Former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), human rights activist, one of the great heroes of democracy in Nigeria and maritime lawyer, Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), in this interview speaks on the Nigerian state, his worries, and the way out of the present quagmire, advising President Muhammadu Buhari to adopt the Ghana Aburi Accord. Excerpt:
Do you have worries about Nigeria?
My biggest worry is the fact that as a result of growing insecurity the stabilization of Nigeria will be questioned, unfortunately in spite of all the energy the government seems to be putting into the insecurity challenge starting with Boko Haram, which has now moved across to North-central, Northwest Nigeria, in short, it has sort of gripped Nigeria and if that continues and people are afraid then there is an existential threat because the primary purpose of government is security of lives and property. So, that is my single greatest worry that we could become paralyzed by fear and the damage it does to our way of lives which is taken for granted might become unimaginable. You cannot tell how far that goes and it’s something that I certainly will want the government to keep in great focus. It is easy not to see where a country is going when there is growing insecurity. Like I have seen, for instance, in the Biafra war, it’s so easy for things to decline when there is an existential threat. Something happened in 1965, there is an election, there is a petition in court then there is a coup d’état, then there is return of the people to their own ethnic regions etc those things can play out again, so it is important that, that existential threat be number one priority for government and that’s the big worry that I have.
Do you think if Nigeria operates a community or state police that it would have arrested this insecurity situation?
It can’t fully arrest it. This is because community policing or state policing is a tactical tool to deal with the problem, but the strategic tool is the bigger question of the national question. There are so many unclear issues in Nigeria about how we want to organize ourselves, how we want to live together, this is what some people have called the restructuring question, some call it the national question, but I call it devolution of powers question. Whatever it’s called that is the central issue that needs resolution so that even if you use tactical tools like community policing, but the bigger issue remains then I don’t know if we can resolve it. What Nigeria needs is space, there are diverse ethnicities and they are living in such close proximity that one ethnic community is in the face of the other with counter-cultures, counter-religious beliefs and that is not healthy. Even in America in spite of all their advanced democracy they take care of diversities. So, I think if I were to advise the president, for instance, the first thing to do is create space…,identify the ethnic regionalities, create eight big blocs, even though we have 6 to make it 8. And then I will give them the power to do things at their own local level, it’s called the principle of subsidiarity; let them work at their own local level. Subsidiarity is where people engage themselves at the local level ssuch that you find in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England. Part of the challenge they had when they were living closely was to create an act of settlement of 1705, that was when peace began to come and each of the regions recognized themselves. They all had their own prime ministers and they call them first ministers, so the prime minister of the UK is the one we see internationally, but on local matters like school, refuse collection, education, agriculture, employment, health issues, it’s local. So, imagine where eight of the regional structures in Nigeria were fending for themselves at their local level and not depending on federal allocation from Abuja, things will be different. Immediately they will take control of what is around them, they will create state police, they will create the relevant security apparatus to deal with any threat, therefore, you don’t need one Chief of Army Staff, and they don’t need one Inspector General of Police to be running around entire Nigeria. For instance…say in the South-south region, they will have all the relevant apparatuses to deal with whatever situation that they need to survive as a region. They could have courts; they might like to have a Supreme Court of the South-south where cases end in the Supreme Court of the South-south, so they do not have to go to the Supreme Court of Nigeria because the Supreme Court of Nigeria has no business dealing with issues arising from there. That is the kind of space I think that should be paramount in the issue concerning where Nigeria is heading to. Because that discussion is not on the table, all these ethnic issues flare up as major national insecurity challenge. So, that is what I will do or suggest if I had the opportunity to advise on it. The Federal Government is too strong. The Federal Government is actually not a Federal Government, ours is a unitary government because the states have no power on the legislative list so there are 68 items on the Exclusive List and as the name implies in Exclusive List only the Federal Government handles it. There is 30 on the Concurrent List, concurrent is between the federal and the state to legislate, but if the Federal Government legislates then pursuant to what is called the doctrine of covering the field the state is not allowed to do anything. In other words, the states have no legislative authority, that creates a problem. Why should the Federal Government be dealing with Universal Basic Education for primary schools? What is the Federal Government responsibility with that? I don’t understand. What is the Federal Government responsibility with setting up a JAMB process so that you equalize educational activities, but if my grandchild from Anambra scores 282, but my friend’s grandson from Zamfara scores 100, my friend’s grandson gets into the university, but my own does not get in. Why don’t you simply say ….look each region can just organize itself and take your examination? So, it is this centrifugal federalism, that means federalism that has a pyramid that has only one leader that is our problem. We just have to blast the structures and allow regional leaders as we had under the 1960 Constitution. So, when you have regional leaders you will have people who will like to play regional politics or regional law. There is no reason, for instance, in my own profession the eight regions I propose should not be awarding SAN to their best lawyers. Why must it only be Abuja? In the UK, the SAN in England is different from the SAN in Scotland. So, the formula that worked for Nigeria was to recognize the differences and I think the best example of the agreements that we can apply is the Aburi Accord. The Aburi Accord recognized that Nigeria’s problems were as a result of our diversity not being well managed. We need to manage our diversity that is the way we can move forward.
You were among those who were in the trenches for the realization of June 12 struggles. How do you feel now with the recognition of the date as a public holiday and the honour to Chief MKO Abiola?
I think it’s a good idea, it’s great because what you do with public remembrances is to keep it fresh in the minds of people what happened in the past so that you learn lessons of the past to avoid mistakes in the future and June 12 of 1993 was a catastrophic calamity that we are still suffering from. It was a good thing that we remember it and when we remember it we say, not again. That is why in the Western world they remember their war days, they call it the Remembrance Day, when they refresh their minds on what happened when Hitler took the world to task and the millions of people who died. So, we must remember the annulment of the presidential election and its impact on Nigeria, make a commitment not to have it repeat again. Then you look into the issues we have just been discussing because if you don’t want to move forward…it is not enough to say…June 12, stay at home, go and drink beer, it is to say okay…how can we strengthen our democracy? So, those are the lessons that we should learn from June 12, first a remembrance, secondly, you have a direction of where you need to go as a nation. That is where credible elections also come in if you do not have credible elections then you will have stolen elections and when you have stolen elections then you will always have a crisis because the people will not believe in it. So, the importance of credible election cannot be gainsaid, but when you also free the system then the tension and the do or die energy that we see compete for political power will go down, but right now if you don’t get Abuja you are lost, but if you know that Abuja is not everything, after all the premier of Northern Nigeria at a time gave up being prime minister for being the original leader. So, can you imagine Buhari giving up being president to being governor of Katsina State? It’s unimaginable, but that’s how it happened because the regions had power. In fact, the federal didn’t have power, nobody was concerned with the federal because the federal was just a place where you exercised general authority, but the power of politics was in the hands of the region. So, we didn’t have the kind of tension we see now, these are the sort of things that I think we need to work on very carefully and I think we have got enough experience from Aburi to the constitution conference held by Abacha in 1995, to the ones done by Babangida even before then, the ones that Obasanjo and Jonathan all did…there are a lot of materials that the president can tap from a very credible group of senior respected Nigerians and say look…help me formulate a structure that our people will want. That can be done in three months and the next thing will be to present an executive bill to the National Assembly for the enactment of the constitution that agrees with the views of Nigerians because we have never had a constitution that has been home-grown as to say, made by the people, none. It was the colonials and the military, the current constitution is a Military Decree No 24 of 1998, so without a really democratic constitutional framework, the chances of Nigeria moving forward is very hard.
Some people from the Southeast are feeling very apprehensive that when they look at the five critical positions (President, V.P, Senate President, Speaker, national party chairman, Chief Judge of the Federation), etc, they are not there…
(Cuts in) Of course, that is not good, it’s like you don’t have a stake, not only does it conflict with Section 14 of the constitution with Federal Character Commission Act, it is just politically not sensible to exclude a strong ethnic group like the Southeast, it will create the kind of imbalance and sort of call by Nnamdi Kanu for a Biafra experience. It is wrong to make the mistake of excluding anyone, not Ndigbo for that matter…because it will cause tension clearly. I don’t understand why that was the case, I don’t think it’s correct. At least all the major ethnic groups, ought to be felt in the national political structures, their presence needs to be seen and felt, but that of the Southeast is clearly, evidently not there and that is not good.
Does that not make it impossible for a president of Igbo extraction to emerge? Is it feasible to have an Igbo president under this political arrangement?
Technically yes…because the Igbo ethnic group constitutes a major chunk of the Nigeria political structure, so it is possible, but whether it is doable or probable is another question, it will now depend on skills of the Igbo leaders and the opportunities that are available to go forward. Who would have believed that President Buhari would have become one of Nigeria’s most powerful political figures? He has actually been on the presidential political process for a record of 19 years, three times he didn’t go, two times he succeeded, but who would have believed it was possible. It would have looked impossible if you had mentioned it in 2011, so this is about the art of the possible and impossible, it’s up to the Igbo ethnic groups to present their game in such a way that there is an advantage and when it finally comes you take it.
Looking at this government if you are to score it what will be your score?
The only political office holder that I know today is President Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. I cannot score them because they have done nothing at the moment (laughs); what am I scoring? There are no ministers yet. They have not taken any steps in any direction so there is no need to score. We are all waiting hopefully for the ministerial list and we are also hoping that key political appointments will be made, it is when those key political appointments are made that score begins. But what one can say is that it is important that the mistake of the old government of being slow should not repeat itself. I expect a ministerial list like yesterday, so I urge that the new political actors be put in place immediately so that the president’s speech on some of the key issues he talked about, getting 100 million Nigerians out of poverty can begin to be implemented. You know Nigerians are not interested in all these niceties, what they want is food, shelter, health, the school for their children, good life, etc, so they have to break it down into that simple components. A successful president is the one who understands that people’s demands are common and basic and their demands are not much so if he goes on to appoint people, who can meet the demands, then I would expect that the people he will appoint will be the best possible people because the way to succeed in any government like what is done in Singapore, for instance, is to appoint people on the basis of merit, pragmatism, and on the basis of honesty. On merit you will see that the person will know what to do, on pragmatism the person will understand that the common man simply wants you to get on with it, he is not interested whether you are a Muslim or Christianm but to deliver democracy dividends, the man on the street also wants those in government to be honest. So, if the government will consider these criteria I hope to see a much better government than the first one.