversal of Nigeria’s democracy.
There is no doubt that from 1999 to 2015, Nigeria did make minor, scarcely perceptible but nonetheless visible progress in democratic ethos. Elections have always been flawed, but they became progressively better, even if only marginally, each year. The 2015 election, defective as it was, represented a qualitative improvement over all other elections that preceded it, and is perhaps Nigeria’s best to date.
There has always been intolerance for, even suppression of, dissent, but because this was often resisted by critical sections of the society—the media, civil society groups, and sometimes the judiciary— it often came across as anomalous.
All that has changed. Critics of government lose their jobs without as much as a whimper from anyone. Critical voices on social media are arbitrarily arrested and jailed on trumped-up charges. The news media are forced to self-censor and squelch critical voices in their opinion pages. The judiciary has been subdued and decapitated. Votes no longer matter. INEC now arbitrarily allocates fraudulent figures to poodles of the presidency during shameful shams called “election.” Fraud and state-sponsored violence are now legitimate instruments of governance.
The Buhari regime legitimizes its strangulation of basic democratic liberties through duplicitous appeals to a transparently fake anti-corruption crusade that has been intentionally designed to ensnare only opponents of the regime while mollycoddling crooked pro-regime fat cats. That is classic fascism: it subsists on the self-created notion of widespread societal decadence, which justifies the enthronement of the authoritarian state, the worship of the supreme leader who reputedly embodies moral regeneration, and the suspension of civil liberties in the service of a putative moral revival.
To be sure, Nigeria is no stranger to asphyxiating absolutist tyranny. But it has never experienced this depth, breadth, and severity of fascist despotism under a system that pretends to be a democracy. Most importantly, under past military dictatorships, the country always had a robust culture of civil rebellion to checkmate and neutralize tyranny.
But Buhari’s fascist monocracy is enabled and nourished by the very people who had made it their life’s calling to fight past military dictatorships. And that is what is particularly scary about what is unfolding in Nigeria today. Human rights organizations, pro-democracy groups, and the legacy news media formation either are in bed with Buhari’s fascist regime or are too cowed to speak up. The result is that people are increasingly becoming desensitized to the habitual rape of democracy, and tyranny is being normalized.
Even when Buhari told the Nigerian Bar Association that he had no use for the rule of law and due process, there was no outrage. When he illegally “suspended” the Chief of Justice of Nigeria over allegations that have now turned out to be bogus by the admission of the regime’s own prosecution counsel (which I’d called attention to several times in the past), there was no condemnation, much less a protest. Of course, when he coerced INEC to declare him winner of an election he clearly lost, everyone who should talk has looked the other way.
The next phase of Buhari’s fascism is to perpetuate himself in power beyond 2023—if he is lucky to survive the mandate he stole this year, that is. The incoming National Assembly will be a pliant, slavish, rubber-stamp congress of yes-men that will tweak the constitution to legitimize and even prolong Buhari’s tyranny. Opposition parties will be decimated and Nigeria will become a one-party state.
Since Nigeria’s intellectual, cultural, and political elites are already compromised, resistance to Buhari’s fascism is a forlorn hope. Most people know that Nigeria is in the throes of economic collapse, that the slenderest tinctures of democracy are being eroded every day, and that there is more division now than at any time in Nigeria’s history, but they feel helpless and appear to have come to terms with this depressing reality with listless surrender.
A newspaper editor told me last week that, “People here are carrying on like a conquered people.” There is no doubt most people in Nigeria outside the circle of the bloodstained buccaneers who are ruthlessly fleecing the nation now are overcome by a sense of helplessness and have developed ego defense mechanisms to justify their indifference to the creeping totalitarian fascism in the nation.
Michael Rivero, an American journalist, actor, and activist, once captured it this way: “Most people prefer to believe their leaders are just and fair even in the face of evidence to the contrary, because once a citizen acknowledges that the government under which they live is lying and corrupt, the citizen has to choose what he or she will do about it. To take action in the face of a corrupt government entails risks of harm to life and loved ones. To choose to do nothing is to surrender one’s self-image of standing for principles. Most people do not have the courage to face that choice.
“Hence, most propaganda is not designed to fool the critical thinker but only to give moral cowards an excuse not to think at all.”
In other words, in order to free themselves from the twin burdens of critical thinking and direct action to change or challenge a bad government, people become willing suckers of sterile government propaganda. Nowhere is this more nakedly apparent than in Nigeria. Many otherwise sober, clearheaded people are making peace with the fascism in the country.
They legitimize their moral cowardice by swallowing the propaganda of the regime: Buhari is fighting corruption; it gets worse before it gets better; even though Buhari is bad, the alternative is worse; in the interest of stability, let’s not rock the boat; Buhari will hand over power to the people of my region, so we can wait out his incompetence for another four years; and so on.
I warned several times in the past that Nigeria might not survive a Buhari second time in its present form. Although he did clearly lose the election, he rigged himself back to power in ways never seen before in Nigeria’s entire history, and will be sustained in power by people’s moral cowardice. Then he’ll complete the destruction of the country he started. I hope people of conscience act before it’s too late.