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Who checks the checkers?

By Muyiwa Adetiba

The throne of a viable democracy stands on four sturdy legs. They are the Executive, the Judiciary, the Legislature and the Press or the Four Estates of the Realm as they are sometimes called.

Nigerian flag

The throne is stable and secure when the four legs stand firm in dispensing their constitutional requirements and wobbly when just one leg is compromised.

Unfortunately, because these institutions are run by human beings who lust for power irrespective of colour or country, there is no country the world over, where one leg does not feel the other three legs should be cut to size.

We have experienced dictators who try to shave off one or two of the legs. We have experienced legislators who frustrate executives and make governance difficult. We have experienced members of the judiciary who have hounded some leaders out of office.

We have experienced media owners who become so powerful that they influence policies and laws across countries. In other words, no realm is exempt from an abuse of power. What helps more stable democracies is that they have learnt over time, to pull back from the brink; or to check themselves as it were. They have learnt that a three legged throne cannot sit any country. But for checks and balances to be effective, each realm must guard its power jealously. Each realm must protect its flank by not condoning internal abuses.

The problem with all the Estates of the Realm in Nigeria is that they want power without a corresponding responsibility. They want freedom without self-restraint. They want independence without accountability. If all the Estates were doing their job of checks and balances responsibly, corruption would not be so rife in all the arms of government. The Executive-State or Federal-would not wield such enormous powers.

Powers to spend recklessly and accumulate personal wealth. Powers to lock people up indefinitely. The Legislature would not be able to increase their take-home pay so exponentially in less than 20 years. They work four days in the week at best.

Many don’t sponsor a single bill in four years. Some hardly bother to attend plenary. Many that do fool around. How is it that they are allowed to do so little for so much pay? Where is investigative journalism when all these are going on? Has the Press been muzzled and chocked by a mess of porridge? The Press seems to wallow in its own indulgences and excesses.

The glue that binds democracies is the rule of law. The judiciary itself is at the fore front of those who have compromised this rule. Many judgements beggar belief even for lay men. The 12 2/3 judgement of the Supreme Court in 1979 where a unit was deemed to be divisible is a case in mind. Another one is the recent interpretation of the minimum requirement for public office in Osun State.

According to the eminent judge, it is enough that you attend a secondary school even when there is no evidence that you actually pass out. Many politicians have gotten to public office because of skewed judgements. Some judges have been known to boast that a judgement can be made to swing either way and still be copiously backed by law.

Last month, the Press raised its considerable collective voice to protest a pending bill at the National Assembly. It is not the first time the Press is contesting what it calls a press gag. Or the second. Or even the third. I have been in journalism all my adult life and have seen attempts by different governments to control the press. I am aware that my life would have been a great deal more perilous and my job more hazardous if any of these laws had succeeded.

As it is, I have been locked up a few times. I have also spent considerable time in the courts. But I am also aware that court processes are so slow as to be almost ineffective in redressing libel. In many cases, the writer or even the Editor would have left the organisation by the time a case is resolved.

And we have to admit that the seemingly unbridled freedom of the media especially in this era of social media has to be addressed. People concoct stories that they know to be wrong and disseminate them hoping that nothing will happen. Personalities are routinely scandalised. Public office holders are viciously libelled and characters assassinated. Surely this cannot continue. If the Press wants to continue enjoying its hard fought freedom, then it must learn to put its house in order. A checker must be able to check itself. The Press Council as it is, is a toothless bull dog.

We can say the same thing about the Judiciary. All lovers of democracy—including some mischief makers—raised a voice of protest when DSS raided the homes of some judges. While we advocate the independence of the Judiciary, I believe the judiciary must do its job responsibly. There is no doubt that the judiciary is no longer the last hope of the common man as judgements often glaringly favour the rich.

There is no doubt that senior lawyers in cahoots with some judges deliberately frustrate cases to the advantage of the rich. There is no doubt that there are bent judges that need to be straightened out or flushed down the drain. As a result of these and many more, including undeserved appointments, the Judiciary is not adequately playing its role as the Third Estate of the Realm. A checker must be able to check itself. The Judicial Council as it is, is a toothless bull dog.

A couple of weeks ago, the US congress indicted one of its own. Chris Collins, a member of the House committee on Energy and Commerce and a close ally of President Donald Trump, was investigated by the House Ethics committee and found guilty of insider trading. He has been handed over to the justice department for prosecution. It is of little consequence that he is a Congressman; or that he is a member of the ruling party; or that he is close to the President.

He breached the country’s laws and must pay for it. In his case, as the case of many before him, cleansing started in house. Here, we have the case of a Senate President who was clearly cited in the Panama papers as having salted money away in tax havens.

The Ethics committee kept quiet. The guns that were used to kill and rob in Ilorin have been traced to his thugs. The Ethics committee kept quiet. The recent defections have been subjected to many interpretations depending on political leanings. We are yet to hear the interpretation of the Ethics committee for whatever it is worth.

For separation of powers to be effective, all the checkers must be willing to check themselves.

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