The human rights lawyer spoke to CHRIS IWARAH. Excerpts:
WHEN the National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Olisa Metuh was recently detained beyond the legal limit, you went to court to enforce his fundamental rights uninvited. Then, you also withdrew the matter controversially. Why would you fight for someone like Metuh with the capacity to defend himself?
I have been an activist all my life. I have been at the forefront of the fight for telephone subscribers. So, I take it upon myself to look at areas where the rights of citizens are being trampled upon and then act in that regard. I thought that in respect of Metuh’s case, when Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was in office, Lai Mohammed, on behalf of the opposition party (All Progressives Congress), played a prominent role in putting the government on its toes. And upon the coming to power of the opposition, power shifted and Metuh became the symbol of the opposition in Nigeria and he was doing that job effectively. He was doing it tremendously well such that it came to a point where he literally was holding this government down in terms of holding it accountable to the people. And when he raised the alarm that people were trying to execute a witch-hunt against him, I looked at the anti-corruption war the government was fighting and saw evidence of vendetta. I saw that the president had grudges he was trying to ventilate. If it’s about corruption, most members of PDP are now in APC and they should be the first persons to be targeted in the anti-corruption fight. When Metuh was arrested on January 5, I could not say anything because if there were a genuine case of corruption against him, he had to be tried. But the law says in section 35 of the 1999 Constitution that if you arrest a citizen for a non-capital offence, you should grant him bail. And if you can’t grant him bail immediately, within 24 hours of the time of his arrest, you must take him to a court within 40 kilometres of the place of arrest. So, when I waited till January 6, 7 and he was not charged and the government was coming up with all manner of statements, I felt that was not right. And even though Metuh was well-to-do, because of his role as the symbol of the opposition, he occupied a special consideration in my own principle of fighting for people’s liberty. He qualified for my intervention. And I felt the government was out to silence the voice of opposition. I filed an application for him to be produced in court with my own money. I was not against his trial, but I didn’t want a situation where he would be locked up indefinitely. And immediately I filed the suit, I got a call from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), even if unofficially, that they were going to arraign Metuh in court unfailingly that Monday. The lawyer to Metuh himself called me and said they had filed a case for his release earlier, but that because it was yet to be assigned to a judge, Nigerians didn’t know about it. So, against the backdrop of the call from EFCC and the call from his lawyer, I was a bit more comfortable.
From telecoms to tolls and sanitation, you’ve always been in the trenches fighting for one thing or the other. Why you all the time?
Well, personally, I feel God gave us lawyers a special privilege of understanding the provisions of the law. So, first of all, by my own calling as a legal practitioner, I am placed in a position to use law for social engineering, to use law for societal reformation. Secondly, while I was in the university, I was an activist. I was the principal liaison officer of the Law Students Society. I was the public relations officer of the students union. I was the president of the students union. I was a member of the senate of the National Association of Nigerian Students. So, leaving the university, I have always had this calling to be an activist, to be interested in the common good of the society. And immediately I left the Law School, I joined the chambers of Chief Gani Fawehinmi. I practised with him for six years. In Chief Fawehinmi’s office, I entered into the global realm of activism and saw that the coast became larger. I was really baptised into full activism, which is to use the law for social engineering. The height of it was in November 1997 when I was arrested by the military and detained at the Directorate of Military Intelligence from November 1997 till June 1998, spending a period of about seven months in custody. So, I had become toughened. I was rusticated in the university as the public relations officer of the students union in 1991. It was Gani Fawehinmi that filed a case in court for us to be reinstated. So, in a way, I’ve had a frontal experience of activism. So, nothing really matters to me in terms of being scared of arrest. So, upon the death of Dr. Tai Solarin, the death of Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Chima Ubani, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, there came a vacuum to fill in the human rights circles. And it would seem that all our cadres in the university or the June 12 struggle or the struggle for better society had found reasons to team up with politicians either to form progressive parties or democratic parties. I didn’t feel it was proper, because looking at the life of Dr. Tai Solarin, he was using his educational institution, Mayflower College, as the source of his livelihood. I looked at Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, he was using his hospital as the source of his livelihood. Gani Fawehinmi was using law to earn a reasonable living for himself. None of them had cause to team up with politicians or government agencies to be able to advance their cause. And God then blessed me and gave me this practice. So, I thought it looked like I was the only person now who had not had one reason or the other to team up with politicians in terms of funding or accept one committee job. So, I then decided that I was going to take it up, even though I might not be able to do it to the level at which Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Beko and Ubani did theirs; but at least continue to use the law as an instrument of social engineering. Secondly, I looked at it that ordinarily, when you’re blessed and have the resources, you should give back something to the society. I didn’t have enough resources that can enable me set up a scholarship foundation. I didn’t have resources to build houses where people can live. But I thought that the knowledge I had acquired in law would not cost me anything if I could use that knowledge to advance the cause of the general populace. It would not cost be so much money because this is my field. So, I decided to use that as a way of social responsibility. So, it’s like my own opportunity to give back to society. And because I’m not a card-carrying member of any political party, and because I’m not being bankrolled by any embassy, and because I’m not receiving funds on behalf of any non-governmental organisation (NGO), I work as I’m led. I have the independence; nobody has given me terms of reference. That gives me the leverage above many people.
We see a trend where activists are now with government, speaking for the establishment and getting lucrative briefs. Is activism then not just a platform for self-enrichment?
I think that the seeming eclipse of genuine human rights activism is also a function and fallout of the general malaise in the society. Activists are human beings. And I think at times, when people are pushed to the wall, instead of going to steal, they probably have to look for how to make ends meet. So, politicians saw our colleagues as a recruiting ground both in the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress, they turned our cadres into foot soldiers they were using for planning and strategy, especially in Lagos State. Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu was with us in the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) while we were campaigning for the actualiAll Progressives Congress, they sation of the June 12 election. And when finally we forced the military out of power in 1998, many of us took a decision in a meeting we held in Chief Gani Fawehinmi’s office under the platform of the Joint Action Congress of Nigeria then that we should not participate in politics. It was Dr. Tunji Abayomi and Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu that raised up their hands and said they were going to participate in politics; that there was no way we could be advocating change if we didn’t get involved. So, Tinubu branched off and decided to go into politics. And in going, he took a lot of our comrades and colleagues with him. Eventually, they were in the opposition for a long time because the Peoples Democratic Party was in government. In that opposition, many of our activists dissolved into politics, especially the All Progressives Congress in virtually all the South West and South East states. And when eventually they took over power in May 2015, they became the easy eyes of the APC to represent various interests and they have now been appointed into various offices. So, I see that a lot of them have crossed the Rubicon and are unable to return to where we are now. So, for me, it is a function of conviction. It would be clear that a lot of our cadres were not genuinely committed to the human rights struggle, but that maybe because of the kind of profession they were in, it became difficult for them to survive on their own and in an attempt to earn a living, they got swallowed by the forces in power. And that’s what has happened in virtually all the states. So, truly, I can say that many civil society organisations now have allegiances one way or the other to work for a political party. And that’s quite unfortunate, because that doesn’t give a clear picture for you to be able to orchestrate a struggle without primordial consideration of who would be what or who would be involved. Activists have become recruits to issue press statements for one party against the other party. It has become difficult to maintain a consistent platform whereby you’re able to view issues based on its merit, not on political affiliation, ethnic consideration or religious sentiment. And that’s quite unfortunate. But I think that over time, when people see through the shenanigans of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, my colleagues who have deserted me now will come back home.
Some say a strongman is needed to destroy the complex issue of corruption. Don’t you see merit in that position?
No, I don’t agree that you need a strongman to destroy corruption. A man is a human being subject to errors, sentiments. And the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, with all due respect, is a human being and is subject to certain errors. In that regard, therefore, corruption would always be part of society; it’s in the Bible, it’s in the Qur’an. There’s nothing you can do about that. Therefore, it’s an ongoing battle. It is not the individual that would determine the success of the battle, it is the institutions. If you want to fight corruption, you must strengthen the institutions and make them foolproof. As I sit here with you, most of the officers of EFCC have not been paid their salary for January and you want those kinds of people to prosecute the war against corruption? If the war against corruption is based on an individual or body language, it would soon fade out. I think the important thing is not to lionise or idolise an individual as members of APC are doing with respect to Buhari. If you do that, it raises a dictator. The 1999 Constitution as it is, is bad for us as a country, because it has foisted on us a civilian dictator.
There are 199 sections of the constitution that make the president a dictator. He appoints the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the military chiefs. He determines so many things in this country. He can declare a state of emergency. He is the one to proclaim the National Assembly. He can dissolve the cabinet. So, the president is very powerful. That power is too much to add public power to it. The point to make is this. It is correct for the president to embark on anti-corruption war, but I see some element of deceit, with due respect. Surely in this country, we have been held down by greedy politicians who believe in accumulating what should be for us all. What that has resulted in is a denial of infrastructure, because if you look at the amount of money that is said to have been embezzled, it could build airports, schools, roads, provide water. So, people are angry and feel frustrated and cheated by these politicians. So, when anybody comes and says “my major agenda is to fight corruption,” everybody will jump up; the person will immediately be seen as a hero and messiah. So, the president has looked through his record, virtually all his campaign promises cannot be fulfilled – dollar to naira, rescue of Chibok girls, giving N5,000 to the unemployed, providing meals for students, declaring assets, they are tall orders. They were pure propaganda used to win election. Having come into power, the president has realised secretly that he cannot fulfill those promises and that if he should continue to pursue those promises, a time would come when Nigerians would ask him to leave office. So, he then thought of this idea of anti-corruption war just to use it as a slogan to gain public sympathy and popularity. It’s a populist war that he is using to buy himself into the minds of Nigerians and in that regard, cover his inefficiency, his inability to perform, cover our eyes and take us away from reminding him of the promises he made in the course of the election. So, I’ve seen through it that the president doesn’t have genuine commitment to the anti-corruption war, but he has seen it as a weapon to achieve two things. Number one, silence the opposition, because in this country now, the only thing to destroy anybody is to say he is corrupt. Nobody wants to listen to any other thing. The disposition now is that once a person is alleged to be corrupt, take him to jail or shoot him. So, it has got so terrible that the president is taking advantage of the momentum, of the clamour for recovery of funds to silence the opposition and cover his inefficiency. I’m not saying there is nothing, but I’m saying there is a political angle to the anti-corruption war. In Adamawa, the governor said he went to someone for N200 million and the person gave him N500 million and the EFCC is not asking question. Has the naira become sand? Is it because he belongs to the ruling APC? So, when you focus on only the opponents, it becomes a problem. If it is true that because PDP was in power for 16 years it is its members that should be facing corruption charges, most members of the PDP defected to the APC. So, if it’s true that Sambo Dasuki was doling out money, he must have doled out some to these people who have crossed over to APC and they are there running in and out of Aso Rock and nothing is happening. And so, in that regard, you see that there is a selective trend to the war.
If we say the president is becoming tyrannical, the judiciary is also constitutionally empowered to check that. Are you saying the judiciary is incapable of performing that role?
Well, the judiciary is populated by human beings and in most cases, their responsibility is to interpret and declare the law. In that regard, the judiciary has a supervisory role. Among the three arms of government, you will see that the judiciary is about the most powerful and in the history of Nigeria, you can’t see a situation whereby there’s a consistent transfer of one executive power to another. If the military takes over power, they dissolve the National Assembly and take over the role of lawmaking. Even when there is a transfer of power from one civilian administration to another, the former executive will not continue. But since the creation of this nation, we’ve only had one judiciary. A judge can be appointed and retired, but the institution will remain. So, it has been the chain holding government and the country together. So, General Buhari realised that sooner than later, the wind would blow on this so-called anti-corruption war, especially when the trials come. And you know the greatest power of a dictator is not to hear the other side, because when you make an allegation and the other person responds and debunks the allegation, you become like somebody who has no integrity. And the only way a person will continue to respond to an allegation is when the person is free. You said Nnamdi Kanu had two passports, but we can’t hear him because you kept him in custody. You said Dasuki diverted security funds, we can’t hear him. When the courts granted him bail, you said the man was a deserter and he produced a gazette and said “I was pardoned by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, you can’t arrest me for an offence for which I have been pardoned,” but you kept him there. The next option for the president is to intimidate the judiciary and get them to do exactly what he wants. Once a person is arrested, keep him in custody, don’t grant him bail. And you can’t do that.
But do you see the judiciary buckling under the weight of this government?
Yes, they are already buckling. Oh, yes, I’m telling you without any doubt, the judiciary is already cowed. The judiciary is already intimidated and hemmed in a box, all the courts. Virtually all the courts in Lagos State have yielded to the pressure of the EFCC in terms of the trial of persons and the granting of bail. There’s hardly any court in Lagos State you go to where you can get a person on bail without a medical certificate, even for corruption cases. Before Buhari came, it had become natural to grant bail to any person, because the purpose of bail is that you should give an assurance that you would come back for your trial. There’s nothing more than that. Virtually all the courts in Lagos are now afraid to grant bail and there’s no reason the EFCC chairman should be granted audience by the chief judge of Lagos State, to be giving them advice on how they should treat cases. A person who is a prosecutor before you in the court should have no audience in your chambers. But I was surprised when I saw that the chairman of EFCC paid a courtesy call on the chief judge of Lagos State.
Do you then share the fear that judgements in corruption cases would not be based on evidence before the courts?
It’s not just corruption cases. I expect that from now, you would hardly see anybody charged with corruption that would be granted bail. I’m beginning to sense that judges are now under the watch of the executive and that there are moves underground to intimidate and blackmail them into giving decisions that are only acceptable to the president and the ruling party and that’s dangerous for us as a country. Why it’s dangerous for us as a country is this. We can’t submit ourselves to anarchists. We can’t rule through anarchism, blackmail and threat. We can’t. We can’t get Buhari to become a dictator. He can’t swear to uphold a constitution and go back thereafter to be abusing that constitution. The thing that put this president in power is not only the votes of the people. He swore on May 29 to uphold the constitution. The oath of office of the president is to uphold the constitution and that constitution says that accused persons are presumed to be innocent until they are otherwise determined by the courts. That constitution guarantees separation of powers among the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. So, we can’t afford a military dictator who has no understanding of democracy to thwart our own experience. We must call the president to order. Activists must rise up, Nigerians must rise up and point their fingers in the face of the president. You can’t take us back to the barracks. It’s not our fault that he is not a person who is tutored in democratic tenets.
To be continued next week