By Obi Nwakanma
In one interview which dwelt on the subject of the 1985 overthrow of the military government he led, orchestrated by members of the inner circle of that government, Muhamadu Buhari claimed that some of the actions undertaken in his name, like the invasion of the home of the politician Mr. Obafemi Awolowo in Apapa in 1984, were carried out without his knowledge or authorization. Some of those actions undermined his government and lost him significant political capital among the Nigerian population.
It was, Buhari hinted, part of the methods by which he was subverted. Which leads me to ask today, whether the midnight raids on the homes of judges, including Supreme Court judges by agents of the Department of State Services, DSS, may not be re-enacting the same scenario. Did the president authorize this action or is someone instigating discontent by authorizing a most idiotic move in the name of the president? Something in me doubts that President Buhari with his knowledge of the past knew the details of this move before it was carried out. I’m skeptical because a president who has experience with the Nigerian public ought indeed to know where to draw the line.
That this administration lost a significant chunk of public support in the invasion of the homes and the abduction – for that indeed is what it is – of the judges of the courts is no longer in doubt. The past returns. When the then Major-General Muhammadu Buhari announced in January 1984 a program of “War Against Indiscipline” – Nigerians threw their support behind any effort to create public order. But when it became the excuse for members of the armed forces and the then National Security Organization to whip the public and harass politicians, some on what we later came to realize were on highly spurious grounds, the military government quickly lost support.
A slow, groundswell of opposition began to build, starting with the National Association of Nigerian Students, who quickly saw through the military regime under Buhari as a dangerous, potentially fascist regime. I predict the same development. With the violation and staged harassment of the central guard of the rule of law, the courts and the justices of the courts, including Supreme Court Justices,
Nigerians are now thinking that there is shaping right before our very eyes, a very fascist regime. Nigerians are slowly seeing through it. Some saw it early enough. But many fell into the “anti-corruption” chorus and bandwagon, which has provided the excuse for the Buhari presidency to brazenly attack and contain anybody who stands in its way including the two other institutions of the Federal Government – the Legislature and the Judiciary in a move clearly aimed at weakening the agency and the oversight power of these arms of government. The intention is to subvert Nigeria’s hard-worn democracy.
First was the attempt to prosecute the principal leadership of the National Assembly, particularly of the senate, with a ruse litigation based on the allegation of “forgery.” But public outrage saw the Attorney-General beat a hurried retreat on that move. Now, the move is on the Judiciary: the attempt is to weaken, cow, and defang it, so that this administration will not contend with any judicial control.
The target is the most independent-minded judges on the bench. This is very dangerous. Increasingly, the methods now deployed by the current administration ought to be seen in its very clear light: it is fascist. Those who have studied political history can see very startling similarities between Hitler and Mussolini, and Buhari’s methods as they begin to unfold. It seems like President Buhari did not learn a thing from 1984. I think Nigerians and Nigeria’s international friends must take this development seriously and keep an eye on it.
Soon, even civilians who criticize or disagree with this government or any of its key members may begin to disappear. Some will meet with unforeseen accidents. Some will be detained under some spurious law by the now energized Department of State Service. Why does one say this? Well, this. If the DSS, which by the way has no police powers under the constitution, can disrespect, abduct, and violate the authority of a Supreme Court Justice and of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, then the ordinary Nigerian is already dead.
This kind of violation should not happen under any circumstance. The arrest and humiliation of Justices of the Supreme Court is not only a siege on the individual it is an attack on the institution of law. One is appalled by a report in this paper on Thursday that the President has “approved the trial” of the judges abducted by the DSS and accused of corruption.
It is either the President has been misled by the Attorney-General into thinking that he has absolute power or he does not yet understand the constitutional limits on presidential power. It is even more appalling that Professor Itsay Sagay, a professor of Constitutional Law, would lend his name to this ruse under the auspices of what is called the “National Prosecution Council.” First, the National Prosecution Council has no constitutional mandate; it is at best a mutual admiration society established in the presidency. It has no prosecutorial authority mandated by law.
Secondly, every court is under the administration of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the Supreme Court is the highest constitutional court. Which court will hear the cases against sitting Justices of the Supreme Court? But more importantly, there is no provision in the laws of Nigeria that permits the trial of any judge.
All matters regarding the ethical conduct of a Justice of the courts, including the question of whether a Judge is corrupt has been reserved by the Nigerian constitution for the National Judicial Council, and no court can try a judge until the NJC has recommended his/her removal from the bench. It is therefore presumptuous of the Attorney-General to issue directives to the courts to convene for trial, or to seek to evacuate the constitutional powers of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the NJC by arresting, charging, and attempting to prosecute judicial officers under any guise. The president does not have the power to try judges.
To use the DSS to raid the homes of judges is a major breach of the law for which the AG must, if he authorized such a raid, face the investigations of the National Assembly and an ethical sanction by the Nigerian Bar Association for this siege on justice. Disbarment must not be off the table. To permit the use of Nigeria’s secret service to harass and arrest public officers, including judges sets a dangerous trend in a democracy, and the public must hear the alarm bells already set off by this administration.
After dealing with the Legislature and the Judiciary, they will turn to the Fourth Estate. Soon, the DSS would begin to raid the homes of journalists and private citizens who disagree with the APC government in the night and detain them indefinitely for their opinions or even political activities; even plant evidence, and no court in the land will entertain a writ to free them because the judges would all have been cowed and blackmailed.
All this APC administration needs to do is say, “corrupt journalist” and we’d all be done for. The letters of rebuttal by these accused Justices – particularly Ngwuta, Okoro, and Dimgba published this past week ought to give Nigerians pause.
The allegations of persecution and framing by both the DSS and the Buhari administration because they refused to do the bidding of key political actors ought to give Nigerians pause. The National Assembly must investigate these events and contain the executive before it overreaches itself one way or the other. The NJC must be allowed to do its job of investigating the judges, and if any judge is found unworthy of their robes, they must be removed from the bench but only on the recommendation of the NJC.
That is the procedure established constitutionally, and there is a reason why the framers of the constitution made that buffer. But if these judges have been framed as they allege in their rebuttals, there has to be consequence for the president and the Attorney-General, as well as for the DG of the DSS. It is the job of the National Assembly to step in at this point. Impeachment should not be off the table.
There are many dimensions to this development. This administration is governing by hysteria rather than by hard-thinking. It is not clear to me that President Buhari is fighting corruption. Otherwise, the sanitation should begin at the heart of civil government: the civil service, and the executive branch which designs policies, spends money, awards contracts, and does consequential things with budgeted money.
Institutional corruption exists right from the office of the president where procurement is established. What is clear to me is that this president is staging a power grab. He is attempting to weaken the institution of state, and contain the constitutional authority of the two arms which constitute the federal government. One is compelled to raise this alarm that a constitutional crisis, instigated by Pesident Buhari is brewing. Its fallouts will not be pretty.