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National interest and the rule of law

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Our apex court has had cause to adopt a position on this issue in this regard and it is now a matter of judicial recognition that where national security and public interest are threatened or there is a likelihood of their being threatened the individual rights of those allegedly responsible must take second place in favour of the greater good of society.”

That was part of President Muhammadu Buhari’s address to the 59th annual conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in Abuja, August 26.

The Daily Trust of August 27 captured the essence of that chilling pronouncement in its headline: “National interest supersedes individual rights.”

The chill crawled down my spine. It is a dangerous thesis and should be squashed to stop sycophants from trying to create room for it in our national system.

We gain nothing from being the only country with scant regard for human and individual rights and the rule of law.

Buhari has not just kicked up a right royal dust over an issue that has bedevilled governments in most of the third world countries but has renewed the fear that we are not yet out of the woods.

Democracy has not quite distanced us from our recent national history characterised by a determined effort to save Nigeria from Nigerians.

His statement forces us to relive the rule of the generals when the rampant and egregious abuse of human and individual rights was excused on the grounds that it was in the national interest.

I thought we would never walk down that path of perdition again. I must have been wrong.

At least two questions trouble the concept of national interest. One, what is it? Two, who defines it?

So far, no government here or elsewhere, has ever defined national interest.

No one knows what it is. There is no body of laws or a national code called national interest.

No one, as far as I know, has ever been charged with breaching the national interest.

Few things can be so vague and yet be so easily used to bludgeon the people with some degree of self-righteousness.

As to the second question, governments invariably assume the right to determine rather than define national interest.

Whatever they determine to be the national interest at any particular time and for any particular reason is supposed to be accepted by the people as the national interest.

Here, they conflate government interest, or more appropriately, the interests of those in government, with what they regard as the national interest.

They cannot mean the same thing. We are dealing with a vague but dangerous concept that has allowed governments to act arbitrarily and abuse individual and human rights. And they have gotten away with murder – literally and metaphorically.

I should know. I had been a victim more than once in my professional life in journalism. I give you only one instance.

In July 1984, I had the distinction of being the first editor of the New Nigerian to be removed via a television news telecast.

I had no way to contest my removal but since the government announced that I would be re-assigned, I thought it was important for me to know why I lost my job.

That would help me decide if it would be wise for me to accept a re-assignment.

The chief of staff, Supreme Headquarters, Brigadier (as he was then) Tunde Idiagbon, kindly agreed to see me.

I requested him to tell me why I was removed as editor of the newspaper. He said, “We did it in the national interest.”

You can go and figure that out. Many of us can cite instances of similar treatment under the nebulous rubric of national interest.

Our common law provides that a man, or woman too, is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

But in the national interest that important legal cover is regularly turned on its head by the government using its security agencies -and a man is presumed guilty until he can prove his innocence, often under circumstances that make it impossible for him to do so.

Whatever a government does to its citizens is supposed to be accepted by them as part of its gallant and patriotic fight to rid the country of bad elements who do not mean well for the rest of the people.

Government-citizen relationship is perhaps the most difficult relationship to forge to the satisfaction of both parties in the world, not least because government, being the real oga at the top, operates on the basis of master-servant relationship.

With the citizens at the bottom, the tendency to assume omnipotence is a temptation resisted by few men in power.

A government comes into being on the expressed wishes of the people - in a democracy, that is.

But while the people live with the well-tended fiction that democracy is a government of the people by the people and for the people, the rulers operate with the reality that their right to treat the people according to their whims and caprices is a given.

The African Big Man earned his stripes from a mind set that tends to see a government’s primary duty as saving the country from its own people.

A government’s determination of what constitutes national or security interest is based on this concept of keeping the country safe from the people and keeping the citizens caged to protect the country.

In all cases, national interest is the means towards this undesirable end.

Once a government offers national interest as its reason why it chooses to abuse people’s rights and circumscribe their freedom it feels it has justified its action and elevated it beyond the realm of petty-mindedness.

We have seen too many instances of this in our country to scratch our heads over this.

The problem, really, is that this vague thing called national interest, determined not by law but by whims and caprices, is the rule of law.

This is the real pillar of democracy and the protector of people’s rights, freedom and liberty (I am being lawyerly here).

It stands guard and seeks to prevent an unbridled use of national interest to deny the people the freedom and the rights guaranteed them by the constitution – the supreme law in the land.

Democracy may be the form of government most favoured by the people but it is, you had better believe this, resented by those who hold the reigns of power – for perfectly good reasons. Democracy is restrictive.

It diffuses power and refuses to concentrate all the powers in the hands of one man.

It insists on checks and balances. It insists on accountability to ensure that the books of the government are open to the people because they have the inalienable right to ask and be informed about how they are governed.

Given the disconnect between the views of government and those of the citizens in what constitutes national interest, the government finds it both easy and necessary to try and subordinate the rule of law to whatever it determines at any particular time to be the national interest.

I am not a lawyer but I was shocked by the president’s claim that the Supreme Court recognises that when national interest is threatened, the rule of law must yield primacy of place to it.

I think he was misled by the battery of SANs at his service.

I can think of no justice of the apex court who would cast the people railway track so cynically.

In his reaction the president’s claim, the PDP national publicity secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, said “there is no pronouncement by the Supreme Court that subjugates constitutional rule of law and rights of citizens to the whims, caprices and dictatorial impulses of any president.”

I accept his argument that “our national interest is thoroughly embedded, expressed and enforced only under the rule of law as provided by our constitution.”

Our hope for a better country rests squarely on the full observance of the rule of law.

Without it, the citizens have no rights, no freedoms, no liberty and our constitutional government blows in the wind.


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