Former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, Dr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, shares his thoughts with ONOZURE DANIA on Nigeria’s democracy, 2023 elections, among other issues
You played a prominent role in the protest against the annulment of June 12. How has the cancellation of that election affected Nigeria’s democracy?
That was a very good election. The election was very free and very fair and most Nigerians believed that Chief MKO Abiola was the popular candidate with the clear mandate to deliver on what President (Olusegun) Obasanjo has called the dividend of democracy. Unfortunately, the victory of Abiola was aborted by the military. How it has affected Nigeria is that we still have the belief that our elections are not free and fair and that there are forces that can control it. If you look at all the elections since then, the general perception is that it is neither free nor fair. It was only until the time of (Attahiru) Jega that people began to have more confidence in the electoral process. But that confidence is still challenged by Abiola’s election annulment. So, I think to that extent, it (annulment of June 12 election) has affected the confidence of Nigerians to want to go and vote with the belief that their votes will count. Many Nigerians feel that their votes don’t count and that’s not good for democracy.
You will see that the number of people voting or the percentage of voting is quite low. I think that has been the impact and its beginning to die down but very slowly. It’s almost 30 years now and we are still feeling the annulment of Abiola’s election and I think that has affected how our democratic experiment has played out.
Do you think MKO Abiola would have been a good President if the military dictator had allowed the conclusion of the process?
I wouldn’t know. That is an entire speculation. But I think that from the presidential manifesto of ‘Hope for Nigeria’, I feel he would have, but I cannot tell because he never became the president.
How will you rate Nigeria in terms of human rights protection?
The problem with Nigeria is that we are not really a democratic country. It is not enough to say that we are democratic; we all know that in 1999, the military government gave way to what pretends to be a democratic government but the truth is that we are not. It is that truth that we are confronting so that you find that the government of the day, going back to even Obasanjo, doesn’t necessarily respect the views of the people. So, a democratic country where you have the leaders of the day, the leaders of the different political parties from the President down, they respond to the way people feel about how they are governed.
In the United Kingdom, when Prime Minister Liz Truss was seen to have done badly, the voice of the people removed her from office. I don’t know whether in our democracy, that can happen. I don’t know of anybody in political office in Nigeria since 1999 who has resigned on grounds of public resentment.
I don’t know whether our democracy has reached a stage where our voices really count because I don’t see that our politicians, from the presidency down to the local government chairman, respond to the way the people of Nigeria want them to be. So, the question will be, ‘can we say that the politicians in different levels of government are the servant of the people? I don’t think so.
The police have been fingered in this area. No day passes without a Nigerian lamenting how his right has been abused by the police. How can rights abuses by the police be discouraged?
The Nigeria Police Force is very inefficient; that is the problem and part of the problem of the police is that the Federal Government controls the policing structure. We have an Inspector General of Police seating in Abuja, I don’t see how the IGP can effectively and efficiently superintend over policing issues in Nigeria from the 774 local governments. So, because he cannot be an effective manager of the policing structure, a lot of things will go wrong that he will not be able to control. So, a Divisional Police Officer in Daura, in Onitsha, Ogbaru, and in Ogbomosho; how does the IGP control their misbehaviour? So, there is no proper control of the police and that has left the police at whatever level doing what they like.
So, the abuse you see which you correctly identified is caused by the police structure and that is why people have said it is important to have state policing structures because the Federal Government cannot do policing effectively. They need to transfer policing powers to the state government and I also think that it is not enough to transfer policing power to the state government. Policing power needs to be transferred to the local governments. For instance, in the United States, policing power is at the root of the local government. The local government there is called the county. The county in America is responsible for whatever crime occurs. So, crimes in Ikoyi are the responsibility of the chief of police of the Ikoyi local government. The IGP of Nigeria cannot interfere with the decision of the chief of police of the Ikoyi local government on how he does his work. Therefore, if we have 774 chiefs of police in Nigeria in the different local governments, clearly, policing will be more effective, which is why a lot of people have said that the only way to make policing effective is to make policing a matter that is state and also local government.
Are you not worried that even some lawyers who try to protect Nigerians are insulted by men in uniform?
Clearly, if a lawyer is affronted by a policeman in the cause of his official duty… not only a lawyer, a journalist, or indeed any Nigerian, who in the cause of his ordinary, peaceful engagement in carrying out his lawful business, is assaulted by the police, that is an affront. That’s an assault on democracy. But the reason for that is exactly what I just told you. If the police don’t feel that they are under the authority or that the authority that controls them is very far in Abuja and they are sitting in Zontua or Kauna or Jos, or Ogbaru, then there’s no fear of my boss will do so and so if I do so and so wrong. So, the process of policing is the reason why the police conduct themselves in the type of behaviour you are describing.
You recently expressed dissatisfaction over what you described as sluggish and inefficient management of court procedures. How can the situation be changed since lawyers and judges are involved?
No, the lawyers and judges are not involved. The issue about courts is that the courts are not working well. If for instance, you take a case to court because somebody’s doing you wrong, you expect that the court will deal with the matter efficiently and decisively, and quickly. Just like if you have malaria and you go to a doctor, you expect that the doctor will treat you efficiently and effectively. But if your malaria takes nine years for the doctor to treat it, I don’t think you will be very happy. So, the problem with the courts is that they’re not dealing with problems that people bring to them. To resolve otherwise, we’ll have a breakdown of law and order. Just imagine if there are no courts. If I have a problem with you, then I will just take the laws into my hands. I will call agbero people to beat you up. So, the courts are there to independently and effectively resolve problems in society. There’s always going be a problem, even at the family unit level. There will be problems in that family. So, the courts are the independent judges of society’s problems.
Right now, the public has very low confidence in the judiciary. What I was speaking to was that the judiciary, which is the third arm of government, will need to be responding to how the public views them. If the public has a low feeling of the judiciary, then I think it’s something that the judiciary needs to worry about and they need, in a short word, the speed of justice in the Nigerian judiciary because it is very slow. That encourages people not to want to go to the judiciary, rather they go to the police or the army to settle their quarrels and that’s not good for democracy.
A few days ago, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Judiciary, Luke Onofiok, said they had approved N150bn budget for the judiciary for 2023 and 2024. Will this amount solve the challenges that the judiciary has been facing, particularly the financial autonomy that the judiciary has been clamouring for?
I don’t know because I’m not in the judiciary, so I don’t know exactly what their budgeting requirements are, but what I would say is that the judiciary needs money. So, if the budget of the judiciary has been increased, then I think that’s a good thing because it will mean that they’re able to discharge their function more efficiently and more effectively. That is generally good news because the problem has always been that the judiciary is not well funded and that encourages them to not do their job properly. If you pay the Chief Judge of Nigeria, that’s the CJN, N300,000 a month, how can he be effective? So, any news about the increase of the budget of the judiciary is welcome and one hopes that the funding that the judiciary will receive will translate to a more efficient judiciary process. I didn’t know about this. So, that’s good news, that’s very good news. It is good to know that finally, the government begins to understand that the judiciary needs a lot of resources to perform optimally; so, that’s welcome news.
Some highly placed Nigerians have a way of disobeying court orders, with most of them getting away with it. Do you think a society such as ours can survive this situation?
The answer is obvious; a society where people don’t obey court orders is a society that is destined for ruin because what governs a society, no matter who you are, is the rule of law. The rule of law determines what the public does. If you do wrong, it doesn’t matter how highly placed you are, you will obey the rule of law. Look at President Trump; he tried everything to remain in power, but the strong institutions in America, the media, the civil society, and the court stopped him. In Nigeria, the problem is what I have said earlier that I don’t think we have a democracy. What we have are civilians who have taken over from the military. But the civilians in government are not necessarily democrats. So, they are different from the military because they’re not wearing Khaki uniform. In terms of whether they obey the rule of law, these current civilian politicians are exactly the same as the military politicians. So, the rule of law is not something that they understand, and therefore, people don’t obey it. If you have a judgment against a government agency, they won’t obey. If a judge issues an order directing the police to do so, the police won’t obey. So, when you have this type of chaos, society cannot grow. So, we need to come to the point where the government of the day understands that they are bound by the rule of law, and if there are judgments of courts against them, then they’re bound to obey. That’s not happening.
What should be done to stop flagrant disobedience of court orders?
Will it be appropriate to continue to describe Nigeria’s democracy as nascent having been practicing it for the past 23 years?
It’s correct to describe Nigeria’s democracy as fragile, very fragile. We have a long way from being a democratic nation. So, we’re very fragile. It can go either way. A fragile system is the type that can collapse any day. So, Nigeria democracy can, I will not be shocked if 30 days from today, Nigeria ceases to exist. I will not be shocked if tomorrow, it ceases to exist because it’s a very fragile country. It is divided by ethnic, religious, linguistic problems. Those are the three major fault lines we have and we have not kept faith with the central issues in our national anthem; though tribe and tongues may differ, in unity, we stand. So, what the national anthem says is that we are different people, who are diverse in nature, but we can bring our diversity, our differences in language, in religion and ethnicity together to form a great association of Nigerians that we haven’t achieved. So, to quote Chief (Obafemi) Awolowo, ‘Nigeria is a mere geographic expression’. It’s not yet a country. So, we’re hoping that the presidential candidate that wins the election in 2023 will understand this issue.
It’s very important that the presidential candidate from whatever party; whether it is the PDP, APGA, the APC, LP or the SDP, they need to understand that they are inheriting a country that is fragile and the only way that they can make progress, to bring unity to Nigeria is to recognise that there are diverse peoples here, and that if we want to succeed, then we must include everybody in the discussion of how to strengthen Nigeria. If you exclude people, there’ll be cries of marginalisation, injustice. That’s what’s going on now. So, the 2023 election is a very important opportunity for us to learn lessons about why we have failed as a country since 1960. If you compare Nigeria to United Arab Emirates, we are older than them, but you can’t compare UAE; that’s Dubai and Nigeria. They (UAE) have gone far in the journey. The question is why are we not moving fast? It’s because our political leaders have failed us. So, the unity of Nigeria is on the table and it’s on the ballots for 2023. And all I can hope is that whoever emerges will understand that there’s a very strong need to heal the nation and create enough energy for people to say, ‘I’m proud to be a Nigerian right now’. I can tell you, people aren’t proud to say that ‘we’re Nigerians’. My prognosis for Nigeria is very skeptical, but I’m hoping that the presidential candidate who wins will be able to take into account the challenges we have faced since 1960.
There have been over six schools. There have been a civil war and all kinds of problems dividing us to the extent that we are a very backward nation. We can’t provide water for our people. We can’t provide jobs, we have no money and that is not something that we should be proud of, given the fact that we are a very blessed nation in terms of natural resources.
The Federal Government plans to redesign the naira, but some Nigerians think the decision has a political undertone. Do you think the decision to redesign the naira is necessary?
I think what the Central Bank wants to do is to see that the volume of naira outside, the control of the Central Bank, is reversed, but in developed countries, for instance, in the America, the dollar that is outside the control of the Central Bank is as high as 90 per cent. So, I don’t know what the reason for the redesigning is, if it is simply because there’s too much naira outside the banking system. But what I also understand is that if you design the naira, people who have hoarded corrupt money, bandit money and kidnap money will be forced to lose it. If that’s the reason, national security issues, then it’s a good idea. But in any event, most countries change theirs and redesign their currencies from time to time. The UK just finished doing that. So, there’s nothing fantastic about the decision of the Central Bank governor’s move to redesign the naira, but let us hope that the outcome will be favourable.
Some have argued that the economy during the military regime was better when compared to today’s democratic Nigeria. Do you believe in this argument?
Yes. That’s very unfortunate. But you know, one would say that under the military, it appears that they were able to deliver a better economy than the so-called civilian, pseudo-democracy. I think the reason for that is, number one, under the military, there were few political leaders. So, the military did not have the National Assembly (members) that are doing what they like, paying themselves big salaries; the military people were fewer. I think they had a better way of understanding what to do to deliver the good products that the society wanted. Don’t forget that democracy is only a statement. There are 200 million Nigerians, and I think if you take a vote, and ask these 200 Nigerians what do you prefer; democracy or good life? Most of them will choose good life. So, I think all the military understood was being able to do things that made Nigerians’ lives easier, even though they were not elected. But you now have a so-called democratic government that are not interested. They say after all, I was voted in. So, they take us for granted. I think the military was more concerned about pleasing Nigerians, and you can see the difference.
If you look at the exchange rates under Abacha, in spite of all the human rights abuses, it was a lot better than it is today. So, it’s a very difficult question to say which of the two governments, military or the current one is better. But clearly, if you look at the price of the bag of garri under IBB and Abacha, it was about N3,000. Today, it’s about N35,000, and if you do other comparisons and you ask somebody who has no interest in democracy or military, how do you see life? You say, oh, back in Abacha’s time, it was better. So, that is a very big shameful for our so-called political civilian leaders that people can go back and say, ‘do you know what? Maybe under IBB and Abacha, things were better, and that is the truth’. Everything has increased in terms of pricing and life is tougher, and I don’t see that the political leaders of today are interested in dealing with the issues of poverty, unemployment that have bedevilled the country. So, in a certain sense, people may say that, the military government understood how to provide for the masses, but today’s civilian government does not. I always like to remind people that it’s just to show you how our democratic leaders have not done much. General (Yakubu) Gowon was the ruler of Nigeria and he left office in 1976 and Gowon today is 85 years of age.
But if you go around Lagos, if you are to go on a tour with Gowon, 90 per cent of the infrastructure was built by him; the only thing that is new is probably the Ikoyi Lekki bridge that Fashola put in place, but all the roads, all the bridges, whether it’s at Apapa or elsewhere in Lagos, was built by Gowon since 1976. So, in reality, Lagos has not developed since 1973. That tells you the problem. The three or four bridges that Gowon built remain the same, three or four bridges. The roads he built, Marina, Apapa, everywhere, they still the same. So, what has the civilian government done in 53 years to improve Nigeria’s infrastructure? That is a very damning result for civilian democracy because China is not a democratic country.
But the people are happy with their government because the government of China is delivering the fruits of good governance to the people. So, can I say that the civilian government that we have had since 1999 has delivered dividends of democracy to Nigerians? It may be a very debatable question if you put the question to vote by Nigerians, whether they prefer food in the tummy or democracy.
Some politicians are taking advantage of this period to make unrealistic promises to the citizens. What is your advice to Nigerians on how to engage such politicians?
Well, Nigerian politicians have been very dishonest and they have fooled us for a very long time. So, like the advert for Star beer says, shine your eye. Look very carefully at the promises; be sure that the promise that is being made can be kept. Anyone can make a promise and break it. So, most Nigerians will now be aware that Nigerian politicians are not truthful people generally, and when they want our votes, you see them all over the place, campaigning all over the country. Immediately they get into office, they abandon all their promises. I think it’s time that Nigerians are able to say to themselves we are tired of being deceived. I urge Nigerians to look very careful at the nature of the person who wants to be their leader and ask, ‘what is this one’s antecedent? Does he have a good character? Does he have integrity? Is he the type of man I can believe? If I vote for him, is he likely to keep his promise?’ It’s like an interview. I mean, when you were employed in LENTORLITENEWS, you must have gone through an interview. You must have shown your antecedence, they must have asked you questions. So, it’s same thing. I ask question, who you are, what is your pedigree? What schools did you go to, what have you done? Then I can look at all and say this is the guy. If I vote for him, is he likely to do the things that he’s promising. Nigerians should realize after over 23 years that politicians have taken us for a big ride. They have lied to us for so long, and we’re now in this very sorry state that we are the poverty capital of the world, the country is broke and people are having a very hard time. But things cannot change if we keep repeating the mistakes. My message to Nigerians is cherish your votes, your voter cards, be wise and make sure that you vote for somebody that you truly believe will assist you to be a better Nigeria.
What is your view about the poor pay of judges in a country where federal lawmakers earn millions of naira as total take-home every month?
If the judiciary has full control of its budget, it will determine how its officials are paid. The National Assembly determines how it is paid. So, I just told you that the Chief Justice of Nigeria is earning very small amount of money and that cannot make him happy. The very important point is that the judiciary, the judges in the judiciary need to be well compensated. A judge of the High Court in the United Kingdom earns about half a million pounds a year. So, he doesn’t depend on anybody in the executive. He’s not looking at the Prime Minister or any Minister of Finance. He knows that his salary will be paid to him through a guaranteed method if there is a case involving an individual and the government is not afraid to give a decision that is free and fair to everybody. But here, our judiciary is not as free because they have not taken into account of how they can source their own resources. So, they depend on the executive to fund them, and that’s the problem.
ASUU and the Federal Government have been at loggerheads over the non-payment of outstanding salaries of lecturers. How can this imbroglio be addressed?
The way to address it is for the ASUU to say to themselves that the dependence on the government to fund them may no longer be realistic, because as you know, the Federal Government funds the universities. But I think we can look at the model of the United Kingdom. Why can’t the various universities create their own funding mechanisms? Why must it be that the Minister of Education is the one that controls vice chancellors as if they are servants? Again, the Federal Government needs to give up power of control of the universities and allow vice chancellors. In the UK, every university has a system of raising funds. In Nigeria, it is only the Minister of Education that can authorise the universities that are public to generate funds. So, it is this lack of energy that makes a vice chancellor a servant. He just waits for the Minister of Education to put a budget in the National Assembly and say, ‘okay, Federal University of Sokoto, this is your money; Unilag, this is your money’. No. Unilag is sufficiently a large institution that can raise money across the world. Look at what Afe Babablola has done with his university. So, the problem is that the government of Nigeria needs to get out of the way and leave us to get on with a lot of work.
As a former president of the NBA what will you count as your legacy?
My legacy is that I was the president who rebranded the Bar, and that was my motto; that I wanted to rebrand the bar. I wanted to show that the Nigerian Bar Association could be a big institution, effectively dealing with political and social issues and I did that. I’m happy that successive presidents picked on what I did and today, the Nigerian Bar Association is stronger than when I left it in 2008.