It is very easy to attribute the damaging and totally unnecessary constitutional crisis which President Muhammadu Buhari has just thrown Nigeria into to the saying: “Character is fate.” Many have been saying that the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, fits the Buhari persona, after all he was a military dictator.
No, I don’t want to go that route. It is an extremely easy and obvious one. There is another route, a harder one, and that is the one I have elected to take. There is no law that states that a country should never be saved from the hands of a deluded dictator. No President, no matter how dictatorial, functions on his own; he has a retinue of Ministers and Advisers. And so, the relevant Ministers and Advisers to Mr. President must accept a large dollop of the blame from this spitting against the Nigerian constitution. Many people have, since condemnations and recriminations have been falling thick and strong on Buhari for his suspension of the CJN, refused to call on Buhari’s advisers relevant to this crisis, to resign. That is why I fear for my country because a country that has refused to learn from history is bound to keep repeating her old mistakes.
Until we are blessed with men and women who will be brave and altruistic enough to resign from their posts in government to protest against actions of Presidents we will keep having leaders who would be misled into thinking that their dastardly deeds are heaven-sent.
Since this Buhari/Onnoghen matter started, Prof Itse Sagay has been belittling his great self, advancing legal opinions that make even his inferiors to laugh at him. That was how this otherwise great Nigerian and astute legal mind, during the controversy surrounding the former Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun’s National Youth Service Corps exemption certificate, that the Federal Government could not be bothered about such minutiae when serious national matters were at stake. The law of the land was at stake but he papered over it. That was reprehensible.
It is also significant that our two former Presidents are alive and well to hear Nigerians judge their consequential examples while in office. Since Buhari suspended Onnoghan; they have been reminded about the Judges that both former Presidents moved against. While it has been easy to blame both Obasanjo and Jonathan, nobody has bothered to remember the Advisers who encouraged them while they were on their ruinous road.
It is quite likely that the highly regarded lawyer, Kanu Agabi, is among those who are on Onnoghen’s corner, arguing that Buhari erred in the way he treated the CJN. But how many Nigerians remember that the same Agabi and the late Chief Ojo Maduekwe instigated and supported Obasanjo, on his dictatorial tendencies? While a Solid Minerals Development minister, Agabi delivered a paper at a retreat for Ministers and Permanent Secretaries in Kuru, near Jos. Plateau state on Saturday 24 February, 2001. It was titled Constitutionality of the Oversight Functions of the National Assembly.
Agabi told his audience that the National Assembly lacked the constitutional powers to exercise any oversight function over the Executive branch. Agabi would later graduate from the non-existent office of State House Counsel to become the Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister. No wonder Obasanjo behaved as though there was no National Assembly.
Now, Buahri is having his own turn at being Nigeria’s Hard Man. And a highly regarded legal authority, Prof. Itse Sagay is totally behind him. As though that was not sad enough, columnists such as Tabia Princewill in her Vanguard “Tip of the New Dawn” column of January 30, 2019, forgot the log in her own eyes as she was reminding “some sections of the media” of the specs in theirs. She spent a page of the newspaper beating about the bush, leaving the impression that she hardly had a real grasp of the Buhari/Onnoghen controversy. She first rambled about in the main body of her column talking about still unresolved issues like June 12, budget padding, the indictment of some INEC officials over bribery received from a former Oil Minister, and the monies in some bank accounts Onnoghen said he forgot to list in his asset declaration form. Then she showed her total lack of understanding of the issues when she wrote: “if petty thieves in Nigeria were granted use of the same excuses and loopholes as the high and mighty, no one would ever be convicted no matter the crime”.
Could somebody, please, tell Tabia Princewill and those who belong to her school of thought that the issues are totally different. At stake here is one issue and that alone: the constitutional provision of the independence of the Judiciary. So, the only question begging for an answer is: Does the constitution grant President Buhari the powers to suspend or sack the CJN or any other Judge? Finish! To begin to digress into other matters would only remind us of what Chinua Achebe said about Onitsha market literature; that “inadequate learning would not stop a man from educating his fellow man and making some profit as well”.
Princewill’s column appeared on Page 17 of the Vanguard. On the very next page appeared the newspaper’s Editorial, which kicked off with this: “The purported suspension of the Chief Justice of the Federation, CJN, Hon Justice Walter Onnoghen by President Muhammadu Buhari may have put our hard-won democracy in great danger”. That such considerations never mattered to the likes of Princewill shows the stuff they are made of. But even that Vanguard Editorial overreached itself in that it called on Buhari to restore the CJN to his office so that thereafter the CJN should honourably resign. Also it called on the Acting CJN to resign for having allowed himself to be sworn into the CJN’s office. Yet, it failed to call on Buhari, who had according to the editorial, gone to the “frightening” length of “unilaterally suspended the Head of the Judiciary” a sin “unprecedented in our history”.
So, why would the man, Buhari, who allegedly transgressed against the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, not have been asked to resign too? The Vanguard editorial never answered that question. Or, did the members of the Vanguard Editorial Board forget that a President could actually resign from office? Or, that he can also be impeached? We should not be afraid to go the whole hog if we actually want to clean up the public space. If we are asking the CJN to resign because he erred, and if we are asking the Acting CJN to also resign because he erred, why should we not ask the President to also resign? Or did he not err?
Now, there is a question for us all. Is the Nigerian President so powerful that he poses a threat to the Republic? Well, that question was posed in the rider of a story about Donald Trump on page 45 of The Economist magazine of January 19 -25, 2019. The question: “Is the American President so powerful that he poses a threat to the republic?”
As The Economist article showed, the over-reaching power of the American President has been a dominant issue. The American founding fathers were concerned about whether, in the president, they were not creating a monarch by default and attempted to guide against that by putting up checks and balances against his powers. The historian, Arthur Schlesinger argued in the Imperial Presidency that the US had already imbued her presidents with imperial powers since the 1960s/1970s and that the “accretion of presidential power could not be undone”. In 2010, Neomi Rao wrote an essay, “The Decline and Fall of the American Republic” which she attributed to the “administrative collusion” which the magazine described as the “spineless tendency of lawmakers to give away powers to the executive”.
While the concern of an almighty POTUS (President of the United States) has always remained the staple of American politics and has always attracted the attention of American citizens, the opposite is true of Nigeria. In fact, the All Progressives Congress national legislators have been pretending that at the core of the Buhari/Onnoghen controversy is not constitutional breach but corruption.
It is inconceivable to discuss presidential excesses without bringing in Obasanjo’s declaration of May 29 as Democracy Day disdaining the demands from certain quarters that June 12, was better qualified for that honour. Stretched further, he was being told that MKO Abiola who paid the supreme sacrifice in the fight to enthrone democracy in the land deserved more honours than himself but he paid no attention.
Then, please wait for this; without recourse to the National Assembly, and without opening it up for public debate, he announced that May 29th would be a public holiday in year 2000 and after. The National Assembly kicked, but it kicked in vain. Obasanjo had his way, but he acquired a formidable enemy and became further estranged from the national legislature.
When Obasanjo did not want new political parties to be registered to contest the 2003 general elections, he simply called the National Assembly leadership together and asked that Electoral Act of 2001 be amended. It would take the late Chief Gani Fawenhinmi’s legal victory to prise open the door to enable the new parties contest the elections. Obasanjo had wanted the new parties to first test their muscles at a Local Government election, then he proceeded to ensure that the LGA elections would come well after the general polls. Meaning? They would have been banned from contesting 2003 general election.
When the late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo and Ghali Na’Abba (former Senate President and House of Reps Speaker) sought to keep the National Assembly independent of Obasanjo’s Executive, many journalists joined Tell magazine in attacked them. In fact, the All Progressives Congress national legislators have been pretending that at the core of the Buhari/Onnoghen controversy is not constitutional breach but corruption. Well, many Nigerians have joined in such self-deception.
When Obasanjo was re-elected for a second term, he barred his fangs. Even state Governors were impeached; some by only five legislators, others by seven. The then Bayelsa state Governor, the late DSP Alamieyeseigha, was impeached for returning from Britain dressed as a woman. Nobody showed evidence that he jumped bail and escaped from Britain. Britain did not say he was a wanted person. When they got a passport for Alamieyeseigha and took him to the British High Commission for a visa, the consulate officials asked Nigeria to handle his matter, after all, Nigeria and not Britain had accused him of corruption. Till today, nobody has told Nigerians the airline that brought Alamieyeseigha back to Nigeria or the Airport he took off from. Today, every Nigerian knows that the picture of Alamieyeseigha in female clothes was photo-shopped. But Ribadu and Obasanjo had made so much noise about Alamieyeseigha’s dressing up as a woman that even heaven itself was disturbed by that din.
Well, an imperial presidency is on the ascendancy again. But it will be a mistake to blame it only on Buhari; his advisers are equally liable and their names should be mentioned as often as possible so that history will remember them and the role they are playing.