This article first appeared on July 10, 2006, under the title In Praise of Dictatorship. It is excerpted from an upcoming book, Time to Reclaim Nigeria. It has been reproduced in light of President Jonathan’s choice of Justice Alfa Belgore to head the constitution review committee.

Two weeks ago, the Daily Sun newspaper carried a very disturbing story titled, “Belgore defends military rule”. Justice Salihu Modibo Alfa Belgore is the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN). It is not often that you find such highly placed judicial officer making statements that undermine the essence of the judicial system. But that was exactly what the learned chief justice did when he praised the Nigerian military for seizing power, saying their intervention was necessary.

According to Justice Belgore who spoke at a book launch in honour of his predecessor, Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, the military seized power to cure some problems in our national development; they intervened to rescue the nation from disintegration and to remedy the leadership ineptitude of civilian administration. “People say they do not allow human rights,” the obviously bewildered chief justice noted: “They say their coming to power was illegal. Were they really dictators? They came to cure a malady in national development; malady of ineptitude, corruption, and divisive tendencies and so many other things.”

If you want to know why former military dictators like Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB) have the nerve to assault the national psyche perpetually, look no further than the comments of Justice Belgore. I know there are people who think IBB can do no wrong. Over the years, we have seen many otherwise brilliant scholars who have fallen for the IBB charm. We know of former student leaders who were in the vanguard of opposition to IBB’s atrocious economic and social policies who have buckled under IBB’s spell. But when the chief justice of the federation puts up a spirited defence of Babangida and military regimes, we should all be concerned for the survival of democracy.

Interestingly, IBB was the chairman of the occasion where Belgore made his unpardonable gaffe. In a comical attempt to diminish the severity of his actions as head of a brutal military regime from 1985 to 1993, IBB referred to himself as a “former military dictator”. The chief justice took up the responsibility of justifying IBB’s position. He left no one in doubt that selling the IBB agenda was his primary objective. “Our chairman called himself a military dictator,” Belgore noted. “Well, every military regime must have some dictatorial tendencies because that is the only way they can be successful.”

I don’t know which country Justice Belgore was referring to, but there is nothing “successful” about the role of the military in the Nigeria I know. From the intrigues of the military brass that led to an internecine civil war (1967-1970); to the corruption and waste that attended the Gowon regime (1966- 1975); to the anti-people regime of General Obasanjo (1976-79); to the highhandedness of the Buhari/Idiagbon regime (1983-1985); to the destruction of the economy and the social fabric of the country under IBB (1985-1993); to the murderous regimes of Sani Abacha and Abdulsalami Abubakar (1993-1999), Nigerians have had to endure the inglorious actions of people whose calling is to defend the country and the constitution.

As the chief justice can see, the military has been in charge for almost two-thirds of the 46 years Nigeria has been independent. Today, millions of Nigerians are suffering the effects of the corruption, ineptitude, wantonness, and stagnation, associated with years of military rule. So, what are the maladies in our national development that the military came to solve? Is it the educational system that was destroyed by IBB? Or the economy and political system that were bastardized by Babangida and Abacha? Every aspect of the nation’s life has felt the canker called military rule.

If Justice Belgore needs a reminder, he should refer to the report in The Guardian, June 27, 2006, titled, “Azazi cautions army over 2007 polls”. It was a tacit warning -- one I hope they will heed. The chief of army staff, Lt. Gen Andrew Owoye Azazi, stated that the military had no business in the political arena: “You must remain loyal to your oath of allegiance; loyal to the president and commander-in-chief; and loyal to the constitution of the federal republic,” Azazi told officers and men of the Nigerian Army during a sensitization seminar on attitudinal change in Kaduna.

Yes, Mr. Chief Justice, there is something called the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and the first chapter starts with these words: (1) This constitution is supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on the authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria. (2) The Federal Republic of Nigeria shall not be governed, nor shall any persons or group of persons take control of the Government of Nigeria or any part thereof, except in accordance with the provisions of this constitution. (3) If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this constitution, this constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.

Mr. Chief Justice, there is no legal basis for military rule in Nigeria and you should know, because you are, or ought to be, the custodian of the constitution. Certainly, the military’s “coming to power was illegal”. I am sure we can all agree on that based on the paragraph above. “Were they really dictators?” Of course, they were! And even more so in the case of IBB. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines a dictator as one holding complete autocratic control; one ruling absolutely and often oppressively. This description captures the reality of military rule in Nigeria. And nobody needs to be reminded that our military rulers “don’t allow human rights”.

One of the notable achievements of IBB’s rule, in the opinion of Justice Belgore, was the “lasting legacy” in the judiciary. “So many other military regimes had abandoned the judiciary, but there is something that this gentleman (Babangida) did,” Belgore said.

“When Mohammed Bello came in as CJN in 1987, he asked for the opinion of the justices, that ‘what can I do to leave a lasting memory’ and nearly everyone said continue education in the judiciary. Bello toured the country, spoke to the governors that they should allow all judges, registrars, Grand Kadis to come together and share ideas and learn so that justice delivery would be stronger. It worked out. We all enjoyed it. In 1991, it was this same head of state (Babangida) that wanted a very high excellence in the judiciary administration and justice delivery and brought in a decree establishing the National Judicial Council (NJC). Everybody knows the value of the council today. It is a lasting legacy to his tenure as the president of this country.”

Let the Gani Fawehinmis and Femi Falanas handle this subject. It would be interesting to read their take on the NJC and IBB’s legacy as far as the judiciary is concerned. Nigerians would like to know, however, what the Chief Justice will do or how he will rule if some military officers seized power tomorrow and there was a case over the legality or otherwise of their action. Perhaps, it was in keeping with their philosophy of “might is right” that Justice Belgore and his colleagues in the Supreme Court failed to intervene in 1993 when IBB annulled the results of the June 12, 1993, presidential election.

What did the Chief Justice get for his trouble, or was it merely a payback for IBB’s largesse during the June 12, 1993, crisis when he (IBB) gave Mercedes Benz cars to the Justices of the Supreme Court? Thirteen years later, this is what IBB had to say about his action: “I was not perturbed, when sometimes in 1993 I had cause to show grave and genuine concern for the safety and well-being of our Supreme Court Justices by providing them a substitute for their 505 Peugeot brand official vehicles to that of Mercedes Benz brand. This simple, but necessary and highly deserving and caring well-placed gesture, was aimed at taking steps, within human limitation to preserve the lives of our justices.” IBB’s gesture served its purpose. It not only preserved the lives of our justices, but their “integrity” as well.

If Justice Belgore was hoping to use this opportunity to rehabilitate IBB politically, he failed miserably. His blatant disregard for the ideals of democracy, and the rule of law, deserves to be treated with maximum contempt.

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