Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

What The Papers Say

The military and fundamental rights

National Concord, Nigeria

Revolutions, it is said, beget their own legitimacy. The widespread announcement of the new government and a corresponding wholesale repudiation of Shagari's administration theoretically confer legitimacy on the new military regime.

Traditionally, military governments do not harbour a great deal of respect for constitutions and laws. They often make their own in the form of decrees, edicts and such other instruments that have all the characteristics of dictatorial proclamations. The new Head of State, Major-General Buhari in his nationwide address, did suspend those provisions of the constitution dealing with the executive and legislative branches of government in the 1979 Second Republican Constitution. This is hardly surprising.

Indeed, it was imperative that having subverted the constitution by wallowing in corruption and criminal mismanagement of the country, members of the legislative and executive arms of government had forfeited their rights to be protected by the constitution and deserved nothing more than to be sacked with ignominy.

It has never been a point of argument that the 1979 constitution, as drafted by the founding fathers of the Second Republic, was at fault. The blame has been at the feet of the operators and actors. Conceivably, the new administration took this into account and seems disposed to operate within the constitutional provisions it has spared.

We have no doubt whatsoever that sooner or later issues will arise which would force the administration to resort to decrees. This is perfectly in order and it would never lack the support of Nigerians if such decrees are conceived of, and perceived to be in the country's interests. No one would grudge the administration such powers.

But in devising and exercising those powers, certain institutions, constitutional provisions and other laws must be respected at all costs. The judiciary, for example, is an institution which, in spite of its imperfections and proven mistakes in the last government, must be given the benefit of the doubt. This, of course, does not divest the government of powers to make special laws, if it deems fit to contend with some special offences.

But the institution itself and its processes should be permitted to function without undue interference. The temptations to resort frequently to extra-judicial measures should be resisted unless they are absolutely necessary.

Chapter II, that is, section 13 to 22 of the constitution which spells out the Fundamental Objectives and Principles of State Policy should remain the totem pole, a scale on which the administration must weigh its actions, an anchorage to which the ship of state should be steered.

Above all, chapter IV, sections 30 to 42 dealing with fundamental rights should be meticulously observed and respected. Military men often display short temper and disdain for the rigmarole involved in issues dealing with fundamental rights and liberties. Those niggling argumentations and tardiness of action are sometimes the beauty of it all, for they provide safeguards to snappy, hasty and often wrong judgments and actions. They provide room for longer reflection which ensures rational decisions on matters affecting personal liberties.

It is not true that what Nigerians need is an iron-fisted kind of rule. The country has political history; that history does not contain a significant dose of some political culture of torture, detentions, persecution and all kinds of injustices associated with the better known fascist regimes of other parts of Africa and the world. Surely, there had been many cases of police harassment and occasional high-handedness in the preceding military and civilian regimes, but those were not enough to conclude that draconian measures would benefit the country at large.

What Nigerians need is firmness and fairness. They love their freedom, but they are some of the most law-abiding peoples in the world, especially when their leaders are seen to be setting the right examples, when they do not notice double standards, lip service and hypocrisy in high places. The fundamental rights, therefore, should remain sacrosanct also because man is basically a lover of freedom. The complexion of any government does not change that basic nature, be it military or civilian, in developed or Third World countries. When those freedoms are proscribed or endangered, human beings have always protested their infringements, and the most fascistic regimes have never been in short supply of challengers who want to make the point that those fundamental freedoms are inalienable, they set man apart from beasts which can be caged, and make the difference between prisoners and free men. Several Nigerians challenged the last administration on human rights not merely because of the constitutional provisions that guarantee them, but because these rights should not be taken away under any circumstances.

A nation with a multiplicity of tongues and cultures as Nigeria would also benefit from a multiplicity of views from which more rational decisions would be made. Criticisms must be accepted in good faith. The Shagari dancers thought they were still dancing well because they did not see their backs and they also chose to hear what they wished to hear. Thus while it is quite easy for the new government to shut off critics, it may not find it easy to gauge national sentiment and public opinion.

The government may, no doubt, be justified in very special cases where the security interests of the nation are involved to tamper with fundamental freedoms. The nation's rights to choose its leader - a most critical right has been surrendered to the military government for now. That is enough concession.

SMC's tardiness

The Guardian, Nigeria

Fifteen days in the life of any nation may not be long enough to drastically affect the march of history. But for a military regime that, presumably, sees its mission as corrective and therefore terminal, a week of avoidable inertia can be disastrous...

In the long term, there were, and are, far more important things to do. And in the short term, there were, and are, far more absolutely essential decisions to be made.

How are we going to obtain more food at sensible prices for our people? How might we arrange things so more citizens can have access to clean water to drink? Will there be more, better and cheaper houses in six months from now that there were in the last four years?...

Will NEPA and the postal services and Nigerian Airways and the police perform better next month than they have done so far? Will fewer citizens be killed by armed robbers or be maimed or dispossessed, come Easter, than they were at Christmas? How shall we be saved from the dilemma of a rickety and imprecise educational policy? Will the Central Bank revert to its traditional and proper responsibilities, or will it continue to serve as everyone's ultimate, neighbourhood bank?

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