Nigerians may be seeing a sober side of President Muhammadu Buhari in his last three years in power if his Democracy Day pledge to uphold the rule of law is fulfilled.
He pledged, “This administration is focused on ensuring that Nigeria would always be governed by the Rule of Law and I would do my utmost to uphold the constitution and protect the lives and property of all Nigerians.”
This would be refreshing to Nigerians who witnessed Buhari’s brazen abuse of the rule of law in his first term. He disobeyed court orders at will. Sambo Dasuki, national security adviser, NSA, under Goodluck Jonathan, was kept in prison for over four years without trial despite four different court orders granting him bail. Ibrahim El- Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, IMN, has been in detention without trial since 2015, while repeated court rulings granting him bail were ignored by the federal government. Likewise, Omoyele Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters, and presidential candidate of African Action Congress, ACC, in the 2019 presidential election, and Olawale Bakare, were held on obsolete sedition laws for 125 days in disobedience of two different court orders granting them bail.
On August 7, 2018, the Department of State Services, DSS, stormed the National Assembly and prevented lawmakers from entering the complex in what was seen as an attempt to aid the impeachment of then Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu.
Buhari also denigrated the judiciary and the rule of law when he removed Walter Onnoghen as the chief justice of Nigeria, CJN, ahead of the 2019 presidential election in what was widely seen as a strategy to have a preferred candidate in the position.
Buhari also told the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, on August 26, 2018 that rule of law was “subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest.” He quoted the Supreme Court ruling in an unrelated Asari Dukobo case to support his view: “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.”
What does the law actually say on the rule of law? The Supreme Court holds that “The Nigerian Constitution is founded on the rule of law, the primary meaning of which must be done according to the law. It also means that government should be conducted within the framework of recognised rules and principles which restricts discretionary powers”.
Buhari’s first term was marked by abuse of the rule of law but his second term has started with an attitude of repentance and selective obedience thereof. He released Dasuki, Sowore and Bakare. However, El- Zakzaky is still in detention but appears to be having his day in court.
Buhari’s appointments, policies and projects are widely seen to favour his tribe and friends in contravention of the Federal Character Principle as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. However, it appears he is thinking of history as he nears the end of his presidency and wants to leave a positive image.
In the next three years he says, “Government has initiated a number of policies and programmes designed to promote the legal rights of Nigerians, facilitate the institutionalization of a responsive legal system, provide support to all constituted bodies in implementing their mandates, and improve our custodial system of justice. The National Assembly has been an important partner in our quest to sustain our democracy and achieve our development objectives.”
In his new mode, he has acknowledged the press; the first in five years. “I will also like to convey our deep appreciation to members of the Press for your doggedness in the struggle for attainment of democracy since the beginning of our nationhood. I must admit that the relationship between the media and successive governments has not always been perfect. But there is no denying the fact that you have been an effective watchdog for the society especially in holding public officers to account. It is sad that in the course of securing our democracy, some of your colleagues have had to pay a heavy price.”
Like the rule of law, he also reaffirmed freedom of the Press. “We will continue to guarantee freedom of the Press as we place high premium on responsible journalism that is devoid of hate speech, fake news and other unethical professional conduct.”