Rule of Law and Leadership: Buhari Is Right But Still Very Wrong

By Dr SKC Ogbonnia

President Muhammadu Buhari has been under fire since declaring that "rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest." That is understandable. Yet, Buhari is right, but he is also very wrong.

To begin with, the message would not have been a big issue if the messenger is not Muhammadu Buhari. Having headed one of the most dreaded dictatorial military regimes in modern history, where human rights abuses were common, a major reason Nigerians allowed Buhari back to the corridors of power was his pledge to fight corruption and abide by the rule of law. Like many, he had wondered why the war against corruption has been an endless failure and vowed to win it this time. And we believed him.

But we are all finding out the hard way: Fighting corruption with Nigeria’s brand of rule of law is easier said than done. For example, the rule of law includes an ancient tenet of criminal law, Presumption of Innocence. This term, in Nigeria, has meant that corrupt politicians are not only presumed innocent until proven guilty, they also have the liberty to influence the courts to adjourn corrupt cases interminably. Buhari’s apparent difficulty in navigating between the rule of law and leadership is where his current war against corruption came crashing down.

The president deserves pity here, though. Considering that he had achieved a measurable success on the war on corruption as a military leader, with little or no regard to rule of law, Buhari is very frustrated that he cannot record similar success on the same problem as a democratic president. He is frustrated on how some politicians with undeniable evidence of massive corrupt enrichment at the time of arrest are allowed to walk free for decades, waiting for endless trial, in the name of rule of law. Today, Buhari even appears confused on which way to go. Does he continue by toeing the line of rule of law and keep failing? Or does he revert to his old play book of violating human rights while getting the job done?

It is clear that the president has chosen the later. That is probably why he made the controversial statement that "rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest." But, if the truth is said, Buhari is right. His statement is consistent with both the Nigerian Constitution (Section 45) and UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as a vital principle of effective national leadership.

Nigeria’s war against corruption is no longer a child’s play, and we can take a cue from experiences in successful democracies. In her recent war against terrorism after the disastrous 9/11 bombing, United States of America, commonly viewed as the epitome of liberal democracy, adopted all sorts of drastic measures to win. Some of these measures included intrusive searches on passengers at the airports and waterboarding of captured enemy soldiers. Though these were roundly viewed as an infringement of individual freedom and civil liberties at the time, a vast majority of the people eventually embraced the rationale. But guess what? President George W. Bush did not sit moping and expect Americans to follow. His success required a great deal of leadership, influencing the people and later backing his actions with enabling congressional Acts.

The objective fact is that this whole hoopla on rule of law calls for true leadership. One of the most widely cited theories from my latest book: Effective Leadership Formula, is that “effective leadership is the ability to successfully integrate and maximize available resources within the internal and external environment for the attainment of organizational or societal goals.” It goes without saying that President Buhari has to do whatever it takes to get the job done, regardless.

Moreover, not only is leadership contingent upon the environment, extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary actions. Therefore, Buhari cannot afford to fold his hands while his efforts are grossly undermined—all in name of borrowed theories. For instance, Presumption of Innocence has become a legal right of the accused in the Nigerian criminal law, quite alright, but it has become imperative to come to terms with the reality that the original authors might never have considered the Nigerian condition where the accused can collude with the judges to adjourn cases forever.

In short, even as it is vitally important for leaders to be unwavering in their pursuit of rule of law, any rule of law ought to advance the greater good, if it is to translate to effective leadership. Blind following of rule of law can easily lead to destructive power. It is rather mystifying that the strict interpretation of the rule of law is only sacrosanct in Nigeria when it only protects corrupt politicians and their cohorts in the private sector—at the cruel expense of the poor masses.

But Buhari is still very wrong on three fundamental grounds.

First, the cover with national interest and security is crudely selective. The clear optics is that Buhari espouses rule of law only when his party members or tribe are the culprits, but he goes to abuse all rights when perceived opponents or opposing tribes are the victims.

Second, the history will not forgive Buhari for making the contravention of the rule a common phenomenon. The president had every opportunity to have capitalized on his overflowing popularity early in his regime to influence the Legislature to enact enabling Acts that could have strengthened some of the laws he is currently abusing with reckless abandon.

Thirdly, Buhari is wrong by overheating the polity by presenting what he is not well equipped to defend. It is obvious that someone from his team crafted the line on rule of law and national security, which is mundane, but the president has shown that he is not capable of weaving the ensuing debate in such a way that it can be seen in a positive sense. A dynamic leader would thrash the opposing voices in a simple Q & A press conference. But that is not Buhari’s forte.

Overall, leadership is all about influence. Instead of carrying on like an emperor, it is incumbent upon President Buhari to learn how to influence the Nigerian people and other arms of government towards the attainment of national goals. Instead of continuing to appear lawless in course of national interests, Buhari should—without further delay—maximize his presidential power to influence the legislature to enact new Acts that can override imperfect laws.

SKC Ogbonnia, An APC Presidential Aspirant, can be reached via: [email protected]

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