Judiciary must guard our democracy

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Misuse of judiciary to enervate legislature is concerning
The Senate, “the chamber that can most often frustrate presidents,” Adrian Wooldridge – a British columnist – wrote once. That is, even in that bastion of democracy: America. Barack Obama has endured much grief. At least, he needn’t worry that any other person could bask in the privilege of having a title almost similar to that of his office. Not in Nigeria. The president of its Senate, Bukola Saraki – whose official title must rile that eminence living between the hills in the country’s capital with the actual privileges of the honour of ‘president’ being put before his name – has accused the central government of being under the undue influence of a few people. Something about a ‘government within the government’ of President Muhammadu Buhari. The embattled senate president – who is facing senate rules forgery court charges against him by the country’s attorney-general, Abubakar Malami, who doubles as justice minister – did not mention names. Mr Saraki’s deputy, Ike Ekweremadu, was charged in tandem. As a country, we have been here before. Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, the deceased former Nigerian president – whose death allowed for the emergence of the incumbent’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan – it turned out, relied on his wife and a few functionaries to exercise the powers of his office, as his capacity to do so waned due to ill health. Ironically, Mr Saraki was a close ally of that Nigerian president. Let’s just say, the territory is familiar to him. Only this time, he is on the outside. Not surprisingly, the executive branch chose not to hold back. Top government scribe, Babachir Lawal, in unusual form, hit back at the embattled lawmaker. Typically, a response by the presidential spokesman suffices.

President’s men need more supervision
Mr Buhari is not Mr Yar’Adua certainly. The latter couldn’t supervise his men even if he wanted to. The incumbent, a retired military general, though an old man, is in better form. Though also with health problems of his own, he is still able to keep tabs on his officials. Thing is, a president is not often able to do everything that he wants. And because this one abides by certain well-known strictures, it is possible for his officials to take certain actions that though he may consider unwise, he would not necessarily overrule. True, Mr Buhari is probably still irritated by the emergence of Mr Saraki as the third most senior leader in the land. And he would probably not mind if someone more ‘trusting’ emerges. Even so, I doubt very much that he would get involved in tactics. That is the job of the so-called ‘government within the government.’ Every presidency has one.

At a strategic level, however, he is certainly in control. But he relies on a small group of trusted advisors. And once sure of their loyalty – built over the long period of his relative irrelevance hitherto – it is believed he allows them certain freedoms. With his frequent travels and health issues – Mr Buhari only recently returned from a health vacation abroad, he has probably allowed them too much room. Some key officials of his administration have reportedly been doling out the type of patronage Mr Buhari promised to discourage. For instance, recent recruitment exercises by the central bank and prison service were probably unfair, with positions reportedly going to relatives and kinsmen of ruling party members; especially from the north. It could be said that they were following the lead of their principal, whose appointments to influential government positions – the security services in particular – have mostly been from the northern parts of the country; where he hails from.

Third branch on trial?
More fundamentally, is it appropriate to prosecute lawmakers for privileged activities within the hallowed chamber of the Senate? Legal opinions I am privy to suggest it is not. It seems now Mr Saraki and co. may not so much be those on trial as would be the Nigerian judiciary. In times past, the third branch stood firmly on the right side.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays).

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