Despite his genuine disposition to state matters, including the anti-graft war, many Nigerians suspect that President Muhammadu Buhari’s democratic credentials still fall far short of the demands of the 21st century. The ongoing Shiite imbroglio, in which the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN, aka Shiites) is either banned by some states or under attack by sundry elements taking their cues from the government’s attitude to the group, is a poignant indicator of the severity of the intolerance sweeping through some states in the northern part of Nigeria. The president has not responded to the dire situation developing in that region either directly, as many Nigerians would have hoped, or indirectly through his spokesmen, as he is accustomed to doing when he is torn between his private longings and public duty. No one is sure whether he won’t wait until the problem expires naturally.
There does not seem to be anyone capable of reining in the increasingly intolerant and feisty Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai, whose abrasive response to the Shiite crisis presented President Buhari his first paradox. On October 6, the Kaduna governor got the state executive council to ban the Shiite movement in the state. He had no constitutional backing whatsoever to promulgate that order, but the measure is popular, for the Shiites, whose headquarters is in the state’s educational capital, Zaria, had become a thorn in the flesh to their neighbours, especially during their annual Ashura procession. Nigerians were not told how the state’s executive council voted, or even whether the matter was thoroughly debated at all; but the hasty ban was all that the layabouts and roughnecks in the state needed to levy war against the Shiites, killing many of them during processions last week.
For two days last December, the Nigerian Army, citing provocations and assassination attempts, levied its own war against the Shiites, killing some 347 people, men and women and children, and burying them in mass graves. On that occasion, rather than balk at the carnage, Mallam el-Rufai fulminated against the group, all but blaming them for triggering the violence, and promptly ordered the group’s headquarters in Zaria to be obliterated for violating building and town planning laws. Given the horrendous and disproportionate attacks against the Shiites, reflective Nigerians placed their faith in the restraining capability of the Nigerian presidency to ameliorate the situation. Instead, President Buhari dismissively characterised the Shiites as daringly and intolerably insurrectionary, and only as an afterthought promised to wait for the state’s judicial panel of inquiry before determining his next course of action. That inquiry has hinted at crimes against humanity, but both the president and the governor have remained sullen and intransigent. More, the Shiite leader and his wife have been detained unlawfully for about 10 months without charge.
Emboldened by the fact that nearly every state in the northern part of the country is conniving at the persecution of the Shiites, and embracing the unenviable predilection of Kaduna State to subvert the constitution, especially in religious practices, many other states in the region have either directly or indirectly, or officially or unofficially, banned Shiite activities. Where the states have lacked the courage or the principles, they have outsourced the unpleasant and unlawful duty to the willing but undiscriminating police. The affected states have simply ignored the constitution in their presumed diligence in tackling the Shiites’ often combative tendencies, tendencies that a careful calibration and application of the law and modern law enforcement tactics could bring under effective control.
As a consequence too, a gale of intolerance has been wreaking havoc on the Shiites in Kebbi, Kano, Sokoto and even the president’s own state, Katsina. Hiding under the obnoxious Kaduna ban, hoodlums have attacked the shops and houses of Shiites in Kaduna and elsewhere. In Plateau State, the government has deployed probably the most dubious logic ever to tackle the problem. The Shiites could not exist in Plateau State, said the governor, when the headquarters in Kaduna State had been declared an unlawful society and proscribed. In Katsina, since April, the police had banned the group from organising a procession. And Kebbi, perhaps worried by the unconstitutionality of banning the group outright, merely placed an indefinite ban on its activities without indicating how the two measures differ.
It is deeply worrisome that northern religious leaders, perhaps viewing the problem from the Sunni-Shiite divide, have kept disgracefully quiet. The region’s political leaders have also ignored the intolerance sweeping through the entire northern part of the country and giving everyone a bad name. They unwisely conflate what is essentially a law enforcement problem with a constitutional crisis. Mallam el-Rufai is not the wisest of politicians or the most restrained, but his culpability is limited to a state whose multicultural foundation he has shown little enthusiasm in sustaining. On the other hand, the president who swore to protect and defend the constitution was expected to see the larger picture. He was expected to step in vigorously to defend religious freedom as enshrined in the constitution while looking for ingenious ways to guarantee public safety in the face of provocations, whether from Shiites or any other malfeasant group. He has not only failed to defend the constitution, but by keeping quiet over the report of the Kaduna judicial panel of inquiry, he has also sadly betrayed where his interests lie and displayed a profound misconception of law and order.
If Nigerians did not already have a low opinion of the president’s handlers, they would have appealed to them to pressure the president into recognising the weight of responsibility he bears to the country as a whole and the awesomeness of the powers bestowed on him by the constitution to do good by the country. Instead, worried Nigerians must now appeal to the president directly to stand up and defend the constitution. Not only are state agencies undermining or desecrating the constitution, as he himself is doing in some ways, there is palpable fear that overall, the president is taking too long to develop a bold, expansive, inclusive and coherent vision of the country. Unfortunately too, the civil society groups in the southern part of the country have either been bewitched or gone to sleep altogether. So, no one is holding anyone to account anymore.
But if President Buhari is to reclaim the country at all, he must also confront a second paradox presented by his squabbling family. He must begin by dousing the unseemly disagreement on the home front. What is clear today is that he is ruling Nigeria without his family by his side, though they were breathtakingly visible during his campaign for the presidency. His wife, Aisha, had plaintively complained in an unprecedented BBC interview last week that a cabal had hijacked her husband’s presidency. Rather than see his wife’s admittedly shocking views as a cry for help, and as a desperate last resort to help him reclaim his mandate from those he had ceded it to, the president contemptuously dismissed her views as uninformed and her loyalty questionable. In the process, and forgetting that he was addressing the press with the leader of the most powerful economy in Europe, Angela Merkel, a woman, he made some scathing and indefensible remarks about the place of women in the home. He even reiterated his outdated view of women despite the escape route charted for him by one of his spokesmen, Garba Shehu.
President Buhari has a beautiful family that should be seen and heard. He would be unwise to alienate them as he seems bent on doing. For in the final analysis, if he loses them, he would be shocked to discover how lonely a president can be out of office. Already, he is losing the country, with his divisive campaigns and refusal to understand and co-opt constitutional nuances in his battle to sanitise the society. He is also unable to get a hang of the economic nightmare plaguing the country. And on top of these he has not propounded any social policy nor seemed prepared to even set definitive and uplifting political agenda to guide the country into and through a radically changing and treacherous future. Why he should instigate a domestic distraction to unsettle him at this point is hard to tell. He is not always right on issues, and in fact some would swear he is seldom right. And he is not often the most genial and accommodating of politicians, and perhaps does not seem to care what image of himself is projected to the public. But as his wife sensibly said last week to an uproarious approbation, the men around him are the least qualified to propel him to victory should he choose to campaign for a second term. How the president resolves in the next few months the paradoxes haunting his presidency will determine what legacy he would bequeath a country he said he prayed so hard and long to have the chance to govern a second time.