By Henry Umahi
A lawyer, public affairs analyst and cleric, Peter Ilegogie has described as strange the new law restricting church leaders to 20 years in office. According to him, there are existing laws dealing with succession matters in NGOs. He also joined the call for the restructuring of Nigeria, saying: “It is the only thing that will hold Nigeria together.” He also offered perspectives on how to reduce the cost of running government in the country even as he blasted the Muhammadu Buhari administration for what he called “trial and error” policies.
As a lawyer and pastor, what’s your take on the new law restricting the tenure of church and NGO leaders to 20 years?
I find it strange that such a law should be passed at this time because there are existing laws governing NGOs, particularly churches under the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA). There are provisions for corporate governance of churches, which compel every church to submit a constitution showing the principal members and trustees of the body and how succession of the leaders can be carried out. There are byelaws made by churches to govern the churches and how succession matters should be handled. So, it is strange that that kind of a law should come up now.
So, what are the churches expected to do in this circumstance?
Well, it is a law and I believe that some lawyers have already challenged the law. I know that some lawyers went to court but I have not seen a copy of the ruling or judgment or what transpired in the matter. But I know that some lawyers have challenged that law. It’s a new law, we will study it. I don’t know what informed their decision to come up with this law now but in some cases, you find out that there is cultic followership. It is going to affect some Islamic organizations or sects. Mallam Ibrahim El Zakzaky is one example of those having cultic followership. If he is removed as the head of the sect, maybe there will be sanity. In a nutshell, I don’t know what informed their decision to do that.
How would you describe the state of the nation?
The nation is drifting and we don’t know where we are going because every day, the government comes up with one policy or another, which I’ll consider as trial and error. They come up with one policy today, run with it and tomorrow they find that the policy is causing a lot of hardship, they drop the policy and come up with another one. So, I strongly believe that this government was not prepared; they don’t have the blueprint on how to run this economy. And they are just doing trial and error.
What is the way out?
Somebody analyzed the situation recently and found that only a few of the ministers, if at all, are round pegs in round holes. Some of the ministers are lawyers but they were given portfolios that are not in the area of their expertise. During the Ibrahim Babangida’s time, he went for technocrats and the economy was the better for it. The Olusegun Obasanjo government improved the system. Dr Goodluck Jonathan also tried, with Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala taking care of the economy. But this government is not looking that way. It is not looking for technocrats. They are only playing politics with appointments; it does not matter whether you have what it takes to perform or not. And this is not good for the system.
What is your assessment of the war against corruption, which happens to be the mantra of the government?
Corruption is a universal thing and it cannot be fought and defeated over night. It can be fought and defeated over time. What we need is a reorientation because when we were growing up in the 1960s, our fathers were contented with their salaries or whatever earnings. If you were able to build one house in your life time, you were okay. But these days, a young man of about 30 will aspire to build many houses at the same time. Where is the money coming from? We have lost moral value and we have to retrace our steps.
One had thought that the issue of corruption had to do with poverty. But you now find out some people have mansions and they are not satisfied. They keep on building houses all over the country and acquiring obscene wealth without being satisfied. Ironically, some of them are civil servants who just inflate contracts and do things that are unholy. You see someone who finished school about five years ago riding a car worth N20 million and you wonder how they do it.
Is the Buhari government fighting corruption the right way?
You have to start from somewhere. Certainly, it is no longer business as usual. Before, people were doing it with impunity. You come to their offices and they tell you what to do before they attend to you. But now people are careful. With Bank Verification Number (BVN), you can trace accounts. So, people are careful collecting bribes. I think it’s a fight in the right direction. Of course, you cannot satisfy everybody. What’s your assessment of the judiciary considering that some judges and lawyers are on the hot seat now?
I believe that the judiciary has been corrupted by politicians. I have always said that we have the best judicial system in the world. Go to any country, you have corrupt judges. Who are the people making the judges to bend the law or not to live up to the oath they took? Politicians and members of the public are responsible for that. If you believe strongly in your case, you don’t have to go and see a judge. Sometimes when judges refuse to take bribe, they are threatened with elimination. We have seen judges being kidnapped in this country, maybe because of the cases they are handling. Some are being beaten up in court. We all saw what happened in Ekiti. A judge was intimidated because he was going to sit over a matter. Thugs went into the place and dislodged the judge. Nothing happened till today. But that is not justifying that judges should be involved in corrupt practices.
In terms of remuneration, are judges being well taken care of?
It is relative. But I can say that the condition of service improved under Babatunde Raji Fashola as governor of Lagos State. Governor Akinwunmi Ambode has continued in the same way. The judiciary in Lagos State is well taken care of; it is one of the best in the country. Instead of the judge writing long hand, they now have verbatim reporters, which make the job easier. Again, the court rooms are being improved on all the time. Gone were the days that magistrates were found in buses, they now have good cars. A former magistrate, who is now a judge, was threatened in a bus; he met with an accused person, today, he rides a fine car. We hope that it continues.
Do you think there is need for special courts and specially trained judges for corruption cases?
There are sufficient courts and sufficient judges because there are laws governing crimes or corruption cases. So, it not the number of courts that is the issue; it is the willingness of lawyers to prosecute matters. Most times, cases are rushed to court before investigations are concluded. During trial, we see prosecuting counsels amending their charges. They rush to court with 500 count- charges but by the time trial starts, you will find them going back, amending old charges or bringing new ones. This is one of the major reasons we have delays in dealing with cases in court. Again, some defence lawyers are in the habit of bringing frivolous applications challenging judges. A judge that is trying a case of corruption is also on trial. They will go and dig up his background and come up with frivolous applications just to frustrate the trial. So, I don’t think that setting up new courts will be the solution.
What is your view about the agitation in some quarters for the country to be restructured?
It is necessary that this country is restructured. It has been a long time agitation by Nigerians, including foremost politicians that have departed like Dr Nnmandi Azikiwe, among others. One of the recent day advocates of restructuring is former vice president Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. Nigeria is too big for the type of presidential system of government that we are practicing, whereby power flows from an ‘emperor’ down the line. The country should be restructured and that is the only thing that will hold Nigeria together.
To be specific, we have to go back to the regional setting. Someone advocated that we should have six vice presidents and a ceremonial president at the centre. The vice presidents running the various zones should be given executive power for them to improve and develop their areas. I strongly believe that that is the way to go. It will encourage healthy competition among the zones and people will look inwards to reinvent themselves. This attitude of everybody running to Abuja for their own share of the so-called national cake is not the way to go at all.
It is believed in some quarters that the cost of running government is high. How can it be reduced?
There is no doubt that the cost of running government in Nigeria is too high. Former governors and their deputies, in many of the states, enjoy pension as high as their salaries. They are entitled to houses in their states and elsewhere. There are other perks that go with it. At the same time, they are made ministers or senators. So, they enjoy from several fronts at the expense of government and ordinary people even in recession period like this.
Only a few people are enjoying the country’s wealth, as it were. If these resources are ploughed into a sector in the country, we will record progress.