As controversial as presidential pardon is everywhere in the world, that of Nigeria is truly bizarre. For President Muhammadu Buhari, who was synonymous with anti-corruption war, having made it his life-long personal fight, on which basis Nigerians voted massively for him in 2015, his recent pardon of ex-governors Joshua Dariye and Jolly Nyame (jailed for corruption), is the climax of self-demystification.
It is therefore not a surprise that Nigerians rose in unison to condemn the state pardon granted the former governors of Plateau and Taraba states. The Supreme Court had in March 2021 affirmed the 2018 conviction of Dariye after the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) successfully prosecuted him for stealing N1.162B, while Nyame was given a 12-year jail term in a case brought against him by the EFCC over a theft of N1.6B belonging to Taraba state. His was also affirmed by the Supreme Court after various judgments at the high court and Appeal court.
In fact, Nigerians should not be surprised at whatever our governments now do with tacit approval of sections of the citizenry. Presidential pardon or clemency has become a political tool in the hands of politicians and not the moral suasion it should be. During President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure, he pardoned his former boss and former governor of Bayelsa state, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha after his conviction for corruption. There was outrage and national outcry. Then opposition party now governing APC took the PDP government of Jonathern to the cleaners and reaped political capital bountifully out of it. Governor Nasir El-Rufai, then in opposition condemned Jonathan in a video, now trending. “No one says corruption can be eradicated completely, but don’t pardon convicted criminals, convicted by a regular court for corruption. You are sending the wrong signal not only to those engaging in corrupt practices but also to the young people who see reward in being corrupt. This is what Jonathan is doing”, El-Rufai said in 2013. Fast-forward to 2022 now that El-Rufai’s APC government has granted presidential pardon to ex-convict-politicians, all is quiet from the likes of El-Rufai.
As a matter of fact, there are no surprises anymore with this government. All pretenses are over, and it is now business as usual. For everything repulsive and retrogressive that the PDP did to detract from democratic ethos, the APC has replicated over and over. When those two governors were put to trial and the case went up to the Supreme Court, their final conviction inspired hope and confidence that the time had come when politicians would no longer enjoy immunity in and out of office after committing infractions against the people and their state (with respect to governors who play God) and misappropriate monies meant for the development of their states.
It also gladdened the heart, because the ex-governors were members of the ruling party at the time, though they committed those offences while they were in PDP as governors. The expectation was that if the APC government could allow the judiciary to exercise their constitutionally given independence and allowed to freely do their work in the conviction of members of the ruling party, the opposition would not be spared. We also thought, wrongly though that, hopping from opposition to the ruling party with the hope of being shielded from criminal acts would end. Alas, it was just a ruse.
With the clemency granted Dariye and Nyame, a disservice has been inflicted on the judiciary, and EFCC and whatever ideals the government claimed to have stood for.
Controversial pardons by our political leaders without restraint is beyond prerogative of mercy for the elderly and sick prisoners, awaiting trial prisoners, minors etc. It is now a political tool. The story is told of a governor from the North Central who pardoned hardened criminals on death row for committing murder, and unleashed them onto the voting public, for the purpose of rigging election. The outcome was predictably more killings and victory for that governor.
The moral baggage and outrage notwithstanding, governors and presidents carry-on with impunity, to serve their political interests, the same way they decamped from one party to the other at the slightest provocation and at will. The latest in this power-game is ex-Governor Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara state, who according to the PDP chairman in the state, has decamped to the opposition PDP. The Zamfara political intrigue is legendary such that in 2019, political gladiators in the APC fought themselves to a standstill until they lost the legal battle and governorship seat to the then opposition candidate, Bello Matawalle of the PDP. The bad blood created by that ‘self-destruction’ never abated until the new PDP governor (Mattawalle) also decamped to the APC. Even that did not solve Zamfara political quagmire as Yari lost his preeminent position as leader of the party to Governor Matawalle.
Again, Yari launched his come-back bid to relevance when he threw his hat in the ring to contest for the post of national chairman of the APC. Buhari burst his bubble when he single-handedly picked ex-governor Abdullahi Adamu, himself a ‘decampee’ from PDP, as chairman of APC. The rest is now history.
Beyond Yari, Nigeria’s turncoat politics will leave all of us with bloody nose. Instead of improving on our type of democracy, we are daily desecrating and making it a irrelevant. The greatest beneficiaries of return to civilian rule since 1999 are politicians, but they also work hard to destroy this system that feeds them. They use their ascent to power to enrich themselves and become powerful. For them, being out of power is like fish out of water, so they cling to it by foul means, either at the inner caucus or at the periphery. Most, if not all of them always want to be at the corridors of power, without consideration for party affiliation. So cross-carpeting or decamping from one party to the other is second nature to them.
With a slight of hands, they advertently destroy the system and make opposition politics look ugly and unworkable, whereas opposition is the livewire of any democratic system. How will a government sit up, do the right thing, and implement their manifestoes if there is no opposition to call it to order. But for Nigeria and the current government in particular, opposition is a crime and criticism an affront. Just take a cursory look at the APC; almost all their principal officers, many ministers and governors were once in the PDP. A political system that that does not allow dissenting voices to thrive is doomed.
Opposition is near impossible, because the Nigerian president is like an emperor; so powerful that only an association with the presidency can make things happen. That is why we need to devolve powers to states and down to the local councils. It is the only solution to the dictatorial democracy we run. The current system works for only a few.
So, whether it is presidential pardon for convicts, or politicians running from pillar to post to court favour, in addition to rigging of election, leadership recruitment challenge, corruption and absence of good governance, our form of constitutional democracy is at risk of being destroyed by self-perpetrating interest groups and persons masquerading as political leaders.
Zainab Suleiman Okino is Chairman, Editorial Board of Blueprint Newspapers