Security agencies and our democracy

By Simon Kolawole

AT times, I could be mischievous. When security agents barricaded Government House, Ado Ekiti, ahead of the July 14 governorship election — and Governor Ayo Fayose released his hit single, “I’m in Pains” — a friend, with whom I had been engaged in a fierce debate over the nature of restructuring Nigeria needs, quickly sent me a message. He said: “Simon, I hope you now agree with me that we need state police. If there was state police, that nonsense would not have happened!” It did not cross his mind that governors could also use state police to crush their opponents — the same way they use state electoral commissions to win 100% of council elections.

And so when pictures of the reported police blockade of Senate President Bukola Saraki’s house on Tuesday went viral, I seized the opportunity to retaliate. “Baba, don’t you think we need senate police? If the senate had its own police, this would not have happened,” I said. He got my point. We argued for about an hour and concluded that it is not state or federal police that is the issue: public institutions will continue to be vulnerable to political manipulation for as long as their managers think they owe their loyalty to their principals rather than to the constitution and the country. We keep saying we need strong institutions as if institutions run themselves.

We need to come to a consensus that institutions are as strong as those managing them. If the human beings running state institutions don’t have balls, how will they run efficiently and professionally? And if the institutions are not run professionally, how can our democracy make any progress? It is a global standard that democracy only works where state institutions work. Since Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1999, the biggest obstacles obstructing our journey to attaining “constitutional” democracy has been the conduct of state institutions such as the police, DSS, INEC and — to some extent — the judiciary and the armed forces.

On Tuesday, some federal lawmakers were to defect from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Apparently to checkmate them, police quickly fired a letter to Saraki asking him to come for interrogation over Offa robbery — same day. His deputy, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who would have presided in his absence, was simultaneously caged at his residence by the EFCC. I don’t believe in coincidences in this business. There was outrage all over town and people were making angry comments on social media on how our democracy was coming under attack and how the security agencies were taking sides. My apologies — I was not among the baffled.

Anybody who has lived in Nigeria since the return to democracy in 1999 and who has good memory should not be baffled. In July 2003, Anambra state governor, Dr. Chris Ngige, was kidnapped by his political godfathers who tried to force him to resign. The mayhem was co-ordinated by an assistant inspector general of police (AIG), Mr. Raphael Ige, now deceased. President Olusegun Obasanjo’s boys were at work. Obasanjo would later withdraw Ngige’s security aides, saying he no longer recognised him as governor. To prepare the ground for the declaration of state of emergency, the hooligans set Awka on fire and burnt down the government house, under police supervision.

The imperial Obasanjo was an expert at using “state of emergency” and EFCC to crush his political opponents. He used Mallam Nuhu Ribadu and EFCC to maximum effect, intimidating state legislators to impeach governors viewed as enemies of Obasanjo or friends of Obasanjo’s enemies. Space would constrain me to write on the experiences of Chief DSP Alamieyeseigha, Chief Joshua Dariye, Alhaji Rashidi Ladoja, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, Fayose and several others who were persecuted by state institutions for not towing Obasanjo’s line. I do not suggest they were blameless or that they had no case to answer, but I was intelligent enough to understand the political undertone.

President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua did not want to be left out — he chased Ribadu out of EFCC in the most audacious circumstances, reportedly at the behest of his politician friends, notably Chief James Ibori, former governor of Delta state, whom Ribadu was determined to see in jail at all cost over allegations of corruption. Ribadu was eventually demoted from AIG to deputy commissioner of police. For failing to wear his new rank, he was dismissed from service. He ran out of the country after an alleged attempt on his life. Yar’Adua also sent the EFCC after Mallam Nasir Rufai reportedly over a previous grudge — and the former FCT minister fled into exile.

President Goodluck Jonathan is generally regarded as the gentle one. There were reports that he deferred significantly to his attorney-general, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke, on matters of law and, therefore, avoided using state agencies to harass his opponents. For instance, when five PDP governors defected to APC in 2013 and he came under intense pressure to use security agencies to remove and replace them, Jonathan reportedly declined. Chief EK Clark, the Ijaw leader, was said to have angrily asked for the sack of Adoke, who was accused of curtailing the “enormous powers” of the president. But it was not as if state institutions were totally impartial under Jonathan.

I recall that when Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, as speaker of the house of reps, defected from PDP to APC in 2013, his security aides were withdrawn. In fact, police barricaded the entrance to the house of reps. Members had to scale the fence to report for duty. Mr. Suleiman Abba, then-inspector general of police, even became a judge. He declared Tambuwal’s seat vacant, saying he did not need any court order, that he was a lawyer, and that the constitution had already said if any MP defects, he will lose his seat. Does anybody still remember Mr. Joseph Mbu, the Rivers police commissioner, and his political war with Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, the state governor, in 2013/2014?

Now that state institutions have obviously continued to be political under President Muhammadu Buhari, I am sad but not amazed or overwhelmed. This is the type of “democracy” we have been practising since 1999 . And there is a scholarly explanation for it. In the July 2002 edition of the Journal of Democracy, we can find intellectual elucidation in an article entitled ‘The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,’ written by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way. They wrote under the theme ‘Elections without Democracy’. I came across this article in 2006 in the heat of the decapitation of Nigeria’s democracy by President Obasanjo.

After reading the essay, I concluded that Nigeria was not yet practising democracy. I will share their thoughts with us extensively in this article, spiced with my comments. Levitsky and Way wrote: “The post-Cold War world has been marked by the proliferation of hybrid political regimes… Particularly in Africa and the former Soviet Union, many regimes have either remained hybrid or moved in an authoritarian direction… Analyses frequently treat mixed regimes as partial or ‘diminished’ forms of democracy, or as undergoing prolonged transition to democracy. Such characterisations imply that these cases are moving in a democratic direction. Yet… this is not the case.”

Defining it as ‘Competitive Authoritarianism’, they explained: “In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy… they may be better described as a (diminished) form of authoritarianism.” In democratic societies, state institutions, such as the police, the judiciary and the electoral commission, are never at the beck and call of partisan actors. We’ve never been able to comfortably say this about Nigeria since 1999.

Levitsky and Way further wrote: “Although incumbents in competitive authoritarian regimes may routinely manipulate formal democratic rules, they are unable to eliminate or reduce them to a mere facade. Rather than openly violating democratic rules (for example, by banning or repressing the opposition and the media), incumbents are more likely to use bribery, co-optation, and more subtle forms of persecution, such as the use of tax authorities, compliant judiciaries, and other state agencies to ‘legally’ harass, persecute, or extort cooperative behaviour from critics.” You will agree with me that this has been our lot for nearly 20 years now. There is yet no end in sight.

The authors postulated that in competitive authoritarian regimes, “elections are often bitterly fought. Although the electoral process may be characterized by large-scale abuses of state power, biased [government] media coverage, (often violent) harassment of opposition candidates and activists, and an overall lack of transparency, elections are regularly held, competitive (in that major opposition parties and candidates usually participate).” They noted that even though legislatures tend to be relatively weak, “they occasionally become focal points of opposition activity.” I am not a fan of the national assembly but I admit that they serve good purposes in our convoluted system.

To our credit, though, we’ve met certain conditions — such as holding regular elections and keeping to constitutional term limits. But democracy is nothing if the institutions that should create a level-playing field serve as tools in the hands of contending political forces. How can our institutions become professional and non-aligned? This is the conversation we should be having. Since 1999, every government has used state institutions to its own advantage. It didn’t start today; it won’t end today. How can political appointees begin to exercise utmost loyalty to fatherland rather than to politicians? Is there a place for individual conscience? Let the debate begin.



If I had my way, I would delete that aspect of the constitution which says defecting lawmakers can only retain their seats if their party is factionalised. It is a waste of ink. Nigerian lawmakers will always defect. What does it take to start a faction? Just gather a few of your associates, announce that you are now nPDP or rAPC, name a new chairman and head to the court. That is crisis. I think the law should say you will lose/retain your seat under any circumstance. That will save us the drama of seasonal orchestrated crisis as prelude to jumping ship. Defection is Nigeria’s contribution to democracy. In 2022, there will certainly be defections ahead of 2023 polls. Predictable.


There seems to be a new attention to the Apapa ports deadlock. Trailers have made life unbearable for other road users. It appears we have now reached the highest point ever, with queues extending to as far as Ikorodu Road all the way from Apapa. The colonial masters that built the ports created a massive trailer park. We sold it. They also created a rail link from the ports to Iddo terminal so that goods could be evacuated by cargo train. We watched it rot away. Any surprise that we are now paying the price for decades of mismanagement and poor planning? The federal government must declare an emergency. Repair must be priority. Life cannot go on like this. Disastrous.


    When the former inspector-general of police, Alhaji Ibrahim Coomassie, died recently, I remembered something. In 1998, I went to Abuja (along with my THISDAY colleague Miss Chika Nwoko, now Mrs Amanze-Nwachuku) to interview him. The force PRO then, Mr. Young Arabame, requested for a questionnaire. Because of my anger over human rights abuses under Gen. Sani Abacha, I drafted very antagonistic questions. Chika and I were at the force headquarters for two days unable to interview Coomassie! Arabame, now deceased, later taught me a lesson in Journalism 101: you cannot hope to get an interview with such acidic questions sent in advance. Tactless.


    South Sudan has a population of 12.2 million, out of which 7.1 million are classified by the World Food Programme (WFP) as being at risk of “severe food insecurity”. But the country’s politicians cannot be bothered — President Salva Kiir has just approved the purchase of $61 million worth of cars for the legislators, apparently as a “thank you” gesture to them two weeks after they extended his tenure by three years under a state of emergency. The country has been fighting a new civil war since it bitterly broke away from Sudan in 2011. In response to public criticism, a presidential spokesman asked if the MPs should be using motorbikes. Africa.

    Simon Kolawole is the founder and CEO of  TheCable. He tweets @simonkolawole.

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