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Cheta Nwanze: Let Magu be, Nigeria is a country where irony comes to die

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Nigeria is a country where irony comes to die. As Elnathan John, the author, regularly says, “You can’t write satire for Nigeria, the country will always top your creativity.”

Thus it is that I feel a bit of deliciously hilarious irony when I see headlines about the man who illegally warmed the seat at the EFCC for a long time, Ibrahim Magu. For Magu, I feel zero sympathies. I must admit that to some extent, I’m even enjoying what is happening to him. Hey, I am a Nigerian, and I love a good drama. 

There are many things to unpack in the ongoing Magu saga. Today’s sudden suspension of the people investigating Abubakar Malami, Magu’s nemesis; the rejection by the Police Inspector General of Magu’s plea for bail, and Magu’s whinging cry that he has not seen a copy of the allegations against him, are all an entertaining distraction for me, but also are all solid examples of the abuse of power, or access to power, to settle scores. 

But there is a need to speak out against what is happening to him because if anything, the principle of enlightened self-interest means that even the bad treatment being meted out to a bad actor like Magu must be spoken about. 

So let me retell a story that I’ve told before…

Sir Thomas More was an English lawyer, philosopher, and statesman. He was also a councillor to King Henry VIII, and Lord High Chancellor of England for three years from 1529 to 1532.

Sir Thomas opposed the Protestant Reformation and was particularly unhappy about the teachings of Martin Luther, which led him to write the book Utopia. The influence of that book was such that the word entered the English language. His King, Henry VIII was so proud of him, but eventually, even Henry began to have problems with the Catholic Church and sought to take England out of it. Sir Thomas opposed his King and refused to acknowledge Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England. Worse still, he, as Lord High Chancellor, refused to support the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Sometime in 1530, a young man, Richard Rich began to frequent Sir Thomas’s house in search of a job. Sir Thomas’s wife, Alice, his daughter, Margaret, and Margaret’s future husband, William Roper, were almost immediately suspicious of Rich. 

There is a dialogue from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, describing a scene that involved Sir Thomas, Alice, Margaret and William Roper. Richard Rich had just left the house, and the three others asked Sir Thomas to use his powers as Lord Chancellor to arrest Rich. Sir Thomas refused, pointing out that Richard Rich had not broken any law, yet.

An exasperated Alice More burst out, “While you talk, he’s gone!”

Sir Thomas replied, “And go he should if he was the Devil himself until he broke the law!”

Then William Roper, Sir Thomas’s future son-in-law intervened, “So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!”

To which Sir Thomas responded, “Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”

William Roper said, “Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”

Sir Thomas More’s response, was classic, “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

This story can be applied to Ibrahim Magu, and to Muhammadu Buhari’s Nigeria, almost five hundred years after Sir Thomas More was beheaded in part due to the machinations of Richard Rich, the very man whom his family warned him about. 

We stand at a crossroads where our government, and its agents, have set new precedents for us in the art of lawbreaking. The very Ibrahim Magu who is bleating about his rights being abused, perfected the art of media trials. However, all of that does not matter. What matters is that even the worst of the worst have rights. 

A second story told very quickly: as the Second World War drew to a close, the “Big Three” Allied leaders, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin, met in Tehran to decide the fate of the post-war world. During dinner on the night of 29 November 1943, Stalin suggested that after the war, the Allies gather the top 50,000 Germans and simply shoot them. Stalin, a man who had conducted serious purges in Russia a decade earlier was certainly capable of such actions. Luckily for the Germans, Churchill resisted, and he had the support of the Americans. 

So after the war, at least in the West, rather than shooting the top Germans, the British and the Americans organised trials where each defendant was given the chance to defend his actions during the war. A precedent for rule of law was established, and well, the results of whose system works better are clear to all of us eight decades on. 

The lesson is that due process, while it may be annoying, is vital if we want to build a country that will endure. We cannot build a country based on the whims of people in power at the moment. 

Magu himself was a beneficiary of the abuse of due process. He illegally remained in his position in an acting capacity for four years after the Senate’s refused to confirm him due to corruption allegations. His current tribulations should serve a lesson for those in power – in Nigeria, and indeed everywhere else, power is fleeting and it is best to remember this as you wield it. 

It is prescient for us to note that tomorrow, if there is a change in government, anyone of us, cheering mob action, could be at the receiving end of such mob action. Magu, as far as I know, has been detained for longer than he legally should be detained. That is an abuse of his rights. He deserves due process. We must learn to give, even the worst of us, their due process, no matter how hard it is.

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Cheta Nwanze is lead partner at SBM Intelligence

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