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Bulkachuwa : Red rag to a bull

WE are not in Spain. But there, it is claimed that bulls are enraged when red flags flutter before them. The matador, the man who fights and kills a bull in a sport, gets the beast into the game by waving the red cloth. The indifferent, motionless animal only charges at his opponent when it sights his muleta, the stick with a crimson swathe employed in the final third of the bullfight…We know what follows: savagery, slaughter and sanguinary cheers from the spectators.

Chairman 2019 Presidential Election Appeal Panel, Justice Zainab Adamu Bulkachawa arriving to open the hearing for the petition against the re-election of President Muhammadu Buhari at the Court of Appeal, Abuja. Photo by Abayomi Adeshida

In Nigeria, we appear to be in for a bullfight over the Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa affair. She is the President of the Appeal Court, who has been asked to head the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal looking into the suit of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and its Presidential Candidate, Atiku Abubakar. They are challenging the victory of Muhammadu Buhari in the poll of February 2019.

But the party and its candidate say the judge should recuse herself on account of her marriage to senator-elect Adamu Bulkachuwa of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Buhari’s party. They protest she’s ill-fitted to sit atop a judicial panel in which her husband’s APC is an interested party. PDP won’t receive fair hearing, they fear. Conflict of interest. PDP is also asking the Federal Government to consider corruption allegations against Bulkachuwa and drop her from hearing its petition against Buhari.

Some activist groups have waded in, supporting PDP’s stand. Access to Justice and United Front for the Preservation of Democracy Ethos faulted Bulkachuwa’s appointment. One of them said the government’s move amounts to “the highest level of defiance and total disregard for the will and democratic sensibilities of Nigerians.” It added: “It is a decision that is very poor in moral judgment…It smacks of recklessness in decision making.” Another declared: “In ordinary circumstances, there would be no question of whether the President of the Court of Appeal can, or should participate in tribunals adjudicating election petitions involving her spouse’s party. But these are no ordinary or normal times.”

With regard to PDP’s corruption charges as other grounds for telling her to step aside, the Department of State Services, DSS, says it never indicted Justice Bulkachuwa for bribery and corruption. It urged the public to ignore the indictment report, disclosing that DSS has launched a probe into the “controversies surrounding the publication.”

There’s also been a reaction from APC. It dismissed PDP’s point that spousal affiliation should compel the exit of Bulkachuwa from the petition-hearing panel. “They (PDP) should point to what aspect of the Nigerian law that says that if you have a relation who is politician, then you are disqualified. PDP is indirectly questioning the integrity of the people in the judiciary and is indirectly trying to intimidate that institution and undermine the rule of law.”

When a well-regarded constitutional lawyer and public affairs commentator, Bolanle Olugbani, was asked to discuss the matter on radio recently, he said in effect that he does not see it as a legal tangle or complex case requiring a trip into much history. He believes that mere moral or ethical considerations demand that a judicial officer, bench or bar, does not adjudicate over a case in which he or she has interest via friendship, family or business. He said as a lawyer of many years’ experience, he always refrained from appearing in court where his father was a judge. His father wasn’t barring him. But he understood the moral implications.

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It’s the same ethical concerns at work with Bulkachuwa. If the case goes against Atiku, would there not be valid grounds to suspect she has influenced the verdict because there has been pillow talk on it between her and her senator-elect husband, whether that talk takes place or not? Isn’t it also possible for cynics to suggest that the party might move her husband to work on her to swing judgment in their favour?

Why Nigerians are skeptical about the intentions of the government is that lately the authorities seem determined to use the judiciary to achieve political goals. First, they point to the early days of the Buhari government when it applied extra-legal means to wage war against so-called corrupt judges, with no far-reaching results to show for its extreme actions. Next, is how the government removed Walter Onnoghen, the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria. The Court of Appeal has since condemned the “secret” sitting of the Code of Conduct Tribunal that suspended Onnoghen.

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But as we hit the government for contempt of the perceptions and sensibilities of the citizens, we must also be disturbed that Bulkachuwa too is not moved by the outcry that her integrity is at stake. This has little to do with her competence. They are separate. The government will talk of competence as their guiding principle in picking her. They might talk of the appointment as the reward for her diligence. Or her next level. But Nigerians are questioning the sanctity of government’s motive, given its knack for a belief in the motto: the end justifies the means. If a person’s so-termed diligence or integrity becomes a tool in the hands of less altruistic people, wouldn’t it be wise for the person to withdraw from the project altogether?

She must fight to keep her name. Insisting on staying on in the face of possible clash of loyalties as perceived by many reasonable Nigerians would tarnish her great name.

Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa is being shown the red tag to draw her into combat with a matador. She shouldn’t fall for the murderous bait

Banji Ojewale, a social commentator, wrote from Lagos

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