The Nigerian government’s media onslaught over purported opposition plots to seize power with extralegal tactics could have a serious implication for the nation’s already fragile stability, security experts warned on Thursday.
The past week has seen a circle of senior administration officials and security chiefs ramp up claims of an uncovered conspiracy to overthrow President Muhammadu Buhari.
Even though some of the top officials, including Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai and Information Minister Lai Mohammed, specifically accused the opposition, especially Atiku Abubakar and the Peoples Democratic Party, of being behind the alleged plot, none of them has offered any evidence to support the damning allegation.
Security experts, including a former director at the State Security Service, said some parts of the country have already been placed on high alert — even though no one was yet sure whether there is any veracity to the government’s rhetoric.
Mr Buhari was elected president on March 28, 2015, and sworn-in on May 29 of that year. He will wrap up his first four-year term on May 29, barely two weeks’ time. But he will be immediately sworn-in again by noon on May 29, having been declared winner of the 2019 presidential election in February.
The transition will be the sixth between successive civilians since Nigeria returned to constitutional republic in 1999, after roughly 16 years of military grip starting in 1983.
But as government-wide activities intensified ahead of the swearing-in later this month, some administration officials and security chiefs launched a parallel assault against opposition elements, describing them as anti-democratic forces scheming to truncate the current dispensation.
The Nigerian Army led the charge against the purported plots with a statement that claimed the military had learnt of the sinister moves by some “mischievous elements.”
The statement, circulated by army spokesperson Sagir Musa, said the elements planned to scuttle Mr Buhari’s inauguration, and they had the support of some foreigners.
Neither Mr Abubakar nor the PDP reacted to the statement, and the tone of public criticism that followed it was largely mild.
But just when Nigerians were moving on from the controversial alarm, the military pushed out another statement alleging attempt on Nigeria’s democracy. The Defence Headquarters, which coordinates the armed forces, said in the late-night statement on May 14 that a group had called for an interim government to replace Mr Buhari.
The military said the demand for Mr Buhari’s ouster was contained in a document issued by ‘a faceless’ Nigerian Continuity and Progress (NCP). It also condemned the “undemocratic and demonic actions of the author of the document.”
As with the first statement by the army, the Defence Headquarters alarm failed to gain traction in public debate, and Mr Abubakar and the PDP equally ignored it.
But less than 24 hours later, three separate comments came from the army and the Buhari administration that elicited a scathing response from Mr Abubakar’s office. The first comment came from Mr Buratai, who said at at a meeting with federal lawmakers in Maiduguri that defeated politicians were plotting to undermine Mr Buhari’s government.
“The myriad of security challenges we are facing now in the North West, North Central and other parts of the country, I want to believe, and rightly so, is the fallout of the just concluded general elections,” Mr Buratai said. “There are several political interests, politicians in particular not happy with their defeat and therefore, trying to take revenge, sponsoring some these criminal activities.”
The claim was the most confrontational since the narrative began on May 4, but its pointedness was soon surpassed by Mr Mohammed.
Addressing a press briefing shortly after the Federal Executive Council meeting on Wednesday afternoon, the information minister said Mr Abubakar and the PDP were exhibiting “desperate tactics” to “sabotage the Buhari administration.”
Mr Mohammed said Mr Abubakar and his party have, “through their public utterances and their poorly-thought-out press releases,” attempted to make Nigeria ungovernable.
“Unless they quickly retrace their steps, they may, sooner than later, overreach themselves,” he said.
Also on Wednesday, the police issued a statement, alleging attempts by some activists to sabotage oil installations and worsen the country’s economic crisis. Although the statement was less specific and confrontational compared to others, it was widely deemed a part of the larger government narrative against the opposition.
Polity heat-up or political hot air?
Both the police and the Defence Headquarters did not return requests for comments about the rhetoric Thursday evening.
The ongoing scare of a purported attempt to overthrow the government is not the first under the current government. Exactly two years ago, Mr Buratai raised a similar alarm about a purported hobnobbing between military officers and some politicians.
The army chief said at the time that some politicians had approached officers with an agenda that included overthrowing the government because Mr Buhari was away in London on a prolonged medical vacation.
Mr Buratai also met with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who was acting as president, over the alleged plot.
Although the army implemented a random redeployment of officers at the time, no politician or military personnel were arrested in connection to the coup scare.
When the BBC asked Mr Buratai why he raised the alarm, he told the British broadcaster that it was “just a pre-emptive warning in terms of what transpired before this administration came on board.”
“It is good, once in a while, based on my knowledge and based on my experiences to tell the officers that there are bounds; we must remain within the constitutional boundaries that we have been assigned,” Mr Buratai said.
Mr Buratai did not clarify what he meant by “what transpired before this administration came on board” during the interview, but it could possibly be a reference to Nigeria’s ordeal under military regimes until 1999.
PREMIUM TIMES also observed that neither the military nor the administration specifically attributed any incendiary statement to Mr Abubakar in all their recent statements.
Also unclear was the claim about the group that the Defence Headquarters accused of circulating a document calling for Mr Buhari’s overthrow.
Two days after the military’s statement, PREMIUM TIMES could not independently verify that any group named Nigerian Continuity Progress circulated a document. Both the group and its purported document remained a mystery to journalists, public commentators, security experts and even military insiders.
At least eight military personnel, including two naval officers and one Air Force officer, said they did not see the statement in separate exchanges with PREMIUM TIMES on Thursday.
At least five reporters on the defence beat said they did not hear anything about the group until the military released the statement alleging a document was circulated. Security experts and commentators, including those with vast understanding of the social media, all said they saw the military statement, but did not see the purported NCP document that preceded the alarm, neither could they locate it.
If any group claiming to be NCP circulated any document as claimed by the military, PREMIUM TIMES can report it gained little or no traction in the public domain, raising questions about why the Defence Headquarters would issue a statement acknowledging it to begin with.
National security, not rumour mill
Mr Abubakar pushed back against the allegations on Wednesday, reiterating his democratic credentials and accusing Mr Buhari of plotting to rope him because of the judicial review he initiated against the presidential election results declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
The former vice president said he was being attacked because he insisted on seeing through his petition at the tribunal, despite repeated demands from the president’s supporters that he should drop the suit.
Three national security analysts who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES said they have not seen any recent statements in which the former vice president threatened violence or national security.
They also warned that the manner with which the government and security chiefs have been propagating the purported subversive plots was in itself a threat to national security.
“Allegation of an overthrow of government is not something you throw around in public domain,” Mike Ejiofor, a national security expert, told PREMIUM TIMES on Thursday. “I am very upset about the failure of government and security chiefs to draw the line between national security and injurious rumour.”
Mr Ejiofor, a former director at the State Security Service (SSS), said Nigerians are only interested in consolidating democratic gains and will not welcome any attempt by the military to return to power or set the tone for a coup d’etat.
“We want to consolidate our democracy and grow it, notwithstanding whether the incumbent government or opposition is elected.”
The analyst also said the allegations against Mr Abubakar appeared more of a political tactics by the government than any serious response to intelligence findings.
Mr Ejiofor said as a dispassionate security analyst, he was sure that Mr Abubakar “has not said anything inciting” to warrant the latest claims by the government.
Nonetheless, “it is a known fact that Mr Abubakar does not control the military. If there is any seriousness to their allegations, he would have been arrested and prosecuted.”
“This could be an attempt to frame Mr Abubakar and put him out of circulation,” Mr Ejiofor said. “For the past 20 years of democracy, there has never been any substantiated case of military takeover or any other sinister plot to overthrow a government in Nigeria.”
The allegations flared amidst Nigeria’s rising security crisis. The last few months have seen a surge in kidnapping, armed robbery, banditry and other violent crimes that have assailed the country for decades.
Even though the Boko Haram has not been as virulent as it once was, the insurgent group has continued to carry out surprise attacks on military installations, killing soldiers in the process.
Earlier this week, a Nigerian lieutenant colonel commanding a battalion was killed by a roadside bomb planted by the insurgents. His orderly and driver were also killed, and many of their colleagues wounded in action.
The Nigerian people would be better served if the president and security chiefs focus more on the security challenges, said national security expert Charles Omole.
“The perpetrators of instability will be emboldened to continue their destructive acts if the government is seen as content with playing politics with national security instead of taking firm and effective steps to curb the growing insecurity,” Mr Omole said. “The government with all the levers of power at its disposal cannot reduce itself to given mere commentary on matters of national security as if they are common observers from the sideline.”
“With federal government controlling all security machinery in the country, it is difficult to see how opposition politicians can continue to cause instability as alleged without any effective response from the government,” he added. “Newspaper commentary is not a security response when people are dying all over the nation.”
Cheta Nwanze, a security analyst at Lagos-based SBM Intelligence, expressed worry that the military was dignifying a document that was either never issued or circulated amongst barely a few individuals.
“To be honest, this is the first time I am ever hearing of the group, which makes it shadowy at best, and non-existent at worst,” Mr Nwanze said on Thursday. “It is worrying that the government is reducing itself to a commentator on national issues, rather than what it actually should be, which is Nigeria’s sovereign.”
Mr Nwanze said the government and the security chiefs were untidy in their allegations against the opposition, which in itself spoke to their desperation.
“If it is true, as they have implied and outrightly alleged in the past, that the PDP and Mr Abubakar are planning to destabilise the country, then they are duty bound to arrest them, prosecute, and prove their case in court.
“Resorting to media drama rather than acting indicates that they do not have a handle on the situation, and are looking to distract the public from what is a deteriorating security situation in the country,” he added.
The analyst said his firm has tracked at least 116 attacks resulting in nearly 1000 deaths in just last month.
“In the month of April alone, we tracked at least 116 separate security related incidents with 916 fatalities,” Mr Nwanze said. “That is the real issue that needs to be dealt with, rather than drama which would have the unwelcome effect of emboldening the perpetrators to raise the stakes.”