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Nigeria: Why President Buhari won’t sack Attorney General Malami

By Dele Yusuf
Posted on Monday, 13 December 2021 08:08

Nigeria's Attorney General Abubakar Malami
Nigeria's Attorney General Abubakar Malami

Nigeria's Attorney General Abubakar Malami has become an 'unsackable' part of the Buhari regime firmament - called by some the 'minister of ministers'. Despite regular criticism from activists and politicians he retains the trust the president.

In the latest scandal to swirl around Abubakar Malami, Nigeria’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, journalists in Abuja reported that a syndicate in his department had been illegally selling assets forfeited to the federal government.

As usual, a swift rebuttal was issued by Malami’s spokesman, Umar Gwandu, adding that the minister has quickly set up a committee to investigate the media reports.

Political journalists have lost count of the number of scandals, large and small, linked to Malami in his role as Attorney General; some accusing him of incompetence, some of political skulduggery, others of negligence and dishonesty.

Some of critics allege that he has mishandled legal cases over the $2 billion OPL245 oil block or the $9bn P & ID judgment debt on a non-existent gas project; both could cause serious harm to Nigeria.

Others such as claims that Malami illegally reinstated Abdulrasheed Maina, the former chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team seem to tie into local political and business fights. Last month, Maina was gaoled for eight years for pension fraud.

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What they all have in common are critical questions they raise about ethics and accountability in the department of the country’s most senior lawyer. Olumide Akpata, President of the Nigerian Bar Association, has called on President Muhammadu Buhari to set up an independent panel to investigate a raid by 50 security operatives, including someone claiming to work for Malami, on the home of Justice Mary-Peter Odili, a judge on the Supreme Court.

Two years earlier, Malami was called before the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee after petitioners had accused him of misconduct and demanded he lose his Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) status. The case was dismissed for procedural reasons.

Then again in 2020, another lawyer Izu Aniago launched another attempt to strip Malami of his SAN status, with the backing 10,000 petitiioners’ signatures. Much to his frustration, Aniago’s petition is yet to be heard.

Then there are serial disputes over the repatriation of stolen public assets and Malami’s opaque management of these. Linked to these are claims that he has improperly intervened in anti-corruption cases, especially those of political foes and allies.

He has an eclectic set of friends and clients such as Kebbi State governor, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, and Mohamed Abacha, both named by the US Department of Justice in August 2014 as “having misappropriated and extorted billions of dollars from the government of Nigeria and then laundered the proceeds through US financial institutions.”

For all that, the consensus in Abuja is that Malami is unsackable. His ties with President Buhari go back to his time as lawyer for the Congress for Progressive Change. He led the legal team when Buhari appealed against his defeat in the 2007 election, then became the national legal advisor for the CPC. And then he played a key role in the merger negotiations that led to the formation of the All Progressives’ Congress.

According to one of Malami’s aides at the Ministry of Justice (who declined to give his name because he had no permission to speak on the matter): “the AGF (Attorney General of the Federation) is a loyal minister to President Buhari and a faithful party man right from when he was a member of the CPC to the APC.”

Buhari has been unfailingly loyal to people who have stuck with him over the years. And despite his fearsome reputation when he was a military leader in the 1980s; today, Buhari the civilian leader dislikes sacking people.

And Malami has become one of the most direct channels to Buhari. That suits the politically astute Malami and the reclusive Buhari.

In recent years in Nigeria, the post of Attorney General has taken over from Defence Minister and Oil Minister as the most powerful and lucrative portfolios in the government. Some call the 54 year-old Malami the minister of ministers, intervening in anything and everything.

As the Attorney General, he ranks above other ministers. At federal executive council meetings, he sits next to the president and vice-president.

Two more cases show the influence he commands in the Buhari administration: the ousting of Nigeria’s top anti-graft boss, Ibrahim Magu, who led the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) as acting chairman from 2015 to 2020 and prosecution of Okoi Obono-Obla, a former top aide of Buhari who served as chairman of the Special Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property (SPIP).

Both were hounded out of office and investigated for abuses of power in a move spearheaded by Malami after they were said to have stepped on powerful toes in Abuja.

“The office of the AGF (Attorney General of the Federation) has been thoroughly misused and weaponised to protect politically exposed persons (PEPs),” says Inibehe Effiong, a human rights lawyer prominent for a litany of suits he has filed challenging the AGF and the Buhari administration on many fronts.

Malami’s maladies

As Attorney General, Malami is the chief law officer of the federation, at times advising the president and government ministries, departments and agencies on how legal issues should be handled; at other times making policy and intervening in other areas of government.

In 2017, with President Buhari’s backing, his office successfully got the Federal High Court to proscribe the leading south-east secessionist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and tag it a terrorist organisation. This heavily criticised move seemed to stoke secessionist militancy across the states in the south-east, with criminal attacks targeting state personnel and assets. IPOB supporters were named as the major suspects.

Another decision that prompted criticism of the Buhari government was Malami’s to stop the prosecution of Danjuma Goje, a former governor of the north-eastern state of Gombe and a serving senator in 2019.

Nigeria’s anti-graft agency, the Economic & Financial Crimes Commission, had in 2012 charged Goje and three others with 21 counts of conspiracy and money laundering, accusing the defendants of conspiring to defraud the state of about N25 billion. The case against Goje and the others was winding its way through the courts until mid-2019.

Elected to the Senate, the upper house in the National Assembly, Goje was standing for the Presidency of the body against Buhari’s chosen candidate Ahmad Lawan in June 2019. Then Suddenly, without giving a reason, he decided to drop out of the race against Lawan.

Just days later, at an emergency hearing, the EFCC counsel Waham Shittu said his agency was handing Goje’s case over to Attorney General Malami. A month later, Malami’s office withdrew the charges against Goje.

It was able to quote the constitution which gives the Attorney General power to “take over and continue any such criminal proceedings that may have been instituted by any other authority or person.”

Accused of organising a political trade-off, the AGF’s office defended its actions, insisting that the two charges against Goje were thoroughly reviewed and withdrawn after they did not find any prima facie case in them.

It was, of course, purely coincidental that Goje happened to be standing against Buhari’s chosen candidate for the Presidency of the Senate, the third most powerful office in the Federation.

Malami has also been at loggerheads with the country’s 36 state governors over refunds arising from Nigeria’s landmark $18 bn debt relief and buyback package with the Paris Club of official creditors in 2006 which cut the country’s debt stock by $30bn.

Between 1995 and 2002, the federal government had compulsorily deducted debt service and debt repayments on Nigeria’s external borrowings from its subventions to the 36 state governments and 774 local governments. After the debt relief and buy back package deal was done in 2006, some state and local governments hired consultants to secure their share of refunds from their debt service payments.

The role and performance of these consultants – RIOK, Panic Alert and Linas – in securing these refunds is in dispute. But they are taking legal action as they are demand their fees. And Malami is acceding to those demands against the wishes of the state governors. He has ordered the federal treasury to start deducting the consultants’ fees – some $418mn – from the state governments’ accounts.

In response, the governors went to the High Court to put a stay on any such deductions. After that, they planned to negotiate directly with the consultants.

Chaired by Ekiti State governor Kayode Fayemi, the Nigerian Governors’ Forum said: “The AGF is supposed to be the chief arbiter in all matters concerning Nigerians, especially the poor masses of this country. It is incumbent upon him to, not just to ensure that justice is done, but that justice is seen to have been done.”

State governors are asking why Malami seems to sympathise more with the private consultants and their payments claims than with the interests of the country’s hard-pressed citizens.

Also contentious was Malami’s challenge to the decision by the governors in the country’s southern states to ban open grazing. After a wave of worsening clashes between farmers and herders across the region, governors argued the grazing ban should contain the problem.

In May, the governors said development and population growth have “put pressure on available land and increased the prospects of the conflict,” hence, the need to enforce the ban while the federal government should focus on supporting states willing to develop an alternative and modern livestock management system.

But Malami lambasted the governors’ position, arguing that it is against constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of movement. In an interview with local Channels TV station, he likened the move to a ban on the sale of spare parts trading in the north, a business dominated by people from the south-east.

Malami decides which court orders the Buhari government should obey

On Malami’s watch, the Buhari administration has been accused of disobeying court orders and flouting the constitution. In November 2019, the federal government has shown “stunning disregard for the rule of law and human rights, ignoring Nigerian judges on at least 40 occasions”, according to Dr. Kolawole Olaniyan, legal adviser to Amnesty International.

On 8 December, while presenting a report titled “Rule of Law Crisis: How failure of the Buhari government to enforce court judgements is contributing to grand corruption and impunity in Nigeria”, the Lagos-based Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) noted: “The government’s disdain for the rule of law is also illustrated by the tendency to pick and choose which court orders it complies with. This selective application of the rule of law invariably undermines the independence and integrity of the judiciary, and is counter-productive to the government’s own fight against corruption.”

In 2019, when he was being screened by the senate as a ministerial nominee, Malami was confronted with a question on the numerous court orders the current administration has disobeyed. He responded that “…when an individual interest conflicts with public interest, the public interest will naturally prevail,” citing a previous court ruling.

But not many agree with him. “We have never had it this bad in terms of failure of the government to not obey court orders,” says Chris Afoma, a Lagos-based human rights lawyer. “And when that happens, like you saw with (Omoyele) Sowore, (Ibrahim) El-Zakzaky and many others, no one questions Malami and the president doesn’t seem bothered.”

Lawyer Effiong shares those sentiments, arguing that even as Nigeria’s chief law officer, Malami “engages in arbitrary exercise of power.”

“From his contempt for due process and rule of law, to allegations of corruption and defence of impunity, Malami’s tenure as the Attorney-General of the Federation has been disastrous,” he tells The Africa Report. “Splitting the two offices (the minister of justice and the AGF) has become important so that the AGF can be insulated from partisan politics.”

Regarding the controversy over the alleged sale of forfeited assets, local Punch newspaper had reported that a syndicate in the Federal Ministry of Justice comprising top justice ministry officials, including directors and political aides to the AGF has been allegedly “disposing off some properties mostly in Abuja and Lagos, and pocketing the proceeds.”

After the report emerged, Malami’s spokesperson Umar Gwandu issued a statement saying the AGF’s office has “not officially started the sale of Federal Government’s property” and that the minister neither approved nor ordered the sale of any property.

But it is not the first time such an allegation is being made against Malami’s ministry. In March this year, Auwal Rafsanjani, head of Transparency International in Nigeria, said: “The federal government’s handling of recovered stolen public assets is blighted by opacity by the Attorney-General.”

Malami has Buhari’s ears. And that is not about to change

In Abuja, when things go wrong and Buhari’s attention is needed, Malami is one of the few government officials and aides who have the president’s ears. He “enjoys the president’s backing because of his track record of accountability and transparency in guiding government on most issues of law and order,” says one of his aides speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Another political aide said the minister will go ahead to become the APC governorship candidate in his home state Kebbi — most likely with Buhari’s full backing. “The AGF will get the APC’s ticket in 2023 to be Kebbi governor,” the source says. “He is widely supported within the APC not just in Abuja.”

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