Friday Discourse (115)
By Dr. Aliyu Tilde
Obasanjo and the Law
Last Friday the Afghan minister of aviation was killed at an airport while arranging to transport pilgrims to Mecca. The reason for his murder was first thought to be the delay in lifting the pilgrims to the holy land. However, a day later, Hamid Karzai, the Prime Minister of the transitional government, told the world that leaders of a faction among the Northern Alliance were responsible for the murder. Five people were instantly arrested while three others, including two generals, had already left for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were contacted immediately and the PM right away received the assurance that the generals will be apprehended and handed over to Afghan authorities.
This is undoubtedly impressive to the average Nigerian. The leadership in Afghanistan, in spite of its fragility and lack of resources, has lived to the expectation of civilization. It has regarded human blood sacred and it is ready to bring criminals to book, regardless of their position and influence in the society, or the likelihood of a future crisis that their punishment may portend.
Nigerian government would not have exhibited the same degree of promptness, were the crime to happen here. Surprisingly, Nigeria has 120,000 policemen, a national army of over 85,000 soldiers and a democratically elected government. Obasanjo, would not have done anything, not because he is disinterested in entrenching the rule of law, but because he will be afraid, as did many leaders before him, that arresting the generals will cause a reprisal against the government. The matter would have been allowed to fade away, after the usual initial promises that the culprits will be brought to book.
Nigerians know that we are not talking theory here. Sponsors of mass killings in the country are either allowed to go free, like the OPC, or have their death sentences mitigated to something ridiculous, like the four-year jail term of Zamani Lekwot. That is all the government will do if it is compelled by expedience to portray a semblance of resolve.
A better comparison between Nigeria and the rest of the civilized world could be found in the assassination of Chief Bola Ige, the late Federal Attorney General and Minister of Justice who was killed over a month ago. To date, in spite of all assurances by government, nothing concrete has come out of the investigation. Though the killers may be arrested, their sponsors will never be penalized.
In addition to the above high profile cases, there are hundreds of death sentences awaiting execution. But they cannot be carried out because the governors whose duty it is to sign the orders are too weak to do so. There are also thousands, perhaps millions, of criminal offences going on in public offices that go unpunished.
The inevitable conclusion that one could draw from the foregoing is that in Nigeria crime is the custom, while punishment is an offense.
Why are we then so different from other nations, that our government cannot ensure the security of our lives and the protection of our property? Fortunately, this time the government is putting forward a consistent explanation.
In a recent BBC live interview, the President explained that at the advent his administration the country had 120,000 policemen. This, giving a ratio of one policeman to a thousand Nigerians, according to the President, is grossly inadequate. He also spoke about insufficient equipment. Understood. As for solutions the President disclosed that his government is working towards quadrupling the number of police personnel to 450,000 which it will furnish with the necessary equipment.
RULE OF LAW: The President’s resolve is commendable especially if he will stop delaying the salaries the police. But, without denigrating his effort, I would say that this is simply scratching the surface of the problem. I believe that even with a million policemen, equipped with the best gadgets and weapons technology could provide, very little will be achieved until when government is ready to check the most important factor responsible for crime in the country.
We may be tempted to think that poverty is such a factor. But are we poorer than Afghanistan and many other countries, like Niger, Mali, Chad and so on, where the law is taken more seriously? Afghanistan is several times poorer than Nigeria, but their President who has only six months tenure, without a constitution or a police force, is arresting generals of an alliance that brought his regime to power.
The judiciary and other people in the law profession, including its scholars, will have no difficulty in accepting my assertion that law is the greatest determinant of our behaviour. It is law, as an embodiment of rules binding on all citizens – whether as consolidated customs or as divine revelation – that defines for every individual his commitments to the society.
Going much further than moral norms, law operates within a mode that specifies, on the one hand, reward to encourage obligation and, on the other, punishment to deter recurrence. Once taken out of this mode, no matter how grievous are its penalties, or how handsome is its reward, law automatically becomes ineffective. It would then fail to transform itself from a position of an archival document to that of a sacred decree that compels obedience and commands esteem.
It is this commitment to the rule of law that Obasanjo and his administration should most importantly focus on. I do not believe that this sounds new to them, for as people experienced in administering this country they must have perceived it before us. Perhaps, this is why he promised us that there will never be sacred cows when he took over power three years ago. Other commentators have similarly emphasized that what will reduce, and perhaps wipe out, the problem of ethnic conflicts is Nigeria is the reinstatement of punishment as a principle of governance. A crime that goes unpunished attracts another. But if a criminal is punished regardless of his position in the society, others will be put off by the fear of repercussion.
EXAMPLES: In my view, apathy of our leadership, expressed in its reluctance to strictly apply the rule of law, is what prevents our law enforcement agents from performance. Our police are today better equipped than during the Native Authority era. They are more educated and greater in number. The awareness of people regarding to the existence of law and its importance is greater now than in the 1940s and 1950s. But the distinction between that era and ours is the degree of our commitment to the rule of law.
We can illustrate this point better by citing examples from our recent past. On the one hand, the regimes of Generals Murtala and Buhari can validly attest that once an administration is committed to the rule of law – at least within pardonable limits of human shortcomings – crime rate takes a nosedive dramatically. During their time, the law then did not spare the corrupt ‘super’ permanent secretaries or the rich that once lived above it. Seeing this, other Nigerians quickly came falling in submission to the law. Public servants leant how to come to office on time, remain there until closing, without taking bribes. Though brief were the spans of the two regimes, their commitment to the rule of law will remain enduring in the memories of Nigerians and indelible in the annals of their history. Of course, they did not succeed in preventing every criminal from trying his luck. I remember a case of someone who then forged the signature of Tunde Idiagbon. When Buhari learnt about it, he could help but laugh and wonder how daring human beings could sometime be. However, when we come to determine the efficacy of a law, such cases fall within the tolerable margin of exception.
One is even tempted to cite the positive effect of the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and other members of his gang. Their execution sent the correct signal to other ethnic champions that Abacha was a man who was ready to apply the appropriate punishment. His Failed Banks Tribunal played a significant role in restoring sanity to our banking sector during his regime.
On the other hand, we have enough examples to prove that decay would ensue whenever a regime is reluctant to allow the law to take its course. Here we have the bad examples of Babangida and Obasanjo to cite. I do not believe that their action is deliberate; rather, I seek to find its explanation within the paradigm they used to place power, particularly its significance and the means of its preservation.
Though Babangida used different principles of power at different times, at least three were cardinal. One, he was misguided into believing that that appeasement is a more effective tool of control than punishment. If he had read al-Motanabbi though, he would have modified this principle to suit different categories of people. Two, he believed in deception as a potent strategy to conceal his future plans. Finally, he believed that permitting men to be corrupt would mould them into better slaves ready to carryout the wish of their master, just as their rectitude would threaten his caprice.
Unfortunately for the Nigerian nation, Babangida was allowed tenure long enough to test the validity of the above principles. First, appeasing criminals only animated them to commit further mischief. There were chains of crises out of which his government could not succeed in solving any. To this day, we have found it difficult to extricate ourselves out of their web: the communal clashes, petroleum scarcity, etc. They cause untold hardship on our people, claim thousands of their lives and deposit layers of rancour against one another in our minds.
Secondly, his employment of deception eroded the confidence of Nigerians in their governments to this day. It reached a stage that not even the sun could believe Babangida. He played out all his cards; so he had to resort to swearing before the camera: “wallahi we will hand over power on …” What a terrible price for deception!
Lastly, blindness to corruption was so pervasive that it remains the greatest legacy with which Babangida is remembered today. That is what a former military governor from Southern Zaria, once confessed to. “If we do not cause trouble,” he said, “on what would we survive?” Babangida is the only Nigerian leader that signed a treaty with corruption. It promised to prolong his rule in return for his silence. It was a promise that was faithfully kept by both parties. We hope what his close associates now claim about his repentance is true. We join them in praying to God to forgive us all.
Talking about Obasanjo, he derailed from the line of Murtala when he succeeded him in 1976. People talk about the glory of his first tenure but I can only find many unanswered questions. For example, I have always wondered the source of his wealth, together with that of Danjuma and Yar’adua. I doubt if they were better than Mobolaji Johnson or J.D. Gomwalk.
The more I examine Obasanjo the more I find reasons to equate him to Babangida. He is doing his best to appease the troublemakers in place of punishing them for their havoc. He is afraid that they will foment a crisis that will terminate his government. He has also broken his promises time without number. The only painful difference between him and maradona is that he pretends to fight corruption while he cannot stop the ones taking place right before his eyes. Is anyone surprised at the collapse early this week of Savannah Bank? At any rate, I will not be surprised if the scenario of bank failure that was common during Babangida is returning with all vigour now. Danjuma ne da Danjummai.
REASON: What really could make our leaders indifferent to the rule of law? Explaining this deserves a full page, but we will briefly say that Nigerian experience shows that there are essentially three reasons: one, a corrupt leader deprives himself of the moral strength essential to punish his subordinates. This is especially true in the civil service. Two, the desire to perpetuate power creates the fear that punishment would create more enemies that would scuttle such interest than friends who would actualize it. This is how tazarce becomes a universal shortcoming in democracy. That is also the virus that paralyzed Abacha yesterday and it is making Obasanjo to make unpardonable compromises today, in spite of his promises. Thirdly, to punish require courage that derives from a strong ideology – aqeedah, something our leaders are destitute of.
These are the points that Obasanjo should use to know whether he is on the side of the law or against it. If he sincerely believes that he suffers from any of them, he should know that even if he were to rule indefinitely, his words and promulgations would hardly change anything.
Lets now return to the issue of law enforcement agents. Interference is the major obstacle to the effective performance of their jobs. Once the apex that sets the tempo of a regime is ready to allow the police and the judiciary a free hand, the law will take its natural course and order will prevail. But where there are untouchables in the society, the motivation of law enforcement agents will be killed for they know that someone at the top will intercede on behalf of the criminal to save them from justice. What would the police get to do with arresting Ganiyu Adams again? Have they not been humiliated enough by his acquittal? They have thousands of such experiences. Sometimes, the top will be so blunt to specify ‘no go areas’ for them as we saw in the case of Dele Giwa’s murder. With this attitude, every person of influence in the society becomes a sacred cow that cannot be brought to justice. With their resolve broken, the police would take a lackadaisical attitude to law enforcement.
CONCLUSION: In conclusion, we will reassert that number and equipment will only be meaningful if there is a commitment by the leadership to the rule of law as we saw during the brief regimes of Murtala and Buhari. Law enforcement agents must be allowed a free hand to exercise the authority within their jurisdiction without interference from influential Nigerians. As I conclude this article, the Saudis have announced the arrest of the accused generals. I am sure the world will soon witness their trial and execution in Afghanistan. That is the message from Afghanistan and rest of the civilized world to Obasanjo and Nigerians in general. Without a commitment to the rule of law, increasing the number of policemen and purchasing additional equipment will register only a little success, not far off from our present point of failure.