By Olajide Omojolomoju and Theophilus Ajani
The Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, Malami Abubakar, SAN, has been in office since the advent of the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration in 2015, when he was appointed into office.
Like any other occupier of public office, Malami has had his own more than fair share of criticism, especially from commentators who have always misunderstood him, either because of misconception or lack of understanding of how government machineries work or outright dislike of the AGF; but opinion moulders and watchers of judicial developments in the country have scored him a pass mark, not only for his role in ensuring the full implementation of the law, but also in ensuring proper interpretation of laws in the country.
His contribution in the last six to seven years will be more appreciated, when we comparehim with former occupiers of the office of Justice Minister and Attornwy-General of the Federation, especially, against the backdrop of former occupiers of the office were more engrossed in their role as Minister of Justice, and neglect the role expected of them as the Attorney General of the Federation.
Despite the oprobrium heaped on Malami since his assumption of office, analysts are in unison that his tenure has witnessed remarkable improvement in the administration of justice within the period between May 2015 and 2022.
It is an indisputable and incontrovertible fact that in the last six years, the justice sector has witnessed both high and low moments, as many events were unfolded that helped shape the sector. It is also true that Malami as the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation has also received kudos and knocks from different segments if the society.
The Attorney General has the major role of promoting and enhancing justice for all, and ensuring the entrenchment of the rule of law and good governance. And if we have a fair assessment of the situation under Malami, we would realize that he has been and is still discharging his mandate effectively and creditably well.
The first pointer to this assertion can be seen in his provision of sound and qualitative legal opinions, particularly, in the areas of economy, politics, health, security, signing of mutual agreements, memoranda of understanding and international cooperation. But for some of his sound legal views on issues, especially those bordering on sensitive matters, the country would have found herself in chaotic situation.
For instance, the rejection of the recently signed Electoral Act 2022, by President Buhari when it was first sent to the President was due to his input, to wit, that limiting the selection of political parties’ candidates for election through direct primary only does not provide options to the political parties.
He therefore counseled President Buhari that there is the need to tell the National Assembly to add indirect primary and consensus arrangement to the Bill in order to give political parties more options.
This singular act by the President, which of course was through the advice of the Attorney General, Malami, received kudos and reawakened the national legislators, who quickly amended the Bill before it was signed into law by President Buhari.
Commenting on the development, a public affairs commentator, Joe Adigun, said, “Thanks to the eagle eye of Malami. We would have given political parties no room to manouvre in the selection of candidates for elections. That would have been unfair, and too tyrannical in a democratic arrangement. We thank Malami and we are grateful to President Buhari.”
A promoter of transparency, Malami, while speaking at the 2022 Justice Sector Reform Summit, organised by the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, said that there was the need for the judiciary to embrace the open government initiative, by keeping its financial books open for public scrutiny.
He further said that the President Buhari-led government had prioritised the financial independence of the judiciary by issuing Executive Order 10.
Challenging the judiciary to stop shrouding its budget in secrecy to enable the Federal Government determine if the N104 billion allocated to the sector is sufficient, Malami charged thejudiciary to emulate the legislature and the executive by subjecting themselves to scrutiny.
He further urged the judiciary to live up to its responsibility and support initiative that will bring the desired result in the administration of justice in the country.
Apart from being outspoken for a better judiciary, the controversy surrounding asset recovery was resolved, when he promptly set up the Asset Recovery Committee, as directed by President Buhari.
A further testimony to the AGF‘s respect for the judiciary and his stance on the rule of law could be cited in the series of letters he wrote to the Nigerian Army High Command, emphasizing the imperative of obeying court orders in respect of the compulsory retirement of 38 Army officers in 2016.
Recall that an Abuja High Court had ordered their reinstatement, which prompted the AGF to write the letters to the Army Command after a long delay in the execution of the court order.
Definitely, this is not someone who is contemptuous of the rule of law, and the sanctity of the judiciary, as many who thrive in impunity may want Nigerians to believe.
The Attorney General has reiterated severally that the justice sector was laced with challenges and shortcomings prior to the coming of the President Buhari-led government; this has been improved upon in the present dispensation under Malami’s watch.
He had said, “There are actually challenges, but the PMB-led government has identified, looked at them, confronted and have surmounted them.”
Despite the positive changes registered in the justice sector in the last six years, among the disturbing issues that have continued to generate controversy in the sector are centered on the recovery of government assets, and openness and transparency of its budget.
Malami challenged the Nigerian judiciary to be transparent and accountable in the spending of the funds allocated to it in its annual budgets. He said the Federal Government was not in a position to know whether the judiciary’s budget allocation was inadequate, due to the opacity that characterises its financial records.
Commendably, this is the first time the judiciary will be openly confronted by a top member of the executive arm of government about the age-long secrecy of its budgets.
On recovery of assets, a judicial stakeholder said, “But for the openness preached by Malami, this huge assignment would have just been another waste of time and resources. I tell you that those assets would have found their way back to the corrupt owners.”
Another achievement of Malami as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation is the introduction of virtual court sitting in the country, through collaborative efforts with relevant local and international stakeholders.
Virtual court sitting facilities, the first of its kind, was commissioned in the Correctional Centre in Kuje, Abuja, by Malami. The AGF explained then that the deployment of a virtual court sitting technology in correctional facilities was aimed at ensuring speedy dispensation of justice and decongestion of custodial centres in the country.
He had said, “It would also eliminate the issue of difficulties in conveying the inmates to court; and would further ensure the safety and security of the inmates and law enforcement officers. We are no longer constrained by mobility, space and time in the justice delivery on account of accommodation of the virtual court sitting facilities and deployment of incidental technology.”
Having thrown open challenge to the justice sector to redeem the dented image of the sector, which critics believe have tainted financial records, Malami added that in carrying out their mandate, there is a need for the sector to be methodical, thorough, open and measured.
He stressed that utmost professionalism is required as it would further break the opaque.
On how to consolidate on success attained so far, Malami noted that the ministry has a critical role to play in putting the country on a path of order and justice and by achieving that, he said, he would protect the sovereignty, integrity, solidarity and prosperity of the nation.
Though, some people have put the AGF and Minister of Justice, Malami, SAN, under fire lately and wrongly too, over his stance on a number of issues in the course of discharging his constitutional duties, he has remained undeterred in his quest to entrench the rule of law.
There is no doubt, that the President Buhari’s administration has enhanced access to justice, speedy justice dispensation and decongestion of correctional centres through the implementation of many reforms in the justice system, orchestrated by Malami.
But despite the ground-breaking reforms and implementations of government’s policies, it appears the current AGF would go down in history as one justice minister, who has, more than any of his predecessors, got more scathing criticisms over myriads of challenges plaguing the sector.
Malami is one senior officer of Buhari’s administration that would not just accept criticism of government policies without interrogating issues and would always play up the achievements made in governance. It is no gainsaying that he is the most misunderstood of all appointees of President Buhari.
But despite the criticisms an backlash, Malami has continued to remain focused and dedicated to making a difference in the justice sector.
At a public forum last year, Malami lauded the crucial role that the rule of law plays in any democracy, saying that the President Buhari-led administration has introduced various reforms that have improved the image of Nigeria in the international community.
He averred that before the advent of the present administration, Nigeria ranked between 12th and 13th across the globe, and used to be among the top three African countries with impunity for crimes against journalists, only after Somalia and South Sudan.
He said, “The Federal Government has taken steps in advancing the rule of law, the application of human rights, enhancing the freedom of information, and by implication, freedom of the press, as well as the administration of criminal justice.”
In addition to the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, FoIA, prominent among recent legislation by the present administration included: Public Interest Disclosure and Witness Protection Act, 2017; Whistleblower Protection Policy; Open Government Partnership, and the vigorous fight against corruption.
He further expressed his determination to use the legal system to improve accountability in the financial sector and enforcement of the law to be open, accessible, just, equitable and efficient.
He further enthused, “The AGF office would be more focused on national anti-corruption strategy, public enlightenment, sanction and recovery of proceeds of corruption.”
In achieving a harmonious working relationships amongst all Nigerian anti-corruption and law enforcement agencies, the AGF assured that there would be quarterly meetings of heads of all anti-corruption law enforcement and prosecuting agencies in Nigeria, where relevant issues bothering the nation would be discussed.
It is evident that Malami had creditably discharged his mandate as AGF and Justice Minister, he therefore, must continue to strife to leave the justice ministry better than he met it, even as he focuses on what next he would be involved in in the service if his fatherland.
•Omojolomoju and Ajani are journalists and public affairs anyalysts and they both write from Ibadan, Oyo State.