National Legal Adviser of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Dr. Muiz Banire, in the week stunned both the observers and the active political players, when he set an unprecedented record by standing aside to allow for an investigation into allegations of bribery of some judges by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. In this exclusive interview with Shola Oyeyipo, he clarified the issues and maintained that he does not engage in bribery of any sort. Excerpts:
How do you place the recent insinuation which seeks to suggest that you are one of those who bribe judges?
In the first instance, the person in question, to me, I would say, at least as at the time I gave him money was not a judge to the best of my knowledge. He was a colleague when we were both at UNILAG campus in those days. I left UNILAG in 1999 and since then, till last week, I think it was November 3 or there about that I just set my eyes on him. I have never seen him since I left UNILAG. I never knew he had become a judge at all.
I have never appeared before him at any point or in any case whatsoever let alone discussing. So, it is surprising that mischief makers will interpret a kind gesture based on his solicitation. All I remember which they can confirm from him was that he sent me a text three years ago, as a former colleague, that he lost his mother and he was financially depressed, needed some assistance, which I rendered to him. I even put my name. If I wanted to bribe someone would I have sent money to him indicating that I sent money?
Certainly, it is not true. It is unfortunate again that people are misinterpreting my kind gesture in terms of my visit to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) because it was not the EFCC that invited me, I went there on my own volition, based on a letter I wrote to them. I said I heard that my name was being mentioned in a particular transaction: please I want to come to explain my version.
I went on my own volition to tell them, let me help your investigation as it concerns me, because it is not Banire alone. There were at least as at the last count, about nine Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) and several other lawyers, who the man solicited fund from in one form or the other.
I don’t think it is criminal. I don’t know any law that says that you cannot assist somebody, particularly a friend. Even if the person turns out to be a judge, there is no law that says so. No law to the best of my knowledge, particularly in this instance. I am sure the man will gladly tell them that and since 1999 till last week, I have not set my eyes on him.
Are you worried?
Well, I must tell you that I am perturbed. I am disturbed because everybody around me knows that I am one of the foremost anti-corruption crusader, particularly as regards judicial corruption. As recently as some few months ago, I still held a roundtable on the same subject that was even misinterpreted that I was attacking judges. So, how suddenly would I have turned round to say I am the one engaging in it? More so, Industrial Court is one court that most of us don’t even go, so, how would you go there to go and be influencing somebody?
Would you say the EFCC has not been thorough in its investigation?
My perspective is that now that we are talking, the EFCC has not said to me I have committed any crime. Like I said, their investigation is still ongoing. They have not even concluded any investigation. They just started and I was the one that volunteered to go there on my own, not that they invited me. But I feel that some people don’t appreciate what I have done, but I believe it is my own duty, particularly, it is often said that those who live in glass house should not throw stones.
Where I am presently, which I believe is one of the basis for which they are giving undue interpretation, publicity and or propaganda to the issue, is the office of the Legal Adviser of the party. And to that extent, I believe that it is my duty to assist EFCC, which is an arm of the government we serve and is prosecuting one of the major agenda of the government. So, it is on my own volition that I went there and I believe that they should be assisted in whatever direction that you can to get to the root of anything. So, for me, the investigation has just started. Nothing has been said that a crime has even been committed or alleged. There seems to be a lot of misconceptions out there.
Do you think there could be political undertone to this?
Of course there is. In the first instance, I have been reluctant to see it as a political thing but I must confess to you, there are some political maneuverings along the line. I would tell you for example, if you see most of the newspapers, where they carried the news item, it’s been an isolated case of Muiz Banire, whereas there are several other lawyers out there that the same judge solicited money from under one guise or the other – that “my mother died” or “somebody died for me” or he had a problem. Several other lawyers he solicited funds from are being equally investigated by EFCC.
But those who want to achieve political mileage decided to tuck it aside and making it look like it is Muiz Banire that has gone to bribe somebody. Secondly, you will discover that rather than they saying I walked up to them to help the investigation, the impression they are giving is as if I was invited or even arrested. It is equally not true!
And thirdly again, when investigation is just commencing you don’t just go out there and engage in media trial. The regrettable thing about Nigeria is that those who might have heard about the commencement would not be there when the matter is being concluded. However, I am not honestly so much disturbed about that because, again in life, particularly as a leader, you must expect those kinds of challenges from time to time.
How do you see this ending?
Well, I would not know how it would end, but the worst scenario that can happen is for people to be charged to court. The good thing I can assure you is that because I know I am innocent, number one, it cannot end up otherwise. I am very sure that I am very innocent. I have no official relationship with the so-called judge whatsoever. For the first time in my life, I went to join a Senior Advocate in a matter at the Industrial Court, for the first time since they established that, about a month ago and by the time I got there, I was shocked he was the judge from our days at UNILAG as lecturers. He was equally in the Institute of Advance Legal Study. I didn’t know that he had become a judge.
If it happens that such judge had sent me a request, I would have gladly obliged him because I would not have even known, although there is nothing forbidding me from giving him if he were to be a judge and in any of the customary circumstances, for example, during burial, marriage ceremony, child naming or something.
What if your name comes up in another case of bribery?
That is what I am saying that if my classmate or a friend, who is a judge, is doing something that is customary, if I get there, I will give him. I don’t see any law that forbids me. You need to establish that I am giving him that money to go and influence or impair his judgment in any regard.
People must not also forget that a majority of our friends will naturally be lawyers. We lived our lives as lawyers. In our student days, it was lawyers that were our classmates. They are the people who will eventually become judges. What is important is that whatever you do must not impair the course of justice. Once that is out of it, then you have not done anything wrong.
People speak highly of you. Recently during your 50th birthday prayer, a judge said if you lose a case before him, you don’t come to ask why. That you would rather go back to study the judgment and see why, so, how do you relate that to this development?
Let me tell you, some judges will be my classmates, some seniors and some juniors. Even those that are extremely close to me where they sit alone, you will never see me appear there. And I am sure, I will not mention their names; people will even tell you, I will not. My boys can go to your court but you will not see me appear before you because I don’t want to put you in a very difficult situation that people will start insinuating that may be he is being influenced or something. I would not!
Those who know me when it comes to the issue of money, the way God has created me is to continuously be philanthropic. Today, if you go out and ask how many students I have sponsored, I would not be shocked if you have over 1000. Most of them I don’t even know. I can tell you in almost 10 years now, it is a minimum of at least 10 law school students that I pay their school fees at N300,000, sometimes 15 – some abroad and some locally. I tell you, 90 per cent of them I don’t know. I get to court, some of them will greet me and prostrate and say “you don’t recognise me”, I would say I don’t, then they would say “you paid my school fees during Law School” and I would say don’t worry.
Without fear of contradiction, I can say that 80 per cent of what I get in my life I spend on people. I don’t spend more than 20 per cent on my family, so, nothing unusual for me to give people. In fact, in Lagos here, you will have thousands that will come out – religious, individuals, associations, clubs, even the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) – that will come gladly and say what this guy has done.
Could this have any effect on your philanthropism?
No! I would not allow it because things like this must always come up. I will continue to do what I am doing. Even last week, I cannot count how many others. I told the interrogator, I said in a week, if I don’t assist people I will assist not less than 10 people in one form or the other. At times I have even had to borrow money on somebody’s behalf because if a student wants to do exam, he is at a very crucial stage of his career and could not get the money and I have the credibility to get for him, why wouldn’t I do it? So, giving somebody money, for me, is nothing unusual. And if you want to bribe a judge, would you go and bribe a judge with N500, 000?
What is your take on the recent arrest and subsequent interrogation of some judges by the DSS and EFCC?
Honestly, for me, anything that is lawfully done towards sanitising the judiciary, I am for it. Of course, my position has always been that we must avoid any form of illegality, because today, we can uphold it but when it becomes a precedent, it would start hunting all of us. I told you, I single-handedly convened a roundtable on this subject five months ago. And it is a continuous effort that all of us would have to make.
In fact, in my own instance, again, it could be corruption fighting back because they know me. I can tell you all the people I have come across in our legal profession, both lawyers and judges, will tell you that I am not the kind that will ever! I spend time preparing my cases, I go to court regularly, people see me when I argue my cases and no judge will say I lurk around to see him or her in the chamber, not me! You wouldn’t find me. It’s not me at all! The only thing is that we should not take it to a ridiculous level that would now become comedy. In my case, I just laugh everyday over the matter. Bribe a judge in a court I don’t even visit until a month ago when I went on solidarity appearance. I wasn’t the one doing the case.
Do you see the judge in question coming to say he solicited for help from you?
The man has no other story to say in respect of everybody. He had said it to everybody. From what I even overheard from them at EFCC, because there is no other story to it. If there is any other story, you can say you are taking a gamble.