The President and the Rule of Law (The New Year Message) By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
So we heard of and read about a message from the President to all Nigerians to herald us into the new year. Though it was unexpected, it came at the right time, because 2019 was a most challenging year for many Nigerians for many reasons; people lost their jobs, some lost their loved ones, some lost their peace, their health and others lost their wealth. It was indeed tough, for one to be turned into a beggar in his own fatherland, with income down or non-existent and cost of living skyrocketing. Though propaganda was massively deployed to distract the effects of the meltdown, but the reality of the economic hardship reflected greatly in the inability of many to pay school fees, house rent or even travel to the village as it used to be. So the President knew that Nigerians were eagerly waiting to hear from him and he spoke. But what did he speak about and what was the effect of the speech?
The New Year message from the President brought back memories of May 29, 2015, when he was first sworn in as the executive President of the Republic, with so much goodwill going for him. Time has however proved to demystify the President, in many areas. What many expected was that given his vast experience as a combatant officer, the President would make a mincemeat of Boko Haram, but that has not been the case, the most glaring evidence of which is that a few days ago, the Theatre Commander of Operation Lafia Dole, the main military outfit combating the insurgents, narrowly escaped assassination, with his car riddled with bullets. With all the hoopla about $2B said to have been vanquished by the last administration, I had thought that by the end of his first tenure, Boko Haram would have become a thing of the past. And if anyone had told me in 2015 that the electricity situation in Nigeria would still be what it is now, I would never have believed him, but that is exactly what has happened. The principalities of the power sector have defied the President, his much trumpeted body language and indeed all his efforts. Consequently and sadly so, we are still subsidizing darkness through constant system collapses and estimated bills.
Sensing the mood of the nation following the Sowore and Dasuki imbroglio, the President has vowed that he would henceforth ensure respect for human rights and be governed by the rule of law. I had to flip through the message over and over again, to be sure I read it well. The President said: ‘All our actions will be governed by the rule of law.’ You too must have read it by now, right? ALL is ALL! ‘All our actions’, says the President. All appointments, all recruitments, all contract awards, all project allocations, all policy decisions and indeed every other thing, will be done in accordance with the rule of law. The Buhari government will obey all court orders, it will respect the sanctity of judicial proceedings, it will grant autonomy to the legislature and abide by all the provisions of the Constitution.
The rule of law presupposes a prescribed and an orderly manner of doing things, following a defined mode of actions and conducts. It is the rule against all forms of arbitrariness. According to Encyclopedia Britanica:
‘Rule of law means the mechanism, process, institution, practice, or norm that supports the equality of all citizens before the law, secures a non-arbitrary form of government, and more generally prevents the arbitrary use of power. Arbitrariness is typical of various forms of despotism, absolutism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. Despotic governments include even highly institutionalized forms of rule in which the entity at the apex of the power structure is capable of acting without the constraint of law when it wishes to do so.
Ideas about the rule of law have been central to political and legal thought since at least the 4th century BCE, when Aristotle distinguished “the rule of law” from “that of any individual.” In the 18th century the French political philosopher Montesquieu elaborated a doctrine of the rule of law that contrasted the legitimate authority of monarchs with the caprice of despots. It has since profoundly influenced Western liberal thought.
In general, the rule of law implies that the creation of laws, their enforcement, and the relationships among legal rules are themselves legally regulated, so that no one—including the most highly placed official—is above the law. The legal constraint on rulers means that the government is subject to existing laws as much as its citizens are. Thus, a closely related notion is the idea of equality before the law, which holds that no “legal” person shall enjoy privileges that are not extended to all and that no person shall be immune from legal sanctions. In addition, the application and adjudication of legal rules by various governing officials are to be impartial and consistent across equivalent cases, made blindly without taking into consideration the class, status, or relative power among disputants. In order for those ideas to have any real purchase, moreover, there should be in place some legal apparatus for compelling officials to submit to the law.
Not only does the rule of law entail such basic requirements about how the law should be enacted in society, it also implies certain qualities about the characteristics and content of the laws themselves. In particular, laws should be open and clear, general in form, universal in application, and knowable to all. Moreover, legal requirements must be such that people are able to be guided by them; they must not place undue cognitive or behavioral demands on people to follow. Thus, the law should be relatively stable and comprise determinate requirements that people can consult before acting, and legal obligations should not be retroactively established. Furthermore, the law should remain internally consistent and, failing that, should provide for legal ways to resolve contradictions that can be expected to arise.’
This is what the President has now covenanted with Nigerians, as his new policy mantra. Immediately, a lot of things started flashing through my mind. The Niger-Delta Development Commission, NDDC, has been saddled with a Sole Administrator for some months now, contrary to the express provisions of the Act establishing the Commission. So I had expected that the day after the President’s new year message, that illegal contraption will be sacked and a new Board constituted for the NDDC according to law. But that has not happened.
The Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja, delivered a ruling directing the Inspector-General of Police to arrest the Director-General of the National Council for Arts and Culture, Mr. Olusegun Runsewe, for contempt of court. Some days after, the same man addressed a press conference, defying the authority of the court, and he even had police escorts on his entourage. Yes, it is the rule of law. A staunch critic of the present administration and former Senator representing Kaduna State, Senator Shehu Sani, was alleged to have extorted just $24,000 from somebody and a remand warrant was issued to keep him in custody, instead of charging him to court. And whilst he remained in custody, the nation is being regaled daily with stories of his guilt in a matter that is yet to be pronounced upon by the court and for which investigation is said to be ongoing. Yes, it is the rule of law. In far-away Aguata, Mr. Chuku Anugo, the Secretary of Aguata branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, was lucky to have spent just four weeks in police custody, in a purely domestic family dispute.
So, what has changed? Why are we now embracing the rule of law, so suddenly? Is national security not sacrosanct again? Are we now to allow the courts, lawyers and the judiciary in general to ‘derail’ the anti-corruption war? Why on earth should the United States of America be interfering in the internal affairs of Nigeria, a sovereign nation? Should the international community force us to accept its own version of the rule of law? And I think the brick bat with Iran has not allowed America to notice this statement from one of our governors, concerning the fate of the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Sheik El-Zakzaky:
‘If the court acquits him, we have no option. But we will not release him no matter the public outcry, no matter the demonstration, no matter the pressure from foreign countries … They are just wasting their time. As long as I am the governor, El-Zakzaky will never be released until the end of his trial.’
Yes, it is the rule of law and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Pray, did the National Judicial Council, NJC, not recommend some persons for appointment as justices of the Supreme Court lately? What has come out of it?
The important thing however is that the President has come to the realization that he cannot continue to rule in vacuum, without reaching out to Nigerians, for us to know his mindset on critical issues affecting us all as a nation. Yet, the President’s message has failed to address many of those issues. For instance, what has happened to the committee set up by the President’s party, the All Progressive Congress, APC, on Restructuring? Have we ditched the idea? Is the manifesto of the APC no longer real? Suffice it to say that all judges must now hold the President to his declaration to uphold the rule of law in all actions.
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