Recently, in the wake of federal government’s suspension of the erstwhile Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, some western powers threaten to place travel restrictions on some persons who they suspect to be potential threat to democracy in Nigeria. According to experts, the initiative is based on international code of conduct on elections. ELEOJO IDACHABA in this report seeks to ascertain whose interest the initiative is intended to serve.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, this year’s general elections should become history in a few weeks. However, all is not well especially with recent happenings that appear to be capable of truncating the transition and ultimately the democratic process.
In recent time, hate speech among political parties and their candidates seem to be the major albatross to the smooth conduct of the elections, but analysts are of the view that some actions of government have called for questions over the determination of the APC-led government and some key opposition elements towards a credible poll. The latest, according to them, is the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari, a development perceived by many as the last attempt by the government to rig that election. There are also the unguarded comments by opposition parties which are considered detrimental to the smooth conduct of the elections.
Reactions to Onoghen’s suspension
In its reaction to the suspension of the CJN, the leading opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), in a statement by its spokesperson, Kola Ologbodinyan, stated that: “President Buhari wants to ruin our country and we will never allow him. Nigerians must reject the incendiary move by President Buhari to forcefully suspend our constitution, annex the judicial arm of government and open the nation up for full-blown totalitarianism to achieve his self-succession bid, having realised that he cannot win in the 2019 general election.
“President Buhari’s action in attempting to unilaterally appoint a chief justice and foist him on our country is a direct invitation to anarchy, national confusion and monumental crisis capable of derailing this democracy and destroying our corporate existence as a nation.
“It is now clear to the world that President Buhari, in his selfish self-succession bid, is out to cause mayhem in our nation and truncate the smooth conduct of the 2019 elections, not minding the consequential human and material losses.
“The world already knows how the Buhari administration has tried to compromise the electoral process, including the refusal to sign the amendment to the Electoral Act as well as the foisting of Mr President’s relation by marriage, Mrs Amina Zakari to coordinate the collation of presidential election results.”
In the same vein, the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) in a statement through its spokesperson, Ikenga Ugochinyere, described the development as “judicial coup which must be resisted.”
“This brazen dictatorial act is the latest action in the ongoing rape of our nation’s hard-earned democracy by those who dined with anti-democratic forces. This is symptomatic of the increasing desperation that President Buhari and the cabal are pulling the strings as February 16, 2019, draws near.
“As far as the law of the land is concerned, Onnoghen remains the CJN. We will not recognise any other person who may be occupying that office illegally. Justice Tanko Muhammed is a usurper. The NJC must sack him. Lawyers must ignore him as long as he remains on that seat.
“The CJN can be removed from office either if he has been convicted or if under Section 291 and 292 of the Constitution, the Senate affirms a request by the president to remove him by two-thirds majority vote. Buhari has dared Nigerians.”
Western powers react
In the light of these, the Unites States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) have vowed to restrict the visas of those found wanting with regards to malpractice and violence in this year’s general elections in Nigeria.
The US government, in particular, said it will be paying close attention to actions of individuals who interfere in the democratic process or instigate violence against the civilian population before, during and after the elections.
“We will not hesitate to consider the consequences, including visa restrictions, for those found to be responsible for election-related violence or undermining the democratic process. Under US immigration law, certain violations may also lead to restrictions on family members.
“The US government welcomes the peace accord signed by the Nigerian candidates as the conduct of the upcoming elections is important not only for Nigeria, but for the African continent.
“While we do not support any specific candidate or party in Nigeria’s upcoming elections, we support the Nigerian democratic process itself; we support a genuinely free, fair, transparent, and peaceful electoral process.”
Similarly, The British High Commission in Abuja, while reaffirming its strong support for free, fair and peaceful elections in Nigeria, stressed that they will be deploying extensive observation mission for the forthcoming elections, including coordinating with the EU’s Election Observation Mission.
“We will like to remind all Nigerians that where the UK is aware of such attempts; this may have consequences for individuals. These could include their eligibility to travel to the UK, their ability to access UK based funds or lead to prosecution under international law.
“We and our international partners remain committed supporters of Nigeria’s democracy and do not support any party or individual. The UK government believes that the Nigerian people should be able to choose their leaders in an environment free from hate speech and insecurity.
“Our monitors will in particular be looking out for any attempts to encourage or use violence to influence the elections, including on social media. We continue to provide significant support to Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission and to Nigerian civil society to help them deliver credible elections.”
Reacting to the threats by the western powers, presidential spokesperson Garba Shehu said Nigeria welcomes prevailing interests and partnerships for a successful 2019 general elections. He, however, said the government would not condone unfair interference in matters that are wholly internal.
While reacting to these, Senator Shehu Sani representing Kaduna Central in the National Assembly said: “The ruling party is a direct beneficiary of foreign interference. Therefore, if the UK and US’ calls for fair and credible polls means interference, then we don’t need them for anything. In any case, the ruling elite cannot confront the West in view of their entrenched economic interest and political allegiance. The EU, US and UK that we are warning to stop interfering in our internal affairs are the same people we depend on to help us combat and neutralise insurgency and as well help in addressing humanitarian issues in our country. Are insurgency and humanitarian crisis not our internal affairs?”
‘There’s a thin line between internal and international interests’ Responding to the implication of the travel ban, Dr Jide Ojo, executive director, Oja Development Consult, said: “This potential sanction is a welcome development. Oftentimes, when politicians create problems at home, they run abroad with their families. Many who are campaigning for coming elections have moved their families abroad, taking them out of harm’s way. These are same people whom research have shown arm youths with weapons and hard drugs to foment trouble. With the risk of travel ban, it is believed that they will behavethemselves during the electioneering period and not undermine the process.
Commenting on the yardstick for measuring what constitutes electoral offence, he said: “There are international principles guiding credible elections. A breach of any of these codes is tantamount to undermining democracy.
“Committing electoral offences articulated in the statutes books such as the constitution, the Electoral Act and guidelines for the elections are also behaviour that undermines democracy. Some of the offences include vote buying, electoral violence, manipulation of election results, disorderly behavior at polling units and collation centres, non-adherence to regulations and guidelines for elections are some of the electoral offences that undermine democracy.”
According to him, as Nigeria is a sovereign country we must also remember that the world has become a global village.
“The lines between national and international interest is now blurred as the action and inaction of a country in handling certain volatile situations can have ripple effect on another country. If the western powers watch akimbo while Nigeria becomes embroiled in political crises that can escalate into civil strife, the refugee problem that may happen as a result of the political conflict will affect neighboring countries. Also, these countries are critical stakeholders in the Nigeria democratic project given the millions of Dollars, Pound Sterling and Euros their international development agencies spend on our democratic institutions including election management bodies, political parties, national and state assemblies and civil society organisations. Therefore, if we factor their political and economic investments on Nigeria, the federal government has no moral right to ask them not to show concern when things are not going right, especially with the way President Buhari handled the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen’s saga.
“To that extent, much as the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria may be guilty of improper asset declaration and corruption charges levelled against him, due process ought to have been followed so that the action of the government will not be viewed as a political vendetta or witch-hunt. Rule of law ought to be obeyed at all times and not abridged to achieve a pre-determined outcome. I am happy with the queries issued to both the suspended CJN and acting CJN by the National Judicial Council I also agree with the position and action of the Nigeria Bar Association on the matter. It is imperative for all well meaning compatriots to defend the sanctity of our democratic institutions.”
Also speaking, a foreign affairs expert, Dotun Israel, said Nigeria has a lot to gain by listening to the wise counsel of the western powers because of the influence of globalisation. “No one is an island in the whole world any longer; therefore, whatever happens in one country equally has a spiral effect on another. That is why the travel ban threat by the Western powers on suspected agents of destabilisation of Nigeria’s democracy should not be waived aside. Nigeria needs the western powers just like they also need Nigeria. The implication will take the country back to the dark days; it’s not a good image at all,” he said.
Opposition enlisting UK, US against Nigeria – Minister
In the meantime, the federal government has raised the alarm over alleged plans by the opposition parties to enlist the support of western countries to discredit the outcome of the polls.
Minister of Information Lai Mohammed who raised the alarm at a press conference said: “They are sending a delegation to some western capitals including London, Brussels and Washington to push the concocted lies that the Buhari administration has perfected plans to rig the polls. They are therefore pushing for a rejection of the result if the president wins the re-election.
“With less than 12 days to the 2019 elections, we have called this conference to alert Nigerians about the evil machinations of the opposition which is not campaigning to win the election because they know they cannot win a free, fair and peaceful election but are busy planning how to scuttle or discredit it.”
He further said: “The opposition is approaching the election with an incredible level of desperation. In this regard, they have activated their own version of the infamous version of Association for Better Nigeria (ABN) under the guise of CUPP to engage in unrestrained rabble-rousing and frivolous court cases.
“The Buhari administration is committed to a free, fair and credible poll. We are glad that local and international observers are fully mobilised to monitor the election. We call on all Nigerians to be vigilant as we begin the final countdown to the election. External vigilance, as the saying goes, is the price of liberty. We must not allow desperate politicians to crash our democracy on the altar of their personal ambition.”
Corroborating the information minister, the Nigeria Army said unpatriotic groups and foreign conspirators were planning the scuttle the polls. The Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, stated this in Abuja while briefing the press. “We have information of subversive motives by some unpatriotic groups aided by foreign conspirators to scuttle the peaceful conduct of the 2018 general elections in some parts of the country. In this regards, GOCs and field commanders at all levels are to deal decisively with any form of security breach,” he said.