Chidi Anselm Odinkalu: 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 question.

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 ecstatic!

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.

By 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 populist authoritarianism.”

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.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is the Interim Chair of the Section on Public Interest & Development Law (SPIDEL), Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).

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