President Muhammadu Buhari some few days ago while flagging off the 2018 Annual General Conference of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) in the nation’s capital city Abuja, was reported to have asserted the supremacy of national security and interest over and above the rule of law on the premise of the judgement of the Supreme Court which is a law.
He said: “Rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest.
“Our apex court has had cause to adopt a position on this issue in this regard and it is now a matter of judicial recognition that; where national security and public interest are threatened or there is a likelihood of their being threatened, the individual rights of those allegedly responsible must take second place in favour of the greater good of the society”.
Ever since President Buhari made that statement, the public space has been awash with reactions and commentaries from Nigerians of all divide and profession including lawyers on the proprietary or otherwise of Mr. President statement. As expected, there are two opposing schools of thought on the matter with some justifying the president’s statement and the opposing views against it.
However, as active stakeholders in the political development of the country, it becomes imperative to examine the statement dispassionately and objectively for the collective good, while taking cognizance of the positions canvassed by the differing schools of thought as a guide for the discuss.
While it is a recognized fact that the rights of citizens are fundamental according to the constitution and international treaties of which Nigeria is a signatory, it’s also a fact that such rights are not absolute on their own, but with limitations. For example, the right to free speech is limited by the aftermath of libel or slander by whoever has been defamed.
Also, the fundamental right of a citizen to free movement can be limited in the public interest or national security , if his or her actions constitute a threat to societal order through the provocative act of assaulting public sensibilities by for example, exercising this right to movement stark naked. Again, the right of an individual or group to practice his/their religion is not an absolute right to permit the infringement on the rights of other citizens through making the public space inaccessible to them in the discharge of one’s religious rights which is tantamount to a threat to public or national interest.
Again, the fundamental right of association of citizens, of being members of an ethnic nationality or group does not confer on them, the absolute right to undermine national security by deriding and threatening the lives of other citizens who are not of same ethnic stock, this act if not curtailed is a threat to national security and interest.
Furthermore, under our laws, an individual right to property can be abridged in the public or national interest by the state, through acquisition and the right of the former owner can only be remedied by compensation in most cases only on the basis of the owner having legal documents to the property. This again is a reaffirmation of the fact that where national or public interest comes into contact with individual right, the latter becomes subsumed.
From the above analysis, one can see clearly that Mr. President’s statement takes it’s foundation from the fact that, the rule of law can only exist when the national interest and security is secured in a state of peace and tranquility, otherwise, it is a farce.
Buttressing it further, section 45 (1) of the 1999 constitution states explicitly that:
“Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society –
(a) in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or
(b) for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other person’s.
Therefore, instead of dissipating energy of whipping up emotions and sentiments in condemning Mr. president’s statement which is in alignment with provisions of our constitution, we will be more interested in extensive public engagement on this matter if and only if genuine and legitimate concerns are directly focused towards curtailing the abuse of power likely to arise from the power to determine what constitutes a threat to national security and national interest which is solely vested in the executive arm of government for now because like the French philosopher Jean Montesquieu posited, power corrupts and absolute power, corrupts absolutely.
Unless and until the law is rejigged through an amendment to take care of the concerns noted above, President Muhammadu Buhari statement at the AGC of the NBA is a restatement of the provisions of the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which is indisputably right.