Buhari needs to create new national order, says Agbakoba
The government of President Muhammadu Buhari is now one year in office. Interestingly, Nigerians at this point like to assess the performance of the government in power in order to know how far it has fared. In this interview with JOSEPH ONYKWERE, the former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) x-rays the operations of the government in the last one year and gave the verdict that the government needs to add more effort and create a new national order that would engender peace and prosperity.
Is the president actually fighting corruption? There are those who believe that he should rather build strong institutions rather than fighting corrupt individuals?
The president needs to create very strong independent institutions to fight corruption and leave it at that so that he would not be seen as being personally involved. So if he creates very strong institutions and they are well-funded, it is for those institutions to do their job and whoever they catch, the president would not be blamed. That is not happening now and it needs to happen. In fairness to Mr. President, he is the most vocal ever in the issue of tackling corruption. He has succeeded in that but he needs to go to step two, which is to create the institutions. In all his foreign strips, he repeats, ad nauseam that ‘we are going to fight corruption’. But I want him to say ‘we have fought corruption’ whenever he speaks. And he rightly identified us lawyers as part of the problem. What do you expect? That is why we are lawyers; that is why we went to school. Then, he should be asking his people, how do I overcome these lawyers? My view is that public sector lawyers cannot do it alone.
You need to infuse a good dose of private sector lawyers to work with public sector lawyers. In fact, he needs to announce a special prosecutorial team. If you do not give people the perception that corrupt practices would be severely punished, they would say it is a normal thing – go to detention, get bail and the case will drag on. The president must show that that is not what he wants to do, but to send them into jail. The only Nigerian president who had shown determination, may be because he was military, to deal with the issue, even though he himself turned out to be very corrupt is the man Abacha. He created the failed bank regime. I want to see corrupt politicians prosecutorial regime. No story under Abacha’s time. You come and they say did you do this? You say yes, go and sit in jail until you produce half the money. It was very quick and it produced results. It requires massive political will and energy. EFCC needs to see that the president is solidly behind them, not by saying it but by calling the anti-graft agency and inquiring about their funding. I have been to EFCC office, they are dead. The one in Okotie Eboh has no light most of the times. They have no tools, they are using stenographers and files are in tatters. The men look hungry. So how can they be fighting corruption?
How do we plug the corruption hole in the public sector so as to reduce the incidence of corruption?
The public procurement act is there. It is just that it is not working. The accountant general and auditor general offices are there. But both are afraid they may lose their jobs, if they write strong reports. What I am saying is that these offices need to be insulated from executive interference and control just as INEC is getting stronger because it is no longer within the reach of the president. There are numbers of state institutions that support democracy and good governance that you need to remove under the purview of the president. You can imagine the level of success we will have if the Inspector General of Police does not report to Mr. President? Do you know what that means? Just like the Central Bank of Nigeria is independent, that is how I want to see a number of institutions independent of the president. President of America cannot call the chief of police of New York.
On what ground! Well, out of courtesy, he may go. So that is the kind of framework that we need. So when that labyrinth is built, then as a senior government official will be scared because you know that there is no protection if you do wrong. It is for the president to build this counter-corruption, and public procurement and transparent processes that Nigerians can see and buy into it. For God’s sake, let the president know that he needs Nigerians. He has never spoken to Nigerians. Obama is always talking to the American’s. The president needs to be visible. He is not visible by staying in Abuja. He is like cut off and when that happens, he cannot know the pains of Nigerians. Aso Rock can be very isolating. I have been there many times. If you are there, you are not in Nigeria. So one of the things he needs to know is to ask people tell him what is going on. He needs to ask, how much is a bag of rice and what was it before? He needs consistent communications; reading newspapers and calling old friends to make enquiry. That is how he can get first hand information, and not information that has been manipulated by those around him, because every president knows including Obama that people around him will not be free as it ought to be. So every president in the modern world has a method of understanding what is going on. That is required here.
What is your assessment of rule of law and human rights violation in the last one year?
It has been mixed. And that is because a lot of things are clustered. The rule of law, especially with the EFCC has not gone in a way I think is proper. But then, when I put the question to Nigerians, they said which rule of law, those thieves? So we have to be careful what rule of law means. Rule of law has certain universal concept. In Nigerian case, where all source of stupendous stealing are taking place, rule of law may mean to allow those suspected of stealing their due day in court. If I were judge, I will be applying the most stringent bail conditions. It is still within the ambit of rule of law. I will make sure I give you a fair trial, but I will call everything against you, unless it can be proved otherwise. What these guys have done have ruined Nigeria. We cannot have a handful of guys like that bringing us to our knees and allowing them to get away with it. No!
Do you think there is something that needs to be done to enhance the capacity of the judiciary to cope with quantum of cases before it or they can carry on with the trial of suspected thieves?
They can’t. The judiciary is weak. All what I have said before applies. The budget of the judiciary is being cut every year. Judges are over-worked and overwhelmed. So how can they work? What Abacha did was to empower the judiciary, particularly the failed bank tribunals to be able to deliver its job. Do you know that the judges are unpaid for three months now? So how can they do their work with enthusiasm? That is why I said that the anti-corruption programme requires government to really identify critical actors – the prosecutors and the courts and make sure they are empowered.
You had always advocated establishment of national order. What does that mean in simplest terms?
It is a process or system by which a nation derives and secures its peace. And it came out where they were fighting for centuries, when the Roman Catholic empire was breaking down. The Anglicans were coming, Barbarians were there. So they then said to themselves, why are we fighting? Let’s create an international order or what was then called European Order, so that even though we don’t like ourselves, we agree on how to live. That led to a very big convention in Vienna. Out of that convention came out the European Order which exists till today. Absence of national order means national disorder.
How will it work in our own context?
We are said to be a mere geographical expression. So outlining a national order will make us design the first question. Can we find peace? If so how? The next is: what is the best political system to be created so that one side will not cry marginalization, the other side will not feel that they are excluded and the other side will not be afraid of imposition of whatever religion on them. Everybody finds his own space in peace. So, national order here simply means, implementing the outcome of the national conference, which Nigerians have agreed to do a number of things. One was regionalism. In the context of regionalism, many ills are killed including ethnicity. National order in the United Kingdom means a QC, is a QC in Scotland. There is no national QC. Not when you are looking at the list of SAN’s, you start to point out that these are from here while this is from there. So all these federal character thing disappears, those things that are seemingly problematic. We then begin to look at the national level; on questions common to us – defence policy, justice policy, foreign policy, health policy and all of that. The regions are left to develop themselves. That is national order!
Will you advise that the president organize conference again to achieve this order?
I will not advise him to organize a conference but I will also hope that he is the type of man that does not look at the rear mirror so as to look at the things of old- old problems. We need a statesman of Nelson Mandela stature to rise above these primordial things and say, ‘I want to resolve things’. And in resolving it, takes decision and say no more conferences. Let me set up a group of Nigerians, possibly from all the Houses of Assemblies of Nigeria, may be 40, and say to them; present to me a bill for the enactment of a new constitution for the people of Nigeria. They look at all the papers and see what is common, may be do public hearing to revalidate it. Present it and pass it. But it is not that simple, if you don’t have a statesman who has his eyes on history, who would want to be remembered like Martin Luther King and the rest.
This new order you are talking about, will it permanently curb the growing insecurity in the country?
Exactly! The reason we all fight is because we feel that our interests are not looked after. As an Igbo man, I feel that I am marginalized as a second class citizen. Even the Fulani herdsmen feel their own grievances. The Niger Delta may have the grievance that you take their oil and give them nothing. So we need to find out what are the problems and try to solve them. Then we will strike at the right balances.
Why did you say that our political structures are weak? What are the indices?
We have wars everywhere. We have Boko Haram, pro-Biafra agitators, Niger Delta Avengers and the herdsmen. Only God knows what else would come up next. The country is insecure. For me to go to certain places, I have to consider it carefully whether I can go. Before, I was fond of going to Jos, but not anymore. Even in my hometown, my friends would say, don’t come before they kidnap you. So we are in an insecure environment.
What is the relationship between weak political structure, insecurity and corruption?
They are all related. When there is insecurity, the first thing is that you want to hoard. Me and my wife are now reasoning if there is going to be difficulty in getting food. So we are talking about hoarding. Everybody wants to be on his guard. If you are a public officer, you will want to hide money because you never know. You put it in Swiss account because here anything can happen. So they are hoarding it. But if for instance, foreign exchange was easy like abroad, you are being sent to Ethiopia for a trip; you just walk into your bank and three minutes you have it, there will be no need for hoarding. Nigerians are hoarding $20billion in Nigerian banks. They are afraid that if they sell it, when they want to pay school fees, they won’t get. But no English man will hoard money because it is there.
So the government needs to free up the economy?
Absolutely! And the economy can only be freed with political stability and peace and clear economic vision but most importantly, national order. If every day you are fighting with your wife, there cannot be home order. Even the maids will be afraid of you.
You have been consistent in saying that there is no clear-cut economic vision from the present administration. But some may think otherwise?
Goodluck to them! If you want to know whether Nigeria has vision or not, just look at our vital statistics. By last quarter of 2014, we had 2% growth. By first quarter of 2016, we had nothing again. So Nigeria is in recession. Anyone who says my view of Nigeria is wrong, let him go and ask the Bureau of statistics and the central bank of Nigeria who at least for the first time has admitted that we are in recession. And go and look at the meaning of recession – two quarterly successive negative growths. No matter how you want to embellish it, we are not doing well. And it cut across board. So the challenge is how do we come out of all these?
How do you think we can get out of the impending depression?
It is very easy. We got to have a clear economic philosophy and not a mixed one where the government is not sure whether to take everything or involve the private sector. They have to answer the question; what is our economic policy? I favour liberalization with strong social regulation, meaning that anybody in the world prepared to do business in the world is free to come. In that case, your GDP will jump and secondly, you tax people so that you get enough money to support the vulnerable.
American budget is about $4trillion. $2trillion of it is for social welfare. Another $2trillion goes to support statutory expenses and pay workers salaries. So there is a balance. I support liberal economy. Nigeria is such a big country. When these massive American companies began to go to China, it wasn’t because they love the Chinese? China consumes 850million bottles of Coke a day. That is a market you can’t ignore. Nigeria is a market you cant ignore. In spite of our foolishness, MTN makes 50% of its money in Nigeria. Imagine where things are working? Everybody will be dying to come and do business here.
What is your appraisal of Buahri’s one year in office?
It a very measured start, which needs to be reviewed, in terms of economic vision and political vision. Also you have to ask if the capacity is there among his cabinet to deliver on the economic and political vision. To me, if he does this, it can still be a success story, but if he doesn’t, it can’t be a success story.