A piece of heartening political news came out of Nigeria last week.
No, it was not the Federal Government’s proclamation last Friday that it had reached an immediate ceasefire agreement with the Islamist insurgents known as Boko Haram—a name that transliterates as “the book is forbidden.” The ceasefire, which would have been a significant achievement, unraveled rather quickly. Less than 24 hours into the “immediate” ceasefire, a band of insurgents attacked two communities in Borno State, killing at least 15 people.
Yet, while the illusion of a ceasefire lasted, one had hoped for the imminent release of victims of abduction, among them 219 schoolgirls the Islamists had seized mid-April in Chibok, Borno State.
The agencies of the Nigeria state should get cracking on finding the right mix of carrots and sticks to persuade the Islamist sect to let their captives free.
Apart from its fever-pitch coverage of the “mirage” ceasefire, Nigeria’s print and online media were preoccupied with the usual humdrum political fare. Former Governor Ayo Fayose, once impeached and accused of corruption, returned to his old gubernatorial seat after a comeback that was astonishing even by Nigeria’s elastic standards. General Muhammadu Buhari announced his intention to seek, once again, the nomination of a political party—in this case, the All Progressives Congress—as a presidential candidate. If he ends up picking up the nomination, Mr. Buhari would have secured a reputation as Nigeria’s perennial, and perennially frustrated, presidential candidate.
But the good news of which one speaks has nothing to do with Mr. Buhari’s aspirations. For, win or lose the nomination, win or lose the presidential election, the lanky retired officer has become a divisive figure in Nigerian politics. Part of that image is a consequence of his choleric rhetoric, his seeming incitement of partisans to resort to violence in the event he was electorally defrauded. Buhari’s political opponents have made effective hay out of his verbal gaffes. They have defined him as a sectarian fundamentalist, a man rigidly cast in a severely regimented military mindset, less a democrat than an agbada-sporting, mask-wearing despot. In some circles, he is perceived as the veritable inspirer and instigator of Boko Haram—never mind that the group once ambushed his convoy in an apparent attempt to eliminate him.
This much is clear. Even if Mr. Buhari eventually manages to shake off his image deficits, he can’t escape two other significant impediments. One has to do with the character of his political party. As political parties go, the APC has no distinctive, distinguishing characteristics. Instead, it is an all-comers’ affair, a messy potpourri of political interests, reputations and tempers, a compost of politicians with little or no ideological affinity. In fact—in fairness—the party is bereft of ideology. What passes for a tease of ideology among its members appears to be their desire to supplant their long-reigning PDP brethren as the sharers-in-chief of the national fufu, tuwo and akpu. When the APC points one finger at the PDP and screams, “Thou art full of corruption,” at least three of the fingers point back at the APC.
The other impediment has to do with the way the Nigerian state is rigged. I have argued—and do so again here—that the machineries of the Nigerian state appear to have been designed with one primary purpose in mind: to secure the convenience of those bent on looting public resources for personal aggrandizement. This explains the fact that, despite the well-documented acts of kleptocracy committed by men and women entrusted with public offices, few offenders are ever prosecuted. And of those prosecuted, fewer still ever get convicted or punished. The Nigerian constitution and other documents and conventions offer shields and armor to those who—to follow James Baldwin’s stipulation to call things by their proper names—are grand, unconscionable thieves.
One of those shields is the immunity clause.
Numerous constitutions in different parts of the world embody this clause. When the immunity provision functions as it should, it protects major public officials—typically the president and vice president as well as governors and their deputies—from the encumbrance of lawsuits arising from the licit exercise of the powers of their offices.
But the framers of Nigeria’s extant constitution took the noble idea of immunity and stretched it to ludicrous levels. They rendered it into an omnibus, a capacious carpet that shields public officials even when they commit crimes—in fact, especially then.
In the US, prosecutors do not hesitate to move against the president and governors suspected of breaking the law. That’s why Kenneth Starr, a lawyer appointed an independent prosecutor, was able to sustain a long and contentious investigation of then President Bill Clinton over the so-called Whitewater land deal. Mr. Stark sought to determine whether the former president, when he was the governor of Arkansas, had pressured a savings and loans bank, to make a loan of $300,000 to Susan McDougal, the Clintons’ partner in a land deal that went belly up. The independent investigator then gave monumental grief to Mr. Clinton when it transpired that the former president had apparently fibbed about his sexual liaisons with Monica Lewinsky, White House intern.
Throughout his legal ordeal, Mr. Clinton dared not invoke the doctrine of immunity from prosecution. Had he done so, he would have made a mockery of himself. For both the Whitewater land investment and his apparent lies about amorous relations with an intern fell outside the legitimate duties of his office.
On December 9, 2008, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) went to the home of then Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois and arrested him. The governor’s crime was charged with soliciting financial reward in exchange for political appointment to the vacant Senate seat that became available because of Barack Obama’s election as president. Mr. Blagojevich never received a dime, but that fact did not help his case when he was convicted on December 7, 2011. He was sentenced to 14 years in a federal prison, a sentence he began serving on March 15, 2012. The first time he will be eligible for parole is the year 2024.
If Mr. Blagojevich were a Nigerian governor, he would have been invisible—and invincible—to prosecutors. His townsfolk, his in-laws, market women (bared breasts and all), area boys for hire as well as traditional rulers from his local government area would have staged solidarity rallies, proclaiming him their “worthy son.” He would have been able to thump his nose at his accusers. If he were wise enough to befriend the president, he would have been able to—as we say in Nigeria—bagged a national honor. His jet-owning pastor would have held a special service to call down Holy Ghost fire on his accusers and to praise God for using Chief Sir Blag to touch many lives. Testimonies would have flown in the air fiam fiam fiam.
For me, then, the best news from last week was that Nigeria’s House of Representatives voted to remove from the constitution this scam called immunity from prosecution. It was a decisive vote, too, with 252 out of 261 members putting themselves in the right column of history.
Let’s hope that the Senate will also do the right thing by expunging this, one of the most odious shields inserted in Nigeria’s constitution to give succor to high-placed criminals. If a man or woman who covets the title “Your Excellency” or “Honorable” commits a crime, we must march them off to jail. Either that, or remain a society where the idea of law and order will forever remain a farce.
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