The despotism of Nigeria’s state governors

On September 1st, Dr Chidi Odinkalu, a former Chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission wrote a twitter thread chronicling in detail the human rights abuses and forced disappearances of critics of Kaduna state governor, Mallam Nasir El Rufai. Odinkalu had already had run-ins with the governor, whom the state government prosecuted alongside former Chocolate City boss, Audu Maikori. What is chilling about the thread is not necessarily the number of names nor calibre of persons  harassed and detained at the insistence of the governor within his five year rule, but the brazen manner in which he used state and national resources to go about it.

For a governor like El-Rufai, such actions are not surprising. There is a reason he was dubbed “Littlefinger”  (after the cunning and deceptive Lord Peter Baelish in HBO’s fantasy hit series Game of Thrones) by Nigeria’s political sphere on Twitter. His actions are well documented and publicized, but he is by no means the only dictatorial governor in the country–at least since the past five years. In Kogi, Yahaya Bello was locked in a long standing political conflict with Natasha Akpoti that spilled over into the use of threats to life and intimidation to silence criticism. This is not just an APC thing. The PDP governors who are supposed to be the shining light in opposition to the growing authoritarianism of the Buhari administration and his lieutenant governors in APC controlled states are also guilty of the same sin. 

In April, David Umahi of Ebonyi banned two journalists– the state correspondents of The Sun newspaper, Chijioke Agwu, and the Vanguard newspaper, Peter Okutu– from entering the Government House or any government facility in the state. The week before the declaration, the governor had ordered the arrest of Mr Agwu over a report he did on the Lassa Fever outbreak in the state. Three days later, Mr Okutu was arrested on the orders of Ohaukwu LGA Chairman, Clement Odah, over a report he did on the alleged military invasion of Umuogodoakpu-Ngbo community in the council area. The increasing hostility between the state governor and the media created problems in the fight against the Coronavirus in the state, an angle not often talked about especially considering how much the media is needed in curtailing the spread of fake news about the virus in a state with just 53% literacy rate as of 2012. 

Just a few weeks later on May 10, Nyesom Wike, a budding dictator, demolished Prodest Hotel and Etemeteh Hotel in Eleme Local Government of Rivers state, without a court order to that effect. The interesting thing about Wike’s action is that even though it remains to be seen if he would have gotten a warrant from a court of law if the lockdown did not force courts to close physical sessions, he trained as a lawyer and ought to have known that such actions–politically motivated as seen in some quarters–is ultra vires. The sad fact is that the lawyer turned governor has been looking for ways to arrogate power to himself without recourse to democratic principle and seized the moment the pandemic afforded. 

The story is virtually the same in Akwa Ibom where the governor Udom Emmanuel is pushing the boundaries of his powers. In November 2019, a young banker was jailed on account of what the state prosecutor and the State Security Service  termed  “series of annoying Facebook posts” against the governor. From every indication, it was clear that the young man Michael Itok was detained for 40 days before his eventual arraignment. Two months earlier, Mary Ekere, a  journalist who was thrown into jail for two nights by the Akwa Ibom government for taking photos of task force officials. Ms Ekere, who reports for The Post, a local newspaper in Akwa Ibom, was assaulted and arrested in Uyo while taking photos of the task force officials raiding a city spot notorious for illegal street-trading.

Nigerian politicians and their low tolerance for criticism is serving to undermine the struggling democracy we achieved 20 years ago. From the dark days where then President Segun Obasanjo instigated the abduction of a sitting governor (Chris Ngige) for disagreeing with him politically, one would expect that the people who were in opposition to anti democratic tendencies by the ruling elites would fare better. It is even more interesting that the same El-Rufai who posted a series of untrue statements in opposition to the government of President Goodluck Jonathan turned around just a few years later to become an even worse version of what he opposed.

The legislatures in many of these states have abandoned their constitutional obligations of providing checks and balances to the excesses of the executive branch by hobnobbing with them and even enabling their missteps. It is no news that most state governors “control” their houses of assembly by putting their loyalists as principal officers, a move that has become the norm rather than the exception. In Rivers for instance, the judiciary is also complicit in the mess, especially with the acceptance of the new SUVs the state governor distributed to senior judges in the state, ostensibly to “enhance the delivery of justice”, or whatever that means. 

All of these are pointers to two things. First, the average Nigerian (politician) is a dictator and autocrat in waiting. At the very least, Femi Fani-Kayode showed it to us not too long ago. The misuse and abuse of power is so brazen that it has now been internalized and normalized. Secondly, democracy and democratic principles are now being erased and Nigeria is increasingly falling into the state of nature in the military era where life was nasty, brutish and short. To add, the willful participation of opposition governors in this show of shame tells you all you need to know that opposition politics in Nigeria is not just dead and buried, but that the search for a messiah to deliver Nigeria is a mirage at best and stupid delusion at worst. The actions of these state governors raise the question of viability of state autonomy in a working federal system of government. Arguments against state police in the past largely arose out of fear of what state governors can do with powers granted unto them. And now, even without the Constitutional devolution of power, the governors are wielding the same authoritarian stick. This takes the argument and push for true Federalism several years back. 

When Winston Churchill said that the bellwether of every crumbling democracy is first the violation of human rights, he may not have had Nigeria in mind, but as events have shown in both the federal and state centres of power, the whole idea–democracy–has crumbled.

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