Mohammed Bello Adoke, who turned 60 on September 1, 2023 served Nigeria as Attorney General and Minister of Justice, April 6, 2010- May 29, 2015. He holds the esteemed, silky rank of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), and Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR). He is one of the finest gentlemen that I know, a sound professional, brutally honest, intellectually gifted, a man whose first code of relationship is loyalty. I admire him for his intellect and forthrightness, but even more so for his stubborn loyalty to persons and causes.
There are persons that I have had cause to criticize in the recent past, in the line of work basically, but Adoke would insist he would never condemn any man in public who has ever been nice to him whatever the situation may be. And yet he has the most caustic tongue that anyone can ever think of. I have always warned him never to think of a career in journalism, lest someone breaks his bones literally, because when he takes on a subject that he is passionate about, he does not know how to measure his words. He is one of such persons who believe that their syntax must match the exact timbre of their feelings. When he is opposed to a subject, he wields an axe, when he is in support of a particular matter, he waxes lyrical.
Legal practice suits his temperament perfectly. Lawyers are basically technicians, wielding facts and evidence and relying on precedents and the law to build a case in favour of their clients, and lawyers are fine in that regard as long as they do not behave like characters in Charles Dickens’s The Great Expectations or The Bleak House where Dickens, 19th Century English satirist offers a most unflattering view of the law. The key thing about our common law jurisprudence is that the court-room restrains lawyers from speaking as it comes to them outside the rules of professional conduct. Adoke’s professionalism is not in doubt. Called to the Bar in 1986, after obtaining a degree in law from Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria (1985), he holds a Postgraduate Diploma in International Tax Law from Robert Kennedy University, Zurich, Switzerland, a Diploma in International Commercial Arbitration from Keble College, Oxford and an Advanced LLM in Public International Law (specializing in international criminal law) from the University of Leiden, Netherlands. He has practised law in diverse areas such as civil litigation, commercial disputes, arbitration, election petitions and oil and gas culminating in his attainment of the rank of an SAN, membership of the International Law Commission in Geneva and his appointment as Chief Law Officer of the Federation: a position that places him in a special class in the legal profession.
The other day, ahead of the celebration of his 60th birthday, he granted an interview which has now become very controversial, to a lady, Ms Adesua Giwa-Osagie, on a platform called “Untold Stories”. In the interview, one thing led to another and Adoke, reacting to allegations that he was charged for corruption by the Buhari administration told his interviewer that no he was not corrupt, but that Buhari ran “the most incompetent government we’ve ever seen in this country, ran by the most incompetent President that this country has ever had and will never have again…by a set of political morons.” This was that side of Adoke’s persona that I talked about in action. In a few words, he delivered the most devastating assessment of the Buhari administration so far since Buhari’s departure from office on May 29. To accuse a man of incompetence at his work is to declare that he is not worth it at all. To dismiss a whole Government as a government of morons is brutal. It was therefore not surprising that by Monday morning, quite a number of news platforms reported a sharp rebuttal to Adoke’s statement by Mallam Garba Shehu, former senior assistant spokesperson to President Buhari. One example would suffice.
This newspaper yesterday in its lead front page story quoted Garba Shehu as having claimed that President Buhari’s fight against corruption is unprecedented. He was said to have cited the Process and Industrial Developments (PID) matter, Paris Club, and the Ajaokuta Steel Company as cases that Buhari had to take on which were inherited from the Jonathan administration under which Adoke served. He reportedly said that Buhari was on “a rescue mission”. Adoke’s interview, ahead of his 60th birthday, was on a relatively modest platform. I have always warned that volubility is not an asset in the business of spokesmanship. He who speaks for another must know what to ignore, what to respond to, and what to manage. By responding to Adoke, Garba Shehu has taken what could have been overlooked as a side comment to the front pages, and drawn more attention to President Buhari’s legacy. He should have kept quiet. But he didn’t. And now he has ignited a conversation around the question: what exactly did President Buhari rescue?
It is true that in 2015, President Buhari had promised Nigerians that he would address the issues of insecurity, the economy and corruption. By the time he left office in May 2023, he had left the country in a far more insecure state than he met it. The economy was in the doldrums. Nigeria was in so much debt, even Buhari’s economists advised against the perils of further borrowings. Inflation had become unmanageable. The country’s unemployment rate was so high, the succeeding Tinubu administration has had to engage in the voodoo manipulation of statistics to reassure Nigerians that the unemployment index had dropped using a different methodology. But the same Tinubu, APC to APC government has not hidden the fact that the new managers inherited a badly managed economy.
Wale Edun, the current Minister of Finance and the Co-ordinating Minister of the Economy has said publicly that the last time the Nigerian economy was stable was about a decade ago, in other words before Buhari/APC assumed office at the centre. He added, to drive the matter home, that “we inherited a bad economy.” So, what happened to Buhari’s rescue mission. The standard excuse that has been given in his defence is that he was “not aware” of most of the things that happened under his watch. Tinubu, his successor, from the same party has been carrying on as if he is aware, and that is why he has been prying into some of the transactions under Buhari: the CBN, the foreign exchange, import waivers, management of palliatives, the anchor borrowers’ programme. His only saving grace would be that if Tinubu with his “over-sabi” fails to deliver on his reforms, then people could become kinder to him, but if Tinubu is able to make a difference, then Buhari’s legacy would be in tatters. The jury is still out. Buhari’s spin doctors are no longer in a position to dictate how he should be remembered. The old line about Buhari fighting corruption that was hatched under Jonathan is a worn, over-flogged tale that no longer sells in the light of present realizations.
As a person. Muhammed Bello Adoke has used the occasion of his 60th birthday to defend himself in the public domain. Before his recent interview, he had written a book titled “Burden of Service: Reminiscences of Nigeria’s former Attorney General” (London/New York: Clink Street, 2019, 270 pp.) in which he provides a detailed reflection on his trials and triumphs as Nigeria’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice: the mischief of those who witch-hunted him, specifically the OPL 245 Controversy and the Ajaokuta Steel Settlement. Adoke’s main argument is that he acted in the utmost best interest of Nigeria in all that he did and strictly within the purview of the rule of law. The frustration that he expresses in the book about the intrigues in the corridors of power is enough to discourage anyone from agreeing to serve the Nigerian government. Depending on the circumstances, you could go in as an innocent person interested in service, only to come out with a heavy Sisyphean burden on your shoulders. In 2016, the Buahri administration charged Adoke to court along with others over OPL 245. He was hounded from pillar to post, even as far as the Netherlands. He was eventually arrested in Dubai after spending about six years in exile. Adoke is in the best position to tell his own story, and he probably would do so in another book. What is certain is that a court in Milan, Italy discharged and acquitted him of any wrong-doing in the OPL 245 debacle. The Commercial Court in the UK ruled that he had nothing to do with the P&ID debacle which seems to have gone cold most conveniently. The former Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN advised the government in a written opinion that the Federal Government had no case against. Adoke. Mr Ibrahim Magu, former EFCC Chairman, by Adoke’s own account, also found cause to apologise to him. This is probably the root of his deployment of strong adjectives to dismiss a leader that was once a “constituted authority” in this country as the most incompetent in Nigerian history. Politics is a function of time and chance, hall of mirrors, a revolving door.
Adoke was not originally my friend. We quarrelled before we became friends. When I assumed duties at the Presidential Villa in 2011, one of the first pieces of advice I got was from Akachikwu Nwankpo, then Special Adviser on Technical Matters to the President and later Gubernatorial candidate in the 2022 Anambra elections. Nwankwo had drawn my attention very early to what he called the existence of a “A Gap Theory” in the Villa, in the sense that the place was a jungle and the only way to survive was to defend your territory with every ounce of energy within you. I thought he was joking. But he was dead serious. “You see this place my brother, you have to watch your territory, even when you are doing your best people are perpetually looking for how they can do your job for you.” I felt that was odd. People had specific titles and job descriptions.
But as it turned out, I discovered on my own that my assignment as Presidential Spokesperson was something everyone had their eyes on. I usually briefed the President every morning at the breakfast table. In a short while some people started dragging it with me. They would plant themselves at the table and before I started the briefing, one of them would have launched an unsolicited media commentary: “Daddy, on AIT yesterday…” Oga, I heard that so, so and so editor.” Ha. Would these people allow me to do this job? Many of the interlopers used to go directly to the President to introduce editors and other media players, claiming to know the media better than everyone else. Some had the effrontery of directing me to issue press statements. I was caught in the web once or twice, but when I saw the President didn’t like me producing press statements that he did not personally authorize, I became fiercely territorial. Only the President could tell me what to do.
I had a different kind of baptism in January 2012. That was during the “Occupy Nigeria” protests following the Jonathan administration’s decision to deregulate the downstream sector, which resulted in the pump price of petrol going up from N65 per litre to N141 per litre. Mayhem descended on Nigeria. There were riots in Ojota, Abuja and other parts of the country. For more than a week, organised labour and civil society fought the Nigerian government. They wanted the removal of subsidy reversed and they were determined, not the kind of “testing, testing” protest that Labour leaders of today are organizing on the same issue. There was unease in the Villa as there was in the country. There were casualties. It was felt that the President needed to address the nation. I wrote a draft in which I tried to appeal to the people and calm the nerves. Then came along Adoke with a militant draft speech in which the President was meant to sound stern and warn the dissidents and their sponsors who were disturbing the peace of the nation. The version that Adoke brought was pugilistic and fierce. The President told me to go and look at it and get back to him. I came back with a modified draft, only for the President to opt for the militant piece. It was his statement, not mine. But I was bitter. I complained to Dr. Fortune Fiberesima, the President’s physician who said he too was facing the same challenge – all kinds of people trying to do his work, even when they had no knowledge of medicine. One Minister, who always boasted that his wife was a medical doctor, in fact relished offering the President medical advice. Fiberesima used to fume.
I decided to talk to Mohammed Adoke. I told him he should not do my job. He should focus on his AGF work. He was nice. He said he was interested in the purity of the law, not other people’s assignments and indeed, with the law, he is one of the finest that Nigeria has had as AGF and Minister of Justice. The story of our friendship since then till date is another story to be told some other day. For now, please join me to wish him a happy 60th birthday. Congratulations, AGF Emeritus.