OKOTIE :JOKING WITH TREASON?
A NATION reaches a milestone when its people are able to brainstorm and consensually outline laws that are intriguing because there are guides to civility. What has piqued Nigerian's interest across the globe is that Nigeria has a system of laws that are not abhorrent except that the process of implementation has been compromised through fear and corruption. The law displays its muscle everyday to people at the lowest level of poverty to as high as the president, and Commander-in-Chief. The rule of law explicitly brings everyone within the boundaries of Nigeria to equality. Ideally, the law was meant to treat everyone the same, but we know as fact that this is not always the case not only in Nigeria, but in other places around the world. Though this inequality is real but it also depends on the gravity of the offence.
It is still fresh in the minds of Nigerians that Shehu Musa Yar'Adua died in prison after he was convicted for an alleged military offence – coup. Therefore, once there is any form of corroboration or clear evidence of crime, the offenders are never warned but tried and punished if found guilty. In reality, do we know of any Magistrate in Nigeria who has verbally warned and set free a petty thief that stole garri or rice in a market place? What we are used to is that these petty thieves that steal because they are hungry are sent to prison for months or years with hard labour.
Crimes are in different levels.
Treason is by no stretch a light weighted crime that should be treated with levity. It is one of the highest offences in Nigeria and has never attracted a mere rebuke from any authority. Adewale Ademoyega, author of a book – Why We Struck quoted Justice Sowemimo, who tried and sentenced Chief Awolowo and his aides on treasonable felony charges in 1963. 'Mr. Justice Sowemimo, did not declare that the prosecution had proved its case beyond all reasonable doubts. Rather, he declared that he had no choice except to convict eighteen of the accused.' This decision was based on the happenings at that time, and up till this day, it's not known that the 1963 judgment was ever over turned. Chances are that if Justice Sowemimo had clear evidence of imported weapons as the recent one at Lagos port purported for use to overthrow a sitting government coupled with Atiku's threat that was erred by the media, Justice Sowemimo's declaration in 1963 would have been different. That prison stigma was glued to this noble and honoured man known as Chief Awolowo, a president Nigeria never had, a man with clear vision, mission and wisdom; a man that made Western Nigeria the best in education and business; a man who continues to reign in his grave after decades.
What Nigerians are witnessing today is a rude shock from the daily newspapers, quoting President Goodluck Jonathan as having said that, his government would not tolerate treasonable statements from former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and General Ibrahim Babangida. Truth be told, not all Nigerians really understood what President Jonathan meant by his use of the word, treason. While some Northern Nigerians have reason to doubt what President Jonathan said, most people in other parts of the country are convinced that both Messrs Atiku and Babangida should be tried for treason.
The reasons are not far-fetched: first, very recently, several containers of illegal arms that were intercepted in Lagos were imported from their Muslim brothers in Iran. Please those weapons were not imported to fancifully decorate a museum in Northern Nigeria. Interestingly, no one knows how many illegal arms would have come into the country through Kano International airport. After all, before our very eyes, the same people smuggled late President Yar'Adua under cover of darkness into Abuja, the geographical centre of Nigeria; so is it Kano that is at one end of the country that will be difficult to get arms through? Second, the media carried their (Atiku and co) vocal images of threats of violence against the sitting government of Nigeria.
There is no gain-saying that if PDP is the power in government and a group of people have declared violence openly against the PDP government, then what more needs to be established in order to prosecute a case of felony? Third, the supporters have openly established through the newspapers that the mayhem of Boko Haram was a child's play. In fact, this same clique from Northern Nigeria vehemently made their boast based on what they just carried out in Jos recently. As a matter of fact, treasonable felony did not come within the law with an option for executive reprimand. If the issues relating to treason are lacking in substance, it is up to the judiciary to say so and not the executive in view of separation of powers as enshrined in the Constitution.
The implication of not trying these men in a court of law would be that a bad precedence would emerge in the political circle in Nigeria and this is bound to hurt the country in the future. If the President were to give a warning for such serious offence, he would not have referred to the security report that tagged this occurrence as treasonable felony. If no inquiry has been set-up right now to investigate these utterances and threats, then the presidency is reckless. Indeed, such statements do not resonate with the people and it must be decided in a court of law. The felony matter at hand is not as light as any one may think. If this is what the President Jonathan thinks, it would certainly be too late and it becomes a hopeless situation. Trying these men has nothing to do with not accosting respect to leaders in society, but has everything to do with the safety of Nigeria as one country. What Nigerians must understand is that no one individual is bigger than Nigeria. Sure, the academic experts had told us long before now that, the parts cannot be bigger than the whole.
• Okotie lives in Texas, United States