It is quite a relief and irony that, at last, some form of restraint was clamped on years-long reckless confrontation (through the media) against court proceedings in Nigeria. That dangerous development could be traced to two sources, either an acquiescent or helpless judiciary while the (print) media were complicit in the apparent contempt of court. It is beyond any reason or understanding why the bench should have withered into helplessness.
Right from colonial days, the law was that once a matter was before law courts, all critical or favourable comments become barred. For decades, this somewhat legal restraint seemed to have lapsed or been disregarded for many reasons. The main one was that, rather inadvertently, it was taken to be normal to comment on cases pending in court, and indeed to audaciously pass judgment on criminal and sensitive trials well in advance of the completion of such cases in courts. That development encouraged total breakdown of the existing legal restraint on comments pending in courts. In essence, the direction judgment should or should not take were loosely and, in some cases, prejudicially predicted in the media. And once that hope was not met, one way or the other, petulance usually erupted.
The most guilty ones? Lawyers, be they brilliant or indolent in making submissions during trials, would be out later before television cameras, grandstanding on the course of the trial moments earlier. The grandstanding is aimed at prejudicing the mind of the public one way or the other. This is against the fact that advocates of democracy, from the beginning, clearly defined that disputes between the citizenry and the state would be determined by the judiciary and any dissatisfaction therefrom, could be argued to higher and eventually highest courts in the land. Consciously or unconsciously in Nigeria, we eroded that differentiation of judicial authority. The longer that disturbing situation continued, the more the potential damage to the polity.
As violators of that code of judicial operation, for whatever reasons, indulged in their recklessness, it was to be expected that the media, with their specialised training on this specific risk of contempt of court on on-going trials, would be least complicit in violation of that golden rule. That self-restraint by the media is all the more demanding in complicated and very sensitive political trials, such as the current presidential election petition in which potentially landmark constitutional/legal issues are raised. There had been nothing like it before. It was, therefore, better left to the tribunal, and the tribunal alone, to determine. Instead, prejudiced and politically vested interests rulings were all over the place, including markets and danfo buses. Among the lot, lawyers with strong views should have known the correct approach.
The president of the presidential election petition panel, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, was, therefore, very mild in merely warning against uttering and publication of views capable of prejudicing the prosecution of the presidential election petition. A stronger point should have been made by summoning lawyers and journalists for contempt and make them to purge themselves or be duly sanctioned.
Justice Bulkachuwa’s warning against contempt of court should not be limited to the election petition tribunal. It is essential to reinforce the law on contempt in the interests of ignorant or/and deliberate violators. After all, in law, ignorance is no excuse.
Nigerian Army is another state institution, which must exercise professional restraint. No matter how they are seen, top military officers with great responsibility of life and death of not only their men but also potential fatal victims of military operations are hardly heard. Neither are they ever linked with political statements. Even policy direction of military operations can hardly be differentiated from politics. Hence, the latter is tactfully left for politicians/Commander-in-Chiefs or minister of defence to relate to the public. Military officers don’t ever get involved in avoidable arguments, especially with opposition politicians. Whatever the provocation, officers stay level-headed and loyal to the Commander-in-Chief who should know and doesn’t need brownnosing.
We saw it in 2015 when serving military officers took over the political campaigns against candidate Muhammadu Buhari. Against their expectations, Buhari won the election. The politician/military officers carried their shame and hurried out of service into retirement. Little wonder, those same retired military officers these days engage in plea bargain to refund their loot. There is this other advice. Admittedly, any military operation is no tea party but rules of engagement in modern times are never gloated about. Again, it is in the interests of military officers to be restrained in their public utterances if at all.
This is 2019 and not 40 or 50 years ago. Rules of engagement of those days still in operation in parts of the world, yet in 2019, now constitute crimes against humanity. The less said or proudly claimed by military officers, the better in their interests. Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Cote d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo and Yugoslavia’s high-ranking military officers never bargained for turn of events 10 or 20 years after, consequences of what they never realised were crimes against humanity. Military officers must exercise individual and group caution against careless political utterances.
What Nigerians want is success against the Boko Haram insurgents within a reasonable time. Nigerian Army had been given a target by Commander-in-Chief Muhammadu Buhari at least twice. Yet, three and half years later, the same target is elusive. This is despite deliberate efforts to lift the fighting spirit of officers and men. Salaries and allowances were not only enhanced but more regularly paid as and when due. More sophisticated equipment has not only been acquired but also publicly acknowledged by military officers. Yet, Boko Haram insurgents almost routinely overrun military formations, not only hold but add more to captives held, tortured and raped against their wish. Nigerian civil war lasted 30 months. Boko Haram originated under Obasanjo’s administration, which ended in 2007. Twelve years later, there is no end in sight
Yet, instead of delivering on the target set for them, military officers enmesh themselves in controversial political statements. This gave rise to public agitation for replacement of service chiefs. We must not forget in military engagements there are bound to be casualties on both sides. Indeed, when officers of the rank of colonels die in action, casualty figures are better imagined. We, therefore, sympathise with Nigerian Army and appreciate their sacrifice in national interest. The more reason Nigerian Army must acquit themselves in the current operations.
Economic and Financial Crimes Commission? Hardly faring better, if not worse. The agency is fond of grandstanding. Psychologically, a criminal suspect will not only deny the offence but also resist prosecution, if not arrest. With that knowledge, why does the EFCC engage in tantrums everytime with high-ranking suspects? Does the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or British Scotland Yard go so low to dignify suspects? EFCC’s task is more demanding and partly accounts for the agency’s failure to live up to expectation.
Statistics. That is EFCC’s armour for self-glorification. But, na statistics we go chop? Nigerians are aware of the unlimited number of high-ranking criminal suspects. How many of them has EFCC successfully prosecuted after high-level propaganda in the press?
A case is particularly irritating. A former Petroleum Minister Diezani Allison-Madueke fled to Britain to escape arrest and trial in Nigeria, or so it seemed. Eventually, she offered to return to Nigeria to contest the criminal charges against her. The EFCC, in open argument with the ex-minister, responded that she must face another trial in London. Her offer to return and face the trial in Nigeria would not have caused Nigeria a kobo and she could still be requested by British authorities to be extradited by Nigeria to face the trial in London, moreso as the exhibit for the trial in London would most likely be traced to Nigerian government ownership.
Has the London trial held? If so, what was the verdict? Then, suddenly, the EFCC, in a vain attempt to impress Nigerians, embarked on propaganda that the agency (EFCC) was pursing Diezani to be extradited by British government to Nigeria to face trial. Such demand for extradition by Britain for her to face trial in Lagos or Abuja would cost Nigeria huge sums not in naira and kobo but sterling as legal fees. How much, Nigerians would never know. Add that to the cost of inevitable series of trips to London by EFCC high and low operatives to pursue the extradition matter to a logical conclusion. What is the answer?
For God’s sake, if Diezani Allison-Madueke’s voluntary offer to return to Nigeria would have cost the country no kobo, why did EFCC reject that cheap offer only to turn round to be grandstanding on its purported moves to get her extradited? It would be a surprise if no Nigerian SAN is involved. But it is inevitable that Nigeria would require the services of a Queen’s counsel to argue its case.
There is nothing extraordinary getting her extradited. Nigeria’s sterling would pay for it.
Postscript: President Buhari these days outwits his political opponents and critics. Victory at polls is a monumental strength. The new Democracy Day, June 12, was not going to be in view of the legal and constitutional constraint. Buhari’s political opponents prepared for shock legal battle if the swearing-in did not take place on May 29. But Buhari and his team tendered his joker, which accommodated both the swearing-in and Democracy Day.
Buhari also outsmarted waiting critics by re-appointing Godwin Emefiele as Central Bank governor. Wrongly anticipating that a non-Southerner would be new governor, the waiting critics were disappointed. Ironically, they turned round to criticise Buhari for re-appointing Emefiele. No leader fails to appreciate a capable hand. British Prime Minister Theresa May, two years ago, similarly re-appointed Mark Corney, a Canadian, for second term as governor of Bank of England. That was despite the fact that Mr. Corney tendered his resignation after Britons voted to quit the European Union, a move Mr. Corney publicly opposed during the campaigns for the referendum.