By Lasisi Olagunju

(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday 28 January, 2019).

The appointment of Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria last Friday effectively completed the northernisation of the government of Nigeria. The executive branch is headed by a northerner, the legislature has northerners as its heads; the third arm, the judiciary, is now taken over by (or handed over to) a man from the north. And it is not funny. You will hail Muhammadu Buhari’s Nigeria the more when you know that the new head of the Supreme Court is from Bauchi and the President of the Court of Appeal is from Bauchi’s neighbour, Gombe just as the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court is also from that axis. The INEC Chairman is from the same lucky Bauchi. And the Speaker of the House of Representatives? He is from Bauchi too. All of them serving a proudly northern president.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo told the Yoruba service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) last week: “See what is happening. The person ruling us says he cannot give important appointments to anyone from other ethnic groups because he cannot trust them. If he cannot trust my ethnic group, and cannot trust your ethnic group with important appointments, what privilege has he to ask my ethnic group and your ethnic group to come and vote for him again? Haa! He can ask us to vote for him but he cannot trust us with key posts in his government. ‘Give me, I give you’ is the cry of the toad by the river bank. If you do not trust me, why should you expect me to trust you? If you trust me and I misbehave, sack me and pick another person. But for you to insist that only your relations from your mother side and from your father side are the only persons you will appoint into positions because they are the only ones you can trust. Nigeria has more than 300 ethnic groups; you now say you cannot trust others…”

There have always been allegations that appointment of security chiefs by President Buhari is embarrassingly skewed in favour of the North – particularly in favour of the Hausa, Fulani and Kanuri. Buhari is from the North West; the North East is his maternal home. In a 2013 interview with The Sun, Buhari drew a beautiful sketch of his intricate ethnic roots – maternal and paternal: “Well, from my father’s side, we are Fulanis…From my mother’s side and on her father’s side, we are Kanuris from Kukawa. Kukawa is in Borno State. We are Kanuris. On her mother’s side, we are Hausas. So, you can see I am Hausa, Fulani, Kanuri combined,” he told The Sun.

That is the context of Obasanjo’s reference to Buhari’s relations from “father side and mother side” getting appointments. The heads of the SSS and the NIA are from our president’s zone – the North West. The National Security Adviser (NSA) is the clearing house for all our intelligence services. The person answering that title today is a Kanuri from Borno State where the Chief of Army Staff also comes from. There are several others following the same pattern. Apart from the Chief of Defence Staff and the Chief of Naval Staff, all others are from the North where the president hails from. The excuse has always been that the positions are too strategic and key to be manned by persons the president did not trust.

But the president added a twist to that narrative in Anambra State last week Thursday. He was in the East to beg for votes and he told Igbo leaders who accused him of marginalizing them in the appointments, that competence and merit informed his choices. Trust was no longer a factor: “I am pleased that you have the courage to present issues about your constituency but I expect you to be more patriotic in your presentation. In the south east, there are five states, in the north, there are 19 states. In the south east, out of the five states, I think five members of the Federal Executive Council are from this region, Trade and Investment, Foreign Affairs, Labour, Science and Technology, and seven of the northern states have only ministers of state. I think I tried to be fair… I don’t have to tell you what noise the other states are making – especially when compared to the votes I got in 2015.” Politics is work and eat. The president never forgets that the South East gave him a miserable five percent in the 2015 elections.

The president told the Oliver Twist Igbo leaders who demanded the Inspector General of Police (IGP’s) position for the region that seniority, competence and merit were his considerations in making military and security appointments. He told them: “appointments in the Armed Forces and other law enforcement agencies depend on individual performance after recruitment, not where you think you come from.” He insisted that to be at the top of the security forces “the most competent or senior person is the one that gets there.” I read him and asked: Was this the reason over 20 senior officers had to go because he made their junior (or course mate), Ibrahim Idris, the Inspector General of Police in June 2016? When Buhari spoke about “competence and seniority,” did he remember that for some of these forces, he appointed retired officers as their heads? Does that say something about the competence and service records of those still in service?

A president who means well would be very sensitive to the intricacies of the Nigerian state. How intriguing would it have been if the coming presidential election were directly between President Buhari and a Southern Christian? Nigeria is a structural cripple propped up with crutches of deliberate ethnic, religious and geographical balancing in everything – including government appointments. But Buhari undermines the pillars of unity of Nigeria and his self-awarded democratic credentials daily with the choices he makes. The paternal president praised Igbo leaders for having “the courage” to talk to him and demand what they wanted for their land. He would then quickly spank them for not being “more patriotic” in their presentation. A day after, he decreed Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen from the South as guilty as charged and summarily replaced him with Tanko Mohammed.

For every Southern sinner that falls in the Buhari government, there is always a Northern saint to take his/her place. Ayo Oke of Nigeria Intelligence Agency (NIA) fell and was replaced with someone of trust from Buhari’s Katsina. Kemi Adeosun was uprooted by her NYSC certificate and in her place, patriotic Buhari planted a clean woman from his saintly North. We have seen and agreed that Chief Justice Onnoghen has questionable gaps in his Asset declaration forms. But, did Buhari check the Asset forms of his Tanko Mohammed before using him to replace guilty Onnoghen? Or do we take it that the colour of Tanko Mohammed’s ethnicity and the sound of his name are enough proofs of his sainthood? Is it that the part of the country where Buhari’s Tanko Mohammed comes from, sins are never committed? If Buhari has checked Tanko and has found the man to be clean, can the president ask him to exhibit his integrity in the market square for all to celebrate? Can the new head of the judiciary blaze the trail and publish his own asset declaration forms? Cleanliness should not be difficult to flaunt by someone coming with a fresh breath. Buhari needs to convince us that he has not replaced a smelly Satan from the South with a deodorized Lucifer from the North.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. When a president uses crass nepotism to fight corruption and we clap, we are digging our own stupid graves. Nothing from this government, no matter how reprehensible, has been worthy of the rebuke of his hailers down South. They forget that the world will be destroyed by self-righteous strongmen who are rabidly supported by hordes of unquestioning men and women. “Barbarians,” Aristotle said, “being more servile in character than Hellenes, and Asiatics than Europeans, do not rebel against a despotic government.” People of wisdom won’t ever be comfortable with Lion feeding wayward antelopes daily to his own cubs in the name of sanitizing the forest. The fourth president of the United States, James Maddison, warned his people that “if tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” Maddison again warned that all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain extent because “where there is interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done.” We will see more from the Buhari presidency going forward.