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Unarguably the biggest cankerworm in this country, which many believe have continued to drag us down from achieving our potentials in the comity of nations, is corruption. The most recent is the embezzlement of billions of naira in the Police Pension Board and under the notorious petrol subsidy. Why do you think we cannot fight corruption in this country?
It is difficult to fight corruption because that issue itself is politicized. To fight corruption successfully in Nigeria is a herculean task because it is politicized. Leadership at the helm of affairs is not prepared to fight corruption. The leadership of the country itself under the presidency is not sincere. And those who are the most corrupt officers are or the most corrupt person happens to be in government and they will use every available means to tackle whoever wants to take on corruption headlong. So, the issue of corruption in this country as alarming and as serious as it is, it is not given due consideration by those who should give it and it is a shame that other countries are the ones setting the pace on how to deal with corrupt officials within our own country, outside the shores of this land. So, it is a very serious matter. I know that if the truth must be told, it is the fact that those in the leadership of this country are not ready or willing to fight corruption because they also have corruptive tendencies.
The trial and conviction of John Yusuff Yakubu have been condemned by many as irregular going by what is considered as light sentence for a serious crime. Do you share the same opinion?
I look at it and I laughed. I look at all the issue and I asked myself ‘are people really sincere in this country? Why should you take a judge to the cleaners for giving a judgment according to the law of the moment? That is why I will always give kudos to people like Governor Fayemi of Ekiti State. Though he is not a lawyer, he came out to say the truth, that don’t blame the judge, blame the law. Why was this man charged under the penal code when those who charged him to court know the penalty for that? They cannot claim ignorance of the fact that this is the penalty and they should know that the judge as a judge couldn’t dish out sentence by whims and caprices. He must mete out the sentence according to law. If the law says, if you are found guilty, it is two years imprisonment or option of fine, so be it, and he cannot go beyond it. We all passed through the law school, it is very elementary. When we were in the law school, there was a very important case, a penal matter and a lot of other cases too in those days whereby the Supreme Court reduced the sentence imposed by magistrate or judges because it is out of their jurisdiction to do so. So, if on conviction, a sentence is two years or option of fine, you will give the judge a lecture? Forget the fact that it could be 10 billion, it could be 20 billion but once you charge somebody under an enabling law, that enabling law stands. The sentencing under that enabling law stands and there is nothing anybody can do about it. Let us look at it from the legal point of view, don’t let’s be sentimental about this issue and don’t let us call anybody names on this matter.
How would you assess the Criminal Justice System in the country?
The Criminal Justice System unfortunately has not fared any better but thank God that at least some State government have taken the bull by the horns, especially Lagos State. Because when you look at the Criminal Justice System as it is now, it is more against the poor and in favour of the rich. What the poor persons will not get away with, the rich will get away with it and so the Criminal Justice System needs a very massive overhaul. In fact, most of the laws we have now have been there for so many years. Some of the laws need to be reviewed; some need to be amended to reflect the present day situation not only in Nigeria but globally.
Just before this interview is conducted, it was reported that INEC has deregistered two more political parties in addition to 28 already deregistered. Some of the parties have gone to court to challenge this. As a lawyer, does INEC have such power and how do you place the action of the parties?
The point is that the matter is already in court and as such, you don’t discuss it on the pages of newspapers. But the point is that I am of the opinion that the more, the merrier, why can’t we even have independent candidates whereas somebody can come out and vie for any post without belonging to any political party? Let people elect to explore the freedom of choice, the freedom to belong or not to belong to any political party. It is a fundamental right of every Nigerian to be free to associate or not to associate. So once you decide to stand for an election as an independent candidate why not? But this is sending a signal that under the enabling law of INEC, I cannot because they will not even take my nomination form in the first place. I believe that what we should fight for is that every Nigerian must have a right to stand and vie for an election whether or not he belongs to any political party.
INEC Chairman, Prof. Jega is also seeking powers to abolish staggered elections in the country. What is the likely effect of this on elections in Nigeria if such power is granted?
Well, I want to say I don’t know that because will he now terminate the number of years in office of those who have staggered election just because he wants to bring everybody in conformity with a one form election at a point in time. It is a very difficult thing to do and one needs to understand the fact that Nigerians and our political party and politicians don’t readily admit the guilt. So, when they go to court, and eventually the court decides that the person who is in the position is not the right person, they now call for re-election. So, you can’t say because of that you spend three years out of four when the court says you should spend four. If you are starting again, you are starting afresh. The numbers of years that the other person has usurped your position has not counted at all. So, I am trying to see how they are going to do that, you know he is a professor, so maybe he has some knowledge that other people don’t have. We are waiting for him to bring out his analysis and see whether it makes sense or not.
Who in your opinion should be the appointing authority of INEC chairman? Should it be the president or National Assembly?
I even think the head of the Judiciary that is the Chief Justice of Nigeria should appoint the chairman of INEC, not the president or the National Assembly. They are interested parties so they should leave it to the Judiciary, probably they should appoint as chairman a retired chief judge who feels okay to carry out the job. I believe that it is not a bad idea to have a retired judge as head of our electoral umpire.
You were at the monthly media chat of the president of the Nigerian Bar Association held at Airpot hotel Lagos recently where Okey Wali stated that NBA might deregister branches, which do not meet up in terms of practicing fees and membership. As chairman of arguably the biggest branch of the NBA, how would you react to this?
As far as I am concerned, I will just give the president a benefit of doubt. He may have his reasons for saying that but we have always argued that some branches ought not to have given the at all in terms of the number of lawyers that are practicing in the nation, in terms of the revenue that accrue to the national coffers of the NBA. For instance in Lagos I don’t see why we can’t have more than ten branches based on the number of courts and lawyers in Lagos State. In the whole of Lagos we only have Ikorodu, Ikeja, Lagos and Badagry, just four. So, this is not good enough and I believe that for us to make progress adequately membership of all these various branches should be increased and not decreased.
The general council of the bar recently announced an increase in practicing fees of over 500 per cent and many lawyers are complaining. What is your reaction to this?
What happened is that the 500 percent was what we have by the administration of the out gone President, J.B. Daodu (SAN). When Okey Wali took over, then at the meeting in Asaba, most of our colleagues including my humble self on the floor of the house told the executives of the NBA of the reactions of lawyers from the branches especially Lagos branch who resolved that they will not pay because they have not been getting quality service from the NBA. Now after Asaba and before January this year, Okey Wali came out that the General Council of the bar led by Federal Attorney General have agreed to review the practicing fee downward. This was debated at various branches, a lot of people are paying, and I don’t really want to talk about that because some members of our branch have gone to court. The matter is at the Federal High Court as I am speaking to you. But then people have been paying because everybody is under the authority of the national office of the association, we must pay on or before the 31st of March every year. Otherwise, any other payment thereafter is late payment and you will not be entitled to any ticket thereafter, which you have to show to indicate that you must have paid.
We at the Lagos Brands have our own way of doing things. I was just going to tell you about the issue of the venue for the Annual General Conference was spearheaded by the Lagos Branch. We refused Kaduna as the venue of the conference and we planned to boycott the conference if it was going to be held in Kaduna. We wrote a letter to the President of the NBA and we sent letters to all the branches informing them on the need for everyone to be opposed to the conference being held in Kaduna because of the security situation. Thank God, reason prevailed at the end of the day. Now, on the issue of why we have left the branch dues the way it is. We just had an increase in branch fees about two or three years ago. So there is no need for it. Then, of course we have to consider the nature of the economic situation now which is not only in the turf of only lawyers but also all Nigerians. When you start increasing without judging whether or not your people can pay, then you may be shooting yourself in the foot. Mind you, before you do anything as a leader, you must consult widely. We consulted and saw no need to increase the branch fees at this time.