Attorney-General Adoke and the Burden of Memory – Chidi Odinkalu


Senior Nigerian public officers are notoriously parsimonious with their recall, once out of office. From among their club, memoirs are unusual, especially those with any sense of lingering shelf-life. It’s easy to speculate about why this is so. In a country ruled by whim, risk aversion is prudent when you are out of power. By remaining quiet or feigning amnesia, yesterday’s men limit the likelihood that their successors may remember them for the wrong reasons. Moreover, with government as the principal guarantor of a good life, respect for the rule of Omerta is the only way to retain any hope of access to its revolving doors.

When it occurs, departure from this trend is usually enforced. This is why the memoir recently published by Mohammed Bello Adoke is notable. Adoke, a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), was attorney-general and minister of Justice under President Goodluck Jonathan for five years from 2010 until 2015. Since leaving office, his name has been linked with several controversies, the most high profile being in connection with the settlement of the now Infamous Oil Prospecting Lease (OPL) 245 granted in April 1998 by General Abacha to the shadowy Malabu Oil and Gas Limited.

In his memoir, Adoke feels called upon to clear his name by discharging a burden of narration in the controversies that have dogged him after office. Fittingly, his story is published under the titled Burden of Service. The sub-title Reminiscences of Nigeria’s Former Attorney-General, underscores the point that Adoke is, remarkably, the first former attorney-general of the federation to publish any account of his time in office. In addition to the Malabu Oil controversy, Burden of Service also offers insights into many other highlights of the Jonathan years, including the hand-over of Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon, recovery of the Abacha Loot, the removal of Ayo Salami as president of the Court of Appeal, and the climactic denouement to Nigeria’s 2015 general elections.

Adoke’s telling of his version of the stories packs a punch. While his parochial account is interesting in and of itself, it is the vignettes he offers when he is not necessarily pleading his own case that make Adoke’s account deserving of attention. A general theme of his is the shiftiness of Nigerian politicians and he illustrates this with several issues in the book. Five deserve attention.

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The first is the currency of loyalty in Nigerian politics. Under General Abacha, politicians popularised “I am loyal” as a cult greeting. It is not lost on those who are interested that anyone who has need to repeat an affirmation of loyalty in this way probably knows nothing about loyalty in the first place. Illustrating this point, Adoke narrates how many people close to President Jonathan donated money to support the campaign of General Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. According to him, “many of my cabinet colleagues, including those known to be close to the President, had made donations to Buhari’s campaign. Those involved included heads of agencies. A Principal Officer of the National Assembly from the PDP was to later confess publicly that he donated N5 million to the APC during the elections.”

This shiftiness is not limited to politics; it also extends to high matters of constitutional legality. This is the second highlight from the Burden of Service. Adoke tells a remarkable story about the fate of the Constitution (Fourth Amendment) Bill of 2015, which was said to have failed to receive presidential assent before President Jonathan vacated office. The amendment included clauses granting immunity to law-makers, life pension to former presiding officers of the National Assembly and inducting them into life membership of the National Council of State. It also contained a provision dispensing with presidential assent to constitutional amendments. As Adoke tells it, after the 2015 election, the National Assembly transmitted the Bill to the president for his assent. By the time Adoke learnt of this, President Jonathan had reportedly assented to the bill and authorised for this to be returned to the National Assembly. The president’s senior special assistant on administration, Matt Aikihionbare, confirmed this. So, Adoke raced to the Presidency to explain to the president the dangers inherent in the provisions contained in the amendment he assented to. After his encounter with President Jonathan, “the President looked genuinely surprised and promptly withdrew his assent”, whereupon he directed the attorney-general “to prepare a memorandum elucidating all the issues…. raised and why he would have to veto the bill.” The rest is history but an important constitutional question arises – can a president having assented to a law unilaterally withdraw his assent?

Thirdly, there is the issue of the weaponisation of litigation against the public purse in judgment debts. It’s best to render this in Adoke’s own words: “Many of the claims were bogus but since it was an organized scam, they were getting away with it…. Again, there were too many people interested in judgment debts. We were getting calls from all manner of people, including members of the National Assembly. Actually, some National Assembly members were making appropriation for judgment debts based on an understanding with the debtors (sic). It was a conspiracy against the national treasury.” This does not require any translation but it would have been useful if Attorney-General Adoke could tell who “they” were.

At a time when they are being abused to intimidate and persecute critics of government, Adoke, fourthly, offers insights into the context and justifications for the Terrorism Prevention Act (TPA) and Cybercrimes Act, both adopted under his watch as attorney-general. In addition to the clear and present threat of Boko Haram, the rationale for the former was the need to implement the treaty framework of international co-operation on terrorism to which Nigeria had subscribed. Concerning the latter, the goal was to “ensure the protection of critical national information infrastructure and to promote cybersecurity… intellectual property and privacy rights.” Today, sadly, these laws have been turned into instruments for pursuit of regime opponents, more imagined than real.

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Fifth, there is the matter of plea bargains in white collar crimes involving politically exposed persons (PEPs) in Nigeria. About this, Adoke tells the story of the presidential pardon granted former Bayelsa State governor, Diprieye Alamieyeseigha. According to him, Alamieyeseigha’s conviction was under a plea bargain and “as part of the plea bargain he was to be granted presidential pardon by (President Umaru) Yar’Adua after his release from jail. This, however, did not materialize as President Yar’Adua fell ill and died.” Plea bargains are subject to approval by courts and it’s doubtful whether this part of the deal was disclosed to any court. It certainly wasn’t disclosed to Nigerians.

As attorney-general of the federation, Adoke was also the official leader of the legal profession. His memoir offers an unusual insight into how he views hierarchies at the Bar. To make this point, he tells the story of how, before his time, “a substantial part of the budgetary allocation made for solicitors’ fees was being paid out only to two or three private solicitors. There was a case of a former Attorney-General that was paying a Senior Advocate N50 million for each case…” The result was that there was insufficient money to go round, so many of the cases against government went un-defended, leading to more judgment debts. So, how did Adoke address this? He decided that “no SAN would be paid more than N5 million for a brief; any other lawyer, who was not a SAN, would receive a maximum of N2 million.” In the un-complicated calculus of Attorney-General Adoke, a SAN is worth 250 per cent of the non-SAN!

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Burden of Service is replete with claims of moral high ground and completeness of disclosure. As with all memoirs, however, it’s up to the reader to determine what weight to accord to the author’s account. In telling the story of the removal of Ayo Salami as the president of the Court of Appeal, for instance, Adoke prefaces his narration with the implicit disclaimer that “the Attorney-General is not a member of the National Judicial Council (NJC)”, who recommended the retirement of Salami. He then proceeds on a pro-forma narration that is half-hearted to the point of being clearly disingenuous. By Adoke’s own admission, Chief Justice Katsina-Alu, who was the other party in this terminal dog-fight with Salami, was his “mentor and adopted father” and benefactor, who personally recommended him to President Jonathan for the position of attorney-general. Salami, for his part, “had personally encouraged” Adoke to apply for SAN. In the sub-text, Chief Justice Katsina-Alu was family to Adoke and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in this part of the book, at least, he was less than economical with the truth.

A Co-Convenor of Nigeria Mourns, Chidi Anselm Odinkalu works with the Open Society Foundations.


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