President Muhammadu Buhari’s generous congratulatory message to the Turkish leader, Tayyip Erdogan, following last Sunday’s questionable referendum victory has a tendency to rekindle public interest in the Nigerian President’s foreign policy direction and his general political inclination. Buhari’s action has been as shocking as it has been perplexing since Erdogan has spared no effort in replacing a liberal democratic system of government in his country with what amounts to a dictatorship. And this leads to the vital question, does President Buhari understand democracy?
This question has become relevant in the light of what Erdogan, whose autocratic qualities have never been in doubt, stands for and what he hopes to achieve with the so-called constitutional referendum triumph, which is already being challenged by the opposition. Like all despots, Erdogan has played to the fears, nationalism and ignorance of his people. This victory, which is already seen by many as dangerous for democracy, confers on him sweeping powers that go as far as dissolving the parliament and enacting laws by decrees.
It is not true that the referendum showcased the democratic credentials of the country and reflected the willingness of the Turkish people to live together and jointly pursue a better future, as Buhari implied in the message. Besides scrapping the position of prime minister, a position he held for 11 years before becoming the first directly-elected ceremonial president, the new constitution that will take effect by 2019 will allow Erdogan “to appoint ministers, prepare the budget (and) choose the majority of senior judges” without recourse to parliamentary scrutiny and confirmation. Where in a true democracy does such power exist? Even when it is said that the parliament could commence impeachment proceedings against the president, it will be interesting to know how this can happen when the president has the power to quickly dismiss that same parliament.
There can be no other name for what has taken place in Turkey than a complete slide into authoritarianism. Yet, Erdogan calls it “American-type democracy.” Of what use is a democracy without checks and balances? Who provides the checks on the executive but the parliament and the judiciary? What is a democracy without a parliament to scrutinise the budget and carry out oversight functions on the executive arm of government?
The implication of Buhari’s message to Erdogan is that he endorses what the Turkish strongman stands for. How can watchers of unfolding events reconcile this support for the breaking down of democratic institutions by a despot with the forced removal of Yahyah Jammeh – another tyrant that was gambolling around The Gambia in flowing white gowns – whose removal Buhari championed alongside other ECOWAS leaders on the grounds of defending democracy?
It is a well-known belief that power, like wine, intoxicates when taken in excess; which is why the British historian and moralist, Lord Acton, in 1887, said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even without the near absolute power coming with the referendum, Turkey, a country with democratic traditions dating back to the days of Kemal Ataturk as president in 1923, is already credited with the highest number of journalists in jail – 200 by March 1 – according to an advocacy group, Stockholm Centre for Freedom.
Aside from jailing journalists, the Turkish cells are also brimming with thousands of political prisoners, most of whom are awaiting trial. Following a failed coup d’état of July 16, last year, nearly 50,000 were reportedly detained, including lawyers, police officers, soldiers, academics and opposition politicians. In a brutal crackdown, over 120,000 public servants have been sacked. Fired by the same power-drunkenness with which he has been holding court in Turkey, Erdogan arrogantly asked Nigeria to close down Turkish schools in the country on allegations that the school proprietors were complicit in the coup.
It is difficult to state in details all the reactionary actions taken by Erdogan, which have also practically foreclosed Turkey’s admission to the European Union. He has shown no restraints in promoting religion in a country that is expressly secular and had been so for close to a century. In a country like Nigeria with a very high degree of religious sensitivity, it is dangerous for the President to be seen to be openly endorsing another president that is tending towards theocracy. From what is happening, many will be forgiven if they think that the Nigerian President is looking up to Erdogan as a model.
Even Donald Trump is facing mounting criticism for congratulating Erdogan. The US State Department statement urging Erdogan to respect his citizens’ fundamental rights captures the views of the democratic world. Besides, Buhari seems to have ignored the circumstances under which the referendum took place. As a beneficiary of a semblance of a free and fair election in Nigeria, he should have noted that the referendum is facing a legitimacy question. Some of the ballots – about 1.5 million of them – were not stamped, just as the 51 per cent “Yes” vote shows how unpopular it is with the people. Reports of the international observers stress that the campaign and vote took place in a political environment where “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.” On further reflection, Buhari should certainly realise that endorsing the Erdogan charade was an avoidable diplomatic faux pas.