Prominent lawyers, including Mr Femi Falana, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa and Jiti Ogunye, on Wednesday supported the decision of PUNCH to henceforth address the President of the country as Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.).
But the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof. Itse Sagay, and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Dr Alex Izinyon, opposed PUNCH’s decision.
The PUNCH, in a front page comment on Wednesday, assessed the President and stated that Buhari, who ruled the country as a military head of state from 1983 to 1985, had failed to “wean himself off his military antecedents.”
A few hours after PUNCH’s comment was published, two presidential aides expressed reservations about the decision to prefix Buhari’s name with Major General.
The President’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina, in a statement, said PUNCH’s decision was an indication of freedom of speech in the country.
He stated, “A newspaper says it will henceforth address President Muhammadu Buhari by his military rank of Major General.”
“Nothing untoward in it. It is a rank the President attained by dint of hard work before he retired from the Nigerian Army. And today, constitutionally, he is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
“All over the world, just as in our country, a large number of retired military officers are now democrats. It does not make those who did not pass through military service better than them.”
“Rather than being pejorative, addressing President Buhari by his military rank is another testimony to free speech and freedom of the press, which this administration (or regime, if anyone prefers: it is a matter of semantics) has pledged to uphold and preserve.”
But the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr Garba Shehu, in a separate statement, disagreed with the newspaper for changing the title of the President to Major General. He said a newspaper did not have the power to change the title of a President.
He said PUNCH “never changed President Olusegun Obasanjo’s title from the President to General Obasanjo, despite the latter’s refusal to comply with the Supreme Court judgment ordering him to release N30bn to Lagos State.”
Shehu said when “General Ibrahim Babangida, who wasn’t democratically elected, assumed the title of President,” PUNCH did not challenge him.
He recalled that Babangida closed media houses, including PUNCH, for several months.
“The Constitution of Nigeria recognises the President as the formal official title of the occupant of that office. Can the Punch newspapers, in their hubris address the President as Prime Minister as it pleases?” he asked.
The Nigerian Bar Association, however, threw its weight behind the decision by PUNCH to begin prefixing the President’s name by his last military rank, major general.
The National Publicity Secretary of the association, Mr Kunle Edun, in an interview with The PUNCH, said the newspaper did not violate any law by its decision.
He noted that the newspaper was only expressing its right to freedom of expression in reaction to the acts of the regime.
Edun stated, “We all know that military regimes have no respect for the rule of law and the judiciary is usually under attack,” he stated.
Edun said referring to Buhari as a major general was not defamatory since it was his last rank in the military.
He said, “I am not aware of any law that expressly states how the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria should be addressed or prefixed; whether as Mr President, a General or simply as Alhaji, is of no consequence at the moment because it is a fact that Buhari is a retired military general and someone who has undergone the mandatory hajj.”
“Moreso, the appellations used are not defamatory. Punch has just decided how to express its fundamental right to freedom of expression in conveying its reactions about certain actions of this government.”
A Lagos-based rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), said PUNCH had not violated any law, adding that the description was appropriate for the present regime.
The Senior Advocate of Nigeria explained that the reactions of both Adesina and Shehu did not address the grave allegations of gross human rights abuses that had become the hallmark of the Buhari regime.
Falana noted that contrary to the diversionary ploy of the presidential spokespersons to cover up the desecration of the Federal High Court in Abuja last Friday, the State Security Service had apologised to Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu and the Chief Judge of the court for the armed invasion of the temple of justice.
He said, “While commending PUNCH for imposing the symbolic sanctions on the Buhari regime, it is pertinent to remind Mr Garba Shehu that he was arrested and detained by the State Security Service in 2006 during the Obasanjo/Atiku face-off. It was the human rights community that fought for his release from the illegal custody.”
“In the case of the IGP vs ANPP (2008) 12 WRN 65, we also won the Nigerian people the right to protest for or against the government without police permit. In exercise of the right of freedom of expression won through the court, Major General Buhari and other APC leaders convened rallies to protest election malpractices and insecurity in the country. But as far as the Buhari regime is concerned, any Nigerian citizen, who participates in a peaceful rally, is liable to be charged with treasonable felony or terrorism.”
“Mr Garba Shehu alluded to the illegal closure of the PUNCH newspaper by the Babangida junta. It is embarrassing that the senior journalist is not aware that the closure was declared illegal, while the sum of N22m was awarded in favour of the newspaper by the Federal High Court. “
The said judgment has since been affirmed by the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. The era of military dictatorship in Nigeria has passed. The current era of civilian dictatorship will pass too.