The recent cold-shoulder the African Independent Television (AIT) received from the “handlers” of the President-elect, Gen. Mohammadu Buhari, provides a reasonable cause for apprehension. First, it strikes at the site of lingering reservation in some quarters about the candor of Buhari’s transformation from a former military ruler to a democrat willing to be guided by constitutional order and the rule of law. Even among some of the General’s hardline supporters, within and outside Nigeria, many are still holding their breath as to the character and temperament of his imminent presidency. Second, the AIT incident re-enforces perceptual concerns about our President-elect. Not few think that he may be unforgiving in his tendencies. For example, he is consistently on record in proclaiming that although he has absolved those who overthrew his government in 1985 he will not forget. Without doubt, to forgive is not the same as to forget. Frankly, anyone who conflates the two runs the risk of trivializing the sanctity of forgiveness. But when one makes an emphatic point of distinguishing the two deliberately, then the forgiveness becomes a qualified gesture, reluctantly given. For forgiveness to worth its moral quality, it needs to be total and unqualified.
Many partisan and non-partisan Nigerians bear witness to AIT’s cash-and-carry deals with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the build-up to the just concluded presidential elections. Specifically, the AIT served as the propaganda outlet for the PDP in running, among other things, what I characterized elsewhere as PDP’s ad hominem documentaries of red herring against Gen. Buhari and his All Progressives Congress (APC) party leader, Mr. Tinubu. The latter is presently in court against the AIT on the same matter. The AIT is a private communication and media enterprise in the business of serving the broadcast or other media and public relations needs of its clientele. True. But the AIT as a platform for the practice of diverse media-related professions also has legal, ethical and, indeed, public interest responsibilities for which it should be held to account in accordance with our laws where they are broken. It is naturally self-evident that Buhari may have reservation against the AIT. But as a politician, a public and historic personality and, lately, a President-in-waiting, coverage of Buhari by the media is not a matter over which he has a choice. As a President, he must embrace the rigorous irritations and unceasing scrutiny and criticism of dedicated opposition media. For the General whose antecedents as a military ruler generously fed Nigeria’s darkest days of press censorship and human rights abuses, Nigerians, and certainly the international community, require unmistaken assurances that his metamorphosis as a convert to democracy is not a façade.
And it is partially reassuring that Buhari has since indicated that he was not privy to the attempt to bar or exclude AIT from his press coverage. But even that fact evokes some concern. Here are why. Is it possible that Buhari is already being “fenced around” by those who are inclined to be vindictive so soon after Nigerians elected him their President? Is it possible that he is not alert to happenings around him too soon in the day? One of the reasons Nigerians elected Buhari is that they want a President who is truly and really in-charge. Buhari should not make the mistake (which many leaders make) of surrounding himself with folks who will unknowingly or even deliberately push him on a narrow and divisive battle line; those who will seek to keep him in a hyper partisan mood of the past presidential elections. The dust of those elections has since settled and Nigerians are in a hurry to chart a new path. The task ahead is enormous and a tit-for-tat approach would not only distract, it could come at the expense of much-needed goodwill across all spectrums. Buhari will soon be the President of Nigeria and not the President of APC. Even then, APC can potentially secure its hold on power if it recognizes and allows Buhari to be the President of Nigeria under the rule of law.
And there is some refreshing hope regarding the last point. One was thrilled over the promptness with which the APC countered the so-called Buhari’s handlers by restating AIT’s right as a recognized media institution to share the space with others in the coverage of the President-elect. That prompt intervention (which was needlessly and erroneously portrayed in some segments of the press as APC overruling the President-elect) marks a fresh departure from PDP’s style of crisis management. When mistakes are recognized and promptly addressed, it reflects positively on the integrity of persons and institutions involved in self-reversal or reappraisal. So far, APC continues to demonstrate its sensitivity to public opinion. It continues to prove that it a party that understands the role of the social media and the latter’s ballooning constituencies in contemporary democratic order. The social medial communities promptly drew attention to the shockwaves that the botched isolation of AIT generated and its implication for potential perception of Buhari’s incoming presidency and the quality of our fledgling democracy under the APC.
It is instructive that Buhari’s road trip to his current democratic ascendency was tortuous and longsuffering. Since 2003, the ascetic General has been in the trenches, struggling; strategizing and engaging with Nigeria’s democratic actors and politicians of various characters, sheds and stripes. From ANPP, CPC and now APC, he has had enough time to learn the political ropes. His temperament as a former maximum military leader has been tampered. As an intelligent person, he has learned the complexities of Nigeria perhaps better than he may have gleaned under the rigid, fixated and often over-simplified military framework. He now speaks as a man fully aware of his strengths and weaknesses; who has been horned to re-book another space for himself in Nigeria’s history. One such weakness Mr. Buhari has to guide against is his vulnerability in the area of freedom of the press and human rights. Unlike under his military antecedents, in the present turf, rule of law is the name of the game; and there is no much wiggle room. He should be weary of any so-called handlers who would rather hand him avoidable problems in their misguided zeal. He does not need to look beyond President Jonathan’s managers, especially the most vocal ones during the recent presidential campaigns, to appreciate the vicarious damages dubious handlers can inflict on their victims.
Chidi Oguamanam is Professor of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter: @chidi_oguamanam