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Why attorney general’s office should be immune from partisan politics

By Joseph Onyekwere
29 June 2020   |   3:04 am
Following the inauguration of the caretaker committee of the All Progress Congress (APC) last week in Abuja by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami

Following the inauguration of the caretaker committee of the All Progress Congress (APC) last week in Abuja by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, lawyers have renewed calls for the insulation of the office from political influence. Malami had administered the oath of office to Governor Mai Mala Buni of Yobe State as the chairman of the new caretaker committee of the APC last Thursday.

Following criticisms by his colleagues, who described it as an abuse of office, the AGF issued a statement defending himself, maintaining that no law barred him from performing such act. To which vocal lawyer, Mr. Charles Candide-Johnson rather ironically said: “nothing prevents him legally from abasing his office.”

According to Candide-Johnson, the actual role of the AGF is to protect the law and the constitution and so convention across the world is to immunise the office from purely partisan influence.

“The more partisan the holder is, then the less likely that the office has credibility and influence for its primary task,” he said. “An AGF needs to think about his constitutional role in his entire demeanour. I very much doubt that this is considered in Nigeria. Most Nigerian AGFs are mere political hacks who have been appointed because they are errand boys.”

Human rights lawyers, Mr. Yinka Oyeniji explained that the office of the Attorney General of the Federation is provided for under Section 150 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999. Appointee in that office, he said, is deemed the chief law officer of the federation and a minister of the government of the federation.

“Section 149 of the same Constitution prescribes the prerequisites for assuming duties as a minister of the government, which also includes that of the AGF, who doubles as minister for justice,” Oyeniji said. “The section directs the taking of the oath of office and subscribing also to the oath of allegiance as prescribed under the seventh schedule to the constitution.

“The schedule contains a code of conduct for public officers and section 1 provides that ‘a public officer shall not put himself in a position where his personal interest conflicts with his duties and responsibilities.’

“Therefore, the AGF, having administered the oath of office for the leadership of a political party makes him partisan and unable to cure an obvious conflict in being an active member of a political party as well as being a public officer for all the parties and citizenry in Nigeria.”

According to him, the action of the AGF lay bare his personal leanings and interests which conflict with being an unbiased public officer. He pointed out that the section in the constitution has a short title that reads “conflict of interest with duty”. This, he said, is probably more pronounced with the reading of section 9 of the same schedule with the heading “abuse of powers” which says “a public officer shall not do or direct to be done, in abuse of his office, any arbitrary act prejudicial to the rights of any other person knowing that such act is unlawful or contrary to any government policy”.

Oyeniji said: “Administering oath on the leadership of a political party is prejudicial to members of that party as well as those of other political parties; even those who are non-partisan. This shows a public identification with a political party and dispensing public acts for the benefit of that one party whilst being prejudicial against members of the political class who are not of the same political leanings.”

Also, the chairman, Nigerian NBA Young Lawyers Forum, Ikeja Branch, Yusuf Temilola Nurudeen, stated that the office of the AGF is a scared one in the land is the only constitutionally recognised member of the Federal Executive Council. Citing section 174 of the 1999 constitution, Nurudeen explained that the responsibilities of the AGF include ensuring that all state agencies, department of government and public institutions comply with the provisions of the constitution.

“He is expected to jealously protect the rights and interests of the public, which he considers necessary for the preservation of law and order,” Nurudeen argued. “Therefore, considering the enormity of the powers and sensitivity of the office, he is not expected at any point in time to be partisan. Being partisan on any issue will naturally taint his decisions with a great element of bias.

“Therefore, going forward, the office of the AGF must be separated from that of the Minister of Justice. I suggest that the appointment of the Attorney General should be an exclusive preserve of men and women who have contributed immensely to the legal profession and, by extension, the development of the country likened to the appointment of justices of superior courts of record, while the minister of justice can be a politician that can be appointed by the president.”

But Kano based lawyer, Abubakar Sani seems to have a different view. According to him, administering the oath of office to officials of a political party is not unconstitutional and does not violate any constitutional provision. On the contrary, he explained that the Constitution contemplates and encourages party politics, hence its copious provisions to that effect.

“To that extent, an AGF appointed by the president, pursuant to constitutional powers, is deemed to be a political appointee and any official function which he performs at the behest, or on the instruction, of the president would only be invalid if it violates any provision of the constitution or written law.

“Does any law bar an AGF from performing any particular function which he has performed on any given occasion?” he asked. “That is the question. Without amending the constitution, this will, unfortunately, remain the reality and any other scenario would be sheer idealism bordering on fantasy.”

Toeing the same line of argument, immediate past chairman of NBA, Ikorodu branch, Mr. Bayo Akinlade said the AGF would naturally do what his boss tells him to do.

According to Akinlade, “As a minister of justice, he doubles as the personal legal counsel of the president. That is why there is a clamour to separate the position of AGF from the minister of justice. Unless we change this, the AGF will always act first as a minister of justice before considering his role as AGF.”