President Muhammadu Buhari chose the most auspicious place to officially declare his disdain for the rule of law and his avowed preference for the rule of man, his own rule, in the Nigerian nation-state, where he has been deploying his might in its vast capriciousness and whimsicality since he stepped in the saddle on May 29, 2015.
The declaration was last Sunday at the International Conference Centre, ICC, in Abuja, venue of this year’s Nigerian Bar Association conference. Members of the Bar and the Bench were there in their numbers. The assemblage of officers in the temple of justice was representative of the nation’s judiciary, an independent arm of the trinity of government.
The president unleashed his affront at the underpinning of that independence, reinforced by the doctrine of separation of powers. His speech had a tinge of fury in it. He did not pretend about his aversion for the arm of government and the bastion of the rule of law within which the rights of the government and the governed find protective accommodation.
Buhari must have perceived that the arm of government remains the single most irritable stumbling block to his anti-corruption war. That was possibly the reason he shunned some lawyers who were chanting: “sai baba!” when he was leaving the venue at the end of his well-orchestrated speech that was intended to be frank.
It was very unusual for Buhari not to raise his right hand in a fist in response to such recognition and adulation. Like a ramrod, ironically without a scruple for the law or its rule, he walked and looked straight without a smile, let alone a dimple on his face. He had unambiguously passed across his message even if the message was not in synch with the fine traditions of democracy and the general principles of constitutionalism.
The president had simply exposed his very own underbelly as a dictator or, if he is not, as someone who loves dictatorship as a directive principle of state policy. But Nigerians were aware of Buhari’s military background before they decided to invest their mandate in him to rule as president; that was after he had been rebranded as a new-born democrat. He was simply dressed in borrowed robes.
And, to be sure, he had in the early months of his presidency, yanked off the robes to assume his true posture. It was during his maiden media chat that was telecast live that he unraveled when he said that he would not release a former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, and the leader of Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, despite several court directives.
Buhari said that the two accused persons could not be allowed to enjoy any form of freedom due to the enormity of their offences. Kanu had, in particular, been slammed with a treasonable felony charge. According to him, “If you see the atrocities these people committed against this country, we can’t allow them to jump bail.” It was thus clear that the president caused the executive arm of government to disobey lawful court directives; which is why despite bails granted by no fewer than six courts, Dasuki is still being held in government custody.
The leader of Shiites, Sheik Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife have also been held in detention by the executive arm despite bails granted them by the courts. Buhari’s body language and pronouncements had fuelled and continue to fuel disobedience to court orders by agents of the executive arm. This attitude violates the essence of the rule of law, substituting it, as it were, with the rule of man, which is a throwback to Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature where life was nasty, brutish and short.
That is the situation Buhari, in his seeming imperial presidency, has virtually foisted on the nation. The fact that only Dasuki and El-Zakzaky are the prominent victims does not mitigate the existential fears that now stalk the rest of us. More Nigerians may be victims tomorrow. That brazen violation of the rule of law rubbishes the spirit of our nationhood. One would not have had qualms had Nigeria been in a state of nature, where lawlessness and jungle justice were the defining features; and, where the president’s proposition that national security is superior to rule of law was a fitting characteristic.
But good enough, Nigeria is not a jungle. She is a member of the comity of nations whose processes and wellbeing are circumscribed by the 1999 Constitution (as amended 2010) and other bodies of laws. The process that threw up the Buhari candidature and eventual presidency is constitutionally-regulated. He took the oath of office and oath of allegiance to defend the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The constitution is still in place and has not given way to a body of decrees by which military dictatorship and its civilian variants rule. It is therefore obligatory that Buhari ensures that his administration defers to the rule of law and not his own rule.
Buhari’s rule of engagement is inclined to defy the rule of law. It is nothing but the rule of man, a brazen affront against the legal norms, mores and conventions by which human civilizations are governed. Whereas, the rule of the law is essentially respect for the law and its ramifications; it regulates private and public affairs. It imposes obedience by its recognition and acceptability. It is cosmopolitan and speaks only one language-that of justice. It applies to humanity with the same tenor, not inclined to colour, nationality, ethnicity, geography, religion and partisan interest.
The rule of law is what makes the judiciary strong for all of us. The judiciary is entrusted with the powers of life and death. This is why the final decision in judicial matters is not confined to the courts of first instance. The Supreme Court is the final arbiter. That clearly underscores the infallibility of the apex court. The Supreme Court had adumbrated its inherent powers in Adegoke Motors Limited v. Adesanya& another (1989) 3 NWLR (part 109) pg 250 @ 274 wherein it said: “We are final not because we are infallible; rather we are infallible because we are final.”
This immense faith that societies vest in the Judiciary as the custodian of the rule of law explicates in particular the mantra in this part of the world that judiciary is the last hope of the common man. It is the instrumentality that people deploy to protect their rights. But human rights, unlike the rule of law, is negotiable and susceptible to the superiority of national interest in special circumstances where national security is of the overriding importance; otherwise, human rights enjoys virtual universal constitutional or legal protection.
But, indeed, both human rights, and national interest that finds anchorage in national security, are all subject to the rule of law, sancta simplicitas. I hereby add my layman’s perspective to the conversation by lawyers that Buhari was wrong to have proposed and, in fact, pushed the narrative that the rule of law should be subservient to national interest or national security just because he was and is still, perhaps, overwhelmed by a feeling of frustration by the deployment of legal technicalities by defence lawyers in the government’s prosecution of corruption cases.
That Buhari would not want any opposition from the Bar and the Bench who are constitutionally bound to ensure fair hearing in corruption cases is writ large. But the accused must be allowed to defend themselves within the ambit of the law and its rule; and, not in deference to the rule of (a) man who, in the circumstance, happens to be president by the mandate of Nigerians as provided for and protected, ironically, by the Constitution- the grundnorm-(read the rule of law) which he seeks to deprecate.
Ojeifo, an Abuja-based journalist, writes via firstname.lastname@example.org