THE human rights lawyer spoke to CHRIS IWARAH. Excerpts:
If the judiciary has truly crumbled under the executive, then we would expect you also to be scared that those who insist on respect for the norms of democracy would be in trouble soon.
No, I’m not scared. And I’m taking a cue from General Buhari himself. If he had surrendered to the forces of the PDP, he would have quit politics a long time ago. If people could not kill him, why would he go and kill anybody?
We can’t be scared at all. Our lives are not in the hands of the president, not in the hands of the ruling party. Once he was not scared and stood for election four times, challenged the results in court, insisted that he must be in power, and he is in power now by virtue of his own courage and the goodwill of the people of Nigeria, there is no reason for him to come back and be threatening anybody. With all due respect to the president, his own life too is in the hands of God. So, if he tries to threaten anybody, to send anybody after somebody’s life, he will pay for it. So, we are not scared at all.
We do this for this country and nobody can threaten anybody’s life; not even the judges. So, I’m trying to encourage all our judicial officers, they will account to God one day. If out of fear they turn the laws upside down and interpret the law to favour Buhari, to favour APC, they will account to God one day. And we must warn all judges that APC will not be in power forever.
Any time we get rid of this dictatorship that we’re seeing now, we will hold every judge accountable, who is turning the conditions of bail towards the ruling party. A day will come when we will set up a tribunal and try all of them. So, it’s not just enough for judges to pander to the whims and caprices of those who are in power; power is never static. There’s nothing that says Buhari will remain in power forever. When he leaves power, we will hold every court that is turning the liberty of our people upside down accountable.
But if you’re not scared, why should judges be? Doesn’t that suggest that something is fundamentally wrong with how they do their job?
No, no, no. Why the president has succeeded in cowing the judiciary is very simple. You can imagine in this country now, with the way the APC has rammed fake propaganda concerning corruption, any judge who is unfortunate to be accused of taking a bribe, Nigerians would not listen. They would sack him immediately. It would take the exit of this government before you would ever get the truth. And who is a judge? A public servant who does not have any other job, who has children. So, the fear of persecution is enough to deter a judge.
If you look at this country now, the salaries of judges are paid as if we are in the military rule. If a judge is suspended for one reason or the other, the Federal Government would withhold his salary; there’s no way anybody can rescue such a person. So, it is he who is paying the piper that is calling the tune. But I tell you one thing. No matter what you say about Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, during his rule in this country, he did not threaten any judge. No matter what you say in this country, the judiciary operated to its maximum under President Goodluck Jonathan. He was a respecter of the rule of law, separation of powers.
It was Jonathan that brought Attahiru Jega, brought card reader that defeated him, even as incumbent president. That is a leader who has the interest of his country at heart. Maybe he was lax, maybe he didn’t supervise those who were working with him. But in terms of respecting the will of the people, in fairness to him, he allowed all agencies of government to operate to the maximum. He respected the constitution. We can’t continue in this programme of dictatorship, we can’t continue in this programme of silencing all voices of dissent. That’s not the Nigeria of our dreams. That was not the promise the president made to us on the day of his inauguration. He said he was going to be president of everybody and president of nobody.
You keep talking of “we,” but a vast majority of Nigerians appear to want to see the president punish corrupt Nigerians and don’t care about how he does it. Are you saying they are invariably digging their own graves?
More than digging their own graves. Let me tell you, that inclination is as orchestrated by the propaganda machinery of the All Progressives Congress. That propaganda happened during the elections when the entire effort of the past administration on the Chibok girls, Boko Haram was described as a write-off. It was after they won the election they discovered that it was impossible to return the minds of Nigerians to accept that the military was actually working. Why I say Nigerians are digging their own graves is this. When a dictator emerges, he uses a popular slogan, in this case, anti-corruption, to buy the minds of the people and say “forget the rule of law, if you allow the rule of law, these people will run away.
Let me jail them, let me treat them anyhow I want as long as we recover our money” and Nigerians, journalists, lawyers will say “go ahead, we don’t care.” When he has finished dealing with all corrupt people and there’s nobody to prosecute again, he will now come back to his opponents, he will come back to journalists, he will come back to lawyers, he will come back to the masses.
Then, it would be too late for you to be telling him to follow the rule of law, because you have already invested him with the power of a dictator. And that is why Nigerians should think back. We support anti-corruption. Yes, by all means, recover our money from anybody and take them through all trials as much as you can. But do that under the constitution. If it is the law that allows you to arrest somebody for looting, when you arrest that person, any other right that the law grants him in the course of your prosecuting him for looting, allow that right to function. If the law allows you to arrest a citizen and that law contains a provision that allows him to be on bail, follow that law through.
But that law never worked in the past and corruption thrived.
No, not at all. It’s not the law that is the problem of corruption. I’m sure that as we’re speaking, corruption is happening in the Presidency. As I speak to you now, there’s corruption in Aso Rock, there’s corruption in the Federal Secretariat, there’s corruption in the National Assembly. Corruption will forever happen. You will only know the corruption of this government after the government has left. So, we can’t say it was because the law was lenient. No. The people who were in power used the incumbency factor to cover themselves, just as the president is using the incumbency factor to cover those who funded his campaign now and shielding them from investigation. That is what he’s doing.
Looking at the trend of things in the country today, what is your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is that the president is insincere and that insincerity is leading him from one error to another. He’s being insincere with his selective fight against corruption. He is shielding his loyalists and then bearing his fangs on his opponents. He doesn’t want that insincerity to be discovered. He wants to cover up and in covering up, he wants to silence every other person.
If it gets to a stage where people can’t be silenced, it will get to a stage where people will be assassinated, where companies will be closed down. I fear that we are moving towards the precipice of anarchy. I fear that it will get to a time when people will be using the president as an example of disobedience of court orders. People who do ordinary businesses, who do ordinary transactions will also be taking the laws into their own hands. It will spill over to the barracks and policemen will like to arrest people without following due process. It will spill over to every facet of our lives, whereby people will begin to embrace impunity without regards for the rule of law. It will get to a period when people will no longer respect judges, people will no longer respect the courts. We shouldn’t expose the judiciary in that regard.
The judiciary is an institution that has held this country together. The president should not destroy that institution, because if he does, it will backfire even on his own presidency and our development and progress. There’s no reason for that. My appeal to the president is very simple. Run this country with transparency, tell us the situation of our economy, give us your economic programme, pursue anti-corruption as a holistic programme of institutionalised agenda and strengthen the institutions. The judiciary is not the headache of the president, the president is the headache of the judiciary. He did not factor the judiciary into his anti-corruption war and it is backfiring on him. If you go to Lagos State High Courts, a judge has an average of 50 cases per day, average 20 judgments to deliver, average 50 rulings to deliver.
You can’t pursue an anti-corruption war in that condition, because the anti-corruption case will have to take its turn among those pending cases. As long as you get to court and there will be adjournment for lack of electricity, as long as you can go to court and people are crowded like sardines in hot courtrooms, you are not doing anti-corruption war. The judiciary is the gateway to fight corruption but that institution has been neglected. The whole of this year, the budget of the entire judiciary is N79 billion; that is a declaration of no confidence. In fact, that is a failure of the anti-corruption war. So, it’s not the judiciary that is the headache; it is the president that is the headache of the judiciary and Nigerians.
But what does it really cost to get an activist like you over to government’s side?
It costs nothing. I’ve called them at the EFCC and said “we support your anti-corruption war, bring the cases, we will represent you, we will prosecute these cases for you.” But they are scared; they can’t work with people who have independent minds. If you give me an EFCC case, I will never oppose bail. My interest is to sit down with the investigators and review the evidence, because the trial is the real case. Bail is not trial; it has nothing to do with criminal law at all. But the energy here is bail; how you are able to break people’s legs, force them into a car, put them in detention. When they grant them bail, you re-arrest them.
You are pleasing the powers that be. You are not doing trial. Trial is gathering your evidence and bringing your witnesses and doing serious coaching for them so that they don’t mess them up when they enter the witness box. And that is what is happening now. When the case is filed, there’s a lot of steam, there’s a lot of hype, but when the witnesses enter the witness box, and they are being defeated, EFCC goes back home and slashes the charge from 150 to 50. After some time, it will get to 40, after some time it will get to 10 and until finally the charge will be dismissed; no-case submission will quell the case. The problem is not about lawyers; it’s not about how to help this government. The government only wants people who will do the work according to what it wants, to impress the public and give the impression that they are doing the work so that when election will come in 2019, you will have a hidden agenda to say “let us continue.”
That is all about this anti-corruption war. And if that is the way the president wants it, I can’t go over to his side. But if he allows us to do the cases according to law, to face the real trial, you will get all your money quickly, you will put all corrupt people in jail in no time. The energy is on bail, the energy is on punishment, vendetta; keep him in custody forever. That is not trial.