By Lawal Ogienagbon
That Tuesday in the cosy ambience of the State House, Abuja, better known as Aso Villa, President Muhammadu Buhari held court with the visiting officials of the electoral commission. They came to complain to him about the frequent burning of the agency’s assets. Indeed, it is worrisome the way the commission’s facilities are being torched across the country. At the meeting, the commission told the President that as at then, there were no fewer than 42 cases of attacks on its assets.
Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman Prof Mahmood Yakubu, who led his team to the Villa, said the attacks occurred in 14 of the 36 states of the federation. “Most of the attacks happened in the last seven months and they are unrelated to protest against previous elections”, he said, adding: “from the pattern and frequency of the most recent attacks, they appear to be targeted at future elections. The intention is to incapacitate the commission, undermine the nation’s democracy and precipitate a national crisis”.
This was all the President needed to make his famous civil war comment that many Nigerians found offensive. Twitter agreed with them and deleted the statement from its site, to the Presidency’s annoyance. As our leader, the President does not need that briefing to know what is going on in the country. As he said on that occasion, he gets security briefings daily on happenings around the country, nay the world. So, before Yakubu and his men’s visit, the President already knew what the commisssion is going through. But the visit suited a purpose – it became a forum for him to make his position known on some vexed issues, especially secession. Is that not a way of addressing the country, after all?
When he made that statement on June 1, the media corps of the State House was not there. There was, therefore, ample opportunity for his media aides to go through the statement with a fine tooth comb and remove whatever is offensive from it. Rather than edit the statement, they released it as it is, since “Nigeria needs a strong man like Buhari at a time this”, and all hell was let loose on social media, particularly Twitter. Many Twitter users were aghast by the words used by the President and without wasting time, they complained to Twitter, which has rules that it plays by. Taking at its face value, you may not find anything wrong with the statement. But when you take another look at it and reflect on it deeply, you will see the hidden threats of applying violence as state weapon.
Although, he was addressing those he described as arsonists, killers and agitators, who have made the country hell to live in, his language was harsh, too harsh. It is not the language of presidents and statesmen. Such statements are associated with touts, thugs and their political and business godfathers whose stock-in-trade is violence. There are laws to check every misdemeamour. Be it arson, killing, insurgency, treason, secession, rape, looting, destruction of farmlands and cattle rustling, the laws are there to take care of the offenders.
What the President should have said on that occasion or what his aides should have helped him to say is that the law would take its course against the offenders whenever they are arrested. But to threaten fire and brimstone against those you lead portrays that leader as uncaring, inhuman and unfit to occupy his high office. Leaders are expected to be guarded in their utterances and our President cannot be an exception. He cannot afford to throw caution to the wind whenever he speaks whether in private or in public.
What is the essence of this statement: “whoever wants the destruction of the system will soon have the shock of their lives. We have given them enough time. Those misbehaving in certain parts of the country were obviously too young to know the travails and loss of lives that attended the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the field for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand. We are going to be very hard sooner than later”. If this had come from an ordinary citizen, he would today be explaining himself to the security agencies. But, coming from the President, this is licence for trigger-happy police, military and para-military men to kill people at will.
It is unfortunate that the President made that statement and it is most unfortunate that his media aides did not see anything wrong in it to have made it public. Those words were too strong and Twitter cannot be faulted for deleting them from its site. It would have been highly irresponsible of Twitter to leave the statement on its platform after the complaints by worried Nigerians.
The outfit has rules and one of them is not to promote violence. Is the suspension of Twitter’s operation the best option in the circumstance? It is not. What is the meaning of it must show remorse before the suspension is lifted? What the government does not know is that whether it lifts the suspension or not, Twitter is not losing anything. Nigeria and Nigerians, especially, its huge youth population, are the losers. But does the government care? All it is bothered about is the bruised ego of the President, which unfortunately it is equating with the national interest.
This is why many, including those in government, are observing the President’s order in the breach. Does he even have the power in the first place to make what amounts to a law without recourse to the National Assembly? This is a question for the courts to answer. So, I will not preempt them. Yes, the social media can be excessive at times, but unilaterally suspending their operations because you are president is not the solution. As the Yoruba will say, cutting off the head is not the remedy for headache.
For Twitter, there is light at the end of the tunnel. As it was in 1984 with Decree 4 under which two journalists, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were jailed by the Buhari/Idiagbon regime for reporting the truth, this too shall pass.