Welcome move – The Nation

  • It’s high time we separated the office of attorney-general from minister of justice

The move by the 9th House of Representatives to split the Office of the Attorney-General from that of the Minister of Justice is a long overdue necessary amendment to the 1999 constitution. The 7th and 8th assemblies had passed the amendment, but the proponents could not muster the necessary concurrence from two-third states of the federation. Hopefully, with the 9th assembly initiating the process early in its tenure, the amendment would be concluded before the end of its term.

The effort will amend section 150(1) of the 1999 constitution (as amended), which provides: “There shall be an Attorney-General of the Federation who shall be the chief law officer of the federation and a Minister of the Government of the federation.” It will also amend the provision of section 195(1), which provides: “There shall be an Attorney-General for each state who shall be the chief law officer of the state and commissioner for justice of the government of that state.”

If the amendment scales through, the position of the attorney-general will be separated from that of the minister, which is a political appointment, by virtue of section 147(1) and (2) which gives the president the power to appoint ministers. It will also consequentially amend section 192(1) and (2) which gives the governors of states the power to appoint commissioners. As rightly noted by the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives, Mr Mohammed Monguno, a former Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Borno State, the occupier of the office is vested with excessive powers.

He also argued that while the president or governor is entitled to take into consideration political interests in appointing the minister or commissioner, there should be no political consideration in appointing the attorney-general, considering the enormous constitutional powers vested in the office. We agree with the above submission and urge the national and state assemblies to expedite action to bring the amendment to fruition. Indeed, we urge the president and the governors to encourage the legislature at the two levels to take necessary steps to pass the amendment.

On the modality for the appointment of the attorney-general, whether at the federal or state level, we urge for a public hearing, to determine the best possible procedure. We are aware that in some jurisdictions outside our country, the office of the attorney-general is open for elections. But that may be fraught with challenges in our country, which is still battling with the sanctity of the electoral process. So, those in control of the coercive power of state may end up controlling the office.

Again, unless the electorate is confined to those who have a firm understanding of the requirements of the office and the competence of the candidates, a popular but ineffective candidate may well be elected. The proponents of the present bill have argued for career progression to the office. We hope that such process will not throw up careerists who will be more interested in protecting their office than in protecting the sanctity of the constitution and the promotion of rule of law and due process.

So, it is important that in separating the Office of the Attorney-General and the Minister of Justice, it is geared to serve the greatest good of the greatest number. Some attorneys-general engage in malicious prosecution, while some refuse to prosecute for subjective reasons. With a power to file a nolle prosequi (the power not to prosecute or to discontinue prosecution at any point in the trial), the attorney-general has a quasi-judicial power in addition to the executive power reserved for the office, as minister or commissioner. However, since the amendment will serve the best interest of our democracy, it should be done expeditiously and carefully too.

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