Violence in the northern Nigerian city of Jos late last year, in which churches and mosques were bombed, has precipitated a new jurisdictional legal dispute between state and federal government officials. Washington human rights attorney Emmanuel Ogebe, who is just back from a visit to the city in Nigeria’s Plateau State, where he was born, says that the dispute may ultimately re-engage national President Umaru Yar’Adua in an issue that echoes an earlier judicial battle he had with former president Olusegun Obasanjo during Mr. Yar’Adua’s tenure as a state governor.
“This is the first lawsuit by a state government against Yar’Adua since he came to power, and it’s especially sensitive because remember, he was one of the governors who installed Sharia, Islamic law, in his state when he was a governor. And so now, there’s a religious crisis in a state, and he’s trying to act, and the state is suing him. It’s a kind of role reverse for him,” Ogebe said.
Beyond its religious component centering around last year’s clashes, in which hundreds of people were killed, the Washington attorney says there is a jurisdictional, potentially constitutional crisis between Plateau State and the federal government.
“When a state sues the federal government, it goes straight to the Supreme Court. It doesn’t go to any lower courts because it’s a constitutional matter. So it’s going to be very decisive when a verdict comes down, although the law seems to support the states. There’s an argument to be made that the federal government has an interest in the peace and security of every part of the country. So either way, there are going to be persuasive arguments on both sides,” he said.
That is where Mr. Yar’Adua’s political patron, Olusegun Obasanjo, who hand-picked Umaru Yar’Adua to succeed him in office and engineered Nigeria’s first peaceful transition of civilian presidents, enters the picture. Emmanuel Ogebe says that before their election alliance, Yar’Adua, as governor of Katsina State, dueled in court with the Obasanjo-led federal government in a dispute over jurisdiction.
“It would be interesting if the Supreme Court curtails the president’s powers to interfere with the state, especially since the president himself used to be a governor, and his actions as governor threatened the former President Obasanjo when he installed Sharia law in his state and Obasanjo struggled to contain it and it created a crisis and violence and killings all across the country,” Ogebe pointed out.
Plateau is the same state for which former President Obasanjo declared a state of emergency during a spate of Muslim-Christian violence. If the current jurisdictional clash over who has the ultimate authority to investigate last November’s religious violence continues to heat up, Ogebe says it is possible that other Nigerian states will also become involved in the dispute with the federal government.
“Right now, it is not a situation that has come up with other states. And I think that what will happen at the very most is that some of the states might say, “All right, this is an interesting legal constitutional point. Let’s also go to court and support the position of this one governor. So that could happen. It’s very remote, but it’s a possibility. What is most likely to happen is that all the states will watch and see how the verdict goes because then, it will have relevance for their own activities,” he said.