Belgore, The Campaign Manager

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At a recent book launch in honour of his immediate predecessor in Abuja, Justice Salihu Alfa Belgore painted a picture of himself that was completely unrecognisable of his status. In fact, one could be pardoned if one mistook him for former president Ibrahim Babangida's campaign manager.

While giving his speech as chairman of the book launch, Babangida had introduced himself somewhat with relish as "a former military dictator," before launching into a sermon on what he did for the judiciary while in power. And a key part of that achievement was the upgrading of the 505 Peugeot official cars of Supreme Court judges to Mercedes cars in 1993 after he annulled the presidential elections of that year. As expected of a man with his track record, Babangida said he didn't blink an eye when he was accused of bribing the judges with car gifts because he did it out of genuine concern for the safety and well-being of the jurists.

Of course, when it came to Belgore's turn to speak, none expected him to ask the most important, but so far, unanswered question: If Babangida had been genuinely concerned about the safety and well-being of the Supreme Court jurists since 1986 when he came to power, why did he have to wait for all of seven years until the undeclared winner of that election was already knocking on the Supreme Court door for justice before presenting his Mercedes gifts? Or did his genuine concern erupt suddenly at that critical moment?

In the same vein, none expected Belgore to turn himself into the chief defender of military autocracy. You've got to hear Justice Belgore himself to believe him. "Our chairman," Justice Belgore said of Babangida at the book launch, "called himself, a former military dictator. Well, every military regime must have some dictatorial tendencies because that is the only way they can be successful."

With the laying of that introductory framework, Justice Belgore plunged into a more detailed and robust defence of the Babangida legacy. Hear the jurist in detail: "People say they (military dictators) do not allow human rights. They say their coming to power is illegal. Were they really dictators? They came to cure a malady in national development; malady of ineptitude, corruption and divisive tendencies and so many other things."

At the more specific level of the self-confessed military dictator, Belgore said of Babangida: "But one thing is this, so many other military regimes had abandoned the judiciary, but there is something that this gentleman (Babangida) did." The remarkable something the Babangida dictatorship did in Belgore's eyes was in aiding Muhammed Bello as the then chief justice of Nigeria to bring judges, registrars, and grand khais together to "share ideas and learn so that justice delivery would be stronger." Of course, as a good campaign manager, Belgore did not forget to glory in the jewel of Babangida's judicial crown, namely, the enactment of the 1991 decree establishing the National Judicial Council (NJC). Even in cold print, you can almost feel the heat in Belgore's gloating: "Everybody knows the value of the council today. It is a lasting legacy to his tenure as the president of this country."

I dare say that no campaign message could have been better worded. In this, the Belgorean creed is clear enough: If Babangida as a military dictator restored the pride of the judiciary, corrected civilian ineptitude at governance, and wiped out corruption from the country in line with the tradition of military governments, what is left other than to vote for Babangida now that he is a reformed democrat seeking to be president?

The little caveat here is that before you get persuaded out of your senses by this political rhetoric, let me remind you that this Belgore doing the yeoman's job of Babangida's campaign manager is actually the Chief Justice of Nigeria. In that context, we can move outside the world of Belgore's judiciary to consider the evidence of Babangida's dictatorial stewardship in the public domain.

Here, the evidence of the work of Babangida's hand speaks unambiguously to the contrary. Babangida's description of himself in a magazine interview a couple of years ago as an "evil genius" was not a Freudian slip. It was an apt description of himself and his maradonic government. Afterall only an evil genius could have managed to lay the foundation for an Orwellian destruction of the country while giving the impression at the same time that he was working assiduously for the national interest.

Under the guise of reforms, he transformed the otherwise sober banking sector into a giddy bazaar and proceeded to establish a deposit insurance company as a window dressing for the inevitable distress and collapse of banks.
Even the succeeding Ali Baba government of Gen. Sani Abacha was so appalled by what went on in the name of banking that he had to issue a decree to lock up banking executives to make them account for their unbridled theivery under the guise of banking.

The same went for the judiciary. The level of self-abasement to which judges had sunk under the Babangida regime can be seen clearly from the mid-might judgment of Justice Bassey Ikpeme purporting to annul the conduct of the 1993 presidential elections, despite an unambiguous decree that no court could do so. And what further evidence do we need that the judiciary under him was rotten when even Babangida himself claimed that part of the reason he annulled that election was to save the judiciary from itself? early days before his government turned monstrous, Abacha set up the Justice Kayode Eso panel which corroborated the fact that the judiciary was rotten through and through

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