Mr. Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, a human rights activist, was one of the 38 lawyers conferred with the title of Senior Advocate of Nigeria penultimate Monday. In this interview with journalists, Adegboruwa discussed some of the lacunas in the 1999 Constitution and advocated a truly federal order. Gboyega Akinsanmi was there. Excerpts:
After years of waiting, you were finally conferred with the SAN last week. What lessons did you learn from your long wait?
In truth, I didn’t wait for that long when I compare my experience with what others went through for the same rank. I have since got to know of those who applied 15, 16 times or even more. Some got discouraged and left the project. And that is exactly what it is – a project. You keep going on and hitting it until you get it.
I applied thrice. The first time I was disqualified, as I didn’t have the requisite qualifications, in the number of cases to support my application. That was in 2013. I knew within myself that it would be difficult to scale through in 2013 but I wanted to kick-start the process. So, I had to wait to gather my cases and assemble all other materials to be properly qualified. By January 2017, I was ready to go and I told myself I would not stop one bit until I got it.
I heard several stories that should ordinarily discourage me but I had so much faith in God that I would not go through the same experience as those who went ahead of me. I was told of the experience of Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN; Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN; Mr. Femi Falana, SAN and lately, Mr. Festus Keyamo, SAN.
So, the impression I got was that human rights activists or those considered to be critical of the government are not usually favoured with the rank and I wanted to break that jinx. My expectation was to be conferred in 2018 because I had laboured so much and I thought it was time for the legal profession to honour me, having regard to the roles that I have played in the life of the Bar and the Bench in this nation but alas, it never came.
The lessons that I have learnt from this exercise are many but the main one is that if you want to do something for your life, don’t rely on the experience of others or be intimidated by negative things that you hear. Just go ahead and do what you have to do and leave the rest for God. The second lesson is that until you actually start a thing, you can never know what you are up to.
The tendency is for lawyers, especially those of us based in Lagos, to dismiss the SAN process as corrupt and expensive, without as much any effort to even find out what it entails and this has served to deny many of the opportunity. Then again, God makes all things beautiful in His own time.
I believe that I got the rank at the time that God has ordained for it, especially from the groundswell of support and acceptance that I have received from all Nigerians after my name was announced. It has been very encouraging and overwhelming.
The other lesson is that it pays to do good! At the times, when I did all that I did for the judiciary, for the legal profession, and for Nigeria, I never thought of SAN, I just had the urge to make society better for all people. By the time I put in my application in 2017, I got favour from everywhere.
It was like they had been waiting for me, and every door that I knocked opened of their own accord. So, I felt very glad to experience firsthand that people truly appreciate all my contributions these many years. Even before I got the rank, I got some kind of fulfillment in the way that people received my application.
Then part of the thing that really kept me going was the need to use myself as a model for others in my class, the activist lawyers. I didn’t want that negative impression of the government’s denial to last at all since I now know that it is not true. The SAN process is very transparent and even predictable if you have the requisite qualifications.
The only thing is that there is a policy of seniority in the legal profession. So, you may need to wait for others, who have been applying before you. That does not mean one should give up as some others before you have had to wait too.
The National Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) has been monitoring the local councils after President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the direct release of monthly allocations to the councils. Does the NFIU have the power to play such roles within the 1999 Constitution?
This matter should not have generated any controversy at all, but for the way, the governors have handled it. By our constitution, we are supposed to run a federation, consisting mainly of three tiers of government of the federal, the state and the local government council. Under the constitution, the responsibilities given to local government councils make that organ the ones closest to the people in terms of governance.
The local councils are to be responsible for roads, burial grounds, markets, refuse disposal and management, bus-stops, car parks and such other functions that make them the closest to the people. It is the councils that we are to interact with day today.
However, for a long time now, the governors have cleverly castrated the councils to the extent that they don’t even exist at all. In most of those councils, nothing is happening there at all, except that every month end, they collect whatever the governors have for them and share it accordingly and the people are left to suffer neglect and abandonment.
So, when the president came out with the directive to pay money directly into the accounts of the local government, many of us were relieved indeed. I read an online post credited to my friend and pioneer chairman of EFCC, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, to the extent that for the very first time, his local government had millions of naira in its bank account in about twenty years.
That is how it should be, and I see no sense in what the governors are trying to do to resist this laudable initiative. It was stated expressly in the manifesto of the All Progressives Congress as part of its agenda. So, the governors should actually partner the president to ensure that development is consolidated, by monitoring the councils, to ensure judicious use of the funds allocated to them. The opposition from the states is therefore baseless, with all due respect.
Do you foresee constitutional crisis with the federal government seeking abolition of the Joint Allocation Account Committee?
I do not foresee any constitutional crisis over the abolition of the JAAC, because it has outlived its usefulness. In every society, we must get to the stage, when we begin to interrogate the utility of the several organs of government that we have set up. The JAAC has only been used by the various states to suppress the development and growth of the local government councils. Nothing more.
The governors simply just sit on the allocation meant for the councils and starve them of funds, thus hindering their development. So, it will be proper, if we have discovered that this account is meant mainly to siphon fund meant for the councils, then to go ahead and scrap it totally.
When any organ has become a source of corruption, the law can no longer be a useful aid to sustain such an agency or platform. I don’t see the governors challenging this move in court, given all that we know about the JAAC.
I believe, however, that since we run a federation, the president should carry the governors along and ensure proper consultation and dialogue before any decision is taken one way or the other.
Can the Federal Executive Council unilaterally increase value-added tax without recourse to the National Assembly?
Value-added tax is mostly based on consumption items, especially when you buy goods or receive services. The manner of that tax is that it is supposed to be graduated over a period of time. I think it has remained 5% for a very long time. So, I don’t think the issue is whether the Federal Executive Council can increase the VAT rate, but whether the present economic realities of Nigeria support such move.
The people are over-burdened already, due mainly to the absence of basic infrastructure, especially power supply. If the government is able to achieve a stable power supply, Nigerians will warmly welcome any tax initiative meant to generate revenue for the nation. Presently, the cost of running generators, of servicing them and of buying diesel, is a major source of concern for us all.
We cannot add another burden to that if the government has not done anything to fix the public supply of power. This is my own concern about VAT increase or any form of tax. Let us first feel the government’s presence in terms of durable infrastructure then we begin to talk of additional taxes.
To treat yourself well in any good hospital costs so much; to send your children to good schools costs so much; many cannot afford the cost of renting good houses, and even when you rent the house, there is no water supply at all.
So, you are your own government in Nigeria. You provide electricity, you take care of your own security, you dig your own borehole to get water, you buy your own transformer, send your children to expensive private schools, you fix your roads and then somebody is talking of an increase in VAT? I don’t think the time is right.
Nigeria marked its 59th independence anniversary. With its current challenges, can a better Nigeria emerge before 2023?
It is a great thing to mark the 59th independence anniversary of Nigeria. But I think Nigeria has not achieved what a 59-year-old man should achieve. I believe that the issue of electricity has so far stalled the development of this nation and for me, it is shameful that we are relying on generators and inverters and rechargeable lamps and candles in this new millennium.
Every other thing depends on electricity – to run your office, the church, the schools, the banks, etc. So, I expect that this government will do its best to stabilize this critical area of our national existence. Then also is the state of the schools. Education is key to national rebirth and it is important that the government is committed to that project meaningfully.
We must increase our budgetary allocation to education and be sincere with a programme of reforms urgently. Then, of course, of importance is the judiciary, which is the means of stabilizing society.
That arm of government has suffered too much neglect, with no security of tenure – no funding, independence or autonomy. Judges have become some kind of endangered species now and many people are shying away from taking up appointments to the Bench for so many reasons.
I can go on and on. The point is that those, who are in government at this time, must realize the enormity of the tasks entrusted to them through the elections, which produced them. They must stand up and be counted for certain policies that will impact upon our people and transform their lives. We can’t just continue lamenting every day when this assignment has been entrusted to certain persons to execute on behalf of the rest of us.
There is a need for the government to reach out to all segments of Nigeria to carry them along and seek consultations on the way forward. We are too fragmented, too suspicious of ourselves for us to even agree on basic parameters for moving forward. Its either you belong to my tribe or religion or nothing else. This shouldn’t be at all. Then the insecurity situation has really damaged our economy. For instance, I will not for my life to accept any brief outside Lagos that would require that I travel by road. It is that bad. And we cannot continue like this at all. Whereas I truly identify with the government and its challenges, I think there is a lot to be done in getting people to know the perspectives of those who are in charge, of moving forward.
There must be an action plan, with which the rest of us can run. Before now, my thinking was to work with the manifesto of the ruling APC, but even that has been denied severally by the president himself and other bigwigs in the party.
If you consider it from the above point of view, you cannot truly say that a better Nigeria will emerge by 2023, which is already here, given the struggles already going on about who should be favoured for that time, amongst the politicians.
But, even at that, we can lay the good foundation for a better Nigeria now, by addressing the critical issues that I have mentioned above and by deliberately carrying all segments of the Nigerian project along.
Some stakeholders are calling for a return to the 1963 Republican Constitution. Is Nigeria’s problem that of legal framework or leadership?
It is correct that the major challenge facing us today is the constitution, which is supposed to be the organic document of faith for the progress of our dear nation. Unfortunately, that same document has become an albatross for us all.
If you recall the history of the constitution, midwifed by the military regime of Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, it has retained the pattern of a unitary system of government, which the military imposed on Nigeria. That is why everything still revolves around Abuja and why the states and local government councils cannot survive on their own.
It is the constitution that has created a very lopsided exclusive legislative list in one of its schedules, whereby everything of value in Nigeria, is in the hands of the federal government to the detriment of the states.
Everything that can bring money is under the control of the federal government, including admiralty, commerce and industry, aviation, customs, port, and even inland waterways, mines and minerals, oil and gas, electricity, even stamps.
Thus, as things stand presently, the states cannot survive on their own. And the reason for this is that most items of value are located in the southern part of Nigeria, talking of oil and gas, the tax system, waterways, admiralty, etc.
The thinking of the military then was that should the states be allowed control of these resources, many states in the northern part would just probably fold up, for lack of resources. But looking back now, especially with the Kebbi rice project, I think every state of the federation must have one or two things that they can boast of to generate revenue for survival.
So, the solution goes beyond going back to the Republican Constitution, it is a holistic process that is required, leading to a brand new Constitution that will bear the contributions of every segment of the nation, not just a document put together by a few people.
From the foregoing, Nigeria’s many problems are both leadership related and also legal, because even if you elected an angel as the president of Nigeria, chances are that the constitution that we presently operate will hinder his efforts at good governance. So, we need a new constitution that will be operated by good leaders.
In a recent letter, the AGF asked President Buhari to allow the Nigerian police to complete the recruitment of new officers. At the instance of the Police Service Commission Act, is AGF’s advice legal?
The Police Service Commission was created under section 153 of the Constitution as an independent agency to deal with all issues affecting the police. There has been a constant crisis between successive inspectors general of police and the police commission.
This is one of the constitutional crises that I mentioned to you earlier. Looking at it critically, I believe that the letter from the attorney general of the federation must have been prompted from the Presidency and in that regard, it is in order.
But generally speaking, there is a need for an urgent overhauling of the entire police structure. The welfare of the average policeman is too poor, given the huge expectations that we have placed on that institution, in terms of crime prevention and detection.
There should be massive recruitment and training for the police in order to minimize the activities of the terrorists, who have devised the means of mingling with civilians or are relocating to other parts of the country away from the bombardments from the security forces.
How can the independence of the judiciary be addressed?
Presently, the best way to describe the judiciary is to say that judges are weeping and they are weeping very profusely. You know that right from the NBA conference, the CJN has not ceased to tell all those who wanted to hear that the judiciary was underfunded and neglected.
That the judiciary is not independent given that judges have to go cap-in-hand to the executive for funds and he who pays the piper calls the tune. This is at the core of the failure of our judicial system, especially at the level of the judiciary of the states, where things are worse.
Generally, we should declare a state of emergency in the judiciary. This did not start with the Buhari administration but having regard to the clear words of covenant expressed in the manifesto of the APC, I had expected much more, from that party to the judicial arm of government. You just look at the lives of most of the judges, they are old, thoroughly overused and worn out.
You hardly can see a retired judge who is not battling with one health issue or the other, because of their workload and unfriendly working environment. Or how else would you explain that in 2019, judges, even up to the Supreme Court, still write proceedings in longhand and they deliver rulings and judgments in longhand.
Then you check the welfare of judicial officers, it is so very poor. For instance, in Lagos State, the last time the government reviewed the salary of judges was in 2007, which is about twelve years ago. What it means is that judges in Lagos State have been on the same salary scale for the past twelve years. How can you expect such a person to function optimally?
The reason I am so passionate about the fate of the judiciary is that if there is a major problem in that sector of our national life or there are very serious issues of underfunding and interference plaguing the judiciary, these issues will eventually trickle down to the other sectors of Nigeria, our polity, economic development, our spiritual life, marriages and homes, schools, health care, etc.
This is because the judiciary is the live wire of any nation, a cord that holds together society. We cannot afford to toy with the judiciary the way we are doing presently. And the reasons why I expect so much for the judiciary from the APC government is because it is a beneficiary of judicial interventions, and secondly, it stated policy for judicial reforms in its manifesto, which the party seems to have forgotten completely.