It happens in every election cycle: Somewhere in Nigeria, a candidate runs for an elective office despite being closely related to a prominent public servant or even anyone likely to be on election duty. At times, they are two very talented individuals from different generations who won’t let family ties get in the way of their future. There was an instance like this leading to an election.
In April 2011, Mohammed Sani Idris was elected member of the House of Representatives from Lavun/Edati Federal Constituency under the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Politics has come naturally to him and was always going to be his calling. When he kicked off his campaign for the seat, his late father, Idris Legbo Kutigi, was still Chief Justice of Nigeria. But that wasn’t an issue back then and nobody made it one.
Today, the former lawmaker is a top official of the PDP and impressively still has siblings serving at the Court of Appeal, High Courts and Magistrate Courts in different parts of the country.
Ironically, his party – the PDP – is looking to make families like Idris’ have to choose between the aspirations of one member over the career of another. In Nigeria that could spell trouble for millions of people who have relatives in the army, police, judiciary or civil service and choose to go into politics.
Character assassination has been the hallmark of the PDP’s presidential campaign in the just-concluded elections. Along the way, there have been dozens, maybe more, that have fallen victim to the party’s smear campaign simply for being in a position to preside over electoral matters. The chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission, Mahmood Yakubu, has been on the receiving end of PDP attacks. But it is probably Amina Zakari, a commissioner in INEC, who has suffered most from the party’s constant aggression aimed at damaging her reputation.
All throughout the electoral process, the opposition party has tried to pick and choose the officials who are acceptable to it and those who are not. Others too have faced the wrath of the party, including the service chiefs, former IGP Ibrahim Idris, police commissioners, resident electoral commissioners of INEC and joining that list now are officers of the courts. In its quest to reclaim the presidency, the PDP seems ready to bring down the whole house. Virtually everyone it has attacked is someone in service of the nation and has a track record going back decades. But they have simply been made casualties of a political contest.
The name of Justice Bunmi Oyewole has been tarnished. The PDP has gone to the extreme to paint the picture that he made it to the Appeal Court not on merit but rather because of ties to former governor of Lagos, Bola Tinubu. For the opposition party, just the fact the Oyewole, a native of Osun, served as a High Court Judge in Lagos is enough to make him indebted to Tinubu thus disqualifies him from any position of responsibility. And for millions of Nigerians who have no means of understanding the workings of the National Judicial Council and how judges are elevated, that idea that Oyewole didn’t get there on his own and that Tinubu can place whoever he wants in any court has forever been implanted into their minds.
Never mind that a lot of the actions attributed to Tinubu happened when the PDP was in power. The party wrongly accused Justice Oyewole of being on the appeal panel that was set up to determine the petition on the governorship election campaign in Osun. And when it was discovered that he wasn’t, PDP expressed no remorse. Yet, his reputation has suffered some damage and all his years of service have been rubbished by the party.
The judge is just one more victims.
Now, the target of the PDP and its national publicity secretary, Kola Ologbodiyan, is the President of the Court of Appeal, Zainab Bulkachuwa. According to Ologbodiyan, to have a husband elected to the Senate on the platform of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) is enough to disqualify the justice from heading the presidential election panel. But it’s important to understand if the PDP has always adhered to this standard: Other than ex-governor Murtala Nyako and Justice Binta Nyako, maybe the most popular couple with one leg in politics and the other in the judiciary is Dr. Peter and Justice Mary Odili. They have faced their fair share of political pressure as their politics overlaps with Justice Mary Odili’s duties as a justice of the Supreme Court.
The pressure was particularly intense when the apex court had to rule on the outcome of the governorship election in Rivers where Dr Odili, a two-term governor of the state, was linked to Nyesom Wike’s legal strategy in defending his victory at the 2015 elections. But the pressure wasn’t coming from PDP. If anything at all, the party turned a blind eye to what was a potential conflict of interest. Yet, Mary Odili still recused herself from the case on the Rivers governorship election. It was however, the only case she felt a need to so.
Zainab Bulkachuwa didn’t become President of the Court of Appeal under normal circumstances. She was in reality the steady hand that the then ruling PDP had to rely on after a tumultuous period. After going to war with Ayo Salami, who was the Appeal Court President, over his alleged romance with the opposition party, the PDP found itself in a legal bind. Salami was suspended from office and replaced with the late Justice Dalhatu Adamu who served in acting capacity for only 15 months before being forced to retire due to constitutional limitations.
It was to Justice Bulkachuwa that the NJC and Goodluck Jonathan-led PDP government turned to. Even before then, Justice Bulkachuwa had ruled in several cases that benefited the PDP, including cases challenging PDP governors and even a senate president. So there has never been an issue of bias or conflict of interest against her. And in the entire period she was made head of the Court of Appeal, essentially bringing closure to a feud that engulfed heads of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, she was married to Adamu Bulkachuwa who was at the same time, a strong member of opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari’s APC. Not once did the PDP complain about her marriage to Bulkachuwa or her husband’s membership of the APC. After two decade in the Appeal Court, it has suddenly become an issue.
In fact, ever since the couple got married, Adamu Bulkachuwa had been a politician after retiring from diplomatic service several years earlier. While she was a judicial officer in Bauchi, he ran and lost a race to be governor in 1993. And the Justice was already in the Appeal Court when he was elected to serve in the House of Representatives in 1999. So, should he as a politician have given up his aspirations for his wife’s career? Or was it Justice Bulkachuwa that should give up her professional career?
As senator-elect, Adamu Bulkachuwa has a pre-election case against him in court. The APC senatorial ticket in Bauchi that was handed to him by the party is being challenged by Usman Tuggar. Here, there is an undeniable conflict of interest and the justice will have to disqualify herself from the case. But it is a case the PDP doesn’t care about. What the party wants is to drag her name in the mud, make her collateral damage out of desperation.
The PDP tendency to turn its ire towards anyone remotely resembling a stumbling block to its goals has gotten the attention of the presidency. Presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, has admonished the PDP attacks on the Appeal Court President. It was Shehu that even labeled the attacks on her as character assassination suggesting the whole exercise was aimed at driving a wedge between the executive and judicial arms of government. It is what it appears like. Every judge the party suspects won’t play to their tune, they blackmail and paint black. In doing that, it’s enough just to insinuate that she is under investigation by the SSS even if the claim is false.
The PDP cannot continue to hurt and ruin the lives of good people and excuse their actions in the name of politics. There have to be limits to how far PDP is willing to go in denigrating institutions and individuals for its own interest.
Shuaib, a former editor of Leadership newspaper, writes from Abuja
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