Mr President, I say no! The rule of law is not subordinate to national security. President Muhammadu Buhari’s insistence at the conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) or should I say at the public presentation of his change manifesto that the rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of national security was an alarming preposition from a man who rode to power on the strength of the ballot box. Buhari’s assertion was a throwback to his infamous Decrees No. 2 and 4 of 1984. That he delivered such a repugnant speech at the NBA conference, without a vigorous pushback from the lawyers present, who instead applauded like pupils that had just been handed candies, was all the more disturbing. I am not a lawyer, but I believe they should have done much better to push back hard against that draconian and reprehensible preposition.
I have consistently maintained that Buhari is not only incapable of understanding the workings of a democratic government, he lacks that critical thought process to appreciate the demands of the office he occupies. It is no slur on him either to say that he lacks capacity for the office. His predicament or our predicament as we watch things slide into the abyss, is made worse by the fact that those around him are essentially sycophants who are exploiting his handicap for their personal benefits. At any opportune moment, they gleefully mock the values and principles that are at the core of our society, chief of which is the rule of law – the very foundation of our democracy.
Otherwise, someone would have drawn his attention to the fact that national security cannot be superior to the rule of law. Who knows, it is possible that people like Professor Itse Sagay who has expressed support for the president’s abominable remarks goaded him on to make the ill-advised remark. This surely is a monumental disservice to the legal profession. It may not be out of place to also speculate about the role the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami might have played in crafting that speech because it largely mirrored his argument on why the government would not release the former National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki despite successive court orders granting him bail.
The nefarious preposition was a sad reflection of the quality of legal advice the president had received from his Attorney General whom I expected would have vetted that speech considering the forum it was going to be delivered in. But then again, it showed that we are dealing with an overabundance of insanity from those eager to create an immoral equation between good and evil. Because many learned relics have the same medieval mindset as the president. But whatever was the case, Buhari once again revealed his contempt for the rule of law and due process with his remarks, aided and abetted by his attorney general.
It is a shame that the same man proposing to upturn and subsume the rule of law in the name of discretionary and amorphous national security interests is the same person intellectuals and prominent individuals are rooting for his re-election. This is the same person Professor Wole Soyinka recently described as a reformed democrat. You see, every time they try to burnish his reputation and try to present him as what he is clearly not, he disappoints them by exhibiting his true colours.
But there is a background and context to Buhari’s stand and Sagay’s supportive comment. Early in the life of this government, Professor Femi Odekunle, a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption, had said in an interview published in the Vanguard Newspaper that he was against unmoderated rule of law. He struggled unconvincingly to defend the impunity of this government in his responses to questions on the government’s refusal to obey court orders. It is important to restate here his exact words: “You see, one of the problems we have in this country is that we put the interest of the individual above the interest of the collective. As a professional criminologist, I am not for unmoderated democracy, I’m not for unmoderated rule of law in which the rights of the individual will be so hyperbolised and override those of the collective.”
Reacting to his interview in my article titled, ‘Old Soja and the Nutty Professors,’ I had wondered about his cruel stance. In the said piece, I wrote as follows: “Having experienced raw torture and escaped life imprisonment in the hands of General Sani Abacha, a ruthless dictator who permitted only a moderated rule of law, one would have expected him to be more circumspect in his utterances. On another score, it is very possible he is still hallucinating and his senses are yet to fully recover having been slapped severally, kicked repeatedly, beaten and tortured like a ‘he-goat’ being taken to the market by Al Mustapha (that was how he described his experience then).
“The human rights community fought tooth and nail on the plank that the trial process that led to his incarceration was substantially flawed and didn’t follow due process. Today the nutty professor wants the rule of law moderated.”
It is possible that if the late General Sani Abacha had been allowed to follow his base instincts, Odekunle would not have survived to offer such a preposterous and irresponsible suggestion. Of course before Odekunle, there were others. Remember the late Dr. Olu Onagoruwa? As the Attorney General in Abacha’s government, he rationalised all the abuses then thus: “Abacha’s government is a revolutionary government. In a revolutionary situation like this, some of the niceties of democracy will have to give way.”
It is needless to state here that such a myopic argument became his nemesis. But let’s take a trip down memory lane. Buhari clearly defined the direction of his administration in his first media chat on December 30, 2015. I wrote then in the earlier-referenced article that I suffered heartburn watching his performance. Here are some excerpts: “I missed the live transmission but decided to watch the chat on YouTube following a friend’s glowing review that President Muhammadu Buhari shone like a thousand stars. After watching, I fell numb with fear. I was traumatised and completely flabbergasted by his responses to questions. His lack of knowledge about his environment and events around the world in the past 30 years and his understanding of issues were frighteningly telling. His dictatorial visage was on full display as well as his ironclad contempt for the rule of law and the niceties of democracy.” I wrote further that “Buhari effectively overruled the judiciary on national television on the issue of whether a suspect gets bail or not and how, which is a constitutionally guaranteed right”.
When the president held that media chat, he was still in honeymoon mode and effectively got away with blue murder. Many even applauded him for what he said then, ignoring the danger to our civil liberties that he had just set in motion. Buhari’s actions in the months and years after that parley have only done more and more to reinforce his contempt for the rule of law. He has consistently refused to obey court orders, because in his warped thinking, whatever he defines as national security interest is superior to the rule of law. Unfortunately for our country, he has a loudmouthed, partisan and a hatchet professor of law by his side that defends any member of the government or whatever this government does, no matter how reprehensible it may be.
Even more alarming is the fact that the human rights community and civil society groups have been complacent about the danger Buhari’s gradual erosion of the cardinal principle of any civilised nation poses to Nigeria. They are the ones who enabled Buhari on the path he is treading now. Some of them have colluded to shred the rule of law in our country. Each time I see some lawyers trying to make a mess of the law and rationalise clear abuses perpetuated by this government, I ask myself, where are these people from? Is it hunger or just attention seeking that would make someone who had hitherto prided himself on his professional integrity to make a mess of his knowledge?
Only recently, Buhari on his return from vacation vowed to work harder to jail looters (someone said maybe, he wanted to say opposition members). Note that he didn’t say he would prosecute suspected corrupt public officials. He forgot that he does not have the power to just arrest someone, lock that person up indefinitely as he would have loved to do, or like he did under Decrees No.2 and 4 of 1984 as a military head of state.
Now let me even ask the president and his attorney general: what is their definition of national security interest? Will national interest not be given an elastic interpretation and used to cover up personal indiscretions of top government officials which if revealed are likely to embarrass the individuals and the government? For example, recently, the senator representing Bauchi Central Senatorial District, Hamman Misau had made serious allegations of corruption against the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris. He went further, claiming that Idris was in sexual relationships with two female serving police officers and had in fact impregnated one of them. We all saw how the senator was harassed and molested using state institutions for daring to expose the IG. Under the supremacy of national security interest, would the senator not have been branded a threat to national security and thrown into jail indefinitely? We have seen abuses of this nature before because national security interest is amorphous and varies, depending on whose interests it is being used to protect. It is subject to the whims and caprices of the president, the army, the police, the navy, the DSS, the EFCC, etc. To the discerning, the mere proposal at that conference of lawyers represented a serious threat and breach of the principles we depend upon for protection against the unprincipled use of power and “authority, where due process, the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven and — at the far end — the right to dissent”. On display under this government are serious abuses of all three. The courts have been powerless to enforce their judgments.
It is instructive that despite experiencing the painful trauma of detention without trial when he was overthrown, possibly on the pretext of national security interests by the then government in power, Buhari still has not learnt any lessons. He lamented on his release that despite his detention for 40 months no one had told him his offence.The second chance Nigerians have given him is not for the president to subject them to another reign of tyranny but to redeem himself and rebuild the nation. Not many get such opportunity in their lifetime.
Unfortunately, he has shown an incredibly unserious attitude to governance. Obviously, those who seek to destroy us are relentless. In a fragile democracy like ours where the institutions of state are still very weak, Buhari’s medieval mindset shows the need for constant vigilance. Those promoting this obnoxious doctrine will one day be yesterday’s men.
By Shaka Momodu