Buhari, National Interest And Rule Of Law

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Recently, President Muhammadu Buhari was reported to have, while flagging off the 2018 Annual General Conference of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) in Abuja, announced that his administration was considering raising public interest and national security above the rule of law.
“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 and public interests 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 the society,” Buhari was quoted to have said.
Though the President did not give specific instances of how his government intends to draw the line between public interest and national security, the media had lately been awash with reactions occasioned by his speech at the NBA confab. Recall that the Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Abubakar Malami, had earlier adduced reasons why the Buhari administration could not release the detained former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd), despite court orders to that effect.
The Tide is dismayed by the President’s speech as it is not only worrisome but also unacceptable, especially if we consider that it is coming just a few months before the 2019 general elections. It is rather unfortunate that the President, as an individual, or perhaps in consultation with his motley crew of advisers, would be the sole determinant of what constitutes national interest/security.
It is our candid position that the courts (Judiciary) be allowed to interpret or draw the line between national interest/security and fundamental human rights of the citizens. The present situation where the government speedily executes favourable court judgments but trumps up security concerns only when it suffers embarrassing legal defeats simply smacks of brazen judicial contempt and executive rascality.
Our submission is premised on the understanding that Mr. President, being human, may have his prejudices over certain persons and issues which could affect his judgement in matters bordering on individual rights and national interest. While we concede that his office is enormously endowed with state powers, going by the 1999 Federal Constitution (as amended), it is also granted that the same document duly recognises the natural and fundamental rights of the citizens. More so, Nigeria is a signatory to the International Human Rights Treaty which unequivocally recognises the natural rights of individuals, especially in a democracy.
One of the most respected legal minds to comment on Buhari’s claim, Chief Mike Ozehkome (SAN), was reported to have countered thus: “He (President Buhari) is dead wrong. The rule of law predominates over national interest. Without the rule of law, there can be no nation-state. Without a nation-state, there can be no national interest. The rule of law is the father of national interest.”
There have also been suggestions that Buhari’s controversial claim, judging from experiences all over the world, particularly in Africa, points to the antics usually employed by despots to perpetuate themselves in power by incarcerating their critics and vocal members of the opposition. The suspicions seem to have been stoked by the President’s body language since assuming office in 2015, especially his refusal to obey court orders over Dasuki; arbitrary arrest and detention of newsmen; detention of sectarian leaders like El-Zak Zaky without trial; shooting of pro-Biafra agitators; and the Gestapo-style midnight raid of some judges’ residences across the country.
We understand that the President made a volte face last Friday, on account of the massive criticism that trailed his comment, but that could also be because a serious election season stares him in the face. And this is, therefore, no time for any unpopular claims.
Nigeria is a democratic state and the political class must learn to tolerate the opposition because that largely determines democratic sustenance. They must strive to imbibe democratic values, norms and ethos in line with international best practices if the country’s nascent democracy is to endure.