Democracy is built on the principle of rule of law

By the tenets and letters of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), government, all levels in our country, shall be administered based on the rule of law. In addition, all authorities and persons shall obey valid and subsisting orders of courts. There’s a reason why. When the most fundamental element and requirement of democracy, which is the rule of law, is thrashed, we all have no recourse against the tyrant’s jackboots. And when you remove freedom from democracy, all that remains is a political shell with rituals. That precisely is the meaning of the judgement delivered last Friday by the Supreme Court on the controversial Naira redesign policy of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).  

When in February the Supreme Court ordered the CBN to begin recirculating the old notes along with the new ones, it was a face-saving opportunity for President Muhammadu Buhari. But that opportunity was spurned. The issue, as we argued at the time, was not just about having the power or authorisation to do something, especially if the goal is about achieving the desired purpose, it is more important to limit unforeseen adverse consequences. Whatever might have been the intended benefits of the policy which we endorsed, systemic inadequacies that could make life difficult for ordinary people were inexcusable. It is worse when the president is seen to break the law in that regard.  

Last Friday, the Supreme Court panel said the seeming disregard to its 8th February order on the continued circulation of the old currency notes was an abuse of the constitution. Justice Emmanuel Agim who read the lead judgement of the Court held that the president acted ultra vires by his glaring failure to consult with the National Council of States, Federal Executive Council, and the National Economic Council before directing the CBN to introduce new Naira notes. He held that the unconstitutional use of powers by President Buhari on Naira redesigning had breached the fundamental rights of Nigerians in various ways. This unlawful use of executive powers by the president, according to the apex court, inflicted unprecedented economic hardship on citizens by denying them ownership and access to their monies.  

 At the swearing-in of 38 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) in October 2019, the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad, underlined the need to always observe the rule of law. “All binding court orders must be obeyed,” he said. “As we know, flagrant disobedience of court orders or non-compliance with judicial orders is a direct invitation to anarchy in the society.” Therefore, there can be no greater indictment for an elected leader in a democracy than to be declared autocratic in his action, as the apex court has just done.  

It is unfortunate that the president allowed himself to be misled on this issue. Even under colonial and military regimes, the country was governed by ordinances or decrees which the rulers were compelled to obey. And whenever there was a material departure from such laws, the courts never hesitated to call public officers to order. But at no time in the history of Nigeria has any government openly justified disobedience of court orders under the pretext of defending a public policy or for ‘national security’, as it has become the norm under Buhari.   

Since democracy is built on the principle of rule of law, the message from the apex court on the Naira redesign policy of the CBN is that no one, no matter how highly placed, should be allowed to take the laws into their hands or resort to self-help on any issue. We hope President Buhari and his enablers got the message.  

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