Malami: Portrait Of A “Barrier-in-Chief”

By Godwin Onyeacholem

Much as one tries, it has been difficult to find something for which to commend Nigeria’s current Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami. He has been the chief law officer of the country since he was first appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari at the take-off of his administration in 2015, and re-appointed in 2019 as Buhari returned for a second term. Malami is one in the privileged club of distinguished lawyers who tag their names with that smug title of SAN (Senior Advocate of Nigeria), a legal title keenly coveted by the typical Nigerian lawyer. But he also comes across as one who is essentially unfaithful to the law.

As in a number of other appointments, Buhari’s choice of Malami for the pivotal office had, from the outset, been viewed by the more discerning segment of the populace as a dreadful miscue. Although the new administration rode into office on the wings of change, generally seen to mean a significant departure from the typical unproductive way of conducting affairs by past governments, its choice for the office of attorney general and minister of justice was the first telling sign that the much-touted change would be a sham.

It has nothing to do with Malami’s academic qualifications, but a lot to do with his fiercely guarded reactionary mindset, a feeble moral strength and a perverse sense of common good. Nothing about his past suggests he is the type of chief law officer Nigeria needs at this moment or at any time in the future. His office is supposed to be the fulcrum of the promised change, at the heart of which is supposed to be an all-out fight against corruption. But, almost daily, there is talk all over town that if the fight against corruption exists at all, it is a chaotic mess, floundering about in an embarrassingly unhealthy rivalry among the anti-corruption institutions. Or, at best, halfhearted, thanks to Malami.

So far, he has not disappointed those who say he is not suited for the office. At intervals, the public has been having good treats through reports of how he allegedly uses his office, ironically, to thwart the anti-corruption efforts of the government. It is hard to question this allegation when we recall that this chief law officer himself once told a senate panel of investigation that he had a meeting in Dubai with a fugitive wanted for financial crimes in Nigeria. The outcome of the meeting was the secret re-absorption of the said fugitive to higher office in the Nigerian public service.

Buhari promptly reversed the distasteful employment following public outrage. A scandal beyond description, it was that and many other acts of tendentious interventions in corruption cases that compelled a group of ten civil society organizations sometime in July 2019 to organize an anti-corruption roundtable discussion where they called on Buhari not to re-appoint Malami to the post of attorney general and minister of justice. They went on to describe him at that event as the “barrier-in-chief” in the anti-corruption war.

Indeed, the description would seem like a fitting cognomen in light of the fact that there is no record of his office successfully prosecuting a single high-profile corruption case since 2015. Instead, Malami is accused of parlaying his office to frustrate the prosecution of some big-time thieves, and also seizing cases from original prosecutors whenever he likes in the hope of steering them, as widely believed, toward a predetermined end.

The latest of such unworthy moves is the case of the kidnap kingpin Bala Hamisu, popularly known as Wadume. On August 6, 2019, Wadume was rescued by some soldiers from 93 battalion Takum, Taraba State, after his arrest at Ibi by a crack squad of the police from Abuja. As he was being transported to the state capital Jalingo, the soldiers manning a checkpoint gave a hot pursuit and opened fire on the police bus, killing three police officers and one civilian on the spot and freeing the notorious kidnapper. The incident led to a face-off between the army and the police. After an investigation, some police officers and ten soldiers, among them a Captain Tijani Balarabe who apparently is Wadume’s friend and collaborator, were found liable for that heinous crime.

The police were determined to secure justice for the slain officers and their families. Three months ago, they went to court to begin prosecution of the suspects, including the ten soldiers. The army blatantly refused to cooperate with the police by not handing over the soldiers for prosecution. At the commencement of hearing, the soldiers were not available for arraignment. The judge had to make an order that the chief of army staff, Tukur Buratai, a lieutenant-general, should produce them at the next adjourned date. But instead of that to happen, the chief law officer’s agent appeared in court, used the powers of the office to knock the police off as prosecutors, and then went on to strike off the names of the soldiers from the charge sheet.

The resultant outrage has yet to subside. There is no justifiable reason for this action. At that stage, what was expected of Malami was to force – yes, force, because they are not above the law – the army to obey the order of the court by producing the soldiers for trial. Any other thing is a perversion of justice.

Thankfully, Femi Falana, a renowned justice-minded senior advocate, is engaging Malami’s office on this serious matter. It is hoped that he gets his learned colleague to see reason and toe the path of honour.

But if one does not know Nigeria at all, the little one knows of her, at least in the context of this case, tells one that the prognosis is bleak. The police, the families of those murdered by the soldiers, and the society may never get justice.

Godwin Onyeacholem is a journalist. He can be reach via