- The President missed the point by seeing national security as superior to rule of law
It is not surprising that the groundswell of opinion is against President Muhammadu Buhari’s view that the rule of law is subject to national security and interest. The President had expressed the view at the Nigerian Bar Association’s (NBA) General Conference in Abuja last week. He predicated his view on the fact that the rule of law and good order can only exist in a thriving state. Where the state is failing or has failed, there can be no observance of the rule of law, the President told the eminent assembly of officers of the temple of justice.
As would be expected given the setting, the lawyers took strong exception to the President’s pronouncement which was regarded as a probable indication of suspension of fundamental rights of citizens. Of note is the weighty exception that the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, took to the suggestion. One leg on which the President rested his case was a 2006 judgment of the apex court in a matter filed by Mujahid Dokubo-Asari against the Federal Government that he claimed had denied him his fundamental rights as a Nigerian. The court ruled that he could be denied his right where the national security could be imperilled.
However, as Justice Onnoghen and other well-meaning Nigerians have pointed out, the crux of the matter is not which of the two concepts should take preeminence, but the place of the judiciary in determining when the national security is at risk. It is dangerous to the national interest for an arm of government to whimsically decide when to deprive citizens of constitutionally guaranteed rights. Rather, if the Federal Government, that is the executive arm, believes that the national security necessitates holding a citizen, the permission of the court should be obtained, in which case the accused would be afforded the opportunity of entering defence.
There are ominous signs from certain actions that the Buhari government has taken. For instance, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Sheikh el- Zakzaky, and his wife have been in detention for almost three years. Despite court rulings that they should be released on bail, the government has blatantly disobeyed. Similarly, former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki is still in detention in flagrant disregard of the rule of law and the doctrine of Separation of Power. This is unconstitutional and unacceptable. President Buhari, the Attorney-General of the Federation and other presidential advisers should be told in very clear terms that the existence of the state is predicated on the constitution on which the President was elected which he also swore to protect at all times.
Departments of the executive arm of government should also know that the people are sovereign. Law enforcement agencies, perhaps relying on the President’s pronouncements and body language, have been acting in utter disregard of the law, including the grundnorm. The case of John Abiri, the journalist from Bayelsa State who was deprived his freedom of movement for two years without trial aptly illustrates this unwholesome practice. Seven other Bayelsa youths who were similarly deprived right to freedom of movement, as well as fair hearing have just been released.
It is unfortunate that the Department of State Services (DSS) had been operating as if it was above the laws of the land. We are happy though that that the new boss of the outfit has announced its preparedness to ensure mass release of its detainees. When, where and how are they held? On whose authority were they detained?
Such whimsical detention should stop forthwith. All institutions of state should operate under the laws of the land as interpreted by the judiciary. Every Nigerian citizen is equal before the law.