Legal icon and educationist, Aare AfeBabalola (SAN) is not known to show disinterest when it concerns the well-being of Nigeria.
For quite a while, however, the erudite lawyer appears to have kept silent even as political and economic demons threaten to strangle and sink the nation, save perhaps, for his views in the weekly column he writes in a national daily, which examines issues of law; his first love, education and other matters.
However, when Saturday Sun sought him out at his privately owned university, the Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti (ABUAD), last week, the elder statesman aptly apprehends and diagnosed the situation of the country. His prescription to ending the festering political quagmire including agitations for self determination and resource control in the South East and the Niger Delta regions which had resulted in militancy, is:Restructure the federation and return to regional and parliamentary government.
He wrote off the presidential system as an imposition of the military and too expensive to run.
To save the country the humongous cost of governance, he advocated a one-chamber national legislature, with members placed on allowance of not more than 180 sittings per year, which according to him , apart from saving the nation money, will encourage only serious and committed patriots to seek for public offices.
Babalola who is among the first set of Nigerians to bag a degree in Economics from the University of London in 1959, criticised the official monetary policy, and the high interest rates, submitting that they are inappropriate and can only worsen the current economic recession.
To get out of the woods, Babalola who spoke with YINKA OLUDAYISI FABOWALE, says government must lower the interest rate, spend on capital projects and review its Treasury Single Account (TSA) policy to ease the liquidity situation in the country.
What has been your experience since retiring from the life of a busy litigation lawyer to coming to Ado-Ekiti to nurture a university?
Let me correct the notion that I have retired from legal practice. It is true that I do not go to court as I used to do. However, it is untrue that I have retired from legal practice. The truth is that, I am still involved, very heavily too in litigation matters. I interact with, and also participate in the preparation of cases with my seasoned and experienced lawyers who man Emmanuel Chambers in Lagos, Abuja, Port-Harcourt and Ibadan. In these days of technology, it is very easy to interact and be involved in cases which we handle in all these chambers. As to my experience about my involvement in the university, I say that legal practice is totally different from university administration. What I have learnt in the last six years in the university is different from what I went through as an active litigation lawyer. I have met with more people than when I was in law practice. I have also met with more people with diverse character, particularly those involved in construction work. I know better than before that there are as many character as there are human beings in this world. I have also found that the problem of this country is that of leadership and followership. I have also found that as a leader, unless you are personally involved in the supervision of construction work, you can never make it. I now know that the reason why we have many uncompleted buildings like Ajaokuta and the Silo at Ado-Ekiti all of which have not been completed after government had invested billions of naira in them is because there is no person who can be held responsible for uncompleted jobs.
How are you able to combine all these arduous tasks at your age?
This is one question everybody asks me. People wonder how I am able to combine legal work, teaching in class and supervision of construction projects including supervision of a large farm. I believe this is due to the grace of God. He is giving me the strength, the knowledge and the power to cope with all. I have also found to my satisfaction that work doesn’t kill. On the contrary, it is idleness that kills. Hard work to me is a therapy, when I work during the day till very late in the night as I do, I become tired at the end of the day. Nature sends me to sleep and I do not use any drug to sleep.
You rarely make interventions in national discourse these days. How is that?
It is true that I do not make much intervention anymore in matters dealing with politics. However, I still maintain my column in the Nigeria Tribune entitled “Afe on Thursday” which is at the back of Thursday Tribune Newspapers. I write on economic, educational, legal and political issues and I receive comments and commendations from readers.
What is your overview of President MuhammaduBuhari’s government?
Most people would recall that I was the counsel both to President Olusegun Obasanjo and Federal Government in the election petition cases involving Buhari. I had the opportunity of knowing him very closely. He is a fighter for a cause he believes in. One thing stands him out. In cases lasting for several months, he would be the first to be in court, even when cases went on till 7pm, he would remain in court. At the end of the day, he would greet his own counsel and the counsel for opposition. On governance, even if Buhari was a magician, there was no way he could turn around the fortunes of this country overnight. This is because much damage had been done to Nigeria’s economy since the 1966 military coup. I knew what the economy of this country was when we were ruled by the colonial masters. I knew what it was during the self-government era. I also knew what it was in the first six years of independence. Even though there was no oil, Nigeria was economically sound. I pay tribute to Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Azikiwe for piloting Nigeria from colonialism to independence and for the able governance until they were toppled by the military. If there had been no military take-over, Nigeria would have be on the same level with Brazil and India which the Western world then thought would overtake it.
On the issue of how government is tackling the issue of corruption; nobody knew that so much money was carted away by government officials some of which have been returned. However, tackling corruption is one thing, reviving the economy is another thing. The more we portray Nigeria as a country of corrupt people, the more we scare away investors. I was shocked when I read the statement that Nigeria was broke.We must liken the country to a bank. The day a bank announces to the world that it is broke, there would be an instant invitation to the public for a run on the bank. No investor would deal with a country that is broke.
Could’nt government pump some of the money recovered from the looters into circulation and review the TSA policy to ease the liquidity situation as some people have suggested or what is the use of keeping the money when people are suffering?
I agree with you that the money recovered should be pumped into the economy. As an Economist, I know that the best way to tackle recession is for government to deliberately encourage production which would enhance export. That, of course, means that interest rate should be lower to enable manufacturers borrow money for necessary investment. When there is recession, citizens hold on to the money they have, because they are not sure of when they will earn more money. This is why government must deliberately fund capital projects which will enhance circulation of money among contractors, workers, food sellers, market women, farmers and manufacturers. Unfortunately in this country, even in time of recession, the banks have increased interest rate to 29 per cent. I do not know how many businessmen can make any profit when the interest rate is 29 per cent.
As an institution, how has this recession affected your efforts at providing quality higher education?
ABUAD is part of the Nigerian society. We are badly hit by the recession. Firstly, every teacher has been devalued. The teacher earning N500,000 last year will still earn N500,000 this year; but in reality since the Naira has nose-dived to over 400 per dollar, the earning of the teacher in reality is less than 50 per cent of what he earned last year. Again the prices of laboratory equipment as well as other equipment which we have to order from overseas have increased by over 50 per cent, the price of food stuffs have also been badly affected. In spite of all these, it is difficult for us to increase school fee.The effect is that the founder is very badly affected by the recession:
Eminent Nigerians including former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar had made renewed calls for restructuring of the federation against the backdrop of the insolvency of the states and the Federal Government, coupled with agitation for self determination and resource control in the South East and Niger Delta. Where do you stand on this?
All Nigerians who cared to read my articles in newspapers, particularly in the Tribune on Thursday know my stand on this crucial issue. I had always been advocating for a return to regional and parliamentary government. In addition, as a member of the Constituent Assembly several times, I have also advocated that we should restructure the country. Mind you, the presidential system of government and our constitution was an imposition by the military, which set aside by force, the regional and parliamentary government which our forefathers gave us knowing full well that Nigeria is a geographical expression only. We all know that there are as many as 300 ethnic groups in the country. We are still on the journey, which the military men set for us in 1966. The truth is that, we do not know when the journey will end and how it will end. One thing I know for sure is that sooner or later, we would go back to a form of zonal or regional and parliamentary system of government.
Let me add quickly that the presidential system of government imposed on us by the military is one of the root causes of our problem today. The cost of government is expensive and everybody sees politics as the most profitable business in Nigeria. I recall that in the report of the last Constitutional Conference, it was concluded that National Assembly members should earn sitting allowance only and that they should sit on part-time basis only. That recommendation has not been acted upon by the Buhari government or by the National Assembly. If we are serious in cutting down the cost of governance, this is one area which Buhari government should take serious.
I have asked that this issue be turned over to a referendum, because I do not see how the present parliamentarians who are the beneficiaries of jumbo pay would agree to mere sitting allowances.
Talking about high cost of governance, what would be your recommendation – A unicameral or bicameral legislature?
(cuts in) We do not need more than one legislature.
But considering how heterogenous and how many we are, won’t that create a problem of unwieldy or inadequate representation?
No. A person can represent a large number of people. Secondly, the number of legislators need not be reduced. What is important is that they should only earn sitting allowance for a maximum of 180 days. We must jettison the large number of Special Advisers, Senior Special Assistants, Special Assistants, Assistants to Senior Special Assistants and all that.
Back to the issue of corruption, there are mind boggling revelations of alleged looting of Nigeria’s common wealth under the previous administration. How will you appraise the legal provisions and procedures being adopted by government to bring those implicated to justice and recover the loot?
We already have laws on how to deal with such matters. What we must realise is that the law frowns at retrospective laws. The law does not allow the promulgation of a new law which would create harsher punishment for offences that were committed many years earlier. The offender can only be punished under the law existing at the time the offence was committed.