ANALYSIS: Between Buhari the military dictator and Buhari the ‘reformed democrat’

“I am the most abused and insulted president in the world, but when I leave office you will all remember me for the total freedom you enjoyed under my government,” – Goodluck Jonathan, ex-Nigerian President.

Nigerians are quick to make reference to the above quote by former President Goodluck Jonathan each time President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration disobeys a court order or goes after helpless citizens like it did in the scandalous invasion of a court to rearrest Omoyele Sowore.

The ill-treatment of Mr Sowore, an activist and publisher of Sahara Reporters, by Nigeria’s secret police, the State Security Service (SSS), has attracted outrage within and outside the country.

The incident has not only put Mr Buhari on the spot but has prompted a retrospective look at the man Buhari.

Mr Buhari, a former military head of state, won a historic 2015 election against Mr Jonathan to become the first opposition leader to defeat an incumbent president in Nigeria.

However, many Nigerians are now wondering if it was not a horrible mistake to elect the former military general, considering his past human rights records when he was a military dictator.

Mr Jonathan himself, in 2017, two years after he left office, shared the famous quote on his Facebook page when the Nigerian military made an unprecedented announcement that it would start monitoring social media for hate speeches.

“With the benefit of hindsight now, it was a bit of a mistake we made,” said Richard Akinnola, a veteran Nigerian journalist who campaigned for Mr Buhari’s election in 2015.

“Buhari is up to his old tricks,” said the title of an opinion article in the Washington Post, authored by a Washington D.C-based writer, Jason Rezaian, on Mr Sowore’s arrest.

The Nigerian media has been under repression by the Buhari administration, Mr Rezaian argued. “Dictatorial habits have proved hard to give up,” he wrote. “Since his reelection earlier this year, matters have only gotten worse for journalists in Nigeria.”

More Journalists As Victims

Apart from Mr Sowore, several other journalists are victims of Mr Buhari’s repressive administration. Prominent among them is Jones Abiri, the publisher of Weekly Source, a local newspaper in oil-rich Bayelsa State, arrested in 2016 and detained for more than two years without trial by the SSS, allegedly over a story he published on oil blocks and politics in Nigeria.

It is unlawful in Nigeria for a citizen to be detained for more than 48 hours by any government agency, including the SSS, but Mr Abiri was detained for more than two years, without access to his family or lawyers.

Mr Abiri was released in August 2018 after a magistrate court struck out the case against him, but was rearrested eight months after by the SSS with a fresh charge of terrorism and cybercrime.

“I was tortured, beaten and much pain was inflicted on me,” Mr Abiri told Amnesty International.

“They said that if I would agree to whatever crime they pinned on me, based on their findings, I would be set free and that without that, I would be made to undergo all forms of ill-treatment.”

Ahmed Salkida, an investigative journalist, has been arrested several times by the Nigerian authorities because of his reports on Boko Haram.

Mr Salkida was declared wanted by the Nigerian army in August 2016 for publishing a video which proved that the Chibok schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram were still alive.

A reporter with PREMIUM TIMES, Samuel Ogundipe, was arrested in Abuja by the police in August 2018, detained for days, and secretly arraigned in court. The police wanted him to reveal the source of a story he wrote on the inspector general of police.

Before Mr Ogundipe’s arrest, the police in January 2017 raided PREMIUM TIMES’ head office, Abuja, and arrested the papers publisher, Dapo Olorunyomi, and its judiciary reporter, Evelyn Okakwu over a story on some property in Dubai owned by Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai. The two journalists were later released with no charges filed.

Daily Trust head office in Abuja, and the paper’s offices in Lagos and Maiduguri were raided in January 2019 simultaneously by operatives from the army, SSS, and the police.

“For over four hours they ransacked our offices, requesting for the reporter who did the story about a planned military operation to retake Baga, one of the towns overrun by Boko Haram,” Daily Trust management narrated, according to a report by Amnesty International.

“When they had finished ransacking the office, they carted away all the laptops, computers and mobile phones. Then they ordered all our staff to move to the ground floor and then out of the premises. They then sealed off the premises. They also arrested our Production Manager.”

Daniel Elombah, the owner of a website,, was arrested and detained alongside his two brothers, Timothy and Theo, in January 2018 in Awka, Anambra State, by officers from the Special Anti-RobberySquad (SARS), a dreaded unit in the Nigerian police. They were accused of publishing a report against the inspector general of police.

Messrs. Daniel and Theo spent a night in detention, but their other brother, Timothy, who is the editor-in-chief of the online publication, was detained for more than 25 days.

Two of the three brothers, Timothy and Daniel, were later charged with terrorism and cybercrime.

Mr Daniel eventually sued for infringement on his fundamental human rights and got a N5 million judgement against the police. The police are yet to pay him the money.

A journalist with the African Independent Television (AIT), Ohimai Amaize, fled Nigeria in June 2019 after people suspected to be agents of the Nigerian government allegedly threatened his life repeatedly over his TV programme which he said was seen as anti-government, according to the Amnesty report.

The Amnesty report, which was launched in October 2019 in Abuja, said at least 19 journalists and media practitioners have been attacked in Nigeria between January and September 2019, the highest since 2015.

Six journalists, including bloggers, were arrested in 2018, while four were arrested in 2017.

The report said 16 journalists were arrested in 2016. Five were arrested in 2015.

Eight media houses have been raided or harassed since 2015, while three journalists have gone into hiding, the report said.

The Nigerian government may not have been directly responsible for some of the attacks on the media, but like the Amnesty said, “The failure of Nigerian authorities to investigate cases of indiscriminate arrest, detention and prosecution of journalists and media practitioners ensures that perpetrators are not held to account for these human rights violations.”

Other cases like that of Agba Jalingo, the publisher of an online newspaper, CrossRiverWatch, who is standing trial for treason over a report on Cross River governor, Ben Ayade, stick out like a sore thumb, putting more taint on the country’s image.

Mr Jalingo’s trial was in November listed among 10 “most urgent” cases of threats to press freedom around the world.

“In Nigeria, the civic space continues to shrink,” Amnesty said. “Under national and international law, Nigeria has an obligation to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the right to freedom of expression and media freedom.”

Worsening human rights situation

The Buhari administration is notorious for arbitrary arrests, illegal imprisonment of citizens, and disobedience to court orders, including disregard for separation of powers as shown in the controversial removal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, early this year, and last year’s siege on the National Assembly by SSS operatives.

A Nigerian activist, Chido Onumah, was arrested by the SSS in September this year at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, for wearing a shirt with the inscription “We Are All Biafrans”, which is the title of a book he authored.

There have been agitations, which often turned bloody, in Nigeria’s South-East for an independent state of Biafria.

“I was arrested for wearing the T-shirt because the SSS said it is capable of causing disaffection in the country,” Mr Onumah told PREMIUM TIMES.

Mr Onumah was lucky to have been released a few hours after his arrest. But there are other Nigerians who are not so lucky, who have been in either SSS or police detention illegally for several months.

The government has continued to detain the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, and a former national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, despite several court orders.

There is also the case of Dada Labinjo, a naval captain who has been detained illegally for more than one year by the Nigerian Navy.

The navy ignored court ruling which ordered that the captain be released from their detention. After much pressure from the human rights community in Nigeria, the navy recently reluctantly handed over Mr Labinjo’s case to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) which is set to prosecute him for alleged economic crimes.

Mr Labinjo’s wife, Bola, a lieutenant commander in the Nigerian Navy, was arraigned by the EFCC in August alongside four others for allegedly dealing in petroleum products without lawful authority.

Mass killings

There have also been mass killings of Nigerians in different parts of the country, under Mr Buhari.

The worst of such killings occurred in December 2015 when soldiers killed over 300 Shiites within three days in Kaduna. Their offence was that they blocked a public road being used by the army chief, Tukur Buratai. Nobody has been prosecuted for the killings.

Members of Mr El-Zakzaky’s Shiite group have also been killed by Nigeria’s security forces in Abuja and other cities without anyone being prosecuted for the killings.

PREMIUM TIMES reported a similar situation in Nigeria’s South-East, where security forces engaged in massive extrajudicial killings of Nigerians agitating for the independent state of Biafra.


“After the Abacha regime, which was even a military government, we had every right to think that we had put the worst behind us and were now on the road to full recovery. Apparently, we were overly optimistic,” Edetaen Ojo, a journalist and advocate of freedom of information, said of the recent happenings in Nigeria.

James Ibor, a Calabar-based lawyer, said it is now clear that “a leopard cannot change its spots,” in reference to President Buhari.

Mr Ibor is still in shock about the SSS invasion of the court to rearrest Mr Sowore, he told PREMIUM TIMES. He said he was surprised that nobody has resigned over the incident. “Buhari is our biggest mistake, and I hope we learn from it,” he said.

Des Wilson, a professor of Mass Communication, University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, said there is no difference between Buhari the then military dictator and Buhari as a civilian president.

Mr Wilson said the hate speech bill before the National Assembly is similar to the Decree No. 4 of 1984 which was promulgated by the then military administration of Mr Buhari.

He accused the president of being behind the bill, although it was sponsored by a senator and member of Mr Buhari’s party, APC.

Mr Akinnola, the veteran journalist, said the situation in the country today requires Nigerians to speak up.

“We can’t keep quiet. If we do, there will be more clampdown. The current National Assembly and the executive are one, unlike what we had during Saraki and Dogara era where there was a semblance of checks and balances. They are now trying to swallow the judiciary and once that is done, there will be a total dictatorship,” Mr Akinnola said.

In its reaction to growing dictatorship and violations of the rule of law, Punch newspaper said it would henceforth address Mr Buhari as a retired major general, signaling a return to the struggle in the 80’s against military dictatorship in Nigeria.

“It is only a pattern, a reflection of the serial disregard of the Buhari regime for human rights and its battering of other arms of government and our democratic institutions,” the paper said of the Sowore incident in its editorial on Wednesday.

“PUNCH will not adopt the self-defeating attitude of many Nigerians looking the other way after each violation of rights and attacks on the citizens, the courts, the press and civic society, including self-determination groups lawfully exercising their inalienable rights to peaceful dissent.

“This regime’s actions and assaults on the courts, disobedience of court orders and arbitrary detention of citizens reflect its true character of the martial culture. Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) ran a ham-fisted military junta in 1984/85 and old habits obviously run deep.

“Until he and his repressive regime purge themselves of their martial tendency therefore, PUNCH will not be a party to falsely adorning it with a democratic robe, hence our decision to label it for what it is – an autocratic military-style regime run by Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd),” the paper said.

Festus Ogun, a lawyer, said the president could very well suspend the Nigerian constitution and run the country as a dictator.

“This Buhari has not changed and that is why those who know him beyond “Agbada” may not be too surprised,” Mr Ogun said in an article he posted on Facebook about the rearrest of Mr Sowore.

“Now that it is obvious that rule of law means nothing and only the orders of a tyrant President stand as the law, I ask: when will the Constitution be suspended?

“For as we speak, the 1999 Constitution is a worthless and useless piece of legislation. The dictatorship we live in should be formalized because our Constitution is as good as being suspended.

“Why can’t he just suspend it so he can have a smooth ‘ride’? It is better we live in the reality of a totalitarian government that we currently operate than to keep wallowing under the illusion of a democracy,” he said.

Nigeria under Buhari’s military dictatorship (1983 – 1985)

Soon after his December 1983 military coup in which he overthrew the elected government of Shehu Shagari, Mr Buhari promulgated some draconian laws, including the infamous Decree No. 4 – the Protection Against False Accusations Decree – which became a nightmare to journalists and media houses in Nigeria.

Two university lecturers, Chris Ogbondah and Emmanuel Onyedike, in their research article on the origins and interpretation of Nigerian press laws, described Decree No. 4 as “the most dreaded, most repressive” press law ever enacted in the country.

The law barred journalists from reporting stories capable of ‘ridiculing’ the then military government and its officials and conferred autocratic powers on Mr Buhari to ban any newspaper, television or radio station in Nigeria.

It prescribed the arraignment of journalists in a military tribunal, and not the conventional law court.

Two Guardian reporters, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were among the victims of Decree No. 4.

There was another draconian law – Decree No. 2 – which gave the Buhari military government power to detain any Nigerian for up to three months without charges. The government also outlawed civil protest and workers’ strike.

More than 150 people, including a renowned journalist and teacher, Tai Solarin, were reported to have been detained under Decree No. 2 in 1984 alone, according to Amnesty International.

The former Biafran leader, Chukuemeka Ojukwu, was among those detained under the decree, although he was later released without charges.

In September 1984, the regime arrested and detained Fela Kuti, a popular Nigerian musician and critic of Mr Buhari. He was accused of attempting to unlawfully export foreign currency and was handed five years jail sentence by a military tribunal.

“There were several indications that his arrest and imprisonment were politically motivated,” Amnesty said in a report on the case.

“Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon, Chief of Staff, announced that the government would ensure Fela would be imprisoned for a long time, concluding: ‘and I hope he will rot in jail.’ Moreover, there were allegations that important defence witnesses, including customs officials, were prevented from testifying at Fela’s trial,” Amnesty said in the report.

The regime also promulgated another draconian law known as Decree No. 20 in 1984 which provided for death sentence by firing squad for illegal ship bunkering and drug trafficking. Sadly, the law was backdated by one year and some young Nigerians were arrested, tied to a stake, and shot to death for alleged involvement in drug trafficking.

In April 1985, six Nigerians – Sidikatu Tairi, Sola Oguntayo, Oladele Omosebi, Lasunkanmi Awolola, Jimi Adebayo and Gladys Iyamah – were condemned to death under Decree No. 20.

When Mr Buhari’s regime was toppled in August 1985 through a military coup led by the erstwhile chief of army staff, Ibrahim Babangida, about 101 detainees, including an editor with Sunday Tribune, were freed from the NSO detention centre in Lagos.

Dikko Affair

The SSS, known then as the National Security Organisation (NSO), was established by the Olusegun Obasanjo military administration in 1976, but it was given unprecedented powers by Mr Buhari to arbitrarily arrest and detain Nigerians because of Mr Buhari’s anti-corruption war at that time.

The NSO became so powerful under Mr Buhari to the extent that its director general, Lawal Rafindadi, got the organisation involved in activities that had far-reaching implications and scandalous consequences to the nation – like the infamous case of the 53 suitcases that were allowed to pass through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, without the required Customs check and the failed attempt to kidnap a runaway Nigerian politician, Umaru Dikko, in London, 1984.

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The plan by the Buhari government, which was almost successful, was to sedate Mr Dikko, a former minister of transport in the ousted civilian administration of Shehu Shagari, and transport him in a diplomatic bag to Nigeria, for him to be prosecuted for corruption.

The failed operation jointly carried out by Nigerian and Israeli secret service led to a diplomatic row between the Nigerian and British government.

Buhari’s History of Disobeying Court Orders

When Mr Solarin was detained by Mr Buhari’s military government in March 1984 under Decree No. 2 because of a newspaper article against the administration, Amnesty International declared the famous activist a prisoner of conscience.

According to a report by Amnesty, a Lagos High Court on April 19 1984 ordered Mr Solarin’s release, but he was immediately rearrested and was held without trial in Jos prison till the end of 1984.

Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, authored an article in January 2007 in which he enumerated Mr Buhari’s “sins” against the Nigerian nation – he recalled an instance where Mr Buhari, as a military dictator then, disregarded the order of a tribunal he himself set up.

“Recall, if you please, the ‘judicial’ processes undergone by the septuagenarian Chief Adekunle Ajasin. He was arraigned and tried before Buhari’s punitive tribunal but acquitted,” Mr Soyinka wrote in the article which was published by Sahara Reporters.

“Dissatisfied, Buhari ordered his re-trial. Again, the Tribunal could not find this man guilty of a single crime, so once again he was returned for trial, only to be acquitted of all charges of corruption or abuse of office.

“Was Chief Ajasin thereby released? No! He was ordered detained indefinitely, simply for the crime of winning an election and refusing to knuckle under Shagari’s reign of terror.”

Mr Soyinka had warned Nigerians against campaigning for a return of Mr Buhari as a civilian president.

“Buhari enslaved the nation. He gloated and gloried in a master-slave relation to the millions of its inhabitants. It is astonishing to find that the same former slaves, now free of their chains, should clamour to be ruled by one who not only turned their nation into a slave plantation, but forbade them any discussion of their condition,” Mr Soyinka wrote in the article.

I don’t regret my actions – Buhari

Mr Buhari in December 2012, three years before he was elected president, said he did not regret the actions he took, including the suppression of the media through Decree No. 4, while he was a military dictator.

“What we did was that you must not embarrass those civil servants. If you have got evidence that somebody was corrupt, the courts were there. Take the evidence to court; the court will not spare whoever it was. But you don’t just go and write articles that were embarrassing,” he said.

“Those who did it, the editors, the reporters, we jailed them. But we never closed a whole institution, as others did.

“No regret, because we did it according to the laws we made. We neither closed a whole institution nor caused job losses.”