‘Fools’, Generals And Justice —Sola Odunfa


Many people, who did not know Nigeria and Nigerians well, thought that the country was tottering towards serious political crises.

Firstly, because of the open quarrel between two ex-presidents who, though retired, were also army generals and secondly, the storm at the apex of the country’s judiciary.

Both coming almost simultaneously could have destabilised many other nations but pauperised Nigerians had more important problems than irritations among the elite to grapple with.

Many Nigerians read newspaper reports of the ex-presidential exchange of insults with amusement and poked fun at “shameless old men”.

After all it is the Yoruba of the south-west who in their wisdom say that an elder who wears a string of corn on his waist makes himself the playmate of hungry chickens.

In this case ex-Presidents Ibrahim Babangida and Olusegun Obasanjo were not only doing the proverbial naked dance in the marketplace but they also had chickens flying all around them.

Why then would children not chuckle derisively at the sight of old men describing each other as fools?

The first salvo was harmless enough.

Gen Babangida, known as “IBB”, said in his 70th birthday commemorative press interview that in his eight years in office he “was able to manage poverty and achieve success while somebody for eight years managed affluence and achieved failure”.

When I read the interview I missed anything personal in it.

As far as I was concerned Gen Babangida, or any other past leader, had the right to describe his governance as the best since creation and whoever disagreed also reserved the right to present his own version of history for us to judge.

Mr Obasanjo was the obvious target of the attack – and nobody messes with a village farmer, notwithstanding his robes at any given time.

His response was immediate and typical, that Gen Babangida was “a fool at 70”.

The following day Gen Babangida gave it back, that Gen Obasanjo was a bigger fool. Details expunged!

I can continue this sad story only by revisiting the conclusions reached by Professor Wole Soyinka on the two men after a close study of both in his memoir You Must Set Forth At Dawn.

He says Mr Obasanjo is “pathologically in need of proving himself – preferably at the expense of others” and “intolerant of criticism”.

Gen Babangida, he says, is “suave, calculating, a persuasive listener, conciliator – but with sheathed claws at the ready” who “never seemed to mind being proved wrong, he still carried out his own decisions anyway”.

Someone must have called the attention of the generals to those descriptions – which are generous compared to what one may hear on the streets – because the exchanges stopped as abruptly as they started.

Gen Babangida was a dismal failure at the last general elections; Mr Obasanjo, who saw himself as the political commander of the south-west, was roundly rejected at the same polls with the routing of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in his home region.

That is the depth of their current relevance!

Far more important and serious is the on-going crisis at the centre of the Nigerian judicial system.

This is knocking at the very basis of the country’s democracy and independence of the judiciary.

It stems from a disagreement between the chief justice of Nigeria and the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA).

The latter accused the chief justice of meddling in an election petition before his court, resulting in the matter being declared in favour of the gubernatorial candidate of the ruling party.

He swore an affidavit in support of his allegation.

The PCA was then taken before the National Judicial Council, found guilty of perjury and ordered to apologise.

Rather than tender an apology, he challenged at the High Court the power of the National Judicial Council to adjudicate in the matter.

Before the court could sit over the case, the council suspended him from office and recommended to President Goodluck Jonathan that he be sacked.

Over the weekend, the president did appoint another justice in his place in an acting capacity.

The Nigerian Bar Association has risen against both the suspension of the PCA and his replacement, accusing President Jonathan of throwing away “a clear opportunity to range himself on the side of rule of law and due process”.

The body says it is withdrawing its members from the National Judicial Council.

Opposition political parties, groups of activist lawyers and many civil society organisations have already staged protest marches in Lagos and in Port Harcourt, where lawyers recently held their annual national conference.

The Nigerian judiciary has won overwhelming public praise in the four years since the end of Mr Obasanjo’s time in office for its courage and forthrightness, especially in determining election matters.

This led leaders of the ruling party to accuse the judges of bias against the PDP.


•Odunfa wrote this article for the BBC.

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