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THERE WAS ONCE AN ATTORNEY GENERAL

PHOTO: DICGRACED FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NIGERIA, MR MICHAEL AONDOAKAA.
PHOTO: DICGRACED FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NIGERIA, MR MICHAEL AONDOAKAA.


Certain things mark a man out in life. The same set his grave apart, making it uncommon; they make where he lies a holy land of sort, where men and women come to pay their respect. What history says is responsible for the latter. A man’s actions while he is alive takes care of the former. Both account for what sustains the relevance of some people from yesterday till tomorrow. Historians go into the archives when a former US Attorney General, William B. Saxbe, died the other day. What is found is a basis for comparison between that former Attorney General out there, and men in power - especially a former Attorney General - here in Nigeria.

There was once an American president. Richard Nixon was his name. Imperial presidency reached its zenith when he was in the White House; abuse of power was not left out. The singular event that brought this man to his knees began on June 16, 1972. A security guard at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., discovered a piece of tape on the lock of the door that led to the National Democratic Headquarters. This would lead to the uncovering of a break-in. The break-in, exploding as Watergate scandal was part of a larger campaign by Nixon supporters to tarnish the reputation of Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party. Democratic candidates were harassed, subject to negative campaign ads, and on two separate occasions the National Democratic Headquarters were broken into.

As soon as the attempted break-in at Watergate Hotel scandal became known, President Nixon ordered it covered up. It later became clear that his presidency had been involved in manipulation and abuses of power for years. The investigation into the break-in had two questions for which answers were needed: "What did the president know?" and "When did he know it?" The investigation showed that Nixon knew about the break-in from the beginning, and that he was involved in the cover-up as it progressed. In the early stages of the scandal, almost all of the media reported the break-in as a minor story with little national significance. Then came in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward who were working for the Washington Post. They began to investigate, and using an informant known as Deep Throat, these two journalists uncovered a story that wrecked a presidency. In August 1974, Richard Nixon became the first president to resign in American history.

Way back December 1973, one William B. Saxbe, an independent-minded Republican senator from Ohio had been made the U.S. Attorney General. History says he is the one who helped shield the Watergate investigation from political meddling. Saxbe arrived the Justice Department, equivalent of Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Justice, at the time Nixon administration was being hit by allegations that it was covering up the break-in at the Watergate office complex. Two of Nixon's previous Attorneys-General, had been implicated in the Watergate affair. The third resigned rather than obey orders to fire Archibald Cox, the uncompromising special prosecutor assigned to the Watergate case. Saxbe’s arrival in Justice Department was a surprise. Ever candid, he had always fired gunshots at the administration. He once said Nixon's claims that he knew nothing of the Watergate cover up were like "the man who plays piano at a bawdy house for 20 years and says he doesn't know what's going on upstairs." He had also criticized Nixon’s White House as "the most inept" in history. He hadn’t even arrived office when he warned his superior: "You have to take me warts and all."

On August 24, 2010, Saxbe died at his home in Mechanicsburg, Ohio. He was aged 94 and had been ill with pancreatic cancer. History remembers him well, and historians have been dusting the records. They read from records that the late Attorney General brought greater independence to the Justice Department; that he helped maintain the integrity of the Watergate investigation. They say Saxbe also supported Leon Jaworski, who replaced Cox as the Watergate special prosecutor. The fact was underlined that the Attorney General vowed that if he were asked to interfere in Jaworski's efforts, he would not resign as his predecessor had, but would stay until he was fired. Over the objection of Nixon administration officials, Saxbe published a report on impeachment and ruled that in a Senate trial, the president would have to pay his own legal fees. He made marks in some other issues too during his tenure. He made the government file an antitrust case against the telecommunications giant, AT&T, resulting in the breakup of the company.

Significantly, Saxbe had met with Nixon before he arrived Justice Department. Convinced then that the president was not guilty, he spoke of him glowingly. But he later changed his opinion: "He had lied to me, as he had lied to everyone else, and tried to involve me in his lies," the former Attorney General wrote in his 2000 autobiography, "I've Seen the Elephant." "I can never forgive him for that," he had added. Saxbe did not attend the funeral of his former boss; he never saw the fallen Nixon after his resignation. That was an Attorney- General. After Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, Saxbe had stayed on in his post for several months until he went to India as Ambassador under President Gerald R. Ford.

It is not possible to know of men such as this and fail to draw comparisons. The reason is simple. The manner men conduct themselves in the corridors of power has effect on a nation and its people. Saxbe helped Americans know the truth about a president who had turned the powers given to him to negative uses. In the manner this legal man handled a serious national problem, he showed that loyalty of a public officer is to the constitution, to the people, to the oath of office, and not to individuals occupying public offices. Nigeria, for instance has had men in power, an Attorney General, whose utterances and carriage were capable of weakening the polity rather than strengthen it. He once said a sick president could rule from hospital bed outside the country. He said a Vice President who was not empowered even to swear-in a justice of the Supreme Court, could carry on the work of an ailing president. That was a period when the Attorney General of the Federation and minister of Justice opened his mouth, and citizens were aghast. The nation was rescued by providence then. It is important that errors such as this are not repeated here. History remembers William B. Saxbe well. Are there men in Nigeria’s corridors of power today who will take a cue from him, and have an eye on history, rather than throw integrity away for immediate gains? This nation will be better for it, just like American justice system is better as a result of the contributions of a Saxbe.

Ajibade, a Consultant Writer, lives in Abuja.

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