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Picture credit: Daily Post Nigeria

The author wonders whether existentialism could have been the reason behind the recent firing of Nigeria’s Chief Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen by President Buhari. 

In rationalising his suspension of the Chief Justice of the Nigerian Supreme Court, President Muhammadu Buhari stated without explanation, “This is an existential policy”. What is the “this” referring to? Within the context of the speech, he could be referring to the fight against corruption as a fight that must be won if the country must continue to exist. However, since corruption is found in every existing country, it is doubtful that fighting corruption alone could be “an existential policy”. Perhaps, Buhari’s speechwriters were giving us a hint of his ideological or philosophical orientation by invoking existentialism to define the man and his policies as guided by the fear of the end of existence. What is existentialism?

Existentialism is the European belief that existence comes before essence. A country exists before the essential policies of the country can be shaped and implemented by individual social agents. An individual exists before the subjective opinions of the individual can be interpreted by other individuals. Existentialists, therefore, see the world as absurd in the sense that the actions of individuals or the policies of nations do not always make rational sense especially when such actions and policies go against the interests of the actors or policymakers. Existentialists wonder why some policymakers pursue goals that may threaten the existence of the nation state or why some individuals indulge in actions that would harm them personally even while experiencing thrill, angst and dread about the consequences?

It is probably flattering to suggest that Buhari is philosophical in any sense of the term but his speechwriters may be individuals who strongly believe that what matters is the existence of political power and not the essence of good and evil policies. The speechwriters are indicating the obvious existentialist dogma that what makes a person like Buhari is the past existence of the individual and Buhari, having been a dictator in the past, is bound to continue existing as a dictator; irrespective of the essence of the present presidential constitution. It is possible that if Buhari understood this self-mocking implication of the concept of existential policy, he would fire the speechwriters with what he called “alacrity” in his judge-jury-executioner speech.

Buhari wants us to believe that he was only obeying the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunals by suspending Chief Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen and replacing him with an interim Justice. Critics shout that coming only weeks before a presidential election, Buhari is trying to hedge his bets that the election results may be determined by the Supreme Court. Thus, appointing an interim Chief Justice who happens to share his own religious affiliation, ethnicity, and regional origin on the existential ground of being the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, is just what it is, neither good nor evil, according to existentialism. Being, perhaps, the only Supreme Court Justice with a doctoral degree and having been a Justice of the Sharia Court of Appeal in the past are just existential facts that should not be confused with the essence.

The essence of the policy of rule of law is that the suspended Chief Justice remains innocent before the law until proven guilty. The allegations against him are heavy and if found guilty following a proper investigation and fair trial, Buhari is right that he should not return as the Chief Justice because no one is above the law. However, if the Chief Justice is proven to have been corrupt, it is likely that the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court share in his guilt. 

Unknown to Buhari’s speechwriters, it is not the Chief Justice alone who determines cases that come before the court and so if people suspected of corruption have been freed by the Supreme Court on “mere technicalities” as alleged, is there evidence of dissenting opinions and concurring opinions to show how the Chief Justice could over-rule the jury of his peers? 

By the way, the Supreme Court usually considers “mere technicalities” or points of law and not the facticity or substantive evidence that may have been examined by the court of first instance. The rule of law uses such “mere technicalities” to ensure that it is better for ten guilty persons to escape punishment than for one innocent person to be punished. Nigerian courts may be corrupt but they are clearly more accountable than the legislative and executive arms of government perhaps because of the relative security of tenure that should not be undermined.

If all judges are tainted in Nigeria, as many suspect, then where would the country find the angels to preside over court cases under a corrupt neo-colonial regime? Kwame Nkrumah also removed the Chief Justice of Ghana from office after people suspected of plotting to kill Nkrumah were acquitted by the apex court. Buhari points to undeclared assets worth millions of dollars that the Chief Justice himself admitted that he mistakenly did not declare or failed to declare correctly and the postponement of the National Judicial Council that could vote to suspend the Chief Justice. Critics say that if the same existential policy is applied to Buhari himself and to his nepotistic appointees, there would be a government shutdown in Nigeria.

One of the greatest weaknesses of existentialism as a Eurocentric philosophy is the over-emphasis on the individual who interacts with other individuals in arts and philosophy. Greater attention to the structure of an unjust society would need to go beyond existentialism and individualism to address the on-going generational ethnic-religious-gender-class struggles. 

Buhari must be commended for fighting corruption but he must be reminded that he cannot fight corruption by targeting individuals who may not be loyal to him while turning a blind eye to his cronies. His existential policy of giving more to areas that gave him 95 percent of their votes and less to those who wisely gave him 5 percent of their votes with knowledge of his unrepentant chauvinism may not be challengeable in corrupt courtrooms but voters still have the limited power to hold the politicians accountable to some extent if they bother to vote.

In the final analysis, it is not the law that will determine the nature of the society; it is the society that will determine the nature of the law in Nigeria. So long as Nigerian politicians and the masses refuse to address historic wrongs done with the support of the law against millions of the people in the past and the present, for so long will the existential policy of fighting corruption remain a smoke-screen. Buhari does not need the Supreme Court or the Code of Conduct Tribunal to order him to apologise to the survivors of the genocide that he helped to lead against the Igbo in Biafra, of which he was reported as saying that he had no regrets and that he was ready to do it again. 

Nigeria should offer reparations to the survivors as recommended by the Justice Oputa Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Abuses in the country. Many survivors of other tragic wrongs in the country have been offered some atonement but not the Igbo who still feel unwanted by a country that dreads letting them go to build their own nation. There is no need for a court order before the politicians wage a war against intolerance, illiteracy, disease, and poverty in the country in concert with other African states towards the Peoples Republic of Africa in which no existential individual will be able to impose his free will on the masses ever again.


* Doctor Biko Agozino is a Nigerian criminologist best known for his 1997 book Black Women and the Criminal Justice System.