Monday, May 20, 2024

Ex-AGF Bello Adoke’s ‘Burden of Service’ memoir riddled with murky narratives

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that in this part of the book, at least, Adoke was – to put it rather mildly — less than economical with the truth.

• April 28, 2024
Bello Adoke
Bello Adoke [Credit; Premium Times]

Senior Nigerian public officers are notoriously parsimonious with their recall once out of office. Their club memoirs are unusual. In a country ruled by whim, risk aversion is prudent when you are out of power. By feigning amnesia, yesterday’s men limit the likelihood that their successors may remember them for the wrong reasons. 

Moreover, with the government as the principal guarantor of a good life, respect for its rule of Omerta is the only way to retain any hope of access to its revolving doors.

When it occurs, a departure from this trend is usually enforced. This is why Mohammed Bello Adoke’s 2019 memoirs remain notable. Adoke, a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), was attorney-general and minister of justice under President Goodluck Jonathan for five years from 2010 until 2015. 

Since leaving office, he has endured exile, detention, and a failed criminal trial in connection with the infamous oil prospecting lease (OPL) 245 granted in April 1998 by General Sani Abacha to the shadowy Malabu Oil and Gas Limited. 

Even before his trial began, Adoke felt called upon to discharge a burden related to the controversies that dogged him after office. Fittingly, his story is published under the title Burden of Service. The sub-title Reminiscences of Nigeria’s former attorney-general underscores the point that Adoke is, remarkably, the first former attorney-general of the federation to publish an account from his time in office. 

In addition to the Malabu Oil controversy, Burden of Service offers insights into many other highlights of the Goodluck Jonathan years, including the handover of the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon, recovery of the endless Abacha Loot, removal of Ayo Salami as President of the Court of Appeal, and the climactic denouement to Nigeria’s 2015 presidential elections. In the afterglow of what he must regard as judicial vindication, it is timely to re-examine Adoke’s own narration.

While his parochial account is interesting in and of itself, it is the vignettes he offers when he is not necessarily pleading with his own cause that make Adoke’s insights deserving of attention. A general theme of his is the shiftiness of Nigerian politicians, and he illustrates this with several issues in the book. Some deserve scrutiny.

The first is the currency of loyalty in Nigerian politics. Under General Abacha, politicians popularised “I am loyal” as a cult greeting. It is not lost on those interested that anyone who has a need to repeat affirmations in this way probably knows nothing about loyalty in the first place. 

Illustrating this point, Adoke narrates how many people close to President Jonathan donated money to support General Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign in 2015. According to him, “many of my cabinet colleagues, including those known to be close to the president, had made donations to Buhari’s campaign. Those involved included heads of agencies. A principal officer of the National Assembly from the PDP was to later confess publicly that he donated N5 million to the APC during the elections.”

This shiftiness is not limited to politics; it also extends to high matters of constitutional legality. This is the second highlight from Burden of Service. Adoke tells a remarkable story about the fate of the Constitution (Fourth Amendment) Bill of 2015, which was said to have failed to receive presidential assent before President Jonathan vacated office. 

The amendment included clauses granting immunity to law-makers, life pension to former presiding officers of the National Assembly and inducting them into life membership of the National Council of State. It also contained a provision dispensing with presidential assent to constitutional amendments. As Adoke recalls, after the 2015 election, the National Assembly transmitted the Bill to President Jonathan for his assent. 

By the time Adoke learnt of this, President Jonathan had reportedly assented to the bill and authorised it to be returned to the National Assembly. So, Adoke raced to the presidency to explain to the President the dangers inherent in the provisions contained in the amendment assented to. After his encounter with President Jonathan, “the President looked genuinely surprised and promptly withdrew his assent”, whereupon he directed the Attorney-General “to prepare a memorandum elucidating all the issues…. raised and why he would have to veto the bill.” The rest is history but an important constitutional question arises – can a president having assented to a law unilaterally withdraw his assent? 

Thirdly, there is the issue of weaponisation of litigation against the public purse in judgment debts. It’s best to render this in Adoke’s own words: “Many of the claims were bogus, but since it was an organized scam, they were getting away with it…. Again, there were too many people interested in judgment debts. We were getting calls from all manner of people, including members of the National Assembly. Actually, some National Assembly members were making appropriation for judgment debts based on an understanding with the debtors (sic). It was a conspiracy against the national treasury.” This does not require any translation but it is noteworthy that Attorney-General Adoke chose not to tell who “they” were. 

Fourth, there is the matter of plea bargains in white collar crimes involving politically exposed persons (PEPs) in Nigeria. About this, Adoke tells the story of the presidential pardon granted to former Bayelsa State Governor Diprieye Alamieyeseigha. According to him, Alamieyeseigha’s conviction was under a plea bargain and “as part of the plea bargain he was to be granted presidential pardon by (President Umaru) Yar’Adua after his release from jail. This, however, did not materialise as President Yar’Adua fell ill and died.” Plea bargains are subject to approval by courts and it’s doubtful whether this part of the deal was disclosed to any court. It certainly wasn’t disclosed to Nigerians. 

Fifth, Adoke, as attorney-general, was also the official leader of the bar. His memoir offers an unusual insight into how he views hierarchies at the bar. To make this point, he tells the story of how, before his time, “a substantial part of the budgetary allocation made for solicitors’ fees was being paid out only to two or three private solicitors. There was a case of a former attorney-general that was paying a senior advocate N50 million for each case….” The result was there was insufficient money to go around and many cases against government went un-defended, leading to more judgment debts. So, how did Adoke address this? He decided that “no SAN would be paid more than N5 million for a brief; any other lawyer, who was not a SAN, would receive a maximum of N2 million.” In the un-complicated calculus of Attorney-General Adoke, a SAN is worth 250% of a non-SAN!

The narration in Burden of Service unfolds at four distinct levels: pre-text, text, context, and sub-text. It is replete with claims of moral high ground and complete disclosure, but—as with nearly all memoirs—the reader must have an eye for both the credible and the incredulous. The line between these two can sometimes be non-existent in Adoke’s mind.

For instance, in telling the story of the removal of Ayo Salami as the President of the Court of Appeal, Adoke prefaces his narration with the implicit disclaimer that “the Attorney-General is not a member of the National Judicial Council (NJC),” which recommended Salami’s retirement. He then proceeds to a pro forma narration that is half-hearted to the point of being manifestly disingenuous. 

According to Adoke, Salami “had personally encouraged” him to apply for SAN. However, Chief Justice Katsina-Alu, who was the other party in this terminal dogfight with Salami, was his “mentor and adopted father” and benefactor, who personally recommended him to President Jonathan for the position of Attorney-General. Why it should fall to the Chief Justice of the Federation to nominate the Attorney-General of the Federation is another matter altogether. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that in this part of the book, at least, Adoke was – to put it rather mildly — less than economical with the truth.

A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at An earlier version of this article was first published in October 2019.

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