13 December 2018

Nigeria: The Trial of Citizen Amina Mohammed

opinion

On Monday last week, the Department of State Services (DSS) paraded in Abuja a woman named Amina Mohammed allegedly for impersonating the wife of the Kogi State Governor in order to gain access to the presidential villa. In the course of the media trial that followed, Ms Mohammed kept shouting: "It's (allegation) not true. Chikason has been buying property from the federal government and he has been doing it and you all know all the directors that are involved. Chikason knows the process; entering the Villa is not done by fraud, the First Lady's sister (name withheld) is involved; a former SGF (name withheld) is involved. I cannot be put to shame before the whole world. I have been here for four months, I came here on my own. I am not a fraudster; I am a citizen of this country", said Ms Mohammed.

Embarrassed by the turn of events in the light of Ms Mohammed's determination to state her side of the story, the DSS quickly ended the proceeding. However, as bad as what was initially put out in the social media would seem, a more damning video has surfaced on Twitter of how Ms Mohammed was harassed and manhandled by both DSS officials, led by a woman and a battery of journalists whose behaviour, to put it mildly, was as shameful as it was unprofessional. I implore those who may not have watched the video to do so: https://twitter.com/nkanga_p/status/1070602411121750016?s=19

Instructively, at about the same time a woman was being pursued like a common felon within the premises of a national security outfit for an alleged offence of impersonation, a former governor who is serving term for embezzling N1.162 billion was being handed N80 million by the Senate. That, according to the PUNCH newspaper report, is from the proceeds of his N750,000 monthly salary and N13.5m jumbo office "running cost" which the former Plateau State Governor, Mr Joshua Dariye, still enjoys as a "distinguished", even if now behind bars!

That, I must say very quickly, is not the business of this intervention so let us return to Ms Mohammed. Yesterday, I sought the view of Mr Femi Falana, SAN, on the sordid practice of media trial for which our security agencies (without any exception) have become notorious and his position is that apart from violating the fundamental right of criminal suspects to fair hearing and dignity, it is discriminatory and unconstitutional. "While it is not unusual to parade poor criminal suspects who are accused of stealing handsets whose value is less than N10,000, you hardly find them parading rich and powerful criminal suspects who loot the treasury to the tune of several billions of Naira. Since ours is a class society, the humiliating treatment of criminal suspects is limited to the poor of our society while the fat cats who get arrested and briefly detained by the police and the anti-graft agencies are not exposed to media parade or any form of humiliation, no matter the gravity of their alleged offence", said Falana.

While we will deal with this issue of different sets of law for the rich and poor in Nigeria another day, there are questions about the DSS and its exact role within the framework of national security that remain perplexing. If you try to find out anything about the agency online, this is the best you will come up with, and only on Wikipedia: "The State Security Service (SSS), self-styled as the Department of State Services (DSS), is the primary domestic intelligence agency of Nigeria. It is primarily responsible for intelligence gathering within the country and for the protection of senior government officials, particularly the president and state governors."

If the primary role of the DSS is to protect the president and state governors, then its operatives are no better than bodyguards. But an agency that goes with the appellation of State Security Service should serve a more ennobling purpose. At a period when our country is facing a new form of security challenge that involves the use of drones, rocket launchers and other high grade weapons by Boko Haram insurgents and their affiliates, the DSS should be more preoccupied with gathering useful intelligence to counter those serious threats.

In a recent lecture titled, "Intelligence, security and the law", Dame Stella Rimington, a British author and former Director General of MI5 (equivalent of our DSS), said the threats security operatives "deal with are, for the most part, substantial, purposeful and organised covertly. What makes our role distinctive is the way in which we use secret sources and techniques to find out what those whom we investigate are at pains to conceal. Often working closely with others, we gather, assess and develop intelligence to the point where direct action to counter the threat is appropriate."

The operative word here is 'Covertly' but that is not what obtains in Nigeria where DSS officials not only wear jackets to openly display where they work, they also make indiscriminate arrests for minor offences that should ordinarily be within the purview of the police. Here, for instance, is what obtains in the UK, as explained by Rimington: "At the point where executive action is needed, other agencies or departments take over. The Home Office may seek to exclude or deport terrorist suspects, or the Foreign Office may refuse entry visas to members of hostile intelligence services. But it is the Police and Crown Prosecution Service which are responsible for the arrest and prosecution of anyone who has broken the criminal law."

In Nigeria, from soldiers to traffic wardens and officials of anti-corruption agencies, everybody is arresting and prosecuting alleged offenders. That would ordinarily not be a bad idea if they are doing it the right way. The problem is that these agencies prefer mob trial in which accused persons are put before camera and are forced to make "confessional statements". But by standing her ground, Ms Mohammed is telling the DSS that she would not submit to jungle justice and sadly, the journalists brought into the picture could not appreciate that point. No matter the gravity of the offence she may be accused of committing (I still don't know what the issue is and don't care) I am with Ms Mohammed on this matter. We are either a nation governed by law or a jungle where might is right.

This, I must add, has always been my position and I made it very clear in December 2015 as guest speaker at the annual dinner of the Lagos State branch of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA). I started by recalling an interview I read of a British legal practitioner, Mr. David Whitehouse, who was asked whether he would defend someone he considered guilty of the offence to which the person was being charged. Whitehouse, a Queen's Counsel, began by saying it is interesting that people never ask: "How can you prosecute someone you know to be innocent?"; then he added: "There is a huge difference between knowing someone is guilty and suspecting or believing they're guilty. We work under extremely strict rules of ethics and we're subject to the law."

Security agencies also work under strict rules of ethics and are subject to the law. To that extent, it is wrong to subject a suspect to any brand of trial that is outside the judicial process. But let us hear more from Whitehouse on the peril of jungle justice. "The first case I tried as a recorder with a jury, I was certain that the defendant was guilty at the end of his evidence. Then he called a completely independent witness who proved beyond any question that he was totally innocent. I was wrong and it taught me a very important lesson, which is that it's not for me to make up my mind. So I try to keep an open mind at all times."

In Nigeria today, most of the officials who man the critical institutions saddled with criminal prosecution do not have such sense of decency. Once you are accused, especially by more powerful individuals who may feel slighted, you are deemed so guilty that you can never prove your innocence. In the mob trial of Ms Mohammed in the full glare of camera, the DSS and their media collaborators went beyond the call of duty apparently to satisfy whims of some people the woman allegedly impersonated. So, it is easy to surmise that the agency is not seeking the end of justice; they want to exact vengeance for some powerful individuals on whose big toes Ms Mohammed must have stepped.

But there is a bigger issue here. Given the manner in which journalists are usually invited to quiz accused persons in Nigeria, the media must understand that it is increasingly being used by security agencies whose officials are either too lazy to conduct thorough investigations or are incompetent in that regard. Since it is an essential component of the rule of law that an accused person should receive a fair trial, the principles of 'presumption of innocence until proven guilty' and 'guilt beyond reasonable doubt' are sacrosanct. The danger of media trial therefore is that if the prosecution fails in their work, as they most often do in Nigeria, Judges would then become fall guys when the cases collapse in court. And if such cases border on graft, especially under the prevailing situation, failure to convict-even without evidence-would be deemed as "corruption fighting back"!

Whether those in authority realise it or not, the serial denial of the rights and constitutionally guaranteed liberties of citizens by agencies of state are antithetical to peace and progress. Indeed, when those who man these agencies begin to use their powers to trample on the rights and freedoms of citizens in promotion of private agendas, then there is a clear and present danger to the country.

All said, what the DSS and the unreflective journalists who were complicit in the harassment of Ms Mohammed forget is that the impulse which drives wielding power to settle personal scores is the same that fuels other abuses, including corruption. The corollary is that any society that promotes or condones such naked abuse of power is not going to develop. The private whims of some individuals, whatever may be their station in life, should not in any way be disguised as national security.

Interesting Times!

No matter how credible, elections are never completed in Nigeria until the outcomes have been resolved in court, including for technical reasons. In that wise, we should expect some legal fireworks after the 2019 elections, given the depositions by many of the candidates in their Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) forms. How do you explain a situation in which in the forms filled by two senatorial candidates who are brothers of the same parents, the younger is two years older than the older brother? Or a situation in which two gubernatorial candidates (one in the All Progressives Congress and the other in the Peoples Democratic Party) who have been parading university degrees suddenly file in only their secondary school certificates in order to beat the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) they illegally dodged?

Such matters will surely end in court, especially if those candidates win and from next week, I intend to be start my series for the 2019 general election. Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, a reader reminded me of a short piece I wrote in 2013 about the way Nigerians tear one another to shreds in the social media, asking whether I could repeat it in the light of what obtains today. In the said piece, which I now enclose, I did a slight edition of the joke shared by a creative Nigerian who contrasted an imaginary Facebook post and a thread depicting reactions of American and Nigerian readers. For those who may not have seen read it at the time, below is the 'conversation'.

Nigeria

How Widespread Impunity Is Encouraging Rights Abuses - U.S. Report

The failure and incapability of the Nigerian government to investigate and punish both state and non-state actors… Read more »

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