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.