Last week, a news analyst for a Lagos radio station suggested that Justice Adeniyi Ademola—of the DSS infamy—ought to present his case in court, and not engage in issuing media statements. When someone reminded the analyst that, in fact, the EFCC had used this style of media engagement to make damning insinuations against some judges, he responded: two wrongs don’t make a right. This, to me, is a prime example of how educated Nigerians shift critical assessment from the acts of government to the acts of individuals targeted by the government. We ask citizens to defend themselves against the might and resources of the government rather than ask the government to justify its use of power against the citizens. This is worrisome.
This is not just an issue of criminal law. Even in socio-economic issues, the Nigerian government—in continuum—has always lied to its citizens. Again and again, we have had our fingers bitten by blatant untruths, unrealistic promises, and impossible data. At each point of realisation, we have told ourselves “never again” and “enough is enough”. Yet, we continue to erase our knowledge and substitute memory with faith. Every time the opportunity for critical assessment comes up, we still give the government the benefit of the doubt.
By “we”, I mean the fast deteriorating, educated middle class. The Nigerian masses, though, have always lived in a reality where government, particularly at state and local levels, is untrustworthy at best, a direct enemy at worst. From forced evictions in Lagos to market raids in Kano, the poor and semi-educated Nigerians have mostly tasted government at its worst. The only positive emotion these members of the Nigerian masses have for government is justifiable scepticism.
On the other hand, a number of us in the educated middle class have convinced ourselves that, this time, the Nigerian government is trustworthy. This attitude—under this administration—is based on President Buhari’s perceived reputation for political integrity. Without any systemic reforms in our political system, it is hard to see how the character of one man will prevent every other person in government from dishonesty or negligence. Still, the uncritical acceptance of official behaviour has been our attitude, at least, in the series of anti-corruption arrests and detentions.
Yet, even in this regard, slips in the substance or procedure of official action keep showing. We have heard cases of people arrested for one thing but charged in court with another; cases of people returning money with no clear account of the process; or worse, cases where damning statements are released publicly and the allegations are dropped quietly.
Consider this last point. Recently, I became acquainted with aspects of the Emeka Mba saga. The EFCC had alleged that Mr. Mba embezzled some billions through “illegal” accounts he approved as DG of the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission. The EFCC “recovered” the money from these accounts and detained the man. Those who defended Mba explained that the money was legally placed in those accounts for approved purchases. But the EFCC’s word was official and therefore truthful. Mba’s reputation was damaged; he was eased out of office. Several months later, the EFCC quietly returned the “recovered” money to the same accounts.
It is scary that we have normalised government recklessness. We justify this because the public attacks are directed against “big men.” I understand Nigerians who do not sympathise with these people and their troubles with Buhari. I find it difficult to sympathise too, but I understand that injustice to a privileged person validates injustices to thousands of less privileged people. In my daily job as a human rights worker, I am confronted with constant cases of police harassment and intimidation of poor and less-privileged Nigerians. Yet, I understand that their interests are best served when the rule of law is upheld elsewhere than when it is denied everywhere. If an average judge has no rights, then what hope is there for the unemployed illiterate? The struggle is to get fair hearing across to those who still lack it, not to reduce it for those who currently have it.
With the current economic frustration and deprivations, few Nigerians care about jurisprudential principles. The government understands this social psychology: it has found ways to deflect anger from itself and to other situations—real and imagined. Nigerians are being whipped into frenzy by hunger and political propaganda. Unfortunately, the government—the sole entity that controls our resources—is never the victim of this frenzy. Lynch mobs often target the weak and defenceless. The mobbing that goes on in the media is quickly replicated in the streets. A few powerless individuals are attacked. The crowd is appeased. Nothing changes.
In less rational moments, I have advocated a popular revolution against the entirety of the Nigerian political system. Mob mentality is useful for such revolutions. It makes sense to whip ourselves up to overthrow a system, but mobbing individuals is stupid and futile. We will fix Nigeria only when we realise that our entire political system—not one or two individuals—is what oppresses us. We are not poor because some people steal. We are poor because the Nigerian socio-economic system is repressive. We ought to focus on what each government is doing to reform that system.
But, for now, the government is always right. And so, like the crowd at Roman circuses, we will keep sacrificing our right to critical engagement for a few cheap thrills. The extent to which this attitude is sustainable will be determined by the next election cycle. However, in the pattern of incoming Nigerian governments, I expect that a future administration will commence its tenure by initiating probes against the Buhari administration and uncovering—sensationally—a series of illegalities and irregularities.
And when that time comes, press repeat.