ASUU, Kanu, Bawa, Buhari and Respect for the Court

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By Azuka Onwuka

Justice is represented with the symbol of a blindfolded lady bearing a set of balancing scales. She is not supposed to see those she judges so that she will not be swayed by emotion. Whoever does not weigh well on the scales is punished. That is what the justice system in a democracy is supposed to be. It should not vary according to who is involved.

However, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari(retd.), continued to show that his idea of justice is a lady with only one eye covered. Therefore, Buhari’s lady justice dispenses justice depending on who is involved. Some incidents in recent weeks have proved this again.

For seven months, the Academic Staff Union of Universities was on strike because of a breakdown in discussion between the union and the Federal Government. Having used all the possible means to get the university lecturers to call off their strike without success, the Federal Government approached the National Industrial Court to order ASUU to call off its strike. On September 21, the court ordered ASUU to call off its strike and resume teaching while discussing its issues with the Federal Government.

Immediately the interlocutory injunction was issued, officials of the Federal Government began to preach to ASUU about respect for the law. ASUU said it would appeal the order. And it did appeal. The argument of the agents of the Buhari regime was that once a court issues an order, it has to be obeyed first. Not even an appeal can make one not to obey the order. Only a ruling by a court of law with the requisite jurisdiction can upturn such a judgement.

Other Nigerians who love the rule of law advised ASUU to obey the court ruling so as not to lose the moral high ground. There is an argument made about the decision of a court of law. It is said that if a judge comes into the courtroom apparently drunk, staggering and reeking of alcohol, but makes a ruling on a case, that ruling stands and should be obeyed. It is not for anybody to decide not to obey the order because there is evidence that the judge made the pronouncement under the influence of alcohol. Even the President of the country has no legal right to take such a step. That will amount to taking the law into his own hands. The only legal way to set aside that ruling is to appeal it by approaching a higher court of law. It is left for the judge to review the case and determine if the ruling of the lower court was wrong.

Following that court ruling, ASUU heeded the advice and the lecturers returned to the classrooms. The country heaved a sigh of relief.

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On October 13, the Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja discharged and acquitted the leader of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu, of terrorism charges. The court ruled that the Buhari administration breached Nigerian and international laws by the way it abducted Kanu from Kenya and brought him to Nigeria in 2021. The music from the Buhari regime changed. The argument and spin began. The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami(SAN), came up with the argument that the court only discharged Kanu but did not acquit him. The short and long of it was that the Buhari regime refused to release Kanu in contrast to the same way it advised ASUU to obey the court ruling first and appeal later. Kanu remained in detention while the Federal Government sought a court order to approve that Kanu be kept in detention.

It should be remembered that on two occasions, a group of South-East elders visited Buhari and appealed to him to release Kanu so as to use it as a means to calm the nerves of the people of the South-East region. Buhari made it clear to them that he was a democrat who would not like to intervene in the work of the judiciary, another arm of government. He said the judiciary should be allowed to decide the matter. Ironically, when the judiciary eventually decided on the matter, Buhari did not keep his word. He found another excuse. He kept Kanu in detention while seeking an order from another court to endorse his continued detention. On October 28, the Court of Appeal (Abuja division) granted an application for the stay of execution of the judgement of the Court of Appeal pending the determination of the appeal filed before the Supreme Court by the Federal Government.

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What is obvious, as many of us had predicted last year, is that Buhari will most likely keep Kanu in detention, no matter what any court of law rules, until he leaves office in May 2023. He may decide to release him some days before his exit from office. He may also decide to leave it to his successor to choose what to do with Kanu.

Coincidentally, Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, Nigeria’s first Commissioner for Aviation – the equivalent of today’s minister – who led the delegation that visited Buhari to appeal for Kanu’s release, died on November 1, at the age of 93. He was so infirm that he sat in a chair in the group photograph Buhari took with the group after the visit. Amaechi had told Buhari inter alia: “I don’t want to leave this planet without peace returning to my country. I believe in one big, united Nigeria, a force in Africa. Mr President, I want you to be remembered as a person who saw Nigeria burning, and you quenched the fire.”

Last week, another legal matter played out. An Abuja High Court ordered that the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Mr Abdurasheed Bawa, be sent to prison for contempt of court. Different groups and individuals urged the Inspector General of Police to execute the order. The police high command said it was not aware of the order. Buhari was quiet about it.

Bawa said he would appeal the ruling. He promptly did. But he continued to stay in his home, doing his work while he waited for the court to give a ruling. On Friday, a court vacated the contempt proceeding that led to the conviction and committal of Bawa to prison.

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When a court sentences regular Nigerians to jail, they are sent to jail straightaway. From there they can appeal to have their sentence quashed. But when a court sentences ‘first-class citizens’ like Bawa to jail, they stay in their homes and get another court to quash the sentence. When the President of a country has the power to decide which court ruling to obey and which not to obey, democracy is suspended.

Democracy can be frustrating at times. People can watch someone who is known to have committed a crime freed by the court based on some technicalities or inability to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. It is also not impossible to induce judges to give favourable judgements. However, that should not be a reason to use undemocratic means to prosecute a case.

Despite all the promises he made when he was seeking the people’s vote before 2015, Buhari has found it hard to fully shirk off his military past. It is sad that with about six months to the end of his eight years in office, that same challenge has remained.

The danger in creating double standards on legal issues is that the leader passes the message that the law should not be respected. The people believe that they cannot get justice through the law courts. They, therefore, decide to take the law into their own hands. Violence increases in society. Everybody loses.

– Twitter: @BrandAzuka

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