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Between Falana and Garba Shehu: Former allies in proxy battles


Garba Shehu

It would be the second time in a space of one month that the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu, would be in a scrape. The first time was when the wife of the President, Aisha Buhari dragged him out to the public square over the behind-the-scene activities and power games in the Presidential Villa.
In the outing, Shehu earned some modicum of public sympathy, either because he decided to heed the moral dictum, which says that silence is golden, or because the public has become a little circumspect about ‘locker room’ excesses from the Villa. But, taking on the legendary human rights activist and senior lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, cast the presidential spokesman in the light of an aggressor, not minding that he was merely carrying out the job he was hired to do.
Both Falana and Shehu share certain things in common, and this must have helped to make their recent exchanges very intriguing and interesting. Prior to his appointment as presidential spokesman, Shehu served as media aide to the fourth republic Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, where he distinguished himself very well.
On his part, perhaps owing to his work as a human rights activist and lawyer, Falana, was a side player in the club of opposition political parties, especially the Alliance for Democracy (AD) that mutated through the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) to the All Progressives Congress (APC). Consequently, when Atiku changed his political platform from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), to the APC, in which the former lone AD governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, was a frontline promoter, Falana and Shehu’s paths must have crossed.
It was therefore impossible to extricate the Senior Advocate of Nigeria from the politics of Southwest APC, which he helped to nurture in some ways, through general advocacy and through activities of the human rights community, which tend to benefit the opposition and all persons outside government. But, despite being loaned by Atiku to the Presidency, the former President of Nigeria Guild of Editors has to do his job foremost, amid other considerations.

Conflict Of Purpose
AS a senior lawyer and rights activist, Mr. Falana is entitled to high profile briefs, especially those that have to do with confronting the government. When the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) were allegedly engaged in violent confrontation with the Nigeria Army, which led to the forceful removal and isolation of their leader, Sheik El Zakzaky and his wife, Ameenat, it was to Falana that IMN ran.
As the litigation between government and IMN progressed, amid protests and government’s display of high handedness, Falana’s clout as an activist helped to mainstream the various legal breaches and official backpedal in the media, to the pain of the powers that be.It would be recalled that at the onset of President Buhari’s second term in office, the rumour mill was surfeit with speculations that the Lagos-based human rights activist had been penciled to replace Abubakar Malami as the nation’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice. At the end of the day, Falana was not named or appointed into the supposedly Next Level administration.
As he continued with his legal practice and periodic interventions on matters relating to jurisprudence and social order, Falana began to wax populist, which made not a few citizens to wonder whether he has parted ways with his ‘friends’ in power.President Buhari had to use the occasion of the APC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting to deny that he was remotely interested in plotting for a third term in office as alleged by Falana in one of his appearances on national television.
However, every shadow of doubt that all was no longer well in the APC, especially between its former confederacy of rights activists and the Villa, was lifted after Falana took up the brief involving the publisher of the online website, SaharaReporters, Omoyele Sowore, who called for RevolutionNow mass action to demand for good governance from President Buhari.
Falana’s relationship with Sowore is said to have predated the formation of the APC coalition, to Sowore’s student union days, when they joined in the struggle for the validation of the 1993 presidential election presumed to have been won by the late business mogul, Chief Moshood Abiola and against military interventions.
Perhaps, it was as a result of that long closeness that some stakeholders from certain parts of the country believe that he (Falana) and his colleagues in the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) from the Southwest are unusually too close to former Governor Tinubu.But, standing as Sowore’s counsel in the treason trial, Falana brought to bear the ferocity of his legal activism and years of experience in moving against human rights abuses, thereby activating similar social mobilization that discomfited the military after it annulled Abiola’s election.
It could not be ascertained whether Falana was taking up the El Zakzaky and Sowore’s cases pro bono. His altruism in these matters is never in doubt.
The lawyer dismissed the administration’s charge that the call for RevolutionNow amounted to treason, recalling how he stood as counsel to Buhari and the defunct All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), when they called for revolution, but also mass action after the 2003 general elections.
As such, nonplussed as to whether Falana’s claim of a third term plot by his principal was to advance his legal representation of Sowore or as part of his general political interests, the SSA media to the President decided to pooh-pooh the senior lawyer, alluding to his failed governorship ambition and ministerial disappointment.
In the statement released by Shehu, which tried to dismiss the third term agenda, Falana was accused of courting cheap publicity and media attention, stressing that President Buhari has “made it clear that he has no interest in staying in office beyond 2023.”Although Shehu did not say so categorically, but the tenor of his statement showed that the Presidency was worried by the negative publicity Falana was attracting to the government, not only through the alleged third term plot, but also by keeping Sowore’s wrongful detention in full public glare.
By insisting on the tenure elongation narrative, Falana was creatively throwing up the silent logic that an administration that flouts the rule of law could as well alter the Constitution.But, seeming to have caught the joke, Shehu had declared: “There are no circumstances – nor set of circumstances – under which President Buhari may seek to amend the Constitution regarding the two-term term limit on holding office as President.
“President Buhari intends to serve his full second elected term in office, ending 2023 – and then there shall be a general election in which he will not be a candidate. There is not even the faintest possibility that this will change.”Yet, determined to worst the Presidency in the court of public opinion, the senior lawyer brought out further proofs to justify his insistence that a third term agenda was actually afoot.  
While contending that the third term agenda for President Buhari kicked off on September 21, 2019 under the auspices of “Movement for the Approval of Buhari Third Term,” Falana noted that the Police or the State Security Service did not harass the campaigners, even when they staged their show in Abuja.   
The lawyer recalled a stillbirth suit by an APC chieftain praying for the amendment of the Constitution, arguing that the Presidency never sanctioned the litigant or disowned those that staged the September campaign in Abuja. It was only the APC that made some weak threats.Falana stated: “Notwithstanding the official denial of the third term agenda the Buhari regime has since intensified its campaign for the emasculation of the opposition and constriction of the democratic space.
“This has been manifested in the subversion of the rule of law through disobedience of court orders, sponsoring of anti-media bills and reckless arrests, detention and prosecution of the perceived enemies of the federal government.“Peaceful meetings and rallies against unpopular policies of the government are violently suppressed, while crowds are rented to attack groups and citizens, who challenge authoritarian rule in the land…”
In the midst of the exchanges, it was obvious that the former allies have become suspicious of each other, because as some commentators noted, it was the same strategy the former opposition deployed to dethrone PDP that has become the point of disagreement.Nigerians were caught in the middle of a big puzzle: Was Falana agitated by the breach of democratic ethos by the government or pained by the lack of ‘reward’ or recognition of his former service? Was he emboldened by the briefs from IMN and the RevolutionNow convener to wage the legal and activist challenge against the government?

What if the government was blackmailing its former foot soldiers to abdicate the moral burden of its failed promises and assurances, especially against the background of claims that the Presidency is unlikely to honour a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ regarding 2023 and rewarding those, who helped to deliver 2015 and 2019?
Dismissing the accusation of judicial blackmail, Falana declared: “For filing suits in the courts to challenge official impunity, I have been accused of engaging in judicial blackmail by sponsored agents of the state. By now, I expect the Presidency to have realised that I have been as constant as the northern star in the defence of human rights, democracy and rule of law…
“In denying the third term agenda, President Buhari said that he ‘can afford to be reckless’. Since we are not a conquered people we are not going to allow the President to be reckless in the exercise of his powers, in so far as they are limited by the Constitution!”Knowing that President Buhari has declared that nobody should campaign to be president in 2023 by dropping his name, it could as well be that Shehu and Falana were engaged in proxy fight after all. Those who gave to the President what they felt they could take back must by now be feeling frustrated and dejected.

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