By Obi Nwakanma
The minister for justice just announced that judges found to be corrupt will be tried by this administration. This is problematic. Though this sentiment is much shared, it should not be left to the president and his administration to define “corruption,” or determine which judge is corrupt. For the avoidance of doubt the writ of this republic does not make the president the supreme authority of the land.
The constitution is the governing authority of this republic, and the president is, as are all Nigerians, governed by the Constitution. It would amount to overreach for the president to break the thin glass boundaries that established the separation of powers under the constitution. It would be power-grabbing, and the National Assembly and the courts must keep an eye on this president. In fact, it is about time that the National Assembly moved to reduce some of the powers granted the president, because one of the great sources of corruption in Nigeria is the enormous and almost limitless power granted the executive by this constitution designed by the military. Let me advert the minds of Nigerians to January 1, 1984: a military coup had just sacked the democratically elected Government of President Shehu Shagari. At the head of that coup was a tall, lean, unsmiling General, who came across as a Spartan, no-nonsense, missionary soldier, out to rescue Nigeria from political and economic collapse.
Shagari had just been re-elected in a very controversial election, which had the great Nnamdi Azikiwe spewing fire in his very prophetic, as it turned out, post-election letter to Nigerians, “History Will Vindicate the Just,” published widely in the Nigerian Press. It was clear that the election was riddled with irregularities. Yet, corruption in the politics of those years was the bread and butter kind. It was confined mostly in the political parties. The civil institutions were still intact: the public service; the judicial system; the entire bureaucracy of state governance which could put to check to the excesses of political leadership. And they were still all there in 1984. Then came Buhari and his dark-browed praetorian guard, sacking the civil government, and instituting a rule by decrees. The first order of business was to dismantle the credibility of the elected political leaders the soldiers had sacked. In very elaborate fashion General Buhari and his rubber-stamp Supreme Military Council authorized the arrest, detention, and prosecution of the discredited politicians. His Minister for Justice, Chike Ofodile quickly crafted decrees that established extrajudicial tribunals that evacuated the powers of the civil courts. Some of the trials were in-camera. But it soon became obvious that these arrests and detentions were skewered mostly against politicians from the South, particularly of the group that called itself the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA) and by politicians from the Middle Belt. It might have been inadvertent, but the impression it created was of a partisan, regionalist witch-hunt of Southern politicians – some of them the most popular, and in fact, the more credible in their visible achievements in the four years between 1979 and 1983.
One of the most dangerous contributions of Buhari’s era as a military dictator was the erosion of the credibility, dignity and the aura of impartiality of the Nigerian judiciary, until then seen my Nigerians as the bulwark against tyranny; and most credible of the three arms of government, particularly with the sack of the parliament, and the seizure of executive power by military decree. The judiciary lost its independence.
Malleable and second-rate people were rapidly appointed to the bench. As the generation of solid jurists began to leave the scene by the attrition of time, a new generation of judges, the product of a corrupted judicature became more or less judicial executioners of the mandate of anyone in power. The corruption of the Nigerian judicial system, which had been subdued to military decrees began with Muhammed Buhari in 1984. The use to which he put the courts of the land was corrupt. This is the fear that President Buhari’s opponents are currently expressing in the current use of state power, in what is being increasingly seen as a partisan witch-hunt to suppress a political opposition. Again, the same method seems obvious: Buhari is arriving the scene of government again at a time when oil prices have dipped very dangerously, and perhaps more dangerously is that the era of hydrocarbon is rapidly coming to an end, which means, even more financial instability for nations like Nigeria that have long depended on oil to fuel their national economies. To all intents and purposes, as like in October 1984, Nigeria is broke.
Buhari has suddenly discovered that he is unable to meet the lofty promises of his campaign, and his political strategy now is to beat the drum of corruption ad nauseam, and blame his old political opponents for his own increasingly apparent inabilities to revive the economy, or lead. For a man who spent twelve years seeking the office he now occupies, this president does not seem to have any clear, alternative strategies, or able to deliver on the promises he made. Now, here is my worry: the arrest of the PDP National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Olisa Metuh, and his arraignment in handcuffs give negative optics to this government. Yes, Buhari claims to be fighting corruption, and Olisa Metuh is accused of receiving N400 million from Colonel Sambo Dasuki, allegedly from the $2.1 billion approved for the NSA for arms procurement, the question most Nigerians are now asking is: was Olisa Metuh awarded an arms contract which he didn’t deliver, or is it just about receiving money from Dasuki. Why lock him up, and bring him to court in handcuffs, when not even Sambo Dasuki was brought to court in handcuffs? Is this a ploy to intimidate, humiliate, and ultimately punish and silence the PDP’s spokesman who has so far been engaging the current regime and calling some oftheir assertions to question? Because even people like Falae received money, and have publicly declared that they’d not return it because it has nothing to do with arms procurement, and they have not been locked up or brought to the court in chains. While every Nigerian supports the president and his administration’s apparent resolve to investigate, prosecute, and retrieve Nigeria’s stolen funds from whoever embezzled such funds, we must continue to insist that unless it is all for show, the process must not degenerate into illegality of its own. It is both sad and distressing hearing distinguished scholars of the law like Itsay Sagay, and the Criminologist, Professor Femi Odekunle arguing in support of a “limited rule of law,” these days. It points exactly to what went wrong with Nigeria: a shiftless and inferior elite incapable of the hard, long view. If the argument were to be made about a limited rule of law, Abacha would have hanged Odekunle who was brought before a military tribunal accused with Diya of plotting a coup.
But in the convenience of his current elation, the good professor has forgotten. Buhari is not fighting corruption. He is enabling corruption by interfering in the judicial process. If he were fighting corruption he would have addressed the following questions: how did the system fail so much that Sambo Dasuki as the NSA could appropriate and dispose of state fund as though it were personal funds without oversight? What happened to the old system of financial control that required a vast and complex system of inter-departmental coordination?
What happened to the public tenders system? How come the police services, charged with crime prevention, did not anticipate and prevent this financial crime before it happened through its own police intelligence?
How come the EFCC is only just showing interest after the facts? How did the disbursement of this money escape the Federal Audit Department, the government’s official inspectorate arm, which ought to report all transactions and irregularities to both the National Assembly and the Executive, and if need be, to the police, in the event that any government agency is misappropriating state fund. What this president has been unable to do is understand that what happened here is beyond Dasuki, it is systemic failure. It is in part the result of some of the forces Buhari himself unleashed against the system in 1984. Corruption is not only the “looting” of public funds, it is the corruption of the institutions when they are turned to the private, and convenient tools of people in power – and they lose legitimacy and capacity.