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Analysis: Should the Attorney General be a member of the ruling party’s national caucus?

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Analysis: Should the Attorney General be a member of the ruling party’s national caucus?

by Ibrahim Faruk

Recent media reports suggest that the Attorney General (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN) was appointed by President Goodluck Jonathan to join the newly expanded national caucus of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as part of the reforms by the party.

It’s believed that this would enhance President Jonathan’s control of the party’s structures preparatory to the 2015 presidential election. Also included as members of the caucus include the governors of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio; Ibrahim Shema of Katsina State, Theodore Orji of Abia State, Gabriel Suswam of Benue State and Isa Yuguda of Bauchi State.

Reacting to the report, the Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) on Wednesday expressed sadness over the appointment of the AGF into the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) national caucus by President Goodluck Jonathan, stating that the appointment would demean and politicise the AGF’s office.

Tthe group resolved to send a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the office of the AGF and the National Chairman of the PDP to seek clarification on the membership status of Adoke, who was reportedly appointed based on his professional merit as a lawyer.

Section 150 (1) of the 1999 Constitution states that, “There shall be an Attorney-General of the Federation who shall be the Chief Law Officer of the Federation and a Minister of the Government of the Federation.”

The group believes the inclusion of the AGF and Minister of Justice will reduce the constitutional importance of the office as the nation’s chief law officer and also endanger the professional and non-partisan nature of the office. The statement reads:

“We strongly feel that the appointment of the AGF into the national caucus of the PDP is a dangerous precedence, a grave oversight and a huge constitutional error which ought to be reversed without further waste of time if we ever hope to retain the constitutional and legal reputation of the high office of the AGF as the chief law officer of the nation, who is expected to attend to all legal needs of all Nigerians irrespective of their specific ethnic, religious, political or cultural affiliations.

“This grave error committed inadvertently or otherwise by Mr. President has reinforced the widespread clamour for the separation of the offices of the AGF and that of the minister of justice so as to safeguard the constitutional powers and professional integrity of the office of the AGF and to insulate the holder of such high office from undue political interferences and impediments.”

The office of the AGF and Ministry of Justice in its pursuit of justice, wields enormous power. Their political impartiality in deciding which cases to prosecute and in arguing those cases before the courts is essential. The allegations of politically motivated prosecutions of perceived enemies of the administration is most likely to affect genuine cases of public corruption and fraud nationwide.

For instance, an AGF who is a member of the PDP would find it difficult to prosecute corrupt party men and would readily give stamp of approval to questionable moves like granting pardon to corrupt ex-convicts (through his position on the committee for prerogative of mercy).

In the United States, the Attorney General (AG) is the head of the United States Department of Justice and is concerned with legal affairs. He is also the chief law enforcement officer of the United States government and serves as a member of the president’s cabinet

But to show how impartial an Attorney General must be, even though he may be a member of a political party, he is not permitted to participate or even attend political party conventions.

He is subject to impeachment by the House of Representatives and trial in the Senate for “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

A paper delivered to the Fourth Annual Colloquium of the Judicial Conference of Australia in November 1999 titled ‘THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL, POLITICS AND THE JUDICIARY’ argued that,

“Because of the difficulty of reconciling the impartiality and even-handedness required for the proper discharge of the Attorney- General’s legal and quasi judicial functions with the demands of partisan politics, there arose in England a notion described as “independent aloofness”.

“The notion was that the Attorney-General should not be involved in questions of government policy or too closely in policy debates within government, should not engage in robust political debate except in relation to his own portfolio and should be generally reticent and non-confrontational with respect to party politics.

“In considering the role of the modern Attorney-General in relation to politics and the judiciary, it is important to keep in mind the highly political path which the office of Attorney-General has followed in the Australian environment. The modern Australian Attorney-General has the duties and responsibilities deriving from the executive prerogative power, and other duties and responsibilities conferred on the office by statute. The Attorney-General is also a Minister of State and a Member of Parliament with the duties and responsibilities attaching to those positions. This gives a somewhat hybrid character to the office of the modern Attorney-General. The incumbent may easily be placed in a situation of conflict between the demands of his political offices and the demands of the Office of Attorney-General as Chief Law Officer.”

That is the quandary which Mohammed Adoke, Nigeria’s Justice Minister finds himself – being torn between the demands of a PDP officer and the Chief Law Officer of the federation.

Over in Canada, the Attorney General is the chief law officer of the Executive Council. The responsibilities stemming from this role are unlike those of any other Cabinet member. The role has been referred to as “judicial-like” and as the “guardian of the public interest”. The responsibilities of this office must be undertaken – and seen to be undertaken – on strictly objective and legal criteria, free of any political considerations.

There has been an established convention that the Attorney General in a presidential system of government exercising the prerogative discretions should not act merely as a minister influenced by government policy or party political considerations and compliant with executive or cabinet decisions, but should make the decisions in the exercise of an independent judgment.

The recent calls by the Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party that forthwith all ministerial nominees must be card carrying members of the party ought to give an exemption to the office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice due to the sensitive nature of the position and considering our peculiar brand of politics.

The agitation for the separation of the offices of the AGF and that of the minister of justice in the present constitution review process to safeguard the constitutional powers and professional integrity of the office of the AGF and to insulate the holder of such high office from undue political interferences and impediments also deserves favorable consideration in light of recent events.

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