Security experts have warned that the Federal Government’s media attack on the opposition over an alleged plot to overthrow President Muhammadu Buhari could have a serious implication for the nation’s stability.
Top government officials and security chiefs, have in the past week, ramp up claims of an uncovered plot to overthrow President 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 (PDP) of being behind the alleged plot, they have not offered any evidence to back their allegation.
Security experts have noted that some parts of Nigeria have already been placed on high alert — even though no one was yet sure whether there is any veracity to the government’s rhetoric.
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 the winner of the 2019 presidential election in February.
The transition will be the sixth between successive civilians since Nigeria returned to a 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 Buhari.
The military said the demand for 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 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 Abubakar’s office. The first comment came from Mr Buratai, who said at a meeting with federal lawmakers in Maiduguri that defeated politicians were plotting to undermine 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 Mohammed.
Addressing a press briefing shortly after the Federal Executive Council meeting on Wednesday afternoon, the information minister said Atiku Abubakar and the PDP were exhibiting “desperate tactics” to “sabotage the Buhari administration.”
Lai Mohammed said Atiku 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.
Premium Times also observed that neither the military nor the administration specifically attributed any incendiary statement to Atiku 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 a 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, 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
Atiku 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 said 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 Atiku Abubakar appeared more of 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 a 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.”