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Buhari on the rule of law

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IN deference to the strategic place of Nigeria in the West African  sub-region, President Muhammadu Buhari was recently announced as the chairman of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS). Members of the economic bloc comprising 15 countries took the decision in Lome, Togo, while deliberating on issues around security, peace and good governance in member countries and among members of the Economic Community of Central African States.

Ironically, in his acceptance speech, President Buhari urged members to respect the rule of law. He maintained the same position during a visit to the International Criminal Court (ICC). But given his administration’s penchant for cherry-picking court orders, a situation that tends to circumscribe the judiciary and its capacity to engender law and order, not a few people believe that his  advice to his colleagues at ECOWAS  undermines the time-tested  axiom that example is better than precept as the president has, time and again, violated the rule of law. There is a litany of court orders and decisions which the government has refused to obey. Perhaps the most embarrassing ones are those of Ibahim Dasuki and Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. The leader  of the Islamic  Movement of Nigeria,  Sheik Ibrahim  El-Zakzaky, his wife, Zeenah, and Ibrahim Dasuki, the estwhile National Security Adviser under former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, have remained in detention despite several court orders for their release on bail. Even the orders of the ECOWAS  court on Dasuki were not obeyed.  Disregard  for court orders by the executive undemines the authority of the judiciary and it would have been a surprise if the relationship between the two branches of government had not been frosty in the absence of mutual respect.

Although the executive-judiciary relationship has improved slightly now, it was so low at some point that the slow pace of government’s anti-graft war was put down to the judiciary’s lack of cooperation. That was the  grave allegation and mistrust that defined their relationship for a while and it even culminated in what the judiciary described as harassment and invasion of the privacy of some judges by  security agents.  And in all of this, due process and the rule of law were  relegated to the background.  Yet the president swore  to  preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, including the defence of the independence of  the judiciary.  Obedience to court orders is the minimum constitutional commitment  expected from any political leader who has sworn to the constitutional oath of office. That is the surest way to sustain  law and order and rein in the resort to  self-help.

While the president may, in his own judgment,  have the best of intentions in disobeying some court orders, such intentions  do not detract from the illegality of his action. There have been arguments about some high-profile corruption and ethno-religious  cases that have the potential to compromise the security of the state, should the suspects be released on bail. But as seemingly persuasive as this line of thinking may be, it cannot be a  replacement for  the well-considered decisions of the court. For while judicial officers are trained and statutorily obligated  to look at issues dispassionately, the same is not true of a politician whose judgment  is often wittingly or unwittingly coloured by his political leanings and/or other considerations that can hardly stand the scrutiny of fairness and impartiality.

The sad  reality on the ground is that the current official position of President Buhuari on the  rule of law is pernicious, but it is not too late to right the wrongs and turn over a new leaf. The deliberate subversion of the supremacy of law under any guise is not and cannot be in the interest of anyone, including  the author of the subversion, because where the rule of law ceases to have the pride of place, arbitrariness, tyranny and anarchy begin to hold sway.

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