Change, Politics

Of A General, His Colonel, and Justice

The famed novelist, Salman Rushdie once opined that “Two things form the bedrock of any open society – freedom of expression and rule of law. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a free country.” If these two are essential ingredients, then it may be debatable whether Nigeria, “Africa’s largest democracy”, is a “free country”; “free” in the sense that citizens are assured of the government and society’s commitment to the rule of law. Talking about commitment to the rule of law, Colonel Sambo Dasuki (Retd.) was just released after four years of confinement, with serious questions about the place of the rule of law in Nigeria.

Let’s have a brief recap to set the stage for this article. On 29 May 2015, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (Retd.) was sworn in as Nigeria’s elected president, having trashed records by dislodging the erstwhile incumbent at the polls. With a tough inauguration speech where Buhari reiterated his anti-corruption stance, Nigerians expected swift cleaning of the Augean stables. One of the names associated with corruption was Dasuki, National Security Adviser (NSA) under the Jonathan administration who was alleged to have misappropriated funds meant for arms purchases for the military facing Boko Haram in Nigeria’s Northeast region.

Dasuki remained as NSA until 13 July 2015 when he was fired by Buhari who then appointed a new set of security chiefs. Within 24 hours of his sack, his house was barricaded by the State Security Services who later effected his arrest. Dasuki was first charged with illegal possession of military weapons, and then was later arrested for misusing security funds. As the curtains were drawing on 2015, Buhari held his first (and only) presidential media chat during which he made it clear that Dasuki would not be released regardless of bail orders issued by competent courts due to the scale of his “atrocities”. Between that time and his release (on bail) in December 2019, Dasuki was granted bail at least seven times by several courts in Nigeria including an affirmation of his rights by the ECOWAS Court but the Buhari administration made it clear that court rulings were subject to ratification by the Executive branch which considered “national security” superior to the rule of law.

Please note that in the rest of this article, we proceed with the assumption that Dasuki is guilty of all charges preferred against him by the Federal Government. Whereas it is believed that Dasuki’s release (alongside Omoyele Sowore) was due to a nice letter from six members of the US Congress and other pressure from international sources, the key thing is that after over four years in detention, court orders on his bail have finally been obeyed. His release has sparked quite some debate; setting respect for the rule of law against justice for soldiers who died due to defective (or unavailable) military equipment and civilians who died because the military had been positioned to fail. One such debate motivated me to write this article. A friend posted a link to a tweet with pictures of two military officers who died in the North East and added “Congratulations to all Dasuki fans”.

This person’s post suggested that Dasuki’s release on bail is immoral because his actions caused the deaths of many military officers. I consider this as emotional blackmail that neglects any consideration of the rule of law nor the requirement for the government to prove its case in court. Did Dasuki share monies meant for arms purchase? We have already assumed (in this article) that he did. If so, the government has had four years to try this case in court. What evidence have they unearthed (watertight or otherwise) to prove his guilt? The government owes Nigerians a duty to put Dasuki through the court process and get justice. However, getting justice does not mean locking him up for four+ years without any conviction, and repeatedly disobeying the courts.

Some persons might assert that the Nigerian courts are a cesspit of corruption, hence the government may not get a guilty verdict. However, has the government even presented evidence before we hypothesise on the corruptibility of the courts. Given the circumstances around the installation of a new Chief Justice of Nigeria, one might even be forgiven for believing that the government may have better odds of getting its preferred judgements. Let me even speak like a proper layman and say the government could even leak “real” evidence of Dasuki’s crimes to the public in a bid to force the courts’ hands.

Moving on from the courts, we have the little issue of counterparties to Dasuki’s crimes. Dasuki could not have acted alone and must have acted with the active direction or connivance of persons above him and others below him. Why is the focus on Dasuki alone? As National Security Adviser, he would have had to work with the defence minister and senior military chiefs, maybe even those in charge of procurement for the different arms of the military. My uninformed thinking is that if Dasuki really has to go down, many persons will have to go with him, and some of those persons are in the Buhari regime, which may be why the government would rather focus on him alone and have an extended trial that leads to nowhere apart from keeping him locked away from circulation while the government pontificates on his crimes and why his failure to buy arms in 2015 is still limiting the military’s effectiveness in 2019.

Let’s now talk about something more important than Dasuki’s trial. Has anything changed since after Dasuki? Has the theft of military funds ceased? Have soldiers stopped complaining about faulty and inadequate equipment? Has anything been done to change the institutional structure that may have allowed Dasuki to misuse public funds and endanger lives? The danger we face (and always face) in Nigeria is an undue focus on winning symbolic battles without any thoughts for the raging war. It’s a small view mindset that keeps Nigeria down because what makes the United States or say Norway strong, is not tokenistic “fights against corruption” but the institutionalisation of processes to limit the ability of any corrupt person to have unfettered leeway for corruption. Building strong institutions matters more than arraigning someone who is a symptom and not the cause of corruption in Nigeria.

Since Dasuki’s arrest in 2015, we have not heard (publicly) of any changes to the operational setup of the Office of the National Security Adviser or procurement policies in the military, nor any new laws to either make it more difficult to steal funds or make it more likely that a thief will be caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Without these institutional changes, 1000 Dasukis will arise to replace one Dasuki that is jailed. I wish the government good luck in its prosecution of Dasuki but wish above all things, that they will help us keep the next Dasuki away from our scarce resources.

PS. The guiding assumption here is that Dasuki is guilty of all charges.

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