When President Muhammadu Buhari announced the appointment of the prominent Professor of Law and civil rights activist, Itsejuwa Esanjumi Sagay (SAN), as chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption, not many Nigerians blinked an eyelid on the choice of the man and his credentials to get the job done.
He is to be assisted in this arduous national assignment by ; Femi Odekunle, Professor of Criminology, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, member; Dr. Benedicta Daudu, associate professor of International Law, University of Jos, member and Prof. E. Alemika, Professor of Sociology, University of Jos as member.
Others are Professor Sadiq Radda, Professor of Criminology, Bayero University, Kano, member; Hadiza Bala Usman, civil society activist, member; and Professor Bolaji Owasanoye of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, member/Executive Secretary of the committee.
The committee’s brief is to advise the incumbent administration on the prosecution of the war against corruption and the implementation of required reforms in Nigeria’s criminal justice system.
It is also expected to develop comprehensive interventions for achieving recommended reforms.
Nigerians are of the opinion that the constitution of the committee is a manifestation that President Muhammadu Buhari is committed to taking corruption fight beyond rhetoric with a view to tackling the malaise in the country.
Specifically, they felt that bringing Prof. Sagay on board as the chairman of the committee is a litmus test on his age-long thoughts and campaign against corruption and graft in the country.
Those in the know say the quintessential lawyer and law teacher had been critical of the nation’s system of governance before he was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1956 and never had any fear to speak to the powers-that-be to curb their excesses.
This didn’t come as a surprise to his admirers as he, on many occasions, espoused that making a positive change to the human condition in his environment is his priority in life which he is profoundly proud of and never ready to negotiate with any soul.
Through his knowledge and practice of law, Itse Sagay has rocked the boat in Nigeria’s legal and socio-economic spheres which sometimes left him a lone-ranger in his opinions and thoughts on issues in the country.
He was one of the few dissenting voices from the Niger Delta, who was not on the same page with former President Goodluck Jonathan due to the excesses and ineptitude of his administration which threw the country overboard.
He was also quick to caution President Muhammadu Buhari for allegedly banning AIT over the station’s broadcast of hate campaigns by the rival party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), during the last presidential campaign in the country.
He detests corruption and ineptitude in every sphere of national life and he is never bereft of ideas on the dangerous implications of same and the need to nip it in the bud.
Sometimes, Sagay said he chooses to speak out against corruption in his constituency because he believes that’s where the nation can begin its war against corruption.
“What I do is that at any function involving lawyers I speak out. Of course, nobody listens, but I still speak out. And at times even the judiciary does not listen,” he said.
He is sad that between 1999 and 2015, there has been few prosecution of corrupt Nigerians by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and other agencies saddled with the responsibility of tackling corruption in the land.
He said: “Between 1999 and today there have been very few successful cases of corruption, very few even with EFCC and all. What do they do to evade the case? It is the strategy of keeping the case indefinitely till everybody gets tired. It is a simple strategy, which the senior advocates have perfected.
“once they have a client accused of corruption, first thing they do is to file a preliminary objection against the jurisdiction of the court and they will bring spurious arguments and fill the paper, all just to delay. And so the judge now has to take that as a preliminary matter, and ask, ‘Do I have jurisdiction?’ He knows he has jurisdiction. He knows that all these are just nonsense. Meanwhile, the senior advocates who file it, seek adjournment at every sitting, until eventually the briefs are adopted and judgment is given maybe after three to five years.
“So the case has been on for five years, does it end there? No. The judge has said he has jurisdiction, then the senior advocate will appeal to the Court of Appeal, it goes to the Court of Appeal for another five years, from there it goes to Supreme Court that takes another five years. So, between the time the charges were first filed and when the final decision was given in a preliminary case, we have spent up to 15 years. The substantive issue of corruption has not been held.
‘’During that interval, the IPO has died or retired, the prosecutor in the Ministry of Justice has retired or become a judge himself, so many things might have happened, by the time it comes back, if it ever comes back, hardly anybody is familiar with the case anymore. And it’s gradually allowed to die. That is why corruption is on the increase because there is hardly any successful prosecution for corruption cases.
“Now, I have recommended many times, have written and have spoken to the National Judicial Council, to chief judges, to the president of the Court of Appeal, that the solution is very simple: When a person files a case of preliminary objection on a matter involving corruption, the judge should take both the preliminary objection and the substantive issue together, in other words, tell the person to argue his preliminary objection, then the other side will also argue the response.
“He will not give his ruling and ask them to proceed to the main substantive issue of corruption, and at the end of the day, the judge can decide that he has no jurisdiction, but haven’t done that, he will say, if I had jurisdiction on this substantive matter, this would have been my judgment.
“So, the ruling on both issues will go to the Court of Appeal, it never comes back and it is held the same way. Let us assume that the High Court judge files that he has jurisdiction, and the person is guilty of corruption, he will convict him. The matter will now move to the Court of Appeal, he will raise the issue of preliminary jurisdiction and the court will entertain it.”
Besides his speeches numbering over 100, the lawyer-activist has published several books and journals on constitutionalism, jurisprudence and rule of law in the country and hopes that his sound knowledge of law and several years of practice will translate to fruition if there is good governance that reflects the wishes of the people in Nigeria.
He probably saw the potentials in President Muhammadu Buhari to correct the ills of mis-governance and march the nation towards redemption in every sphere that’s why he subtly campaigned for his candidature against his kinsman, who wanted second term in office.
But Sagay said he was not bothered by criticism of openly campaign for Buhari, adding that those peddling them are the same people the anti-graft institutions are preventing from crippling the country.
He said: “Nothing surprises me. Those who are making the criticism are low-minded people. I don’t bother myself about them. These are people one has to rise above. These are people who the institutions are set up to curtail their activities; these are people with no integrity. They are low-minded with no moral integrity.
“Some people will not do anything to better the society. They lack patriotism. I am not surprised about their criticism at all. They are always concerned about themselves; self, self, self. I have no time for them.”
He expressed the determination of the committee members to do their work diligently and be responsible to the Nigerian people, saying it is important for all Nigerians to support the Buhari administration in confronting corruption.
“All of us have a responsibility to assist this government to fight corruption which is the greatest scourge confronting this country today,’’ he said.
Lagos lawyer, Mr. Felix Fagboungbe (SAN), told our correspondent that the appointment of Prof Itse Sagay as Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption was a right step in the right direction of the current government.
He said Sagay is eligible for the job because he is an energetic, straight forward and highly principled person, who will not compromise the nation in the course of discharging his duties and responsibilities.
He said with his knowledge and practice of law, the professor and his team of like-minds would do a thorough job to assist President Muhammadu Buhari win the war against corruption and graft in the country.
Another legal practitioner, Tunji Banwi said Prof Sagay is indeed qualified for the job and possesses the innate confidence to lead the presidential committee on corruption in the country.
There is no doubt that Prof Sagay’s new job is a daunting task which he and his committee must thoroughly and professionally execute due to the pervading ills that corruption has caused the nation in recent years.
He has the duty as a law teacher, lawyer, human rights activist, critic and public affairs commentator, to advise Mr President on how best to tackle corruption that has thrown the nation into a cesspit.