Army Habits Die Hard as Nigeria's Buhari Defies Court Orders

President Muhammadu Buhari

When a Nigerian high court ruled this month that a former national security adviser should be freed on bail, it was the sixth such judgment since his detention in 2015. Authorities haven’t obeyed a single one.

For critics of President Muhammadu Buhari, he’s picking and choosing which judgments to comply with, a stance that stirs uncomfortable echoes of his days as a military ruler in the 1980s. His government defends his actions as necessary to combat graft in the oil-rich West African country of almost 200 million people, a pledge that was key to Buhari’s victory in a 2015 vote -- and now to his hopes of re-election next year.

“There is no constitutional basis whatsoever for disobeying a court order,” said Ernest Ojukwu, a professor of human rights and criminal law. “This is about impunity.”

Buhari, 75, has complained that judicial niceties are getting in the way of his graft war. After ousting an elected government on New Year’s Eve in 1983, he ruled by decree, combining executive and legislative powers. Military tribunals were set up to try allegedly corrupt politicians, some of whom were sentenced to hundreds of years.

After Buhari’s overthrow 20 months later, almost all the sentences were quashed by the courts or nullified by his successors. But through his actions he began to acquire the anti-corruption reputation that helped get him elected three decades on. The next vote will be in February.

High-Profile Detainees
Arguably the most high-profile detainee is Sambo Dasuki, once a security adviser to Buhari’s predecessor Goodluck Jonathan. Charged with offenses related to money laundering and diverting money supposed to be used to buy arms to fight Islamist militant group Boko Haram, Dasuki has been held for three years as bail orders, including from an Economic Community of West African States court, have been ignored.

He’s not the only one. A leader of Nigeria’s Shi’ite community, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, and his wife have been held by state security forces since 2015, also in defiance of court orders for bail. Prior to his arrest, Nigerian troops are alleged to have killed more than 300 of his followers and buried them in mass graves in the aftermath of clashes between some Shi’ites and soldiers accompanying an army chief’s convoy.

The treatment has extended to journalists. Jones Abiri, based in the southern city of Yenagoa, was arrested by secret police in July 2016, accused of involvement in the sabotage of crude oil pipelines by militants in the Niger River delta.

Visits Denied

Abiri was arraigned last week and taken back into the custody of the secret police after failing to meet “stringent” bail conditions, his lawyer, Femi Falana, said in response to a text message. His hearing is scheduled to begin on Aug. 2, he said.

Before the arraignment, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists had expressed concern that the reporter hadn’t been seen in public, charged nor allowed visits from lawyers or family members.

Successive democratic governments in Nigeria, where military rule ended in 1999, have tended to disobey court orders, said Ojukwu.

“The trend diminished drastically under late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (in office from 2007 until he died in 2010) and it’s been a growing trend again since then,” he said.
Contacted on the recent cases and allegations, Justice Ministry spokesman Salihu Othman Isah referred to a July 19 article published by Premium Times, in which minister Abubakar Malami was quoted as saying that it was in the public’s interest that court orders to grant Dasuki bail were ignored.

Buhari recently signed an executive order that empowers him to request the seizure of assets linked to ongoing criminal investigations or trials, a move critics say is unconstitutional and meant to undermine the courts. The Justice Ministry has defended that order as needed to consolidate the gains made in the war against corruption.

“It gives the executive the power to clamp down on corrupt individuals and their ill-gotten acquisitions,” ministry spokesman Isah said in a response to questions sent by text message. He dismissed criticism, saying “it’s corruption that is fighting back.”

‘Usurping’ Powers
The main opposition People’s Democratic Party has accused Buhari of seeking to “usurp” both legislative and judicial powers in order to target his perceived opponents.

He “wants to change our democratic governance to a military regime, in line with his lamentation that the fight against corruption will be better under a military regime than under a democracy,” the party, which lost power in 2015, said in a July 6 statement.

The refusal to heed the courts, “is consistent with the government’s disregard for the judicial system,” said Chidi Odinkalu, chairman of the human rights council of the Nigerian Bar Association. “The executive simply ignores orders it doesn’t like.”


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