June 12 and an imperial presidency
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of TYRANNY.” – James Madison.
THE June 12, 1993 war was our resistance to inhumanity in all its forms. It was Nigeria’s war of independence from local imperialism. People got shot. People died; people lost jobs; careers were ruined; businesses collapsed; schools were shut; destinies were deferred. The night was pretty long and pitch-dark, but there were hopes for victory. Now, from what we see, it looks like those who died just died in vain. It looks like it was a lost war or – maybe- an unending war, still simmering, smoldering. But I see something: The very forces that ranged against June 12 in its long drawn war reaped, and are reaping, its fruits. They will celebrate their victory on Wednesday in mockery of the dead and the maimed.
The June 12 remembrance started a long time ago. Everything that happened 26 years ago is happening now. Those in government then are in government now. They are in the Villa, in the Senate, in Government Houses, in the security forces. They are seen in the agencies of government – and they do today what they did then. Look at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). It is as powerful as the Nigerian president – even as Sani Abacha – with all the arbitrariness. When this journey started in 1999, INEC would wake up midnight and decide who was qualified or not qualified to contest elections. It did its thing and all politicians cowered before its almightiness until someone got up one day and said ‘Enough!’ The case went to court and the Supreme Court in April, 2007 okayed the prayers: INEC lacks the power to disqualify candidates submitted to it by a political party “without a valid order of a court.” Since then, only the courts disqualify and INEC has known its limitations.
We have also seen how the Rochas Okorocha’s case panned out on Friday. The courts have said INEC cannot withhold a certificate of return from an election winner. The lesson in that case is: never resort to self-help no matter how right (or how wronged) you feel you are. If you are INEC and your workers are harassed, harangued, maltreated, even beaten, forced to make election returns, go to court; don’t take the law into your own hand. You do not have the powers to exercise powers you do not have – in a democracy. I hope INEC knows now that democracy does not sleep with whimsical arbitrariness.
There is this other very powerful body called the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC). It collects N15 million for every commercial radio licence the president approves. For big private television stations like the African Independent Television (AIT) and Channels, the licence fee, I learnt, is N500 million. Five years after each collection, the payment is made again in the name of licence renewal. In-between the heavy financial activities of licensing and licence renewal, the NBC regularly sits in judgement over these stations. Most of the times, it gets them convicted and then proceeds steadily to collect heavy fines into its very deep pocket. You now understand why news is not free on these channels. News cannot be free because Big Brother must be paid; its feed is big money. That is the federal government agency which shut AIT and its radio arm, RayPower FM, on Thursday last week.
The NBC as a regulator is supposedly regulated by the Broadcasting Code and Act. It routinely uses that code to whip stations into line – as defined by it. The code itself says it exists to use broadcasting to “enrich the life of the citizenry and help them live in a complex, dynamic and humane society, as stated in the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy set out in Chapter two of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,”(Broadcasting Code: 0.2.1). But there will always be a problem where the policeman sits in judgement over suspects he picks from a pack. The NBC defines infractions, it shops for and identifies culprits, it brings them before itself and hands down judgements. If an organization has offended a code of behaviour, the clean-hearted judicatory direction should be the courts. The accuser, the prosecutor and the judge all inhering in one behemoth will most certainly deliver injuries as justice. You need to be remotely close to private, even public, radio and television stations to know how capricious the commission is in action. It determines and imposes infraction fees (fines) which go up sometimes by a hundred percent if the ‘convict’ does not meet payment ‘deadlines’.
The NBC’s arbitrariness, however, appears dead now with the AIT/RayPower misadventure. A court has held back the hands of the commission and the stations have bounced back on air –without waiting for the nod of the almighty regulator. Things won’t just be the same again. I cannot imagine how happy, relieved and thanks-giving owners of private radio and television stations are on this. By the time this is resolved finally, hopefully by the Supreme Court –if the parties are resilient enough to take it there –its victims will be completely free of official harassment from an agency that has always been law unto itself.
Apart from INEC and the NBC, there are other small gods in our pantheon. We have them and we religiously place our destinies as rituals at the feet of their effigies. The fact that we eat this shit without throwing up mirrors what we are as a country. Have you seen how we have made our president the omniscient image of the infallible on all matters of state even when the house has fallen under his watch? We have ringed all his fingers with all the powers the state has. He has chosen the head of the judiciary. The media is broke and broken, very unsure of its freedom. The National Assembly will choose its leaders tomorrow as dictated by the president. The Senate president and speaker of the House of Representatives will emerge tomorrow as appointees of the president. The ingredients for one-man rule, for tyranny, are complete. It is not the fault of the president. He has been made to see himself as a king who must be obeyed by all in defiance of democratic mores. The president has been asked to choose the leadership of the National Assembly. He has made his picks. He waits to see that bold senator or Rep who would impale himself tomorrow by defying the sovereign.
The line between democracy and tyranny can be very thin. And when democracy jumps into the Red Sea of tyranny, the resultant Canaan won’t be the Israelites’ land of freedom and peace. Anarchy is the Promised Land. Indeed, as argued by Socrates, democracy is an “agreeable form of anarchy,” and what is anarchy if it is not tyranny’s disdain for law and order?
The fruit we reap from the June 12 farm appears to be misgovernance – tyranny, corruption of the law in favour of special interests. And we are the cause. Tyranny is a collective brew; no tyrant is self-made. Untreated sores often lead to cancer. Writing about the American experience and experimentation with tyranny in a democracy, Sean Illing said “democracies give way to tyrannies when mob passion overwhelms political wisdom and a populist autocrat seizes the masses.” Nigeria is witnessing just that with the current frenzy to please a potentate salivating for absolute powers. ‘Political wisdom’ has left us –we have surrendered to the eccentricity of the mob –or to the ravens of power in its absoluteness. We are walking (or have walked) wide-eyed into the dreadful sea of tyranny. It is like we have indulged our Iroko with infused demons. It is now making demands of lives and living. As noted further by Sean, “But the tyrant is not quite a tyrant at first; on the contrary, in a democracy the would-be tyrant offers himself as the people’s champion. He is the ultimate simplifier, the one man who can make everything whole again.” Apt.
After handing over our legislature to Aso Rock tomorrow, and with the judiciary in its pouch, we should all have the energy from then on to step out every morning, pour libation and shout: ‘Long live our imperial president!’