‘Nigeria Needs Restructuring Urgently’

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Only a few Nigerians have had the rare privilege of traversing the legal and politi-cal terrain with equal success, and still remain resolute and have great faith in the nation. Owelle George Uwechue SAN is one of such Nigerians; an avid legal practitioner, former Chairman of the esteemed Body of Benchers and Life Bench-er, and Mr Speaker Pro tempore of the House of Representatives in the Second Republic. Owelle Uwechue who turned 82 yesterday had a chat with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi, explaining why he believes strongly that Nigeria is in dire need of urgent restructuring, and why he thinks the #ENDSARS protest was overdue

Congratulations on the occasion of your 82nd birthday Sir. You have lived a very accomplished life, not only reaching the peak of your career as a Lawyer, being a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Life Bencher and a former Chairman of the Body of Benchers, but also the Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 2nd Republic. How would you compare your role as Speaker and that of the House then, to what obtains now? Are you satisfied with the National Assembly today? If not, what measures can you suggest for improvement? Do you agree with the general complaint by Nigerians, that the salary structure of members is exorbitant and unjustifiable?

I thank you very much for your complementary messages on my 82nd birthday, and particularly, on my modest contributions to the development of the legal profession in Nigeria and in politics. I must hasten to point out, as shown in all my records and in particular, “Essays in my Honour”, my Speakership of the House of Representatives was “MR SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE”. I attach a copy of the Votes and Proceeding of 1st National Assembly, 4th Session No. 43 of Wednesday, 23rd February, 1983.

The role of the Speaker then and now, has always been to preside judiciously over all matters before the House, devoid of partisan political considerations. Yes, I am satisfied with the National Assembly of today, the role of the National Assembly is derived from the Constitution for the good governance of the country.

The National Assembly has successfully passed most bills, without rancour over the years, notwithstanding their different political affiliations; this is a positive de-velopment. In that context, it will be unnecessary to suggest any measures for the improvement of the process which will involve the amendment of the Constitution.

The final part of your question that the general complaint by Nigerians is “that the salary structure of the National Assembly members is exorbitant and unjustifia-ble”, must be viewed along with the very peculiar Nigerian circumstances. In this context, the general view is that the “Executive”, both State and Federal, have failed to meet the basic needs of the people – such as electricity, water supply and employment for the teeming population. The legislators were elected by their con-stituencies, it is their duty to do whatever is in their power and legal, to provide for those who elected them.

Finally, on this point, “appropriation” is a matter within the full constitutional control of the National Assembly, by virtue of Section 59(4) of the 1999 Constitu-tion. By virtue of which, a bill passed by two third majority of the joint meeting of the Senate and the House of Representatives “shall become law and the assent of the President shall not be required”.

Indeed, the fact that since the Buhari Administration there has been no such case, is indisputable evidence that the National Assembly and the Executive are fully aware of their respective responsibilities and powers, in respect of appropriation.

What is your opinion about Restructuring? Does Nigeria really need it, or are we fine as we are now with the present arrangement and the 1999 Constitution? Is a peaceful devolution of powers from Nigeria’s strong centre to the States or regions still possible at this level of our political evolution? Could this be the best alternative to outright breakup of the country?

I honestly believe that Nigeria needs restructuring, and urgently too. This is be-cause notwithstanding one of the great legacies of our former President Olusegun Obasanjo, by the enactment of the Land Use Act, which is protected by Section 315(5)(d) of the Constitution, the successive Federal Governments have deliberately refused to abide by the provisions of that law. Section 1 of that Act vests “the ownership of all land comprised in the territory of a State in the Governor of the State; while Section 2 vests the management and control of all land within the Local Government Area Council.

In the circumstances anybody who purports or seeks to enter the territory of a State for any purpose whatsoever, without the consent or permit of the Governor of the State is a trespasser!! Those who argue that the action of the Federal Government and those to whom they give leases or interests in any part of the land in the State, wrongly rely on Section 44(3) of the Constitution, which vests “the entire property in and control of all minerals oils and natural gas and in, under or upon any land… shall vest in the Government of the Federation … and shall be managed in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly. Incidentally, Section 44(1) prohibits compulsory acquisition of any movable property or any interest in an immovable property shall be taking possession of compulsorily… except in the manner and for the purposes provided by law … any attempt by the Federal Government to take possession of any part of the land by entering directly or through agents, is unconstitutional.

This issue of resource control and restructuring have been the subject of discus-sions by the Afenifere, the Ohaneze Ndi Igbo and the South South groups in recent times. Happily, as reported in the media a few days ago, a meeting was held between the South South Leaders with the Federal Government, in which the Special Assistant to the President, Professor Ibrahim Gambari received their demands, which we hope should be taken seriously by the Federal Government.

The other issue of the feasibility of a peaceful devolution of powers from Nigeri-an’s strong centre to the States or regions, are among the matters the Federal Government is expected to consider as a matter of urgency.

The final issue of “outright break up the country”, is unpatriotic; we should in-deed, urge for the expansion of ECOWAS, just as the Europeans who, after two devastating world wars formed the European Union.

The fallout of the #ENDSARS Protest, that is, the Lekki Tollgate incident, the looting and destruction of property, allegations and counter-allegations, espe-cially the issue of blank and real bullets between the Army and Lai Mohammed on one hand and CNN on the other; what is your take on it all Sir?

This question is very pertinent because it is a current issue, not just affecting the Nigerian Government, but attracting reactions from the British Parliament and some foreign media, like CNN. There is no doubt that the protests have been long overdue. The actions of SARS/Police on our roads, constrained most elders like me to go by air whenever travel inevitable.

The protests were supported by all and sundry and on the 11th of October, 2020, the Inspector General of Police promptly abolished SARS and created SWAT, an alternative for the time being.

Nevertheless the protests continued, culminating in the incident at the Lekki toll gate on October 20th and the resultant looting and destruction of property. I believe that in spite of the indisputable right of the citizen to protest, such actions must be done within the limits of the law.

The other aspects of the question involving the looting and destruction of property, allegations and counter-allegations, especially the issue within blank and real bullets, between the Army and Lai Mohammed on one hand and CNN on the other hand, are matters now pending before the Lagos State Panel of Inquiry headed by Honourable Justice Doris Okuwobi, retired Judge of the Lagos State High Court. Until the conclusion of the proceedings, it would be inappropriate to comment further on this matter.

Does Nigeria produce too many Lawyers? Over 6,000 are called to the Bar every year. Also, the Nigerian Law School has been accused of producing too many 1st Class graduates. What are your views on this, with regard to legal education? Some are also complaining about the number of Senior Advocates that are to be conferred with the rank next month. Is there anything wrong with that? Many notable senior non-litigation Lawyers outside the Inner Bar who have made their indelible contributions to the development of the profession in Nigeria, have complained of being denied the coveted rank of SAN, which even Academics are conferred with. What can be done to address this imbalance?

This 4th question is very extensive, and I will seek your leave to address the sepa-rate issues raised in it seriatim. I do not believe that Nigeria produces too many Lawyers, notwithstanding the fact that, even if as you stated, over 6,000 people are called to the Bar every year. The number of people called to the Bar each year, must be considered along with the candidates for each year. The Council of Legal Education has over the years set up very high standards, and those who are called to the Bar first go through the process of chambers attachment and court attend-ance. The candidates are then sponsored by two Benchers, who must satisfy them as fit and proper to be called to the Bar. Finally, they are screened by the Screening Committee of the Body of Benchers (Chaired by the Vice Chairman), whose report must be approved in a formal meeting of the Body

You must bear in mind that only those who meet the requirements, are called to the Bar. I must underscore the point that the profession produces the personnel of one arm of government, the Judiciary, and by constitutional provisions, the Attorney- Generals, Solicitor-Generals of the Federation and the State. Also, all persons called to the Bar need not necessarily practice law, as many get into other sectors with their degree as graduates of law (LLB).

On the second issue I will state that, it is not true that the Nigerian Law School produces too many 1st class graduates. The standard of legal education has greatly increased and thereby, enhancing the quality of the students produced in the Law School.

This year, 72 new Senior Advocates were appointed, including 10 from the aca-demia. It is consistent with the quality of the candidates considered. There is no legal or equitable basis, to deny a person who has met the requirements, the right to be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. In the case of reservations about including academics in the appointment, this has been the practice. Indeed, the second Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Dr. Nabo Graham-Douglas, SAN appointed in 1975 was from the academics, and today, the most senior and current Chairman of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Professor Ben Nwabueze, SAN was appointed from the academics. The legal profession involves research for authorities, and these academics are most suitable in that regard.

The regulations have been improved since 2017 placing great emphasis on cases from the High Court, where the witnesses are examined and cross-examined before a judgement, in order to meet the ends of justice.

It has been suggested in several quarters that the Supreme Court requires un-bundling by creating divisions in the three geopolitical regions, to reduce the heavy docket of the Apex Court. Right now, the whole of 2021 is full, and the Court has started giving dates for 2022. Would you subscribe to divisions being created for the court? In fact, the volume of pre and post election cases witnessed in every election year has led some to advocate for a Constitutional Court, to handle strictly political cases. Would you say this is another feasible solution to reducing the Supreme Court’s workload?

This question involving the volume of cases at the Supreme Court and the number of years it takes to complete or even list matters for hearing at the Apex Court, is a matter of great concern to all members of the legal profession – the Bench and Bar – and even the litigants. The issue of creating divisions in the three geo-political regions to reduce the heavy dockets at the Supreme Court, begs the issue from where will the Justices of the various division come? America, a Federation like Nigeria, comprising fifty States has one Federal Supreme Court with nine Justices only of that court; but each of the fifty States has its Court of Appeal and Supreme Court leaving only Federal and strictly constitutional issues, to the Federal Supreme Court.

Section 230(1)(b) of the Constitution provides for a maximum of “twenty-one Justices” as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly. The number of Justices of the Nigerian Supreme Court including, the Chief Justice is sixteen. In the circumstances, the appointment of five new Justices to meet the maximum constitutional provisions, is fine. Whether this is desirable or not, has been subject of controversy between members of the legal profession. It is recommended that the Chief Justice of Nigeria should collaborate with the Executive and the National Assembly, to seek the best way forward on this matter.

On the other hand, one must underscore the point, that there are adequate provi-sions in the rules of the Federal High Court, the States High Courts’ and the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory Abuja, for alternative dispute resolution. Members of the legal profession owe a duty to the general public, to resort to these provisions rather than appeal, in many cases frivolously, to the higher courts.

The Court of Appeal Rules and the Supreme Court Rules make adequate provi-sions to encourage litigants to resolve their disputes amicably, so as to reduce the number of cases that ultimately go to the Supreme Court.

The raging controversy in Gombe State over the sidetracking of the most senior Judge who happens to be a woman and a Christian as Chief Judge, is one that has elicited so much discontent, with allegations of gender and religious discrimination. Likewise, the issue of the most senior Judge in Cross River State, who is also female and was labelled as a security risk because she’s from Akwa Ibom, objections that seem rather baseless. How can we stem this negative tide?

The first issue over an opinion by someone that in Gombe State the most senior Judge was sidetracked who happens to be a woman and a Christian raising issues of gender and religious discrimination, and also the second issue that the most senior Judge in Cross River State who is also a female and was labelled as a security risk because she was from Akwa Ibom State, are both conclusions which cannot be appropriately responded to without the full details and facts of each case. In any event, there was no apparent illegality in the manner in which the persons concerned exercised their discretions over the matters. They are not issues of law to be addressed, without proper documentation and investigation of the matter.

How would you say the Buhari Administration has fared in its five and a half years in office vis-a-vis it’s campaign promises of fighting insecurity and corruption, revamping the economy; and as a Lawyer, upholding the rule of law?

This seventh question has raised some issues which have become subject of reac-tions from certain quarters, and in particular, the former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, who like Buhari served first in the military and later as a civil-ian. President Obasanjo’s first regime was marked with his legacy of effectively fighting the apartheid regimes in Southern Africa. Obasanjo introduced the Land Use Act, and eventually handed over to civilians within the time he specified. Con-sequently, during his regime that commenced in 1999, Nigerians were pleased to elect him as their first civilian President. He successfully made the Peoples Demo-cratic Party a national party, culminating in the emergence of President Goodluck Jonathan from Bayelsa State as President.

On the other hand, President Buhari who also served as military and civilian leader, has his own legacies. His military regime began on the 31st day of December, 1983, when he sacked the Shehu Shagari administration and the entire National Assembly. However, it was short lived, as he was overthrown in another military coup which brought in the administration of General Ibrahim Babangida on the 27th August, 1985. We were all surprised that a man who was visibly fighting cor-ruption, to the extent that it was alleged that he was responsible for the attempt to smuggle Umaru Dikko back into the country from the UK to face allegations against corruption, could be overthrown in the circumstances. Subsequent devel-opments, including the annulment of the first truly and fair elections conducted in Nigeria on June 12, 1993 and the resultant emergence of Abacha as a leader, re-vealed that the actions of those that overthrew him were unjustified.

Based on the above introduction, I will now address the issues raised in this ques-tion as to his performance in the last five and a half years vis-a-vis the campaign promises – fighting insecurity and corruption and revamping the economy and oth-er issues raised therein.

Fighting of Insecurity and Corruption

Fighting insecurity and corruption are closely related. As to corruption, I believe that the President has maintained his genuine interest of fighting corruption, if not eliminating it completely, irrespective of who, as you have seen, is involved.

I acknowledge that some critics, including some highly placed Nigerians, had ex-pressed some concerns over his failing to acknowledge in the course of his ap-pointments, that nepotism is an integral part of corruption, having regard to the provision of Federal character in our Constitution. I advice that such criticisms should be taken seriously, and there is still time to address those areas of concern.

There are also criticisms in the way in which the security situation, particularly in the Northern part of the country, is degenerating to a state of considerable anxiety and apprehension. This is a situation in which all hands must be on deck.

The same affects the revamping of the economy.

On the final question of upholding the rule of law, there were also some concerns over that issue. Indeed, one of the leading legal luminaries Professor Ben Nwa-bueze, SAN raised the issue in his book titled “Buhari’s Legacies” published in January, 2020.

My advice is that, the President should work closely with his Ministers and Advis-ers, particularly the Attorney-General of the Federation, over the areas in which people have raised such concerns.

I pray that his final legacy shall be his transfer of power to his successor through the same process, as was done by Jonathan.

At 82, looking back on your life and career, are you fulfilled? Or there’s still more you want to do? What advice do you have for Nigeria, going forward?

As to the last question, the issue of fulfilment is subjective, I will remain ever so grateful to my associates who earlier organised the presentation of the “Law in Motion Essays” in my Honour on 23rd November, 2013 and now remembering me seven years after.

My advice for Nigeria, is for Nigerians to work towards National unity at all times.

Thank you Learned Silk, and again, we wish you a very happy 82nd birthday.