Imagine these headlines: “Buratai warns soldiers on loyalty to President Buhari”, “Be loyal to President Buhari and constitution, Buratai charges soldiers”, “Absolute loyalty to President, non-negotiable – Buratai tells soldiers”, “Soldiers must be loyal to President Buhari – Buratai”, “Nigeria: Buratai to officers – You must be loyal to President, constitution”. These were some of the headlines splashed across the media last Thursday, August 1. What conclusion might the ordinary citizen draw from this “Riot Act” issued last week, to the men and women in uniform by their boss? A call for army vigilance? Discipline? Obedience? What? You could say it is probably a combination of all three, but it is much more than that, and we should all be alarmed by it. It is brazen as it is reckless from a man, the Chief of Army Staff, no less, who should know better. It is effectively a call for a pledge of personal loyalty to President Muhammadu Buhari. It is at variance with all universal democratic norms, and it has no basis in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Frankly, it is a crass effort at placing Mr. President beyond the reach of the constitution itself. What is even more alarming is the fact that no one in political power has found it necessary to condemn it. No high-level public outrage, or significant voices of dissent either.

The clarion call from the super-loyal Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai might, of course, be music to the ears of President Buhari, who has yet to assign portfolios to his (now confirmed) ministerial nominees. Nonetheless, in the absence of a minister of defence, the Senate Armed services committee chairman, or President of the Senate himself ought to step up and give the boisterous General a lesson in civics; no one in uniform, indeed, no citizen ought to pledge personal loyalty to any here-today-gone-tomorrow politician – ever, Buhari, Joe Blogg, whoever, however.

In case the army press officer happens to stumble on this piece today, he would do well to inform the boss that his only loyalty is to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. His duty, however, is to serve the country by diligently obeying the orders of the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, the President, whoever that happens to be. There is a world of difference between obedience and loyalty. While obedience is a duty, loyalty is a moral obligation; a higher calling. It is one that may require a citizen to pay the ultimate price. While a country should always be worth dying for, could that be said of a politician? Do we owe any politician moral obligation for which we should be prepared to pay the ultimate price? Because that is what being in army uniform calls for, and that is what Buratai was alluding to in his directive. The General tried to mask his ill-advised warning to the men and women in uniform by conflating Buhari and the constitution. The two are separate and independent of each other. Loyalty is and must only be to the constitution, no “and”, no “ifs” and no “buts”. If your blind loyalty is to the President, then, it becomes easy or easier for you to act in defiance of the constitution. Whereas, loyalty to the constitution is, ipso-facto, loyalty to Nigeria, her President, and Commander-in-Chief. It is all encompassing, and so it should. So, primarily, loyalty is to the constitution and everything that flows from it.

Having said that, could a question of obedience to the Commander-in-Chief become, at some point, a test of loyalty? Absolutely, it could. Let us say, for instance, that a clear and unambiguous order came from Mr. President to take over the National Assembly by force at dawn, and shoot at sight any legislator of any rank standing in the way. A blind loyalty to the President would ensure the execution of the order to the letter, but, it would be a disservice to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. That is precisely where a good soldier would draw the line between obedience to the Commander-in-Chief, and loyalty to the constitution. Buratai must either have acted in blissful ignorance of this logic, or something else must be at play, this is Nigeria after all. So, let us dig a little deeper.

If, and it is a BIG if, President Buhari were to proceed on an extended medical leave to London or someplace else in the near future, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo would naturally step in to the position of acting President, supposedly with full powers. Now, General Buratai’s call for loyalty from his men and women in uniform was to President Buhari by name, not to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria per se, but to the person of Buhari himself. On this footing, the army would be free to withhold their loyalty to the acting President, discounting his constitutional power to command them if the worst were to happen. This is the Umaru Yar’Adua scenario that nearly boiled over the last time. He was in hospital in Saudi Arabia, reportedly incapacitated for some time before he was surreptitiously flown back home in the dead of night. Lt. Gen. Abdulrahman Bello Dambazzau, the then Chief of Army Staff, has neither confirmed nor denied the widespread belief that he refused to take orders from the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, despite being fully aware of the condition of the substantive Commander-in-Chief. Dambazzau’s reward later was promotion into Buhari’s administration as minister of the interior in 2015. Is Buratai laying the ground in anticipation of history possibly repeating itself? Does the army have such short memory? Have we, as a country, not learned anything from that ugly scenario? If, however, there is no substance to any of this, and it is just a figment of the writer’s imagination, then, let it be.

Another possible conjecture might be that the country may soon witness a more iron-fisted approach to governance from an insecure administration. The social media has been awash with ominous predictions about simmering discontent amongst sections of the civilian population, from which the General may have thought wise to insulate the army. That notwithstanding, disregard for court orders and the administration’s penchant for extra-constitutional and extrajudicial acts are already legendary. A lot more of that habit may be called for in the coming months, all in the name of “national security”, and to “uphold the country’s unity” from those bent on “breaking it up”, especially those advancing the cause of “restructuring”. More so, judgement will soon be rendered in the ongoing Abubakar Atiku’s challenge of the result of the 2019 presidential election. The President’s legal team have not gone out of their way to present a compelling rebuttal of Atiku’s allegations. In what appears to be a cavalier attitude to the whole process, they have simply rested their case without further ado. They probably feel they have the case sewn up already. What if, against all expectations, the judgement goes against Buhari?

There is no doubt on whose side Buratai wants the army to be if push comes to shove in any of the scenarios painted above. Either way, the General’s love and admiration for President Buhari are to be commended, but, he has allowed those factors to cloud his professional judgement as an apolitical soldier. He should know, if he needs reminding, that the President is answerable and accountable to the people of this country, and not the other way around. So, please General, hang your sonorous call for loyalty to Buhari; the electorate voted for a President, not a king.