Azuka Onwuka

In a democracy, the final decision on any matter lies with the Judiciary. Consequently, the symbol of justice is represented by a blindfolded lady (goddess) that dispenses justice without seeing the faces of those involved, to avoid bias and sentiments. Therefore, EVERYBODY is under the law. Nobody is above the law, no matter the person’s position.

Whatever decision reached by the court is binding on all. Nobody can alter it or thwart it. To ensure that cases are properly adjudicated from different perspectives, the court has many levels. So if the magistrate’s court pronounces judgment on an issue, it remains binding and final unless a higher court upturns that judgment. That is also the situation on cases at the high court as well as the appeal court. But at the Supreme Court, whatever decision reached is the final. Even the Supreme Court cannot reverse itself, because it is expected that the case has received all the necessary attention and scrutiny.

This separation of powers as well as the powers placed on the courts creates order and ensures that not even the President of a country can take the law into his hands. When citizens are aggrieved, they usually restrain themselves because they believe that the law court will dispense justice fairly once the matter is brought before it. The status of the appellant or defendant does not matter.

The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has been tackling the issue of corruption with some determination. It was one key promise he made during the campaigns. Corruption has been a huge problem in Nigeria for decades. Political office holders as well as non-political office holders who work in government offices and private organisations blatantly indulge in bribery, corruption and outright stealing of funds. Ironically, the ordinary folks who engage in corruption and outright stealing still point at politicians as the corrupt people. How was a person whose salary is less than N300, 000 per month able to buy 10 houses in the city and his hometown within five years as well as have three of his children in European and American universities? Let us not mention the number of cars and family holidays in Europe and the Americas this same person has access to. Is he engaging in “money-doubling”. No. It is just the proceeds from corruption and embezzlement.

Therefore, the fight against corruption by the Buhari regime is a welcome one that should be supported by all well-meaning Nigerians. But there is a snag. It is the court that says what should happen to whoever is accused of corruption or any other crime. It is not the duty of the President or any of the security agencies to determine that the pronouncement of a law court should be flouted because the accused deserves to be punished. Once this is done, the law ceases to be supreme. Rather, the President becomes supreme. In countries where the leader is above the law, the title of the leader is usually “the Supreme Leader”. During military dictatorship in Nigeria when there was a ruling body whose decision was final, it was called the Supreme Military Council. It had the powers to even make a law and backdate it. Its decision could not be questioned. But given that we are in a democracy, our leader is called the President, while we have a law court called the Supreme Court whose decisions are final.

This is a point that many are missing in Nigeria today. Despite how deep corruption and other vices have eaten into our nation, the decisions of the law courts must always be respected even when someone is caught red-handed stealing or committing a crime. If a court says that a detainee should be released unconditionally, that must be obeyed promptly. It does not matter how annoying the judgment is. The Department of State Services or the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission or police should not still detain that person while trying to come up with fresh charges against the person. It is an affront on the law. It makes a mockery of the law. Disobeying the court is a recipe for anarchy. It was sad that in his maiden media chat, the President justified the disobedience of court orders by the DSS, proving that the DSS was acting on his directive.

Sadly, there are people who are justifying this because of partisan politics, including lawyers who should know better. Ironically, these days, anybody who asks that the rule of law be respected is accused of supporting corruption, just to shut the person up. But in every society, when some lose their heads to emotions, some must keep theirs and continue to sound the alarm.

A similar scenario played out during the tenure of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as President. Because of his zeal to fight corruption, he pushed the EFCC to the point of illogicality. Tanti-graft agency was invading even hallowed chambers to arrest people with fanfare. Seven members of a state House of Assembly were suspending other 15 members and going ahead to impeach the state governor. Governors were impeached under a mango tree or in a hotel room or in a neighbouring state. Some who won party primaries or even elections were rejected by Obasanjo. Even the Supreme Court decision on the seizure of Lagos State funds was ignored by Obasanjo. Most of those who are applauding Buhari’s disobedience of court pronouncements today complained bitterly about Obasanjo’s disobedience of court orders then, especially the Supreme Court ruling on Lagos State funds. Eventually almost all the impeachment cases the EFCC facilitated against some governors were upturned and the governors reinstated.

To a large extent, the Presidency of Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua as well as that of Dr Goodluck Jonathan respected court pronouncements and also followed due process. Even their known political opponents were treated fairly. For example, when the courts granted Mallam Nasir el-Rufai and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu bail during their trials, they were released once they met their bail conditions. Also, once the cases against them were quashed by the court, they were released.

There seems to be a trend to note. Former military generals who later became Nigerian Presidents were wont to disobey court decisions, while those who became presidents as civilians had a higher record of obeying court pronouncements. In addition, the National Assembly was stable under Yar’Adua and Jonathan (full civilians) but unstable under Obasanjo and Buhari (retired generals). Furthermore, elections were more transparent and less rancorous under Yar’Adua and Jonathan than under Obasanjo and Buhari.

Democracy has many flaws. Decisions are slow to be taken or even implemented. Clear thieves and murderers can easily walk out of courtrooms free. But in comparison to other forms of government, it is still far better. Democrats are patient. When laws tend to hamper their progress, they seek to amend those laws rather than disobey them.

President Buhari should ensure that those who break the laws of Nigeria are tried. But he should not break the law while trying to deal with lawbreakers. He should also ensure that not only members of the opposition are investigated and prosecuted. He must remember that his designation is “President,” not “Supreme Leader.” That means that he must obey all decisions made by the law courts, no matter how annoying they may seem. If he is not happy with any decision, he should go to court immediately. That is how a country develops and avoids a descent into anarchy.

– Twitter @BrandAzuka

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