To Justice Mamman Nasir, first Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of the defunct northern region, agents of corrupt personalities in Nigeria abound in the current All Progressives Congress, APC -led government headed by President Muhammadu Buhari. “I said that there are some, if not many agents of the corrupt people in Buhari’s government. After all, Buhari is living in a corrupt society. Some of the people working with the President do not have personal relationship with him apart from official. “If you read the newspapers, there was one of the appointees of Buhari who was alledged to be corrupt, but he was suspended later. In every human society, you cannot change people overnight especially on issue like corruption,” he submitted.
In this interview with ABDULLAHI HASSAN, Justice Nasir, elder statesman, former president of the Federal Court of Appeal, chairman, Abacha Transition Implementation Committee, and Chairman, National Boundary Commission, the Galadinma Katsina who has participated in all the constitutional conferences from 1960 to date, speaks on one-year of APC and the crisis of confidence which is seemingly creating disunity in the North as a result of the shoddy handling of the Sir. Ahmadu Bello Foundation.
A former chairman of the Northern Elders Forum and founder, Arewa Consultative Forum, Justice Nasir also spoke on lapses in the trial procedure of cases of corruption by Nigerian courts among other issues of national interest. Excerpts:
AS founder and Chairman, Advisory Committee of the Ahmadu Bello Foundation, can you explain what led to the crisis that rocked the foundation recently?
Initially, when the idea of Ahmadu Bello Foundation was mooted, the entire family of Sir. Ahmadu Bello , the Sardauna of Sokoto and the Premier of the northern region were involved, including his close friends and children. But then, they said it should be handed over to me so that we ensure the Foundation is rightly handled. We told the governors and the Sultan of Sokoto. We constituted a steeering Committee of many people including the late Waziri of Ilorin. We reached a stage where we thought that this Foundation should be launched. Then we decided to meet the northern governors and get them involved. So, I took the matter to the then Chairman of the Northern Governors Forum, former Governor of Niger State, Dr. Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu and the Secretary to the Niger State Government. One day, we read in the newspapers a Board of Trustees has been appointed. We were surprised.. Later, we requested for an audience with the Chairman of the Northern Governors Forum and he said the story we read was done in a hurry, and that it would be changed. He said it was done purposely for the launch to take place as quickly as possible. Those who were against him said the reason he gave was not convincing. I cautioned them and said, “give him a chance to make the changes.” Up till now, these changes have not been effected. But if I have my way, I will like to sit down and talk with some senior people, including some people who were appointed as Board of Trustees and my advisory committee to produce a suitable constitution which wouldhelp the smooth operations of the Foundation. The changes in the constitution were the ideas of the management of the Foundation which until we are satisfied with the conduct of the Foundation’s management, we will continue to have a problem on some of these issues. So, the earlier this controversy is finished, the better. If we handle this Foundation properly, we can use it to solve our problems in the North; for example, what is happening in Benue State between the Fulani and Tiv people. We also have the Tiv/ Jukun and the Tiv/Idoma crises. But where is the Foundation? What do we do to solve it? If we are serious and we want to use this Foundation, it is easier and simple. We can get prominent people in the North; involved them in the reconciliation and the problem would be over. Also, cattle-rustlers issue in Zamfara and other states in the North West is still there. So, what do we do in the Foundation regarding these issues? Nothing apart from wasting our time on trivial issues and going to some places where our presence is not even needed.
So much money was donated by prominent Nigerians including northern governors to the Foundation during its launch, some years back. What did you do with the money?
We have Board of Trustees. There are governors in the name of Northern Governors Forum. There is also a small group called Advisory Council, which I was told to head. I was one of the signatories to the account. But something happened one day. A cheque was brought to me to sign but I refused. I said I wanted an explanation. What happened was that instead of giving me explanation, another signatory was appointed to sign it. I said this is where you go wrong. So, why don’t you respect me and trust me? Why didn’t you give me the answer? Instead, you went ahead and appointed another signatory who could do my job. This is clear case of an issue that can bring about corruption. Once you allow this to happen in the name of the governors, then you are spoiling the name and integrity of the governors because they did not do it. Let us meet with all the governors and tell ourselves the truth about the North which this Foundation seeks to protect. We don’t have Foundation for many northern heroes except for Sir. Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, who stood for the truth and died for the truth. The proposed review of the Foundation’s constitution was still part of the problem. It is hoped that the exercise would not empower some people’s selfish interest in the name of building the North.
Another sad issue in Ahmadu Bello Foundation is that members are there for life, not for two days and the guidelines say the governors will appoint them. Which governor? Or governors? While I support anybody as member of the Foundation for life, but who appointed him? Or is it fair to do that. It means anybody appointed as member will be there for the next 30 years. He might be an ex-governor or wasted person whose contribution might not or has never been felt in the North.
To me, projects for health or education is not too important as per the motive behind the establishment of the Ahmadu Bello Foundation. My problems are not all these, our basic responsibility should be, promoting unity, stability and peace. If we can help in building these, whichever step we take will automatically help development the more. And that is what the North is lacking.
With the disunity in Ahmadu Bello Foundation, and similar allegations in ACF and threat of Northern Elders Forum to other Associations in the North, don’t you see a dangerous signal to the unity of the North?
All these bodies have common grounds. It will be good if we unite, but looking at the antecedent, it is difficult. ACF came as result of a merger of three bodies particularly, Northern Elders Forum, which I was once its Chairman with support of Emirs. Ahmadu Bello Foundation was not strong when we formed the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF. Though it is a unique and effective organization that will attract and serve people better or best, but a little disappointment with more success emerges . Sir. Ahmadu Bello, Sir. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Sir. Kashim Ibrahim, and many powerful men teamed up and formed the Northern region. Why don’t we have that unity now? It means we are losing the basic quality which the Ahmadu Bello Foundation, Northern Elders or ACF should have as the case may be. It is high time for us to forget our selfish interests. Let’s see unity and team work as tool for progress. Sir. Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, during his lifetime made consultations. Anybody who had a complaint or problem, the Sadauna would be the first member of the committee to solve the problem. That was Sardauna’s style of consultation. He also set up a committee to advise him with honesty and integrity. Why can’t we do the same thing now?
The President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration will soon be one year old. What is your assessment of the journey so far?
To understand the present situation, we have to look back at the governments that paved the way for Buhari to come into power. In other words, the return to civil rule in 1999. The country was gradually drifting into a sort of abnormality. It was becoming a sort of personal issue or what one may call personal leadership which was not only weak, but corrupt. This happened because the leadership was not hinged on any serious principles of national respect and national integrity. In fact, it was an era when some people turned leadership to selfish interest. When the present government took over, you will recall that almost every Nigerian citizen was praying hard to God to give the country quality leadership. The prayer was answered when Buhari and many of his colleagues were elected. One thing happened immediately after the election. It was great because the then president did not file any petition. Politically, that attitude cooled down tension. For the first time, the North and West formed a national government. That did not happen by anybody’s influence or political tactics. It was as a result of political and social evolution and prevailing circumstances at that time .The North and West have been together for the past 100 years before Europeans came. In Malumfashi here, there were lorries coming with bags of Kolanuts every week in those years. The kolanuts were brought by our people from Western Nigeria. In normal social interaction, people’s relationship could mature when you engage in businesses with ohe another. And with language and sometimes religion, people get closer to one another. And you also find out that there is good relationship when people absorb religion as part of their culture. That was what happened across the country including the western Sudan. So, common interest in culture and religion does not only unite people, but politics and religion are common things that establish political ties among people. So, when the opportunity came for leadership to emerge, the leaders were able to do elementary politics,including adopting honesty in politics. So, when they got that one, they said yes we are together. We have evolved into brotherhood.
What economic impact has this political arrangement made on the life of the common man in Nigeria today?
You have to link politics to a particular political structure in any society even though that structure cannot not work without using money to get followers. Again, once you rely on economic benefits for politics, then you are bound to get into trouble. In real politics, the political stability is the Alfa that brings economy to the ordinary man. Many things changed in the North, particularly with the government that was partially military or partially civilian. The same happened in the West. Even the leaders have changed. It happened that both sides were willing to work through the natural evolution of society of neighbors. It would be much easier if you have many things in common to evolve a political system. This is natural for people to feel or write. What is important is the people’s participation in bringing life to the country. Earlier on, they may have good leaders who were ready to serve them with all honesty. To the best of my knowledge, there was no time the northerners hated the Yoruba. Here, I had a neighbor, a Yoruba man. None of his family members speak Yoruba; but they arrived here as traders and they stayed and lived here throughout. In fact, their families are still around. They call themselves westerners and northerners. So, this arrangement has made serious impact on the political stability of our nation. But you know that other things follow gradually.
What would you say to those who are alleging that the Buhari-led government is losing focus and that it cannot stop corruption? They also claim that the government has only succeeded in increasing poverty. What is your view on these allegations?
When the present government came to power, it gave a direction to be followed. One of these directions is to fight corruption and you cannot fight corruption without getting good people. In this fight against corruption, some of the people working with Buhari as close associates are, in fact, agents of the corrupt people. Take for an example, when late President Umar Yar’Adua was nominated to run as president, people started wondering why him when everybody knew that he had serious health challenges. But there was a motive behind his choice, especially by those who wanted him there. So, they wanted to ridicule us by giving the presidency to the North. They gave the presidency to the North hoping that Yar’Adua wouldl not last longer than one year. In fact, Umaru overstayed against those people’s wish. Soon after his death, his vice moved into the presidency in accordance with the constitution of the country. But how this was created was due to political deceit by those politicians. So when you have a situation like this kind of power maneuvers, the element of corruption must be there because you need money to fight left and right. To me, General Obasanjo could have been one of the best leaders if not because of his selfish decision which was against national interest. The government that came after Yar’Adua, specifically, targeted the nation’s economy and consequently allowed massive corruption which they used to their advantage, but at the detriment of the country. If you want to fight corruption, you have to pick some salient areas and start with them. You can’t fight corruption in one basket, using only one method. No, you need to fight it by picking salient points to show people the results. Then, people will believe you are fighting corruption. The fact that you did not fight everybody doesn’t mean that your fight against corruption is weak. It is something that requires a lot of patience because you cannot do it one night. You need time even physically to move about. Even those that are assigned to handle cases of corruption need to be checked at times to ensure that they are doing the work.
Would it be right to infer from your statement that those around Buhari’s government are corrupt?
Not really. I said that there are some, if not many agents of the corrupt people in Buhari’s government. After all, Buhari is living in a corrupt society. Some of them working with him do not have much personal relationship apart from official. If you are reading Newspapers, there was one of the appointees of Buhari who was corrupt, but he was suspended later. Any human society you go, you cannot change people overnight especially on issues like corruption. You need human being to fight human being. But if we continue defeating corrupt people without mistake, we will be making headway. To me, what is important is that we should not allow natural brotherhood to be destroyed by whichever interpretation given by the constitution. For example, a Law Maker came back to his constituency after spending one year in the National Assembly with no record of constructing or repairing roads, but only records of constructing hospitals.
Let’s talk about our judicial system. President Muhammadu Buhari, at a point complained about delay in justice delivering system and trial corrupt officials in civil courts. What is your take on this?
What I read in the newspapers was that the president said part of the major problem in the trial of corruption cases is the judiciary. To me, that is a very wide statement. What this means is that the president is after an honest judiciary. For us to have an honest judiciary, it is a question of practical application of administration of justice. If you bring a case and it continues within a reasonable time before it is concluded, it indicates a clear case of justice. If you have another case involving a multi-billion naira with one party appearing like a loser; anytime you go to court, there is always an adjournment, you can begin to wonder whether the two parties are not teaming up for good judgement. In our days, I told you the story of a lawyer who sent himself to the United Kingdom for training. He did very well and came back to Nigeria and joined his father’s chamber to practice. So the father went on leave and left his lawyer son whom he has so much confidence in, with many cases. What happened after that? A case came up and the son went to court and won the case. According to the story, when the father resumed, he said that was the case I used in training you.The father was not happy because the case ended without adjournment. So, you can see the typical case of unfairness to a client. Today, if there is an adjournment of the case, the next day, the case would come up, a lawyer would go round to collect more fees. This is common with land cases. So when you get such cases adjourned always, it looks like it is not completed. You have forgotten that the adjournment is not in the interest of the two parties. In fact, it looks like the two parties are not ready to finish the case. Recently, I read in one of the newspapers that a lawyer applied for an adjournment but it was refused by the judge. The lawyer took the complaint against the refusal to the judiciary, querying why the judge refused the adjournment. The judge said I have the right to refuse adjournment on many grounds and if the lawyer is not satisfied, he can appeal against my decision. He said “the appeal can come after I conclude the case.’’ So, this is a clear case of fairness in judgment. I also know of a case involving one chief which lasted for many years before it was finished. Ultimately, the chief lost the case.
How do we curtail this long trials or judgments?
There are three ways our Courts, especially those handling corrupt cases, can curtail these long trials and judgments. First and foremost, the executive arm of government should sit with the legal professionals, including judges, lawyers and so on. And the President or the Chief Justice should tell them that these long and unnecessary delays in trials and judgments must be discontinued. What can we do to get speedy justice? The president should also tell them that the more we continue getting delays in judgments, the more we will be accused by people which means we are destroying ourselves. You know there is a law on criminal justice which does not allow Courts to go into unnecessary adjournments, which automatically speed up the trial of cases. I think there is need for a similar law to be applied to all civil cases, because once you don’t allow Interim Appeals where lawyers accuse
Courts of no jurisdiction to try a case, a lot of problems of delay in judgment would be over. One of the most important aspects to reduce delay in trial is to stop Interim Appeals for whatever reason. Delay could make anybody to suspect error trial or judgment or suspect an act of corruption. Now if you can stop it then you reduce delay. If you can reduce delay from the hearing of our cases, then what may happen is that a case that is in court for seven years or more would have been finished in one year. At the end of the day, only one judgment would cover the whole of the problems. To do that, you need an Act similar to the Criminal Act to stop the Courts from wasting time and these unnecessary Interim Applications. As a judge, if a lawyer makes any unnecessary Interim Appeal, forget it and continue with the case. I will ask the lawyer to tell me what he wants. I will write it down, record it and continue. When I finish, I will include it as part of the appeal. So, there is one appeal which will deal with the whole case. This does not really matter if you have a case in a Court in Katsina or elsewhere. A case is case and should be treated on its merit. If you allow a technicality to be accepted in cases all the time, then that case can last for years.
What’s your view on the call for the establishment of a special court to try cases of corruption under this administration?
First and foremost, the judiciary must accept to reduce the acceptance of Interim Appeals and collect all the appeals in one case with respect to some senior lawyers. We had done it before with Chief Rotimi Williams. We collected all the appeals and continued with the case. He never objected and he got the final judgment. Similarly, we have done same with late Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) who was an activist. They were willing to accept all these in the interest of justice. So, what we require now in this country is that, if there are pending cases in court, it means you have never finished. Everyday you go to court, you will be busy adjourning cases. Why don’t you do what is done in India. The constitution and the Act gave powers to the Chief Justice of India. After consultation with the president, he called back some retired judges, collected all the pending cases in Court and the Chief Justice or President will tell them that they want their cases finished by so and so time. In Nigeria today, this can be a more suitable and best approach. The President or Chief Justice can recall some selected, good, retired Judges, investigate long-delayed cases in each court, constitute a panel which can be headed by one of them or a serving judge and give them the opportunity to speed –up judgement. So, what will happen is that all unnecessarily delayed cases will be finished within shortest possible time. Once you finish these pending cases, there is no other matter. The matter is simple if government really wants to tackle it. I think there is also no basis for any court to complain of over-working, hence its major burden has been contracted to a panel. It is important to note that only the most competent, honest judges are to be appointed into the panel. Competent judges means people who had once been in the Upper Court and had all the necessary qualifications to be in court. Government can tell them that they should dispense with delayed pending cases as quickly as possible, certainly not to fix deadline; give them rules not to entertain Interim Appeals which include no waste of time, no hearing appeals, and private lawyers and Attorney- General must always be briefed on any case before appearing on the Panel. I was once an Attorney- General. I will not disgrace myself for not briefing a private practitioner just because I don’t want to come to court as others do and just because I want him to help me as an Attorney- General. I will brief any private lawyer and give him seven days. If he does not come to court, then we continue with the case. I was also in election tribunal in the 1980s as President or Head of the tribunal. I used to carry three judges from one division to another and each judge decided on which case he should take. The final case will be decided by presiding judge to conclude and pass judgment. Before we left the town, we handled cases on which we were threatened by some people who felt that our judgment was not in their favour. So, I told my colleagues that I would not leave the town that day, I would spend another two days to do a case before I left. I did that to see what would happen to me. Fortunately, nothing happened after that. Again, while we were in the tribunal, there was somebody from the southern part of this country who tried to look for someone from the North who could reach us. Luckily for us, we got the story. So we gave an instruction that nobody should be allowed to come into our residence in the night. We were writing the judgment. In the morning, the man came and told me that he was this and that. I told him to go and tell his boss that nobody can decide for me on the nature of my judgment because I work for the public interest. You see, there are many ways some people employ in trying to bribe judges but it depends on the judge, To reduce delay and backloads of cases in any particular court is to finish them and reappoint the panel.
Some Nigerians have accused President Buhari of not appointing an economic team to advise him. Do you see Buhari succeeding in revamping the nation’s economy despite the absence of the team?
Yes, I see him succeeding already despite some lapses. Of course, there should be particular individuals to be consulted as advisers. It is true that he has not done that. If you go to any economic department, there may be some people who are willing to tell the president the truth and through them, he will get the true picture of events. If you appoint a senior person into a particular position, there is need to appoint his junior to assist him. There are a lot of wrong decisions which can be changed if you have good advisers. It is a serious matter which the president must hear about. It is true that most of the departments in the presidency do not have Special Assistants. Sometimes, some junior or senior people send reports from the state to the head office on certain issue which may not be true. So, you need people to consult people on certain issues and advise thepresident appropriately. Still, it will take a little time. Gradually as we are going, we will reduce all these difficulties. If you want to advice government on corruption, look at it from a honest background. If you give the advice and it turns out to be unacceptable, be patient. I must tell government that it should learn to be listening to people and accept genuine criticism.