History Lessons on Doing the Right Thing the Wrong Way, By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
Since the co-ordinated and forceful encounters between the State Security
Services (SSS) and the judiciary on October 9, many have dusted up legal
tomes, interpreting the National Security Agencies Act with
characteristically Nigerian gusto and parsing words from answer to
Typically for this season of digital information, there is a great deal of
information but very little knowledge. Anonymous WhatsApp broadcasts
bearing staple concatenations of our fantasy gossip have quickly become
credible sources. What we know is that the SSS operations are
controversial within and beyond government.
Around the country, many believe that the judiciary is corrupt and that
the judges, an irresponsible legal elite who are the source of Nigeria's
problems, are getting their deserved come-uppance. Senior Advocates of
Nigeria – no less – have been reported as asking Nigeria's president to
furlough the rule of law for some time. This, at last, is the overdue
radical surgery that the “fight against corruption” needs.
It was Groucho Marx who wrote: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great
world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot
to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Law books
may excite the wordsmiths but history crystallises our pathology.
To be sure, there's a lot about Nigeria, the judiciary and the legal
profession that requires correcting. The current conversation on what is
happening with the judiciary takes place – to borrow from Dr. Hakeem
Baba-Ahmed – between “a generation weaned on a solid history of a proud
African people and one which has read no history at all.” After nearly
three decades of military rule, Nigeria is mostly a country in hock to mob
martial mentality created by an army that “caused a war and fought in it,
then claimed credit for keeping the country united”. The army has
conditioned the country to ape the worst of their instincts at the price
of collective failure in institution building.
It began in 1966. Politicians were making incredible money in the face of
misrule. Nigerians were genuinely angry and baying for blood. On January
15, Kaduna Nzeogwu declared that “our enemies are the political
profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes
and demand 10 percent”, accusing them of having “corrupted our society and
put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.” 50
years from that memorable declamation, “10 percenters” morphed into “100
percenters”. How did that happen?
Having led the coup, Kaduna Nzeogwu could not take power. General
Aguiyi-Ironsi did. Six months later , in July 1966, it was his blood that
was the burnt offering for yet other soldiers bearing salvation.
Thereafter, soldiers took the country into a heedless war and, after 30
months, said they had ended it and kept Nigeria together. With this, they
appear to have arrogated to themselves a right – in or out of uniform – to
rule and a mission to extinguish our collective demons.
So, in 1970, General Yakubu Gowon, mistaking success in a battle for
conquest in war, released a nine-point programme preceding what he
announced would be his hand-over of power in 1976. Item 3 on that
programme was “eradication” of corruption.
In 1974, Gowon told an incredulous nation that 1976 was no longer feasible
as handover date. Murtala Mohammed, who succeeded Gowon as Head Boy in
Barewa College, overthrew him in July 1975 complaining that Gowon was
guilty of inability to “fulfil the legitimate expectations of our people.”
Thereafter, he went on a spree of purging everywhere including the courts.
Taslim Elias, then Chief Justice, was turfed out “with immediate effect”.
In his place, Murtala appointed Sir Darnley Alexander, a naturalised
Nigerian, who loved a bit of a beverage and was a happy man. Super
Permanent Secretary, Phillip Asiodu was fired – amongst over 150 senior
public officials relieved of their positions – because his Grade II
teacher wife reportedly had over $10 million in asset. Nigerians were
Murtala Mohammed was tragically killed in February 1976, succeeded by
General Olusegun Obasanjo. By 1979, when General Obasanjo handed over
power to civilians, the view was settled that Murtala's purge had worsened
corruption, not solved it. So, when Obasanjo handed over in 1979, his
successor, Shehu Shagari, felt the need to launch an “Ethical Revolution”
to attack corruption.
In the end of 1983, General Muhammadu Buhari shoved aside Shagari because
– you guessed it! – corruption ostensibly got worse under Shagari.
Buhari's War against Indiscipline (WAI) replaced “Ethical Revolution”.
Soldiers flogged Nigerians to their hearts' delight; made us all frog jump
and thread mud on our bellies at their whim because we were all supposedly
corrupt and undisciplined. How these indignities were supposed to wean us
of corruption wasn't immediately evident. Tribunals were set up to try the
corrupt. They sentenced many politicians to decades or hundreds of years
in prison. Less than five years later , the same politicians were in
control of President Babangida's endless transition programme.
Meanwhile, 19 months into his regime, Buhari was overthrown by his then
Chief of Army Staff, General Babangida (IBB), who accused his erstwhile
boss of corrupting and abusing the security agencies, especially the then
Nigeria Security Organisation (NSO). Babangida initiated a review of
security agencies at the end of which, in 1986, he promulgated as a
military decree the National Security Agencies Act, creating, among
others, the SSS. We are now fighting over its powers. By the time IBB
stepped aside in 1993, Oxford University's Ike Okonta wrote memorably that
he had “corrupted democracy and democratised corruption.”
General Abacha took over thereafter de facto and, upon procuring his fait
accompli in November 1993, promised swift transition to civil rule but
hung on and desired to use corruption to make himself civilian president.
By the time the country returned to democracy in 1999, President Obasanjo
told us it would “not be business as usual.” But not quite three years
later, he was using the lamentable Justice Egbo-Egbo to sack governors at
night and frustrate procedures by day. Shortly thereafter, Obasanjo was
plying the National Assembly with billions in cash to change the
constitution and give him a prohibited life presidency. The rest of the
story is current affairs.
This tale could go on but my point should be evident. Without a sense of
history, Nigerians are always desperate to get suckered by the next strong
man promising to fight corruption in even more inventive ways. We are
never short of enthusiastic “patriots” who want to see “elites” – the
hated big men and their mistresses – put down in disgrace. It's all part
of what Lawrence Summers has recently described as the “Renaissance of
One final inflection point from history for those interested. In 1984,
most Nigerians believed President Shagari's Minister of Commerce, Alhaji
Umaru Dikko, was virulently corrupt. Dikko was in exile in Britain. The
task of bringing him to justice needed a scalpel, not a hammer. General
Buhari, as military Head of State then, decided to have him abducted from
exile. This was flagrantly unlawful. It failed. That foreclosed the chance
of ever bringing Umaru Dikko to justice.
If 1984 was a tragic first time, 2016 could be the farcical encore. There
is never a right way to do a wrong thing but there is sometimes a wrong
way to do the right thing. When that happens, the damage can be lasting.
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, Interim Chair of the Section on Public Interest &
Development Law (SPIDEL), Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), writes in his
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