Layi Olanrewaju, Ilorin
Yusuf Ali is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), whose sojourn in legal practice spanned decades. He spoke to Journalists in Ilorin on the former President, Olusegun Obasanjo’s frequent criticism of the Federal Government and other sundry issues.
The Federal Government recently released the names of alleged looters of public treasury, many of which are undergoing trial in the law court. What is your take on this?
Our country is an interesting country; we trivialise serious issues, and it is quite unfortunate that in spite of all the constitutional safeguards and the principles of rule of law, we are still behaving this way in the 21st century.
The law is settled and sacrosanct above board that once parties submit a case to a court of law, parties hold themselves; you don’t resort to self help. What I have just seen from all these unfortunate scenarios is that we have allowed politics and grandstanding to override a very solemn issue.
Those individuals who are undergoing trials, it is only the court that can pronounce them guilty; it is beyond any of the parties. And you see when I said this thing is being trivialised, the other side too came up with names of others, who belong to the ruling party, who are also in court, being tried for various offences. So, it shouldn’t be encouraged. Government should not do such a thing no matter what propelled you. You can only call anybody a criminal or a looter or an economic saboteur if he has undergone normal trial in a court of law; he has been so pronounced by a court of law. But you see that it is all politics now.
We are trivialising very serious matter. It is unfortunate. That is my view.
Going by the list of alleged looters from both parties, don’t you think Nigerian Judiciary is being put under pressure?
To a large extent, you are very correct. But I can assure you with the training of Judges, they are ordinarily inbuilt for all these ranting. A judge has been trained in a way to maintain his impartiality and his focus. But my worry is the average Nigerian. That is why some of us are opposed to media trial, because the average Nigerian only hears one side of an issue. They don’t have the patience or the gift to listen to the other side. If those who made allegations cannot sustain them in court, the general belief in the society will be that Judiciary is doing something to free somebody whereas, the person ab initio ought not to have been labeled or branded a criminal.
In view of this, what is the way forward?
The way forward is for all of us to demonstrate seriousness in all issues. Look at what is happening in US about the alleged Russian Interference in the election that produced (Donald) Trump. In spite of the fact that Trump is the president for more than a year, they would use their system, because they have strong institutions. They appointed Independent Council, who has been doing its own work, indicting people, in fact, some people have been convicted.
If it were to be in this country, most of us would start to query that the man is now the president, what are they still looking for. But in their (US) own system, it is very important because of the integrity of the system. Our system here has no integrity. So, there is nothing to defend. It is everything goes. For me, I believe quite honestly that we should show seriousness and those who are in positions of authority have greater responsibilities to show seriousness.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria recently set up a committee to monitor corruption cases. What is your assessment of the committee in view of the list of alleged looters?
Luckily, the committee is made up of Judges and seasoned Lawyers. My own understanding of their work is to ensure that there is adherence to the rule of law in everything that happens to all these trials. And I’m sure at the end of the day, the positions some of us took earlier will be vindicated that most corruption cases are lost due to two major reasons: lack of proper investigation and weak prosecution.
You just talked about strong system in the US. And here, the presidency and the National Assembly are at loggerheads over the retention of acting EFCC Chairman, Ibrahim Magu. Where do you think we are missing the point?
Everything boils down to our attitude. I have spoken about the continued stay in office of Magu. I have no problem with him as a person. But if we are talking of building an institution and I have made this analogy several times before. The constitution says these categories of officers must be screened by the senate and confirmed. If you appoint somebody in acting capacity, and his name has not gone to the senate, there is no problem about that. That can be accommodated within the spirit of the constitution.
But immediately you submit the name of the person to the senate, for whatever reason, either tenable or untenable, the senate says no, I don’t believe it would be right to say the person must continue. And I give simple example, if the president submits the name of somebody for ministerial appointment and the senate rejects the name, can you appoint him as an acting minister? That is the simple logic.
So, in order for us to defend the institution, if only for that, I think the matter should have been handled in a different way. For me, it is as if we are saying there is only one individual in Nigeria, who has the credentials to help us battle the hydra-headed monster of corruption. I don’t think so. I think there are a lot of good men in this country, many of them very silent individuals.
Recently, General Danjuma asked Nigerians to defend themselves against killer herdsmen terrorising parts of the country. What is your take on this?
My first reaction is that we would be unserious as a people if we dismiss what he said. And it would be more worrisome if government dismisses it with a wave of the hand. You have to know Danjuma’s antecedents, right from the day when he was a Lieutenant in the Nigerian Army. Anybody who has followed the history of Nigeria; the first coup, the counter coup, will know that Danjuma is a veteran, and then he rose to become the Chief of Army Staff in our country; he didn’t stop at that, he became the minister of Defence in 1999.
So, it would be very unserious for anybody to dismiss him because what he said essentially is an indictment against the Nigerian Army, of which at a time he was their Chief and minister of Defence, superintending all the arms of the Armed Forces. We cannot say he does know what he is talking about. And the level of information he has, ordinary people don’t have that kind of information. Then the propriety; the issue is that why could you have said such a thing and so on. There are for and against. For me, truth is sacred. It doesn’t matter, who says what. Substance of what has been said should be the issue. He is saying Nigerian Army has become partisan in the way it is handling these issues. So, we should address the issues, and that is the problem of our country. Usually, we leave the substance and chase the shadow. I think we should not take his words as ‘Ranting of Mr. Nobody’. Danjuma is something in this country; rightly or wrongly. We must take his words seriously. Let’s employ self introspection. This attitude of dismissing everything is unhelpful.
Transparency International has said that we have gone lower in Corruption Index, we dismissed it. Amnesty International made allegation against Armed Forces, we dismissed it. Anything that does not cheer with our perception, we feel there is no substance. I think that is not the correct way of moving forward in a country.
Former President, Olusegun Obasanjo has followed up his damning letter on the performance of the APC- led government with some commentary. What is your perspective about his latest action?
I’m not an Obasanjo’s fan but I think all patriots must commend him. He could have just sat in his comfort zone as former president, enjoy all the things of being a former president and he would be in the good book of everybody. Don’t compare our own with America. People would say we have not seen former American Presidents making comments. That is not even true. (Barrack) Obama and (Bill) Clinton have been speaking about Trump.
When you have an abnormal situation, there must be some reactions. For me, I’m not saying Obasanjo is right or wrong, but for having the conviction. Because we need people who can call attention to things that is not going right. Wole Soyinka says ‘The Man died who keeps silent in the face of Tyranny’. So, for me, you may agree with him (Obasanjo), you may disagree with him. We need at least people who have been there before to call attention to it. I don’t care about his motive, and like I said before, the things he said, are they true at all or no true. And I can bet you, if it had not been Obasanjo who said those things, it would take one million of Yusuf Ali to say those things to be noticed at all.
We need such interventions, and of course the other side would also say their own. The man said certain things that were of common knowledge to the people; there were others he said that were from his vantage position as a former president. It is like when people talk to me about economy. They say Nigeria is out of recession. Nigeria is out of recession in the books of Central Bank (of Nigeria). But to an average Nigerian like me and you, the recession is still living with us. Every Nigerian who lives by his sweat knows there are hard times up till now economically and financially.
You may disagree with Obasanjo’s style but all the things he said, are there truths in any of it? Is it not good for someone who is so highly placed to draw our attention to issues? We should also remember that he was one of the people who supported this administration to come into place against all odds. Like I said, if we dismiss what he said with a wave of the hand, Nigeria will be undoing itself.