Nigeria Attorneys General and Ministers of Justice, right from the days of eminent jurist Teslim Olawale Elias, till date that we have Abubakar Malami, have been in the eye of the storm, not of their own makings, but of the precarity of the critical office they occupy.
Current office occupier, Abubakar Malami, SAN, like some before him too has not been spared. In fact, he has been the object of sustained attacks from many quarters. This has therefore spurred one to interrogate accusations against him in order to determine what or who is really the problem.
Framers of our Constitutions since independence, in their wisdom, merged the onerous responsibilities of an attorney general with that of a justice minister of the federation. For effect, the office is the only cabinet position specifically highlighted in the 1999 Constitution (See Section 150(1))
With such Constitutional responsibility, the Honourable Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation (HM/AGF) is required to perform dual roles of the chief law officer for the country while also serving the interest of the government which he serves.
There have been arguments that the political demands of the cabinet position often conflict with the unbiasedness required of a foremost judicial officer. But this is just a convenient excuse as logic would show.
Propositions for the bifurcation of the office of HM/AGF as well as arguments for the maintenance of the status quo have been pushed continually. In fact, the National Assembly is currently considering decoupling the office of the Minister of Justice from that of the AGF but one is afraid that may just be a wild goose chase.
A constitutional amendment is not a joke and alterations cannot be achieved on the altar of persisting fury against an incumbent occupier. An enduring, convincing and workable argument(s) must be put through several litmus tests to get all required buy-ins.
Though arguments for bifurcation of the office of HM/AGF may contain some merits, it can also be said it weighs more on the side of the demerits. By experiences in our polity, the laws are not the problem but application of same.
Dare I say that most of the hues against Malami and the office he occupies stem from his unbending stance against those who want national statutes tweaked to suit their interests at every turn.
Malami, like all other HM/AGFs before him, are like doors whose privileged position offers them the opportunity to see, hear and analyse issues from dimensions that both the people and the government cannot afford. Thus when they come forward with their positions, it is often no surprise seeing attacks launched at them from people without the whole advantage of facts.
Take, for instance, the matter of the Magodo Shangisha land reclamation suit. The intervention of Malami was purely in his capacity as the Attorney General of the Federation- the chief law officer who must ensure that all citizens enjoy justice irrespective of the status or leaning. But his traducers would rather have him play the role of the politician in that instance. They would rather the minister take actions based on political implications. This is where the conflict often lies. Instructively, the law hardly gives room for a middle ground, it is either white or black.
Another reason why Malami has been heavily attacked by his colleagues is his stand against cabalistic provision in the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007. This has invoked the wrath of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) against him.
In September 2020, Malami, in line with his powers to make regulations as the President of the General Council of the Bar, had gazetted that NBA stamp and seal were no longer compulsory for the filing of court processes. This blockade of the association’s revenue source caused a lot of hues but the real question is has the HM/AGF broken any law in exercise of the dictates of his office? Certainly not.
Malami is not obligated to pander to the interests of the NBA against the interests of other lawyers that have been arguing against their conscription into the bar clique. (See Fawehinmi v. N.B.A (No. 2) (1989) 2 NWLR (Part 105) 558 at 633 and Agbai v. Okogbue (1991) 7 NWLR (Part 204) 391.
Even ardent critic, Femi Falana, SAN agrees that the NBA stamp and seal compulsory requirement “was meant to restrict access to the temple of justice.”
“Why must every court process be stamped by a lawyer when litigants have the constitutional rights to either appear for themselves or be defended by legal practitioners of their choice?” Falana asked.
That Malami traducers have hitherto failed to evidentially pin down any wrongdoing against him is a testament to his integrity and strict adherence provisions of our laws. Indeed, Malami is not the problem besetting the Nigerian legal system, those who seek to exploit it for their pecuniary gains are.