“The Vice President and the Judiciary”, Nigeria World, Monday April 5, 2004

A friend of mine, Chinedu Idike, once asked me: “Who is a gentleman?” Before I could figure out what may have prompted that question or where he was drifting our discussion to, he saved me an imminent embarrassment. His inquisition caught me off guard. I did not have an answer save to think about what Fela had to say on the subject. Thankfully, he volunteered a response to his bizarre question. According to him, “a gentleman is one whom you have not seen in his true colour”. This is a highly pessimistic view of a gentleman.

It is instructive, nonetheless. Logically pursued, it means that the concept of a gentleman is illusory, a façade, if you please. This is so because we all are wont to retreat to our true colours, the enclave of our lived reality, without inhibitions and circumspections. But do not flow along with me yet. What does he mean by true colour? That was a question that I did not get to ask my friend. As you can see, I merely conjectured what he meant by true colour. Since then, we have talked about other things and have not talked about our burgeoning inquiry into the concept of a gentleman.

I suggest that my friend has a negatively biased notion of true colour. He thinks that being in true colour must be an antithesis of being gentle. But could this be correct? My answer is that it is not necessarily so. True colour(s), we all have. But our roles in the society, especially our public or official positions obligate us to switch colours and front the best ones for the public good. But because our true colour must always be true, it is like smoke, prone to escape, often without notice and in circumstances inevitable. When it does, for public officers, their skill in damage control and crisis management is called to task. But those whose true colours are generally good-natured, when unwanted smoke escapes, it is unlikely to be toxic and can easily be contained. Such people are the gentlemen in deed and in truth.

We are daily being called upon to switch colours in accordance with the dictates of our burdens, responsibilities, positions and roles in society. But a certain trait or colour is dominant in defining who we are. Soldiers are not supposed to shed tears, at least not in public. The sight of a weeping general is repulsive. Do you remember Patrick Aziza Coup Tribunal? It is not that generals are not human, but it is because they have a responsibility, a commitment to all things brave and loathsomeness to all conduct cowardly, emotional and weak. This expectation does not cease with the end of one’s career in the military. So, what is this all about? Hold your patience.

The Vice President, in the last week or so, has been in the news for no good cause. In his reaction to the verdict of the Adamawa State Election Petition Tribunal that annulled the election of Boni Haruna, his governor and associate, Abubakar was quoted to have burst into a feat of rage and took a thorough swipe at the tribunal Judge. Hear him: “I am happy that the judgment is over, and even it amounts to insulting, beating or slapping anyone, we are equal to it and we shall say it loud”. Continuing, Abubakar was quoted to have said “I know that I am not from a family of judges…if worse comes to the worst, I will insult any judge. It may not only be insults, but as well as beating up such a judge”.

These statements and their underlying context were reported in detail across the print media in Nigeria. A cross section of the Nigerian public, professional organizations, including the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), civil society groups and political parties have since condemned the Vice President and his tirade. With different emphases, they have evaluated the ramifications of Abubakar’s outburst on the polity. They are unanimous in their verdict: it is unbecoming of the office and person of the vice president; it portends danger to our putative democracy and deserves an apology “without any reservation whatsoever”. I will return to the issue of apology shortly. Before then, let us me explore two questions.

Was this Abubakar in his true colour? I do not know him, I have not met him and would rather that those who know him address that question. What I know is that he is a retired customs officer. In Nigeria, as elsewhere, the customs is a quasi or paramilitary organization. In most cases, in Nigeria, customs personnel make pretension to being more military than the military, especially when there is a need to “settle”. So, Abubakar’s threat to use force or physical self-help in place of due process strikes a cord with his paramilitary orientation. As true as that may be, it raises another question: Does his office as a Vice President in a democratic dispensation not override a self-help approach of customs hangover? Despite whatever his true colour may be, the office of the Vice President requires that Abubakar switch colours and maintain decorum with the rule of law not only while in that office but also after he leaves office. In and out of office, Abubakar has a leadership position and responsibility to Nigeria that has given him so much. His public utterances must be guarded and measured to say the least.

The self-help and military approach to resolving conflict is antithetical to the democratic process. Within the current political dispensation, especially in the two major parties, we see why the potential for self-help approach is real. Take a look at the top brass of the PDP and ANPP you will appreciate the military, police and customs infestation that bestride our political firmament. Most of these elements are pretenders to democracy. Leopards do not shed their skins easily; they can only camouflage. In doing that, they do a very poor job. Not too long ago, at the Ikeja Cantonment explosions, Abubakar’s boss let out his short fuse and chided weeping women and children who crowded around him for hope and comfort to “shut up”. He reminded them that he was not supposed to be there, at the point of their agony. They should make do with his miraculous and messianic presence and shut up.

Sometimes when I reflect upon the failures of leadership in Nigeria, I cannot but reluctantly think about what happens elsewhere. No long ago, Howard Dean, the contender to the US Democratic Party Presidential ticket lost favour with his teaming supporters and with that, his Presidential ambition. His crime was for daring to express a harmless emotional (some would say youthful) outburst. Our politicians get away with a lot of things, including murder! And why wouldn’t they? After all, parties do not count on peoples’ votes but on oiling and perfecting the machinery of election rigging. Ideally, OBJ’s gaffe alone at the Ikeja explosions was enough to buy him a return ticket to the chicken farm at Otta in the 2003 elections. But did it? No. Rather, it brought the whole South West, Nigeria most enlightened electorate, to his side. I also know that paucity of a viable alternative had a hand in this. Again, it is an open question whether votes influence electoral outcomes in our polity.

Similarly, for his uncouth threat to the judge and ridicule on the judicially, Abubakar’s utterances is enough to get urbane Boni Haruna out of the State House in Yola, notwithstanding what Huruna has going for him. If democracy was real and true in Nigeria, Abubakar has played into the hands of the rival party at least on the scale of sympathy. Whether by appeal or through a repeat election, it would be difficult to justify the transparency of a process that returns PDP to power in Adamawa. One way of mitigating the ugly situation is ironically the one Abubakar has just foreclosed. That is by a genuine and well-intended apology. Instead of an apology, he preferred to clarify.

Consider Abubakar’s attempt at reconstruction of facts. He spoke through his Senior Special Assistant (Public Communications and Media Affairs). Point one: When the need to speak for themselves arises, our politicians retreat and leave it for others. They forget that a genuine apology and damage control requires a personal involvement. Apologies are always rendered in a faceless manner from their imperial heights. Imagine a Bill Clinton, speaking through God-knows-who about his personal involvement with Ms Lewinsky? When the need arose, Bill came down from his presidential heights and reconnected with the American people he offended. He personally identified with his burden and misdeed. Any way, our Vice President did not say he was apologizing.

Point two: And so, what did the Hon. Dr. Adinoyi Ojo say on behalf of his boss? “The Vice President who spoke in Hausa did not any time impugn the integrity of the judiciary”. He would continue to “uphold the rule of law and integrity of the sacred institution” which he holds “in high esteem as one of the most important institutions in our democracy”. So, where is the clarification? All the news media and their translators must take responsibility for fabricating the stories, for misleading the Nigerian public, for inciting them against the Vice President, for impugning the integrity of the judiciary and for putting our putative democracy in harm’s way. The Guardian had a more intriguing spin to the issue. According to it, “the Vice President denied on Monday that he impugned the integrity of the judiciary, noting that he was misrepresented”. That ugly word has finally landed: “misrepresented”. You guess, whose business it is to misrepresent public officers? The press, of course. And I wondered why the Vice Presidential Aid did not ask the press to retract the publication. That would have fulfilled the course of “unreserved apology” or whatever you call it, the Nigerian style.

Five years after the return of civil rule in Nigeria, we have an-anything-goes kind of democracy. Despite pressures, the judiciary has remained comparatively steadfast. NBA President, Chief Wole Olonipekun (SAN) has made this point quite well. For instance, the Ngigegate has shown the strength and resilience of the judiciary. It is the last hope of the common and uncommon man alike. I am deeply pained and saddened that our Vice President would bare his executive fangs on the judiciary for keeping faith with its constitutional role. Since Obasanjo’s re-election is being contested, Abubakar threat must be put in perspective.

So far, it is only the Adamawa Election Petition Tribunal that has made a far-reaching decision against the ruling PDP. Meanwhile, the 2003 Presidential Election Petition Tribunal is in session. Abubakar has a higher stake in its outcome. Other election petitions, especially the APGA challenge against PDP in Anambra are being watched with keen interest. Beyond Adamawa, Abubakar’s threat has greater ramifications across the nation. The judiciary must remain focused and steadfast; the Bar and the Bench must neither fall for the entreaties or the threats from the executive no matter how thinly veiled. The judiciary is the last Rubicon for a ravaging executive. If they “conquer” our judiciary, they should accept the consequences and not hope to rely on the same judiciary to press for due process from the maximum-security prisons. The alternative to a subdued judiciary does not respect due process.


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