By Chukwudi Nweje
Chino Obiagwu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, (SAN) is Chairman, Nigeria Coalition on the International Criminal Court, (NCICC) and Head of Legal Defence Advocacy Programme (LEDAP). In this interview, he takes a look at the United States State Department of Lekki Toll Gate killings and other national issues
You are chair, Nigeria Coalition on the International Criminal Court (NCICC), how do you react to the statement by the United States State Department that it did not find evidence of the mass killings at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos during the last #EndSARS protests in October 2020?
I agree that the killings that took place during the #EndSARS protests in October 2020 constitute a massive crime and I commend the Lagos State government for setting up the judicial panel to investigate the incident. Unfortunately, the panel is still sitting after more than six months, it is taking too long and it shows the government is not showing sincerity in ensuring that there is justice for the victims. I will also commend the United States Government for assessing and making a pronouncement on the matter. Those who saw the video know that what happened there was deliberate and premeditated because they put off the close circuit television (CCTV) cameras at the gate before they opened fire on peaceful protesters even though the 1999 constitution guarantees citizens the right to protest. We are worried that those involved in the killing have not been taken to trial. However, whether what happened at the Lekki toll gate does not amount to an act that will require the International criminal court to be involved, a lot of people misunderstand the ICC; there are clear offences that are classified as an international crime and these are war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide and they must be massive and systematic to be classified in that category. The events at the Lekki toll gate though are reprehensible and constitute a crime under Nigerian law, in my opinion, they do not amount to international crimes.
The Federal Government has issued a warning that mobile telephone users that fail to link their lines to the National Identification Number (NIN) risk imprisonment of seven to 14 years. What do you make of that?
I am not sure if the National Identification Act or the National Communications Commission (NCC) Act prescribes such punishment, so the Federal Government will have to first amend those acts to incorporate such punishment for it to be legal; you cannot make something an offence by simply announcing it; there must be a law to back it. But having said that, the purpose of linking telephone numbers to the NIN is because it is a security question as insecurity is getting out of hand. There is rising insecurity some of which are perpetrated by mobile phone, especially those who use them to commit crimes, like kidnappers. By linking telephone numbers to the NIN, the IP address and biometrics of subscribers will be captured and those that commit crimes can easily be traced. However, I don’t think there is the need to arrest people for not linking their mobile telephone line to the NIN, the service provider can easily disconnect them and that is enough to ensure compliance.
Nigerians have gone through registering their phone numbers with the NCC, they have also gone through the bank verification numbers (BVN) which also captured their phone numbers, why these multiple identity registrations?
The NCC registration merely registered names on SIM cards and we all know what happened then. SIM card vendors registered multiple SIM cards before selling them to subscribers, so that registration was never functional. The BVN on the other hand is linked to bank accounts and it is not every Nigerian that has a bank account. The NIN is a higher level and more secured identification system because it does not only capture your biometrics, it also captures your location down to your local government of origin. In my opinion, we need secured digital security for the storage of this information and if possible, we should link the BVN with the NIN so that we will have just one digital identity because having more than one digital identity will be problematic in the long run.
Former Lagos State governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu recently mooted the idea of recruiting 50 million youths into the Nigerian military to fight insecurity, what is your say, how viable is it?
I don’t know in what context that suggestion was made but I know it has its own cost implications. If you recruit 50 million youths into the armed forces, how will you pay their salary? If the suggestion was made in the context of community policing that is commendable. I believe that security and policing should be decentralised and people should be able to protect their communities but there must be a framework to prevent abuse and criminal elements joining those outfits and use the cover to commit crimes. I think that the Nigerian Police Force should be decentralised so that states and local governments should be able to manage their own police force or security outfit. Can you imagine a situation where someone who does not understand a language is serving in a local community that speaks that language? It will not work. It is the locals who understand the language and know the terrain that should manage security in particular communities. So long as we continue to have a centralised police force, we will continue to have problems.
Talking about decentralising the police, we have a situation where most state governments are insolvent, local governments cannot pay salaries and there is also the fear that governors may abuse the use of police formations; what do you say on that?
Anything can be abused. As it is now, the Federal Government is abusing the use of the police. We cannot throw away the baby with the bathwater. The mere fact that the state governors may abuse the use of state police does not mean that it is bad. At the moment, the Federal Government is abusing the police and other agencies under it. The courts have at various times given orders for the release of Sheikh el Zakzaky, yet the government has refused to release him and he has remained in detention for years. These are abuses. There should be laws guiding the appointment and dismissal of the police in such a way that it is not left in the hands of just one person. If there is a security of tenure, the tendency for abuse will be greatly reduced.
The problem of Fulani herdsmen and farmers clashes seem to be gradually spreading; from the North East, it has gone to Ondo State in the South West; now it has bathed in the South East State of Ebonyi. This has also raised fears of a plot by the Fulani to take over the country and even Islamise West Africa, what is your take?
These are all rumours; we should all insist that anybody who commits any crime, whether he is Fulani or any other person should be treated as a criminal; we should stop categorising them under different names, Fulani herdsmen or bandits; these are all criminals and the police should go after them. The issue of Islamisation of West Africa is not tenable because if you look at West Africa, there are more Moslem communities than Christian communities, so the crimes being committed by these people should not be linked to religion, these are criminals and they should be treated as such. The Nigerian constitution emphasises freedom of religion and nobody will come out and force a particular religion on others.
Prof Peter Ogban, a returning officer at the 2019 senatorial election in Akwa Ibom State has been convicted for electoral fraud, how do you think this will impact subsequent elections in Nigeria?
Prof Ogban’s conviction is just one out of the millions of electoral fraud in Nigeria. If we want to make progress, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) must be unbundled into three key institutions, one for voters’ registration and custody of the voters’ register, another body should be responsible for the conduct of the election and another body should handle electoral offences. Electoral offences should be taken much more seriously in this country; after every election in Nigeria, we see volumes of election petitions and INEC must take this very seriously. But apart from the electoral official who was convicted, some politicians procure results and those who buy and sell votes, these are all electoral offences and all of them should be punished.
What do you think of the arguments on the 2023 presidency, are you for the pro- zoning or pro-capacity school of thought?
In every society such as Nigeria, there is usually some kind of informal understanding for power to rotate between the North and the South for coexistence and peaceful neighbourliness and that should be respected. The North has held the presidency for eight years by 2023; it is common sense that the presidency should go to the Southern part, it will lead to equity, reduce tension and sense of marginalisation and when that is done, it helps to stabilise the system. So, I support that the Southern part of the country should produce the next president and not just that but all the sensitive offices should be shared so that there will be a sense of equity. But it is not just about giving it to the South East, all the political parties should bring out candidates that are credible so that we will be able to salvage this country.