The death knell for a much-anticipated revolutionary justice system, and indeed the Buhari administration’s promised war against corruption, sounded the moment Abubakar Malami, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, was awarded the post of Attorney General and Minister of Justice in Buhari’s unduly delayed first list of cabinet ministers. With that appointment, it was clear to the discerning that not only would the reactionary side of the justice sector be prolonged and reinforced, but also that the fight against corruption, the flagship of this administration’s campaign portfolio, would end up as a fluke.
And no one who held this view has so far been disappointed. Malami’s performance vindicates the cynical sentiments poured on his capacity to effectively manage the very sensitive position of AGF and justice minister. Clearly, it is not a performance that should delight any leader (and citizens) who understands the gravity of the problems at hand. Malami lacks the vision, radical temperament, professional discipline and the sense of urgency that the Buhari administration requires to birth a sorely needed new dawn completely devoid of the tragic showings of past governments.
In what could be described as one of the telling ironies of these times, the current chief law officer of the country, one that is actually supposed to be leading the war against corruption which Buhari vowed to tackle wholeheartedly, is the very one who has devised all kinds of demeaning meddlesomeness to fan the embers of corruption. He is doing this by negotiating deals and stopping or aiming to stop the prosecution of certain persons for alleged corruption. No office is more critical to combating corruption and driving the change that the ruling APC party professes than the AGF’s. But under Malami, it seems like the office is open more for business than for any meaningful activity targeted at correcting past wrongs and making the difference.
Even Buhari himself should be embarrassed that just about one month to completing a first four-year term, the office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice is yet to secure a single conviction for corruption. Instead, Malami expended a considerable amount of the energy he would have deployed to fighting corruption to a needless jostling for supremacy with anti-corruption agencies, especially the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). This started when his office began to bear down on Ibrahim Magu, Acting Chairman of the Commission, and manifested in that pernicious directive to EFCC to submit files of high-profile cases in its possession, as well as threats to report the heads of the anti-graft agencies to the presidency for purportedly breaching the rules guiding their operations.
In seeking to take over prosecution of high-profile cases from EFCC, the AGF reportedly sought to re-assert himself as the final authority on all prosecutorial matters. But it was clear to everybody that the real reason for making the move was to water down the anti-corruption war. And he is succeeding in doing just that in many brazenly embarrassing ways. While the EFCC co-operates with the AGF’s office on the corruption cases, they have not been getting the same level of co-operation in return.
As AGF, Malami has wide powers which include initiating his own high-profile corruption cases but he has refused to do so. In less than one year of his assuming office, a clamour was already building for the AGF’s removal from office. In May 2016, the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL) sent a petition to Buhari demanding Malami’s “urgent removal” as attorney general and minister of justice in order to “save your government and the country from further embarrassments and criticisms.”
The petition, which chronicled a series of professional infractions of the AGF, reminded Buhari of his primary campaign promise to fight corruption. It said: “For any government to succeed in its policies, programmes and agenda, the commitment, professionalism, soundness and integrity of the chief law officer of that government must be impeccable and consistent. We are afraid, based on recent happenings, the current Attorney General and Minister of Justice has fallen short of these critical requirements and incapable of delivering any fundamental departure from the corruption-ridden past of governance in the country.”
Part of the details of the misconduct in the petition include ignoring the legal advice recommending the prosecution of those involved in the forgery of the 2015 Senate Standing Order, and his widely-criticised role in the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) fine levied against MTN where the AGF allegedly reached agreements with MTN without involving representatives of NCC and the Ministry of Communications.
From the many acts of misconduct in the petition, Malami has since moved on to repeating similar, if not higher, transgressions in the last two years—just too many scandalous behaviour that a serious government cannot continue to accommodate. Think of the ugly role he has played in the ongoing effort to repatriate the funds looted by General Sani Abacha. Think of his key involvement in the return, reinstatement, and promotion in the civil service of Abdulrasheed Maina a fugitive wanted for corruption. And think of his secret moves to frustrate some high-profile corruption cases in courts across the country. You now see the reason for bullying the EFCC.
Meanwhile, there are much more ennobling causes Malami ought to use his office to fight in the interest of this government and the country. This government introduced the whistleblower policy in December 2016 and often takes pride in the success it has so far recorded in fight against corruption through whistleblowing. Yet, there are hundreds of whistleblowers suffering all kinds victimization inflicted by their offices. Many have been sacked, some on suspension without pay for years, traumatized. These citizens are crying out of justice, but Malami prefers to deal than to listen to their cry.
The same government also claims to prioritize the deployment of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 as a tool for enhancing open government by making public records and information more freely available, as well as providing for public access to public records and information. Today, there are countless violations of this Act by public institutions who have arrogantly continued to turn down requests for information by the press, civil society and members of the public. But Malami has refused to do anything to ensure full compliance with the provisions of the Act.
Worried by this development, a coalition of civil society organizations wrote a petition to the AGF more than two months ago urging him to intervene following the refusal of the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) to accede to the request for asset declaration forms of certain public officers. Up till now, the AGF is yet to respond.
Buhari, presumably, is determined to fight corruption as he has repeatedly said since 2015. And many people believe him. But he should also understand that with an AGF whose temperament is more inclined to protecting rather than exposing corruption, he is not going to make a dent on the fortress of corruption let alone pull it down completely.
This is the reason Buhari must not succumb to the temptation of retaining an AGF who has chosen to make life more difficult for him, his government and the entire country. This time, he has to shun sentiments and go for somebody who not only truly fits the position, but also a committed fighter.
Godwin Onyeacholem is with the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL).