Kaduna State Governor Nasiru Ahmad El-Rufa’i’s statement last week, that foreigners who come into Nigeria to intervene in our election affairs “will go back in body bags” was unguarded, uncalled for and open to dangerous interpretation. It was the kind of statement that sends the wrong message to party supporters and could ignite violence against foreign election observers and opposition elements. The governor made the statement when he appeared on NTA’s Tuesday Night Live program last week. Since then his spokespersons have made a lot of efforts to clarify what he said, but from many domestic and foreign reactions to the remark, it is clear that the damage had already been done.
The background to the unfortunate remark was this. El-Rufa’i, the Buhari Presidency and the ruling APC are unhappy with the position taken by the US, UK and European Union [EU] with respect to the timing of the suspension of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen on the eve of elections. Opposition parties were obviously happy with the Western Powers’ stand, and a question by the NTA anchorman prompted Governor El-Rufa’i to launch into a long talk about foreign interference versus foreign intervention in Nigerian affairs.
He said, for example, “It is a basic principle of international law that no country should interfere in the internal affairs of another country. We can comment on Brexit. That is not interference. But when you come into a country and make statements without facts in an attempt to complicate the internal government of that country, that is interference and it is irresponsible.” For the past two decades at least, holding nations up to certain standards of human rights, free elections and environmental protection is no longer seen as interference in their affairs. The truth is that when APC was in opposition four years ago, it welcomed the involvement of foreign powers and organisations such as the UN, African Union, ECOWAS and Commonwealth that helped to ensure our free and credible elections in 2015.
There is no reason to believe that the Western Powers are doing anything different this time around, but Governor El-Rufa’i said there was an opposition call for them to go beyond interference and “intervene” in our elections. He gave the impression that there is a plan, or at least a PDP clamour, for the Western Powers to invade Nigeria. Which was why he said, “Those that are calling for anyone to come and intervene in Nigeria, we are waiting for the person to come and intervene. They would go back in body bags because nobody would come to Nigeria and tell us how to run our country. We have got that independence. And we know the history of those countries that are trying to teach us these things.”
This was an unnecessary extrapolation because there is no good reason to believe that anyone is planning to invade Nigeria because of our elections. The only foreigners that will come here because of the elections are election observers, all of whom were invited and accredited by INEC. It is inevitable therefore that El-Rufa’i’s statement would be viewed as a threat against them. It was a mistake on the part of the Presidency and APC to defend what the governor said. It would have been wiser to withdraw and apologise for the statement since it has been negatively interpreted.
In what was clearly a response to the governor’s remarks, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement issued in Washington, DC last Thursday, “Those who interfere in the [Nigerian] electoral process or incite violence must be held to account.” This is a dangerous and unnecessary confrontation which should not be allowed to degenerate.
Apart from El-Rufa’i, videos circulating on the internet show that several other Nigerian politicians have made dangerous remarks capable of inciting violence against one group or another. As we move closer to the elections, we urge all top officials, party leaders and indeed all Nigerians to guard against remarks that could be seen to promote one form of violence or another during this tense election period.