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Buhari in Gambia: Right Message, Wrong Messenger

Buhari and Gambian PresidentYou don't send Donald Trump on a mission on monogamy and family values, because he is on his third marriage, and it's not because he was a widower. By that same token, you don't send Buhari on a democratic rescue mission, because he has a record for killing democracy.

There was a major national event in Nigeria on October 1, 1979. On that day, the whole world watched and celebrated with Nigeria as it reclaimed popular democracy from the clutches of a successive military oligarchs who had toppled and thwarted the first popular republic, plunging the fledgling nation into a three-year civil war with a human death toll in excess of one million. It was a healing moment, and everybody needed healing. But it would be the shortest convalescence for a nation.

December 31, 1983, two short months after he was reelected and re-inaugurated on October 1, 1979, Alhaji Shehu Shagari was chased out of government house, Lagos by a team of ambitious but self-advertised military patriots led by a gangly General from Duara. With that eerie early morning marshal concerto on the airwaves, democracy, as we knew it, died again, and Nigerians would step into the new year, corralled by the jackboots and koboko whips of a moralizing and paternalizing marshal disciplinarian.

From that moment, a young and promising nation descended into a horrifying spiral of costly coups, counter-coups, annulments, interim and provisional contraptions that frittered away a generational national fortune. It marked the beginning of the longest sixteen years of a national nightmare that saw the collapse of national institutions and the institutionalizations of corruption and allied vices. It was a season of locust plague that ate away at the very foundations of our national existence.

The greatest harm of that sixteen-year journey down the path of infamy, which was flagged off on December 31, 1983, is not the quantifiable economic losses, as humongous as they are; it is the permanent entrenchment of corruption as a national ethos in our national psyche. The former we could recover from, the latter we could never - not in the next hundred years. It is that bad, and President Muhammad Buhari triggered it, the key word being "triggered".

Reasonable people can have reasonable debate on the condition of the country in the twenty months of the Buhari-Idiagbon regime. Assessments will vary depending on who is making them and the matrix they are using. For those who believe in a disciplined citizenry, law, and order, Buhari's first stint in national leadership receives high marks. For those who believe in popular and constitutional democracy, that was not just a violation, it was treasonous. And for those who detest retroactive criminalization, the Bar Beach public execution of the trio of Bartholomew Owoh, Bernard Ogedegbe, and Akanni Lawal Ojuolape on April 10, 1985, for cocaine peddling, was a low water mark for the Duara native.

However the evaluation goes, one thing is inarguable: twenty months is too short a time for any meaningful assessment. Perhaps, it was the insufficiency of data, and, of course, the screaming incompetence of his opponent, that moved majority of Nigerians in Buhari's corner in the March 2015 presidential elections. Had Ibrahim Babangida not struck on August 27, 1985, we would have had enough materials upon which to assess the Buhari-Idiagbon experiment. Unfortunately, the deceptively gap-toothed charming General from Minna rolled into Lagos and established a new national order. From that point on, things fell apart.

So, any which way you spin it, Buhari's treasonous dismantling of popular and constitutional democracy on December 31, 1983, set the wrecking ball rolling - as much as he did not intend it and, certainly, could not have foreseen it. It is a record he has. It is a record that will continue to, and forever, hunt him. It is a record that must set limits to his moral authority and capital on the question of democracy as an existential and organizing virtue. Yet, it is a record that Buhari and his advisors have glossed over. It is a moral limit that Buhari and his team of democracy proselytizers either seem to have forgotten or are working to extend. Otherwise, how do you send Buhari to Gambia to defend democracy?! How do you send a man who rolled tanks into government house and torpedoed a government, popularly and constitutionally elected, to go pressure another to respect the people's electoral will? Just what was Buhari's pitch to Gambia's Yahya Jammeh? How did Buhari sell popular democracy to Jammeh?

I have said it before, and it bears repeat here: keep Buhari locked down in Abuja. With everything going on in Nigeria, Buhari has enough excuses to decline invitations for international democracy crusades. Better still, use seasoned diplomats. Does Nigeria even have a minister of external affairs? What is his name? Where is he? What is he doing? For a tiny country like Gambia, Nigeria's external affairs minister would have had as much clout. He would have been the right messenger with the right message. In Gambia, Buhari was the wrong messenger with the right message. Sometimes, the messenger is more important than the message. This was one such time.

Odenigbo

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