President Muhammadu Buhari has resurrected an absolutist Machiavellian theory of the State as despot. That has left many Nigerians in a paroxysm of fear. At the 58th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association held recently in Abuja he said: “Rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest. 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.” Even though the President made an awkward attempt to restore the rule of law to a position of primacy when the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel came calling a few days later, it is evident that it is the first cut that is the deepest. Hours after he spoke to the men and women of the bar it must have occurred to the President that he had tickled the tail of the tiger.
The response from the bar and the public was a swift and resounding condemnation of the President’s speech. Even in the hall where he spoke the applause that he received at the end of the speech was purely a polite and obligatory one. It was tepid, evidence that he had said the wrong thing at the wrong place. It really doesn’t matter where the speech was made. Anywhere he said those words would still have received a high level of disapproval and condemnation.
This nation has not yet lost its institutional memory even if Buhari who was locked up for 40 months without trial apparently in the “national interest” has lost his own. National interest are words that are amorphous, ambiguous and elastic, as elastic as chewing gum. They are words that have been used by various dictators around the world and in Nigeria to deal with political opponents and warriors for a better society. In 1984, one of Nigeria’s principled journalists who was Editor of the Federal Government owned New Nigerian, Dan Agbese, was sacked without any justifiable reason. Baffled, Dan went to meet Col. Tunde Idiagbon who was Major General Muhammadu Buhari’s deputy to find out what was the reason for his separation from his editorship position. Idiagbon told him blandly that he was removed in the “national interest.” That was the vacuous, vaporous explanation that Dan got from Idiagbon. At that time Dele Giwa, Yakubu Mohammed and I were putting our thoughts together on the Newswatch project. We thought it was actually in the “national interest” to bring such a brilliant man into the Newswatch project. We did. The New Nigerian’s loss was Newswatch’s gain.
During the Sani Abacha regime, one of the coup plotters that played a prominent part in the sacking of Ernest Shonekan, the leader of the Interim Government, was David Mark. Mark, apparently frustrated by Abacha’s scheme to stay beyond the time they had agreed, granted an interview to Newswatch. In that interview, he said that Abacha was plotting to stay beyond the agreed period. As soon as the publication hit the newsstands Abacha pounced on the three of us – Dan, Yakubu and me – and threw us into detention. A few days later, we were taken to court and charged with mutiny. We thought mutiny was an offence that could be committed only by soldiers and other persons in the uniformed forces not by journalists who simply published an interview that did not cause any mutiny. There lies the danger in leaving the definition of what is “national interest” to the whims and caprices of partisan state officials in army uniform or in civilian attire. If allowed they will not hesitate in using such an indefinable expression for the suppression of unfavourable political opinion or oppression of political opponents.
The primacy of national interest comes from the Realist School of International Relations. Mr. Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian writer and political theorist, is regarded as the father of national interest primacy. Machiavelli, the author of the much dissected book, The Prince, believed that in politics the end always justifies the means. This 15th century thesis may still be attractive to dictators today but it is in-consistent with the requirements of a democracy in the 21st century. Many jurists in the world believe that there is a huge incompatibility between rule of law and the national interest. In the history of our nation, we had to do battles with dictators, elected and unelected, to retrieve some of our rights and freedoms that they had trampled upon. We have fought pitched battles with them in courts and in the streets over the years. If the need arises we will continue to do so.
I believe that the courts are more reliable determinants of the national interest than partisan politicians who decide whimsically on those matters. Rule of law is less imperfect than the Rule of men. Rule of law is not perfect because the institutions and people that manage it – courts, prosecutors, lawyers, judges – are not perfect. But the courts are less imperfect than partisan politicians. Politicians only look after the next election and their sustenance in office. The courts only largely look out only for the next suspect. They have no vested interest to protect. That is not the case with partisan politicians. All partisan politicians have vested interests which make them retain only poor regard for the rule of law. They respect the rule of law only when it is convenient for them. Several examples can be sited but the Sambo Dasuki and Elzakzakky examples are glaringly outstanding. Several courts have granted them bail several times over the last two years but officialdom has kept them incarcerated incommunicado.
We can also invest more confidence in the rule of law than in the rule of men because the law courts have an appealate system which guarantees that mistakes made in the courts below have a chance of being rectified at the apex court which are manned by eminently experienced jurists. For partisan politicians you can only appeal to their conscience and if they have no conscience that is the end of the matter.
Let me give two examples about the whimsicality of the decisions on national interest. Scenario one: During President Olusegun Obasanjo’s first term, the Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, attended a public function in Lagos. The function was covered by reporters and photographers. Some security personnel beat up some photographers and destroyed their cameras claiming that the photographers had come too close to the Vice President. The press and the public reacted angrily to the unprovoked assault. The Vice President apologized to the photographers. Scenario two: Some years later, the Vice President, the same Atiku Abubakar, came to Lagos and his plane landed at the presidential wing of the domestic terminal. An irate and disorderly crowd of his own partymen and women gathered there, booed and embarrassed him. The security men simply watched the hired rascals without stopping or harassing them.
Was it in the national interest to embarrass the Vice President? The truth was that the times had changed. The President and Vice President had become implacable enemies. So if the security men acted in the national interest during the Vice President’s first visit to Lagos did they act in the national interest during his second visit? Both incidents took place in Lagos. Both incidents involved the Vice President. Both incidents occurred in public places. Security people were present at both events but their reactions were different. So there was a clash between national interest and government interest. It is therefore clear that what a government may choose to call national interest may actually be seen as the narrow and selfish interest of that government instead of the broader and elevated interest of the nation.
Infact, the non-adherence to the rule of law is hurtful to development. The world renowned public intellectual, Professor Francis Fukuyama says in his seminal book, “The Origins of Political Order” that “the absence of a strong rule of law is indeed one of the principal reasons why poor countries can’t achieve higher rates of growth.” The growth referred to here includes not only economic but also growth in democratic terms.
When President Buhari made that statement many people must have felt a creeping uneasiness because ugly things are already happening a few months before the 2019 elections. People are prevented from using public facilities; people’s buildings are demolished on flimsy, trumped up charges; bank accounts of state governments are frozen for the flimsiest of reasons; bizarre impeachments are put on parade and hooded men are ordered to take over parliament. When the President propounds this thesis of the supremacy of national interest it only makes our inner warning systems to go off. It bears an eerie resemblance to what we have been through in our many years of military dictatorship, part of which he was an active dispenser.
Since the President has apparently taken back those words in his conversation with Chancellor Merkel what is left for us to do is to watch how he dances in the months leading up to the 2019 elections. But I hope the prompt and hostile reaction of the public to his dissertation on national interest vis a vis the rule of law is enough to convince him that Nigerians are no longer ready and willing to surrender some more freedom and human rights to the debilitating forces of dictatorship in a democracy.
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