Nigeria’s democracy is growing; but painfully and slowly. Since 1999 we have organized three national elections, no matter how flawed those elections were, we did not take up arms against ourselves; at least on a national scale. We stopped the bid for life presidency by Obasanjo and, by so doing, gave notice to would-be life presidents. We also resisted attempts to scuttled constitutional succession at the presidency following the death of an elected president, and secured a precedent through Goodluck Jonathan. But regrettably, that transition did not happen as a matter of course. At sub-national levels, we have seen governors who were rigged out of flawed elections reclaim their mandates through the judiciary. Even an abducted governor was ‘rescued’ by public outcry and willingness of Nigerians and segment of the press to remain steadfast for justice and the rule of law. Incumbent governors have been voted out of office. We have seen a fair dose of legislative indiscretions contained. But sadly our war on corruption has yet to start.
Conceivably, more than all these, we have seen a few isolated signs of intellectual awakening to our experience with democracy. For example, once in a while, we have seen politicians or actors in the political or public arena write a treatise on their experience in service or in power. I am not talking about governors who rent pliable journalists to scribble their praises and recklessly and corruptibly lavish public funds ‘launching’ tissues of self-glorification in the disguise of books. I have in mind publications like Nasir El Rufai’s “The Accidental Public Servant” and Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala’s “Reforming the Unreformable”. These two I have read. I suspect that there may be a few others of some intellectual merit that I have yet to read. This opinion is not another review of El Rufai’s book. I am interested in the significance of such initiative for Nigeria’s democratic progress. But a bit about the book may be helpful.
El Rufai, the self-styled “ruffler of feathers”, needs no introduction. He was an important but a silent actor in Gen. Abdusallam Abubakar care-taker regime that emerged following the sudden death of Gen. Sani Abacha. He was to later become a key, visible and vocal actor in the immediate-following Obasanjo’s administration where he held the powerful position of the Director General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises that supervised large-scale privatization of Nigerian public corporations. He was a core member of Obasanjo’s economic team. Later, he served as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, a position that made him akin to a State Governor in what is Nigeria’s 37th state in disguise. El Rufai had a love-hate relationship with Obasanjo and he was, in my view, a thorn in the General’s flesh in positive and negative ways depending from which lens one viewed their intensely active and incredibly unusual relationship.
The Accidental Public Servant is an unfiltered account of the anatomy and overall inner workings of the Obasanjo administration. It provides a close-range mirror of the Obasanjo persona like no other. El Rufai’s book offers a “Because-I- am-Involved” account of the forces behind the privatization of Nigeria’s prime public corporations and the role of politicians and their agents in a process that was highly contentious as it was controversial for the most part. Perhaps only a few politicians or public servants (even private sector actors) of note in the Obasanjo administration whose paths crossed with El Rufai’s in his various official engagements escaped some mention for good or bad in the book. For example, the book provides a sexy representation of aspects of the role of folks like Nuhu Ribadu, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Oby Ezekwesili, Chukwuma Soludo, Mike Adenuga, etc. in specific contexts of the Obasanjo government.
Beyond all the press speculation on the long-drawn war between Obasanjo and Atiku, The Accidental Public Servant gives in-depth background and key highlights of the war of attrition between the two gladiators. It sheds light on Atiku’s modus operandi and his general mindset about public service. Perhaps more importantly, the book highlights the intrigues, horse-trading as well as the key actors that master-minded as well as those that collectively sabotaged Obasanjo’s third term bid, a venture that El Rufai is proud to be associated with. El Rufai justifies his steadfast role in sabotaging Obasanjo’s third term project on the premise that his loyalty as a Public servant was first and foremost to the constitution and the national interest rather than to an ephemeral godfather. Another major contribution of the El Rufai’s Accidental Public Servant is the insight it provides on the person of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua; the circumstances that led to his presidency and his subsequent role in driving El Rufai and his “brother”, Nuhu Ribadu to exile.
Truly, The Accidental Public servant ruffled feathers as evident in responses from a number of people, including Atiku, Ribadu and Soludo.
Interestingly, to the best of my knowledge Obasanjo seem to have maintained a dignified or dismissive, even admissive silence over his portrayal in the book. On his part, El Rufai insists that he did his best to ensure accurate representation of everyone mentioned in the book, and if anyone desired they should write their own account of events or prove their allegations of the “integrity deficit” in his accounts. We are still waiting for anyone to take that challenge. El Rufai has made a significant contribution to Nigeria’s political history by illuminating on the hidden intrigues and cross-currents of Obasanjo’s second coming. His courage and initiative is worthy of commendation. Such projects help grow our democracy.
And that is the challenge which Major Hamza Al-Mustapha and all other crucial actors in Nigeria’s public sphere may like to embrace. Like El Rufai, for those who were adults at the time of the Abacha regime, Al-Mustapha needs no introduction. He was the dreaded Chief Security Officer to Gen. Abacha. He was one of Abacha’s closest confidants. He was so powerful that not many doubted that he was the de facto next-in-command to the shy and reclusive General. Al-Mustapha was dreaded by even Generals. Anyone that came by his approval to the Abacha power chambers had their wish granted. More important than his influence in the Abacha junta, Al-Mustapha was said to be in charge of a security outfit called the Strike Force, used to suppress the restive opposition, especially in the South West, as symbolized by the NADECO and its allies for insisting on the sanctity of the 1993 June 12 elections.
During the Abacha era, there was massive crackdown on the opposition including through targeted assassinations of prominent opposition and prodemocracy leaders, including journalists. It was that period of terror that Alfred Rewane, Kudirat Abiola and others were assassinated. Michael Ibru, the affable publisher of The Guardian Newspaper, was a target of a failed assassination attempt at that eon. Most of these attacks happened in broad day lights conceivably by persons believed to be agents of the government of the day and allegedly under the security directive of Al-Mustapha. There was also an allegation of a phantom coup that resulted in the trial and convictions of several people, notably, Generals Obasanjo, Diya, Abdulkarim Adisa, etc.
Abacha’s sudden death turned the tide dramatically for all prominent actors in his government, including, you guessed it, Al-Mustapha. For almost 15 years, he was a guest of our criminal justice system, defending himself from various charges including conspiracies to commit murder. A star witness (Sgt. Rogers) testified that Al-Mustapha provided the weapons and gave the directives for the assassination of Kudirat Abiola, the pro-democracy wife of the Late M.K.O. Abiola – the arrow head of the June 12 presidential election. In 2012, Al-Mustapha was convicted (with another) for Mrs. Abiola’s murder. Until his recent release, Al-Mustapha existed at the intersection freedom and the hangman. But recently, the court of appeal spared him from the hangman and declared him free. Expectedly, his release by the judiciary has elicited mixed reactions across the country. He has made a heroic and triumphant return to his native Kano, and he seems to have hit the ground running into limelight; and even appears ready to rattle the polity by the suggestive steps he has taken so far.
Since Al-Mustapha’s release, the ‘media sphere’ has turned into a beehive of speculation. Some have suggested or insinuated that political intervention from the highest quarters and a sense of political expediency as reasons for his release. Others have even waxed spiritual and have given Pastor T.B. Joshua some unusual ‘positive press’ and credit for Mustapha’s release. I believe in the rule of law. I am not at ease with the death penalty because violence begets voice in an unending chain. When the hangman is debriefed, it calls for a relief than when he is commissioned. The justice system all over the world is not a popularity context. The court is not necessarily in the business of playing to the gallery of the public opinion and sentiments. Even though ignoring those does not augur well for any judicial system. That is partly why the legendary queen of justice is blind folded and she is always determined to do justice even if the heavens fall. Others suggest that she is blind-folded because she is ashamed of the injustice that is done in the name of justice. Go figure.
Take the recent release by a six-woman jury of the infamous George Zimmerman, the admitted killer of the innocent African-American teenager, Trayvon Benjamin Martin. That is justice according to the law — as unjust as it really and actually is. But there is no alternative to the rule of law. So, Al-Mustapha should enjoy his freedom and deal with his conscience however he deems fit. Anything outside the rule of law is the rule of anarchy. That in itself has potential for greater injustice than is possible through isolated cases of miscarriage of justice under the rule of law.
If the story ended there, perhaps it would be consoling to the Abiolas and some constituents who have since expressed dismay over the acquittal of Al-Mustapha. Recently, a segment of northern elders and youths paid a solidarity visit to the PDP national Chairman, Bamanga Tukur, essentially to thank the party and the administration for the release of Al-Mustapha. They claimed that they believed that such a release did not happen without some extra judicial intervention from above and they gave credit to Jonathan and PDP leader for Al-Mustapha’s release. Consequently, they pledged their support for Jonathan to stand for re-election in 2015. But for the calibre of leaders that paid the solidarity visit, one could have said that their position reflected lay persons’ way of processing information. After all, gossip and beer parlour speculations have ways of creeping into public discourse and assuming a life of their own.
According to the media report, the PDP Chairman responded in a nutshell by expressing satisfaction over the groups’ open solidarity which he described as democracy in action. He pointed said that “when we see good things we should celebrate like these groups are doing now, celebrate good things, celebrate democracy and celebrate justice ….” An elated Tukur thoroughly relished the representation made by the delegation. Nowhere did he disabuse the claims over Al-Mustapha’s release. The same is true of the federal government. Left un-disclaimed at an opportune moment such as the crowd presented to the highest level of the ruling party, one is left with a limited number of conclusions, graciously speaking. The first is that perhaps the PDP Chairman is not aware of the veracity of the claims over Al-Mustapha’s release and therefore not in a position to confirm or deny. The second is that the crowd was right and there is nothing to disclaim.
I will graciously settle for the first potential conclusion and hope that Tukur will check his facts and get back to the crowd and the Nigerian people. In his recent biography of Nigeria’s 12th Chief Justice (Dahiru Musdapher) titled To Do Justly, Prof. Ikechi Mgeboji bewails the tendency by politicians to drag the judiciary into the political mud. Nigerian politicians, he charges, have succeeded in the “juducialisation of politics”. Nowhere is this truer than in the electoral process and the management of political parties’ internal affairs. Politicians have proven incapable of being good actors in their own game and hence unduly burdening the judiciary to settle even the simplest political matters. And each time the judiciary is lured into the murky waters of politics, it is forced to sip a dose of poison that compromises its independent health as a crucial pillar of our constitutional democracy pursuant to the doctrine of separation of powers. A judiciary that is amenable to entering into bed with the executive behind closed doors is one that digs its grave and lacks the capacity to safeguard itself; let alone the citizens.
Unfortunately, judges do not speak in their own defence; only their judgments speak for them. Often judges and their judgments are at the mercy of the media, politicians and the public. Sure, our constitution provides for prerogative of mercy and there are times when the executive may ‘rest’ criminal convictions or even halt criminal trials on grounds that do not create doubts about the integrity of the judiciary. Recently, the former Governor of Bayelsa State was a beneficiary of that process via state pardon. Even though Nigerians were outraged, there was no basis to drag the judiciary into it. But the present context in which Al-Mustapha’s release is being portrayed outside the traditional constitutional channel of state intervention is an ill-wind that does no good to anyone interested in our democratic experiment.
Political interference, real or speculative in the release of Al-Mustapha, does not hold well for the government or for Al-Mustapha himself. Not only would it set a wrong precedent and further erode the independence of the judiciary, such a possibility would undermine any claim of innocence or unjust incarceration/ conviction by Al-Mustapha. For all involved in the circumstances of Al-Mustapha’s nearly 15-year encounter with the criminal justice system, it would delay the healing and the much-needed closure which Al-Mustapha’s release could bring. But no one should blame Al-Mustapha for his release. And he has every reason to savour his freedom because he appealed his conviction and the court agreed with him and gave him back his life. I do not know of anybody who was waiting for the hangman but instead heard the toll of a freedom bell that would not be happy.
But how best could Al-Mustapha make his freedom count? Not many that walked Al-Mustapha’s kind of ‘long walk to freedom’ get an opportunity for redemption that is now his pleasure and his burden. He was a prominent figure in Nigeria’s political transition from Ibrahim Babangida to the second coming of Obasanjo. That point in our political history where he became a visible actor was one of the most critical to our national survival. Al-Mustapha co-presided (even if in a de facto form) over one of the darkest periods in Nigeria’s political history. He has a lot to share. He knows all the actors at a time when Nigeria was on the edge of the precipice. He can make his freedom count by assisting us to unravel what actually happened to M.K.O. and to shed light on all the post June 12 political engineering and manipulations.
He could assist us to truly understand the anatomy and the overall psychology of the Abacha administration and the Abacha enigma. Al-Mustapha could help put in context all the actors that bestrode Nigeria’s political firmament during the Abacha days. If he feels a personal burden to make a case for his innocence before the Nigerian people, he surely has the chance. Truly his countrymen would like to hear from him now that he has the chance. Could it be possible that he had all along been misunderstood as he often insinuates? If only he could shun all the evident political pressures following his release. Before he gets things all mangled by the crooked ways of politics to which his is being dragged, Al-Mustapha should write us a treatise that would help illuminate the darkest tunnels of our political journey. As Achebe said, if we do not know where and when the rain started falling on us, it is hard to realise where and when and it stopped. Al-Mustapha, please write for us: “The Accidental Military Politician” with as much courage if not more than El Rufai’s The Accidental Public Servant. You can make a difference. By so doing you contribute to the growth of our democracy, cultivate the rule of law, help heal wounds and bring closure to many and contribute to nation-building. These are the kinds of stuff patriots do. For you, they could be redemptive.