Old but bold; blunt and brilliant, the legal luminary is forthright and ready to take on any government seen as working against the people. As a lecturer, he stood against the ills of a Vice Chancellor and the military government leading to his compulsory retirement. Suave, simple and cerebral, he is one lawyer who believes truth is the most important aspect of his profession. But, law has not always been his dream job. He wanted to study medicine. Heeding his father’s voice, he toed the legal path. Erudite and endearing Professor Itsejuwa Esanjumi Sagay, Managing Partner of Itse Sagay & Co Legal Practitioner and Consultant, is an advocate of fairness and moral uprightness. Recently appointed as chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-corruption by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, Sagay speaks with Omolabake Fasogbon on corruption going on among judges, his love for his wife and relationship with his children, among other issues
How do you find your new job as head of the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption?
It’s quite challenging. I must confess. It’s not a full-time job as you know that I also have other commitments. This one in particular takes most of my time. We have so many things to do in the committee and each task takes a lot of time to resolve. For instance, we take decisions and decisions are not just taken at a go. Afterwards, we settle for implementation and forward our advice and recommendations to the appropriate bodies. We are also interacting with judges to lecture them on how to effectively implement the Criminal Justice Act implemented in 2015 in such a way that it will achieve the purpose of the law; as most of the judges have yet to be familiar with the law and implementation process law which makes it more difficult for the committee. For instance, we have a new law which judges are not familiar with and are not ready to abide by the provision despite our interaction with them. This new law states that when a criminal case is brought before a judge and the defendant files a preliminary objection, the judge after listening to the preliminary objection which must have been argued by the defence and prosecution, goes to the corruption case proper and after the conclusion, gives the ruling and the judgment together. However, the reverse is what is obtainable in the sense that after judges might have listened to a preliminary objection, they settle for adjournment to give a ruling and this has been abolished a long time ago. It is most challenging with corrupt judges who are willing to compromise the ethics of law profession for any amount. All what we are doing now can only be fruitful if we have morally upright judges and they are hard to come by. Unfortunately, judges have been frustrating our efforts. They are the thorns in the committee’s flesh because no matter how we try to cleanse the society, cases still fall on their table.
Given the sensitive nature of this job, how did you feel when you were first informed that you will head the committee?
Though it came as a big surprise, I felt positive and so honoured because what they are asking me to do now is what I’ve been talking about in the public for decades. So getting this appointment offers me the privilege to work in a milieu about which I’ve been advocating. I now have official authority to perform in an area where I’ve been speaking as a private citizen. While I must admit that it’s a risky one in terms of security, I’ve always put God first in whatever I do and look up to him for protection and guidance. In addition to that, I also have adequate protection from state authority.
What has changed about you since you got this appointment?
The fact that I now go about with escort is a development that is very strange to me. I’m not used to such lifestyle. All my life, I’ve been a free person but such is not the case for now. I have escorts who follow me about to anywhere I go including parties, friends’ houses and at home. I no longer have my privacy to myself. Though their presence gives me certain level of psychological confidence that I am protected notwithstanding, it is a price I am paying for my country. Besides, their presence is much more important than my privacy.
So far, what are the achievements of the committee in the fight against corruption?
This kind of work, you don’t publicise the means to the end. In other words, there are some things we do that we can’t tell the public – such achievements will be between the committee and the Presidency. What I can only say is what I’ve told you before: that we are training judges on how to effectively implement the new law. We are also preparing a roadmap for prosecution of corrupt persons because there have been so many stalled cases in the past either because the investigations were not thorough or because the prosecutions were not properly done. So we are preparing a prosecution manual which starts from when a petition is made; the whole process of investigation is being road mapped by us. We are preparing forfeiture and acquisition of asset manual and a plea bargaining manual. These manuals will then serve as guide to be followed strictly long after the committee may have been dissolved. For instance, we are saying that at every stage of investigation that will lead to prosecution, there should be a committee and that committee should have a lawyer who probably will be the one to file the case so that it is the lawyer who knows the ingredients which constitute a crime, the prosecutor who may not be a lawyer may not be able to collect and identify evidence that will ensure conviction – so the lawyer will be there to put him through.
We are proposing such committee, the process gathering evidence, preparing of charge, training of lawyers in the various anti-corruption agencies that it will get to a stage where they can personally handle a case without outsourcing it, a situation which is very common these days. We are also working on how to recover looted funds particularly on having a system where looted funds can be recovered without bringing prosecution against anybody. Meanwhile, all what we are planning and have put in place can only be justified at the end of the day if our judges could cooperate with us; unfortunately, they are frustrating our efforts instead. Even President (Muhammadu) Buhari acknowledged that his biggest problems are the judges. Like I told you, we are doing so many works and also preparing different manuals. Getting these manuals prepared didn’t come easy; we have hired specialists and consultant to do this along with us; reading the manual alone is quite tedious not to talk of preparing it. One can do all these works and still, at the end of the day, one unfaithful judge can ruin one’s effort. In essence, the integrity of the judiciary is the major obstacle confronting the whole anti-corruption struggle; that, however, is not to say that we don’t have some upright judges. We are also trying to identify judges in each state and federal high court who have established a reputation for integrity and a passion in the struggle against corruption. When they are identified, they will be transferred to the criminal division of their state’s high court, so they will exclusively handle corruption cases.
Can you mention some of these corrupt judges?
I would not want to mention any name because there are no concrete evidences to show for it. You see, judges are very smart; very smart that they will not indulge in any traceable deals. You won’t see them accept cheques or engage in any bank transactions because they know such can be traced. They rather prefer to accept raw cash which is either buried somewhere or kept at home but they will never bank it.
Including the female judges?
Female judges are equally as corrupt as male judges.
But what could have caused the corrupt judges to compromise the ethics of the law profession?
(I’ll link it to) High lifestyle and greediness. They may not buy jet but they want to travel abroad in style by first class. They want to send their children to the most expensive foreign schools. They want the biggest houses, the most expensive furniture from Italy. They want to drive the best cars. They want the best in everything; unfortunately, their income cannot acquire such for them. They want to own lot money that they may never need in their lifetime.
In your own word, what is corruption?
Corruption has so many meanings but I will define it as obtaining anything or value for yourself or any other person via illegitimate means.
Some people believe that as far as corruption is concerned, nobody is a saint. If I may ask you: all through your life have you ever indulged in any corrupt act?
There is no way I would not have done something that falls within the definition of corruption. There are situations in which in this country, one cannot survive if one doesn’t indulge in some of these things. For instance, in our courts, if you want to file a case and you don’t tip the likes of the clerk and the accountant, oh God, your case will never see (the) light (of the day). It will never be listed; or say a judgment has been given and you want to get a copy of that judgment, you still have to tip those who are operating where the judgment is given with either N1, 500 or N2, 000. Even the person that will type the judgment too will get his own (tip). Mind you, these charges are not official. Tipping is actually corruption but everybody is doing it otherwise, nothing can get done. Corruption is going on all through the court system. To answer your question, have I ever done anything that count within the definition of corruption? Yes! Minor ways like that because one has no choice, but I personally won’t do it. But say for instance, the young lawyer from my office goes to file a case, a person who is supposed to process it is demanding for a tip for the case to move, are you now going to go to the chief judge over that? Everybody else is doing that; it is quite unfortunate that this is inevitable in a very rotten system. But we are not dealing with these small fries. We are looking for those who have brought the economy down and who have destroyed the country by the huge amount they have stolen out of the system.
What effort have the government and the committee put in place to ensure that the result of your exertion is being sustained even long after President Muhammadu Buhari might have left office?
We hope for sustainability. In fact, what we are trying to do now is to establish an-anti corruption court. I’m glad you raised this. We are working on Nigeria’s anti-corruption plan which is a proactive one; basically to re-orientate Nigerians and make them know that they are stakeholders in the whole anti-corruption struggle and that they are the losers when there is any act of corruption. When your female cousin dies in the hospital at childbirth as a result of an ill-equipped hospital, it is due to corruption. When your uncle dies in a road accident because of a badly constructed road, it is due to corruption. We are working such that Nigerians will take corruption as a personal issue. They shouldn’t see looted funds as government money but as their money which as a result of being looted has deprived them of quality education, good roads, quality health care and so on. To get this done, we are planning strategic media campaigns: there will be jingles, plays and write-ups in newspapers. We will also take the campaign to schools to educate and orientate students. ICPC is already doing this. We want to turn the entire country to an anti-corruption brigade.
Talking about the controversial interview with a national newspaper that never was, how did you feel the first time you read or heard about the interview?
It came as a terrible shock, I must tell you. Luckily for me, it came late in the night after I already had a wonderful day with my friends and family. Just before going to bed at about 10 pm or 11pm, a call came in from the executive secretary of my committee; he asked me if I was aware of the news spreading on the Internet. I said on what and he then explained the content of the interview. I said no, I didn’t grant such an interview. Not quite long, Sahara Reporters called me on the same interview; I told them no, I never granted such interview. Immediately, with my limited knowledge of the social media, I logged on to my Facebook page and posted a lengthy write-up, disproving the interview and explained that it was all faked, organised and done to bring a gulf between my committee and the Presidency. Other people then took it up from there before Tribune later apologised and admitted that it was faked.
But what was the reaction that came from your people who saw the interview?
Nigeria is a very strange country – very strange. The reactions I got were so funny. People started sending text messages and some called to congratulate me saying that they’ve always known me to be consistent and that I’m very courageous that I could even speak against Buhari that appointed me. I said no! I never granted such interview. I told them that if I relayed such rotten and evil ideas in such a bad English as portrayed in the interview, wouldn’t they have called and asked how come? I lashed out at them for congratulating me, for concluding that I could speak against Buhari. Left to me, I don’t oppose people for the pleasure of it – that is wrong. I told them not to congratulate people for speaking out to promote evil.
But do you really think the interview was cooked or it was a case of mistaken identity as claimed by the reporter?
No! It wasn’t a mistake; that was corrupt people striking back. The reporter was paid for the job and he did it. It was all planned to create confusion and to bring the Presidency and my committee at loggerheads with each other.
You seem to always speak in favour of the ruling party, the APC; does that mean you’ve never found any fault in the party?
Oh, that’s not it. The ruling party has thousands of people and many of them in my view ought not to be in a party that means well for the country. If you say I’m speaking well of the ruling party, I’m talking about the leadership, people like President Buhari, Tinubu, Oyegun; although Oyegun had made some mistakes in the past – mistakes of the heart and not (of) the head. I speak generally of the good intentions of the party; in terms of cleansing Nigeria and bringing sanity to governance in contrast distinction to the PDP, which were just out to totally misrule the country and virtually carted away our resources. All my life, I have always supported parties that stand for uprightness, integrity, honour and good governance. One question you didn’t ask me is how did I feel about being appointed by the party in power? I never thought I would ever have anything to do with a party in power because from the First Republic when I was a young, the parties in power had always been the most corrupt .We had the NPC, which to me is the most corrupt; the best party was the Action Group under Awolowo and I joined as a youth leader and as a student. After the coup, I joined the UPN, still the opposition party. After that the next party I didn’t join but I supported was the AD and then the ACN and then finally APC. So you can see that there is a trend. It is just by coincidence that APC is in power and when I started supporting APC, it was not in power. It was in the opposition, so it’s a principled decision.
As a lawyer, what was the toughest case you’ve ever handled?
I can’t really say which one was the toughest but there is one that I’m still handling till date that I can say is one of the toughest. We had a situation where Obasanjo as the Head of State wanted to boost the crude oil capacity of the Yoruba part of the country, so he now put pressure on the former Governor of Delta State, James Ibori and that of Ondo State, late Olusegun Agagu to exchange territory so that part of Delta State that contain a lot of oil well was transferred to Ondo State while part of Ondo State that I will say contained the Ijaw militants be transferred to Delta State. Then, the Deltans who were transferred to Ondo State, specifically, the Itsekiris, said they did not want to be in Ondo State and that nobody has the authority to transfer them from their state to a foreign state as far as they are concerned. I am representing these people. At the high court level, we won the case and the agreement to transfer was invalidated and declared null and void. And so they came back; so we lost at the court of appeal. Again, I’ve appealed to the Supreme Court. The case is tough in many ways. One, it is a breach of human right for somebody to go to bed as a citizen of one state and wake up in the morning to realise that he has been transferred to another state by signing a piece of paper; it is inhuman. Secondly, he is doing this not because he loved them but because he wanted the oil that belongs to their territory. So you acquired them and their property as if they were slaves. There is also a breach of constitution involved; the constitution is quite clear about alteration of boundaries that you need to have resolution by the people representing the areas involved – two-third of the representation, the Senate, House of Representatives and House of Assembly must vote in favour of the alteration and then the National Assembly too must vote two-third in favour of the alteration, but none of that was done. So it was a case in which I am emotionally involved because it involves ill-treating people. The fact that we lost at a court of appeal is still very strange to me. I read the judgment and I began to imagine what has gone wrong with the system. The case was clearly a constitutional one; the process involved was unconstitutional and anything that is against the construction is automatically null and void.
Have you ever been tempted to compromise the ethics of the law profession?
Absolutely no! In a situation that I am convinced that a client is guilty of an accusation and he admits that he is guilty, the highest thing I can do is to plead guilty on his behalf but of course, I will defend him. I will plead with the court to give such a person a soft landing based on the fact that we have not stressed the state and its resources by dragging the case for long. If he agrees that I should do that, fine and if he says no, then I will decline to defend him.
What was the feeling like the first day you had the wig and the gown on?
As a young man, I felt so excited and very happy being part of such a noble profession even though I had thought I was going into private practice, I was going to be a university lecturer and already at that stage, I had been employed as a lecturer in the University of Ife when I was in the Law School. But I was very happy to be a member of the learned profession.
Did the fact that your father was a teacher influenced your interest in being a lecturer?
Not really; I had personal interest in teaching because as a student, I used to admire the quiet life my lecturers lived and the freedom they enjoyed. They have the freedom to express their academic views without fear or favour. In fact, one makes one’s greatest progress when one does a lot of researches and publishes the findings. I personally love that life being a respectable life where one acquires and impart knowledge and in some cases, gives some services to the public. I prefer such life to court life. Besides, I did fairly well in my exams and then, the university was also selecting some people who performed well to send them abroad for post-graduate programme on its sponsorship. I was one of the beneficiaries. For four years, I was abroad for my masters and PhD and when I came back, I started teaching. I rarely saw myself as retiring as a professor. Of course, I like the life but the reward were not too great in the material aspect. Nonetheless, lecturing pleases me more because it gives me my freedom. Somewhere along the way, I was involved in university politics along with some others. We tried to criticise the then vice chancellor and questioned his wrong deeds, but the VC couldn’t tolerate this. This was during military regime and he had strong contacts at the highest level. I just woke up one morning to see a letter of retirement from the Federal Military Government with immediate effect. The letter also went to other radical colleagues. That was how I left the university to set up my practice. Although, we went to court to challenge the removal after five years, we succeeded at the Supreme Court and so we were recalled. Unfortunately, we were still under the military regime, but this time around, it was (Gen. Sani) Abacha on the throne threatening fire and brimstone. At this juncture, I said to myself enough is enough; so I tendered my resignation letter and finally opted out.
Can you compare studying law in higher institutions in your days to what we have now?
It is incomparable. In my class then, we were 15 and all the lecturers were teaching just 15 people. Then, students had the closest access to lecturers. We were taught under an ideal environment that one finds in Cambridge. Now we have a commercial mass market, where as a teacher, you won’t even know your students because you are teaching a class of 300 and 500 which is not supposed to be. Efficiency is no longer there because the students can’t get more from the lecturers anymore. To be frank, I feel very sorry for the young ones of today because they are disadvantaged. In my own days, it was a sweet different world.
One hardly finds lawyers in a social setup; is that the same with you?
Maybe you are referring to judges. Lawyers of today are champagne-popping, chicken-eating and fun-catching. Left to me, honestly, I don’t fancy social functions as such. I am so reserved when it comes to such. However, at my free time, I read books; specifically novels, biographies and history. I’m also learning to play piano again. I used to play it when I was much younger and at my old age, I became interested in it again.
The law profession is one of the risky professions in the country; does your wife agree with you being a lawyer?
My wife loves the profession; she started as a nurse and retired. Then, she moved further to the university to study conflict resolution which is a closest discipline to law, after which she went to train as a mediator. Now, she is a mediator in multi-door court house in Lagos High Court. She really likes law as a profession. In fact, we discuss law together. She has her cases and I have mine too. So we are both more of a lawyer.
Did your children go into law by choice or you influenced them?
I actually influenced them to studying law. I have three children; unfortunately, I lost my first child. I don’t like saying this because I have not recovered and I know I will never recover from the loss. She just took after me naturally. In her own case, she wanted to be a lawyer but the small boy who is just coming up wanted to be a pilot – and I said over my dead body.
Why did you say so?
One, look at all these (pointing at the shelf of books in his office): who is going to inherit them? Again, if he becomes a pilot, he will never be home. Today, he is in one town; tomorrow he is in another town flying through the weather and all that. For a person with a small family, I said no. It will not make any sense for me if I allowed him to be a pilot. Eventually, he agreed and that’s what he is heading for now. I have another child in the US; in her own case, she said she wanted to read engineering and combines it with law. How she intends to go about that, I still don’t know. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Who are your role models in law profession?
I used to have a role model who was solid on the ground and I must mention him first. That is late Honourable Justice Kayode Eso. He was the most famous judge Nigeria had in the last 20 years. There is also justice Oputa, Aniagolu, Obaseki and Karibe-White. I have chosen to model my life after them because these ones are real judges who stood for the truth and nothing else. They were upright with absolute integrity. They were principled and thoroughly fearless. These people did so many things that no Supreme Court in Nigeria has been able to follow. Their judgments were written to uphold justice and because of this, they took a lot of risk particularly when the military was in power. Of course, they gave so many judgments against the military; an example is the case between Lagos State and Ojukwu.
Who are your most admired political leaders?
I admire Awolowo so much. Awolowo is the greatest political leader that Africa has ever produced except for late Nelson Mandela. I put the two of them together but Awolowo has no rival. They were my models.
Mention some of the traits you took from your father?
My father was a very strict man; he had absolute integrity. He was contented with life. I remember when he was appointed as chairman of a Local Government Service Commission; some people who were lobbying to get one position or the other at the local government would come to our house and drop all sorts of gifts. My father rejected those gifts outright and anybody who accepted those gifts while he was away was in trouble because the person would have to look for means to return them. He established uprightness in us such that everybody in the house knew that corruption was totally incompatible with our existence. All these traits I’ve mentioned about him, you definitely find in me also.
You were meant to study medicine but it didn’t turn out that way. Do you have any regret?
Well, I wanted medicine but my father had always wanted me to study law from the beginning. He knew me more than I knew myself. So far, I have never regretted not studying medicine.
You were denied a political position in the First Republic under the UPN. Are you still interested in active politics?
No, I am too old for that now.
But president Buhari is not young either.
You are right. But I can also say I’m in politics by the virtue of my present appointment. I am a political appointee and that is the best I could do at this stage since I cannot contest to be president and one doesn’t contest to be a minister. So to some extent, I am a politician. Though, I have the zeal to go into active politics but the age, energy, physical and mental capacity are reduced. Take a look at what Fashola is doing now; combining those three energy-sapping ministries, you need to be half my age to be able to that. You need to be strong, young and agile to be able to do some things. Even if you look at Buhari, he is the standard; the one everybody looks up to but you will discover that he delegates a lot of work to Osinbajo, his vice.
Do you think Godfatherism is necessary to hold a political position in Nigeria?
Certainly, no; that has caused a lot of damage in the country. Godfathers are in for what they can get: patronage, money, position and for corrupting the whole system. Godfatherism is a curse on our political development as a country.
Lawyers are regarded as liars. Have you ever lied?
(Laughs)There is no human being who would not lie at a certain stage or the other, apart from Jesus Christ himself. Yes! I have lied before; there is no question about that.
Even in the course of discharging your duty as a lawyer?
Oh no! I would not do that. It is unprofessional. Professionally, lawyers are compelled not to lie and I have never lied.
Okay, what kind of lies have you told?
I won’t discuss that on the pages of newspapers
But lawyers are generally seen to be liars.
No, not really. People seem not to understand some things about the profession. You know I told you earlier that if a lawyer is approached to defend a client and he is convinced that the client is guilty, the way out is to plead guilty. You see, most crimes have three or four ingredients, and for a person to be convicted, the four ingredients have to be present. But if there are three present and one is absent, the lawyer will press on that one that is not present and get his client free. Would you now say the lawyer has lied? That is not lying but simply following the law technically.
In one of the interviews you granted sometime ago, you did say that you will go unconscious if you see a billion Naira. Did you mean you don’t have up to a billion Naira?
This time around, I will not faint if I see a billion Naira. Yes because these days, I read it so much about people carting away billions of Naira. It is not a big deal anymore because this is what some people spend on ordinary shopping. You see, one thing this corruption has caused is that it makes us get too familiar with huge sums of money. People talk about billions of dollars now; not even Naira anymore. Familiarity brings contempt, even though I don’t have a billion Naira, I see it much everyday so it doesn’t mean that much to me anymore.
You mean you don’t have a billion Naira?
No way! God forbid. Where do I get that from?
What was your relationship with ladies as a handsome young man?
I caught up quite well with ladies I must say. But I did not womanise. In fact, as far as women are concerned, I was a late developer. I started developing interest in women so late because I was a bit shy to relate with them.
Does that mean you never had a girlfriend before you met your wife?
I never had a girlfriend until I started my post-graduate at age 25. In other words, as an undergraduate, I didn’t have a girlfriend.
How did you approach Madam back then?
I can’t remember how i went about it because its a long time ago. All I remember is that I had a strong interest that overshadowed my weakness as a shy person
Would you divorce your wife for any reason?
That’s too personal, but I’m sure that I will not divorce my wife.
(Cuts in) Don’t go there. I am not going to say anything more on that; both of us will stay married until one of us dies.
Senator Ndume recently advised men to marry more than a wife as a sign of respect to women. What is your take on this?
I would suggest that we should not take this seriously. This man is talking based on the background he is coming from. He is a Muslim and again coming from the North-East where they believe in marrying more than one wife. As far as he is concerned, he believes the marrying of more than one wife is a way of solving problems. However, one misconception people have is that women are more than men. In actual fact, men are more than women. You can confirm that from the demographic data of the entire census that have been conducted so far in Nigeria. I think he is trying to help; he only feels by marrying more than one wife, all women will be married instead of remaining single.
Left to you, do you believe in marrying more than one wife?
Not at all; absolutely no! That is not a good idea. For somebody from my background and culture, it is an anathema.
The Senate recently dropped the gender equality bill. What do you think about that?
The idea of gender equality is good but I think the proposal of the bill is not considered because already, there is gender equality. It exists already. Please if you don’t believe me, tell me one area that women are not equal to men, apart from Muslim law of inheritance which gives a female child a half of what the brother will inherit and this cannot be changed. Asides this, being a family lawyer, I am not aware of any area of Nigerian law in which the female gender is at a disadvantage. Our law deals with every gender parity, even at times to the disadvantage of the woman because we carry the parity thing too much.
To the disadvantage of women – how?
For instance, if one is married under the Marriage Act, and the wife is wealthy with the man dependent on the woman, if the woman divorces the man, the man can sue her for maintenance because she is bound to maintain the man. Nobody ever thought of that before. We always think a man should maintain a woman. Now, a woman can be compelled by court to take care of a man should the woman divorce a man whom she was maintaining. That is the level of gender equality we have achieved.
Do you foresee a woman President in Nigeria?
Oh Yes! That is inevitable. It will happen. First, we will have a woman governor and then a woman President. Women are beginning to demonstrate their excellence; if you go to our court now, you will discover that most of our judges are women. You now see a woman professor, vice chancellor, managing director and so on. I will be very happy to see a woman rule this country. I am a strong supporter of Hilary Clinton; I want her to be president of United States more than any other person.
What is your view about democracy in Nigeria today?
I think we are doing quite well. If you want to judge how well a democracy is working, go and read your newspapers and see how much criticisms and abuses the president is getting and he is shaking it off and carrying on as if nothing had happened – that is democracy working. Jonathan was called different names but there was nothing he could do; same thing with Buhari. You can’t number the amount of criticisms Buhari has got from (Ayodele) Fayose. Yet, he ignores them (the criticisms) and carries on. So, I think democracy has taken root in that regard. Where we still have problem is conducting elections in the South-South and South-East zones; those two zones are not familiar with democracy when it comes to election. These are the two problems zones that have rejected free and fair elections and want to continue in the old, bad ways of imposing people in power by force.