By Bisi Lawrence
Have you ever stopped to really dig deep into the reason for General Ibrahim Babangida’s promotion of General Olusegun Obasanjo’s ever-present desire to rule Nigeria, immediately after OBJ’s incarceration at the hands of General Sani Abacha? It all seemed so clean and altruistic—on the outside, that is.
But I had my doubts. I was sure that IBB had not shelved his ambition of returning to Aso Rock, yet there he was pushing someone else’s ahead of his own. He was also not hiding the fact that he was doing so, as though making sure that it may be called later to witness in support of future developments.
The same was also true of Obasanjo’s successful bid for his second term as president, when his chances were at very low ebb. Babangida categorically stated that he would not contest if Obasanjo entered the lists. It was clear that he would have queered the pitch for OBJ if he did at that time, and it seemed magnanimous of him to withdraw in favour of the chances of a former superior officer. In fact, he stated as much openly; it would be unethical to contest against a former senior in the service, he said, as if that was the only restraint that made him step back from contesting.. It all seemed so high-minded, so decent and proper. But it also appeared to bear a hidden label.
Today, recalling these events and other aspects of the relationship between the two retired Generals, one could very well wonder if Obasanjo may not have acted rather insensitively, on the whole, to Bebangida’s regard for him, especially when the Otta landlord was down and out. For instance, OBJ’s subsequent out-and-out endorsement of Umar Yar’Adua’s candidacy for the presidency was conceived and nurtured in the face of Babangida’s position at that time, in such a flamboyant and flagrant manner, with the notion of frustrating any opposition — pointedly that of IBB. It was executed at a pitch that would have made Babangida look churlish had he essayed to pick up the challenge. His pent-up resentment against the unfeeling treatment he had received from the man with whom he once wore the same uniform found only a measured outlet in his rejection of Obasanjo’s “third-term” venture. It was still circumspect even in its expression in the broadside which came as part of his seventieth birthday celebration.
IBB is only one of a number of people who have cause to believe that Obasanjo could be more appreciative of the support rendered to him in this country today. Few people seem to expect anything from him, no matter how considerable the help, whether spontaneous or solicited, that he had received from them. Several people have indeed come out bluntly to call him ungrateful. But you will not find him losing any sleep over that. In fact, he seemed to have reacted to IBB’s uncomplimentary statements more from the instigation of his supporters than from his own resentment.
All the same, his language veered unnecessarily into personalities. And this was from someone who had consistently criticized his successors in office, from Alhaji Shehu Shagari, God’s own gentleman, to others. It was from one of his virulent criticisms of a sitting head of state that he popularized the phrase, “with a human face”, in reference to some economic policy he was at odds with at the time. Even while late MKO Abiola was still in the making of a presidency, which unfortunately he never made in the end, OBJ was already casting a slur over the “messiahship” that never saw the light of day. But Obasanjo, it would appear, never learnt to take it as he delights in dishing it out.
The entire episode of the confrontation between the two past military rulers is devoid of the dignity attached to the standing of these two generals who have undeniably made history, each in his own way. After Obasanjo’s scurrilous reaction, Babangida regrettably descended to join him in the cesspool of foul expressions unbecoming of an officer and gentleman, a status to which both are entitled to lay a legitimate claim. Two wrongs of course, add up to just nothing more than two wrongs.
Some people seem to enjoy the incendiary exchanges, however. They say we should let the two former leaders of this nation expose more of their putrid past to public gaze. They say the two generals are shameless. Now, what kind of a responsible man delights in watching shameless behaviour from any source, at any time? You tell me. Who can really derive a wholesome enjoyment at the sight of two old men dancing, as they say, “naked in the village square”? What kind of people are we? Is it not enough that these two personalities who should be highly regarded in the society, have fallen so low in self-degradation, without any citizen joining them in the woeful devaluation of their self-worth? Can we honestly express disgust at a situation in which we take a perverse pleasure?
This is our collective shame. That these two men ever actually ruled us is a matter of communal grief. They owe us, the entire nation, a monumental apology today. Needless to say, though it will bear adding all the same, their membership of the Council of States should be determined forthwith.
If the wells of justice have grown so muddy, from where can the just seek relief? It seems there is no depth of depravity to which this nation cannot be dragged.
The two highest judicial officers have been allowed, in fact, apparently sponsored, to cross swords in public, and thus permitted the all and sundry to sit in, and pronounce judgment over and about the pinnacle of justice in loud and clear condemnation. Don’t ask me what is happening. It was happening right before our eyes.
But if you return to the beginning of this crisis in the loftiest corridors of our system of justice, you will recall that it happened with a promotion which was declined. The President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, was to be moved to the Supreme Court. That looked like an elevation in status, but the recipient said “Nothing doing” — a very unusual response and unprecedented in the history of the judiciary.
It was clear, right from then, that there was more in the elevation that met the eye. For one thing, it really meant no difference in the remunerative returns since there were none between the position of a President of the Court of Appeal and that of a Justice of the Supreme Court. The rejection of the movement from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court, however demanded an explanation which resulted in the opening of the proverbial can of worms. From that point on, a lot of spectators gathered at the grandstand and the sidelines, but everybody watched his or her tongue, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.
It has now ended — or proceeded to the point — where the NJC, which was the arbiter in the matter, first suspended Justice Salami and then appointed someone else to act in the position of the President of the Appeal Court.
This has led to an uproar. The kind of which our judiciary has never witnessed. Senior members of the bar turned their back on ceremonies of the National Judicial Council; the Attorney-General of the Federation was booed by other lawyers in the public; and crowds comprising civil rights organizations, religious bodies and private citizens poured into the streets in utter condemnation of the NJC. Then enters Mr. President, and he promptly proceeds to thwart the intention of the Constitution which he swore to uphold, by seemingly reading it backwards, And the man who once gave voice to redress at the highest level now has to seek restitution at a level below which he presided.
The NJC has not just sent out the wrong signals to the length and breadth of this country; it has published a disheartening message to the citizenry. This is the birthplace of Olumuyiwa Jibowu, Charles “Daddy” Onyeama, Akibo Savage, Oputa, and those men who wore robes of wisdom and wigs of integrity – jurists who were bold and just to discharge equity and give meaning to “the rule of law”. This is the land of people who were brought up to regard the court as the fountainhead of the stream of justice, which one and all may imbibe with ennobling parity. We must begin to ask ourselves where we lost it.
We must seriously ponder on what we have done to deserve the headship of a judiciary that has lost its grace and misplaced its sense of propriety, and a President who seems inclined to keeping an untimely pace ahead of priority.
This nation now needs a re-birth of confidence in its judicial system. The interjection of irresponsible politicking should not be allowed to impede the molding of a new character and image for our judiciary. Important as the members of the National Judicial Council are, they cannot be more important than the system which they were appointed to serve. The Council should be dissolved forthwith and re-constituted to let in a breath of fresh air into the hallowed temples of justice in the land. The status quo ante should be restored and all litigious aspects of this situation, especially those that are coram judice, be abandoned., while the CJN and the PCA are allowed to retire peacefully with merited grace.
We shall have to squirm in silence for a while, stifled by our collective shame.