Agbakoba: I am speaking against the basis of Nigeria’s fragile democracy
• I Have Legal Standing To Prove Marginalisation, Discrimination Against Nd’Igbo
• Southeast Is Poorest Zone In Nigeria.
Chief Olisah Agbakoba, a foremost civil rights lawyer, in this interview with LEO SOBECHI and GODWIN DUNIA, explains the rationale for his court against the Federal Government, among other issues.
How do you feel when a lot of people point to prevailing socio-political situation in the country and conclude that they are a throwback to 2010?
I am disappointed in our system and the country. I think the problem is that Nigeria’s challenge is not understood yet. What we see are actors on stage, those who are directing power from behind that when we see a replay of the Yar’Adua problem, we don’t ask how it happened, rather we are concerned with the superficial issues of a not-too-well-president.
We don’t ask the questions of why there is always a re-occurrence in our political process of a few actors, for instance, the presence of Obasanjo. We don’t ask the question of why are we not operating democracy, even when we pretend to be democratising. Democracy is not about electioneering process, it entails free media, strong judiciary and political pluralism.
The absence of democracy in our system has allowed a few actors, who play out script in their various houses, social occasions across the country and when they are played out, it is being imposed on hapless Nigerians. And it is full of give and take deals, which they don’t fulfill and that has also attributed to the failure of Obasanjo and Jonathan administrations.
So, the biggest challenge of Nigeria is how to increase the process of democratic struggle, otherwise, the same actors will continue to hold fort. I heard the same Obasanjo visited Babangida, we should ask for what reason? It’s like you saying Jimmy Carter, who was President of America in 1976, is still relevant in American politics. This is not possible. What we have as a country are roadside political cabals and political parties without ideological leanings and relevance.
What is the basis for your legal action, considering that you are acting alone, but acting on behalf of the Southeast zone?
It is to open the space I am describing and I am doing this notwithstanding the fact that I may be acting alone. It is sad that a couple of guys sat down and decided to allocate numbers of states to various zones and it was not democratically discussed and as an Igbo man, I then have to ask why would I have to have five ministers and the northwest seven in the federal cabinet? What the constitution says is that there should be one minister per state.
But the issues you are canvassing have been with us since, perhaps the 1970s. Why now?
It is never too late! It is like when you asked why I set up the Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO), in 1985. So, my action now is never too late. The process of struggle involves a whole lot of issues that need to be revisited again and again. And we must continue to send message to the cabal that there are people who are ready to talk, even if it will not result into tangible actions or response.
During the Abacha era, when he thought he could be president with the exclusion of other Nigerians, I had to speak up. We organised a five million man march, even when we knew it will not be up to five million in figure, but the record showed that there was a reaction against Abacha’s attempt to make himself president at all cost.
So, I am again speaking against the marginalization of the South East, most especially, on the inequality in the federal cabinet, because this is one of the reasons for the fragile democracy we are having today.
Is it true that the Southeast has been marginalised; can it truly be said so, considering that the Southeast’s GDP could be as high, if not higher than that of other zones. What do you mean by marginalisation?
South East is one of the poorest zones in Nigeria. That is not even the point, the point is why don’t you ask reasons why they are been discriminated against? This is because we have a framework of political arrangement called the constitution, which I think if it has been democratically decided, I don’t see why the Southeast will have five states and northwest seven. Mark you, the constitution itself in section 42, frowns against any form of discrimination. So, I have the legal framework to go to court and to prove to the court that the region is actually marginalised and discriminated against.
There have been other Igbo groups and think tank groups working over the years to articulate a strategy for Ndigbo. Are you saying they have not been practical enough?
In my personal view, I think the Southeast leaders should have done more than they have done. Recently, I just came back from the Southeast and I counted about 30 checkpoints, which did not exist in somewhere like Benin to Onitsha. Then, I asked myself, how come the governors of the region do not protest the militarisation of the zone? Because, being a trading zone, it is most lucrative to assign policemen on highways like Onitsha to Enugu. What are the governors doing? So, if they are going to be silent, I was not prepared to be silent.
Roads, bridges and other infrastructure are as well in deficit in other geo-political zones. Can you truly establish that there has been a deliberate policy to shortchange the Southeast?
Then let those in other states or zones go to court. If they are also suffering from infrastructural deficit, the question is, are they not part of the democratic process? Every citizen has the right to ventilate their grievances in a lawful manner. So, the fact that I have gone to court to vent my grievances should not be blamed on me. They should be asked why they are not active.
In terms of exploration of oil and gas in Anambra River Basin, you have preferred the implementation of the report of the 2014 national confab, which has presented a position on gradual ownership of natural resources by host communities…
But I was at the Confab! Recently, I watched the Vice President, Prof. Osinbajo, Kemi Adeosun and others at Platform on May 1; and they completely missed the point. Nigeria’s problem is not about micro-economic, monetary or a fiscal issue, rather the problem is political and economic operative module and it is faulty. If you have an iphone, as beautiful and sleek as it is, once the operating model is out, there is nothing you can do about it. The political and economic structures of the country are very sick that I am even shocked that Nigeria is still standing.
For example, why is it that the Federal Government assumes that they can power the country with light? Minister of Power, Babatunde Fashola may run up and down in the hope of giving light, but he would never be able to do it, because the module is faulty. We have about 800 governments, 774 at the local level, the FG and 36 States; one would have thought that the operating module would distribute the work in an even way. There is no way The Guardian Newspapers, for instance, can be effective with the Managing Director alone and nobody else. If you look at the 98 items of power, the FG does almost all, 68 is exclusive to the FG and the other 30 for the states and they have to do them with the permission of the FG. So, the FG is like alpha and omega.
Just yesterday (last Thursday), Mr. Fashola inaugurated the Rural Electrification Board, one of the Ministry to provide the country with light. And it never occurred to them that let us take this power to the states as their responsibilities, then adjust the allocation formula, such that it will give money to the states to do those things the FG could not do effectively.
Anytime I look at the prisons, I just chuckle and laugh, because what is the FG doing with prisons services? The ranks of officers that wear epaulets, that is, Comptroller General and what have you, shows a completely moribund and useless organisation. Lagos High Court sentences so and so numbers of criminals to prisons and as such, it should be the responsibility of the state to provide prisons for criminals convicted under Lagos law.
Again, what is the FG doing with Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC)? These are some of what local governments do in the world over, but the FG just gets itself overburdened with unnecessary responsibilities.
How do we get out of the problem of these cabals?
You have just asked a million-dollar question. The cabals are the ones keeping us down and they know how to do this. The North has had power for a long period than any other region in the country and yet the region has remained very poor. The contradictions in this country are so much that I cannot understand, except from the point that the colonial masters have no intention to give independence to economists, except for the independent movement.
Therefore, for us to break away from the grip of the cabal, we have to find a way or formula to retire all the cabals from our political scene, so that election processes can be free and fair.
For instance, someone like me, not a matter of ego, should able to contest the office of the president if the spaces are opened. But this has not been possible. The cabal sits somewhere in their comfort and decide: this is the president and once this is done the cabal moves into action. They know how to scuttle the process, hijack the parties and they create funds for this and that and the gullible electorate will never care if the guys are good or not, but are concerned with what can he give them now, because they are not in position to see beyond today because they are very hungry.
When I visited the East recently, you can imagine the number of people who came to me to beg for food. The people are hungry. So, my own questions are and I wish Nigerians will reflect on them: how do we get true democracy and put away all the cabals? How do we open the space for everybody to operate as an entity?
Are you assured of the support of Ndigbo, particularly Ohanaeze, which is raising a team to pursue similar legal option in addressing the same issues you have raised?
The support has not been as I would have liked, which is one of the disappointment I talked about. But by the way, it is when people come around and give their support, but I filed this same suit seven years ago and it has been frustrated. I am even surprised that it just sprang up. So far, four judges have sat over the matter, they include: Justices Muhammed, Shuaibu, Yunusa and now Liman. I cannot say I would not go on again, It has always been that. When we started the five million match against Abacha, we faced a lot of challenges and yet we still went ahead. So, what we have done so far, in this issue is to use a legal framework to throw up issues that will question Nigerians. And I am happy for the response I have got on the suit.
Still on true democracy, do you have any plan to contest political position in future?
In this type of situation? Nothing will make me to ever go into politics. This is no politics, it is buccaneering. To say it is politics is to insult politicians elsewhere.
You seem to be frustrated by the current federal system and the relief you are seeking appears to be a refined position of what MASSOB is asking for-independence for the Southeast?
Absolutely no! because I told you I filed the suit seven years ago, I did not file it because of MASSOB, IPOB or Kanu, but for the fact that those isssues I raised in the suit are what is actually happening in the region. I as an Igbo man disagreed with some of the IPOB ideas on a certain ground and one of them is that, I like to belong to a bigger country inspite of our diversity and it makes sense to me as a person.Anytime I attend new marriages, it has always been inter-tribal marriages and it has come a long way, such that, we may not be able to go apart again.
The country or our diversities are not the problem, the problem is from the cabals, they are the ones keeping us fighting, our problem is not from the bottom, but from the top. The case has also shed light for others to see what we are doing to ourselves.The local government are the basis of revenue allocations and can be said that if, there is need to appoint judges, the National Judicial Council (NJC), will consider the numbers of local government and this structure is already faulted such that the Southeast is disadvantaged, because the region has fewer states.
Not long ago the former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, started adding his voice to calls for restructuring, but some observers said he was merely doing so for political reasons. Do you think restructuring is feasible?
It is one of Nigeria’s challenges and I just told you that the country operates a central federal system of government and as a result of this, it is not balanced. The argument has been how to balance the system. The structure seems to divide us most and I have often said let us do that alone and I am the first to also admit that it is a very difficult position.
What we need is a graduated re-balancing of the system. And all it will take is for President Buhari to say, I do not need to issue driver’s licence, what am I doing with Federal prisons and all that, then transfer them to the states and also identify all technical powers which will be best handled by the states, then transfer to them. Though, the political devolution is not very good, but he can also empower Nigerians and if these are done, we can then be seen to be re-balancing the federation. The solution to our problem is to allow the states to do a lot of things, by so doing, they can create job to fight unemployment challenges and also make the local environment better. My recommendation is, let us agree on the areas that needs re-balancing because part of our problem is the failure of the Federal Government to proffer solutions to most technical problems affecting the people.
What happens if your reliefs are not granted by the court?
Nothing! I will just go and wait again.
Of recent, there have been serious calls for separation of the offices of the Attorney General from that of Minister of Justice, where do you stand on this?
It is not possible to have a political Attorney General and Justice Attorney General, so the way to go is to divide the two functions: Ministry of justice is for the president and Attorney General is independent because in accordance to the constitution, he is not supposed to be responsible to anybody. He is to be fearless. I made this point at the Confab. In South Africa, they have in chapter ten of their constitution, what they call ‘Institution Consolidating Democracy’ where they have the likes of EFCC, INEC, Auditor- General and other institutions that need to be independent of government to operate effectively with constitutional protection and guarantee of security of offices and funding. With that, the Inspector General of Police is not afraid of the president, rather he is afraid if he failed in his job. If all these begin to happen in Nigeria, then it will be getting better, but the cabal will not allow this.
In absence of a constitutional provision and in the event that a vice president becomes a president, how should his deputy be selected?
He will pick his Vice in accordance to the constitution. But politically, it is not going to happen because of the cabal. I was told by a friend the infighting that went on during Yar’Adua, would have ended up in a war until they (cabal) taught of the need to work together. So, when they felt things are not going on well in their interest, they come together. It has been like that since the days of the Ziks, Awolowos, they formed alliances that never should be. I found out an irony, that during the independent day of October 1st, 1960, the two greatest fighters for the independence were not on the podium. They stood each by the sides of the podium, just because of (infighting) disagreement. And the person who stood at the center was the Prime Minister who never partook in the independence struggle.
So what is the way forward?
I have no idea. Except to say, if changes are made, otherwise we are going nowhere. When you see the result of UNICEF on Nigeria, it described us as a country in famine (malnourishment) alongside Somalia. Yet, we have trillions. The cabals are hanging our money at the top. My daughter wrote an article, I think it is titled: ‘Paradox of Plenty’ and it tells a lot of story about this country.
Do you still believe in the creation of a National Order as one way out of the situation?
Yes. It is one of the solutions to our problem. We need a national order because it is a common thing in any system. In Nigeria, there is no order and that is why lawlessness pervades. We need political, economic and social orders and it can only be defined by the constitution.
Recently the CJN called for nominations of lawyers from the bar to be appointed as Judges, what is the rationale for that?
Even when I was the president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), we have been saying that the judiciary should open up. That diverse judicial background can be able to come in and make it strong. I discovered then that appointments are made from a narrow angle, not that the guys were bad, but it should be a source of promotion to others. I even suggested this to the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mohammed Uwais and he said it cannot be possible then. So, for now, it is a good development.