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Govt must fix the economy before deregulation — Mahmoud, SAN

Mr Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN), is our guest for the week. In this interview, he  spoke on the controversy trailing the delay in passing into law the Freedom of Information bill still pending before the National Assembly and concluded that the lawmakers must urgently act on the bill, realising that FOI is a human rights issue.

He added that rather than the government embarking on deregulation now, it should fix the economy preparation of Nigerians for the new policy. He also condemned the recent crisis within the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), saying such disagreement is better resolved with internal mechanism rather than on the pages of the newspapers.
Excerpts

How do you react to the statement credited to a member of the National Assembly  that the Freedom Of Information (FOI) bill will not be passed in this legislative year?

Well, I read that in the papers and it is very unfortunate. Freedom of information is not the same thing as press freedom. It is much more fundamental, that is not to say that the press freedom is not important, but  in my view, Freedom of Information, internationally has assumed the status of a fundamental right.

So, for the National Assembly to say that they will not pass the Freedom of Information Bill, I think they are holding the country back, freedom of information is universally regarded as a right of every citizen, it is part of the foundations of any democratic society.

So we will like to see the National Assembly having a rethink on this and it will be to their credit if they will be the ones to push this bill forward and have it passed into law. I have commented on this, I have appeared before the National Assembly at least on two occasions to make my views known during their public hearings.

A.B Mahmoud(SAN)
A.B Mahmoud(SAN)

There may be one or two details in terms of technical issues on the nature of the law, which needs to be addressed, but that shouldn’t be the reason to discard the whole process. So, I appeal to the National Assembly to look into this as a matter of national urgency and national importance.

Nigeria cannot continue to lag behind in this vital issue that will be critical to our future development.

How do you think the deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry will affect ordinary Nigerians, considering the fact that we are running a generator- based economy?

Well, this issue of deregulation of the down stream sector of the Petroleum Industry has been on the table for very long. The argument is almost like the chicken and the egg, what do you do first? The labour movement is saying, well, fix the economy first, fix the infrastructure first and the Government is saying well, we cannot  do this until we remove these bottlenecks, but I think that the truth lies somewhere in between.

We cannot have an economy that is controlled by cartels, that strangulate almost every sector of the national economy. I think the argument against the subsidy is that these really go into private pockets and is not really benefitting the nation or the people. So, the government has to find a way of resolving this but at the same time, it is absurd that we have a serious crisis in the energy sector. Almost every office, almost every home, every shop, has a generator.

But the government in my view must make very serious and concerted efforts to rectify some of these issues in terms of having functional refineries in the country, in terms of fixing public transportation and investing seriously in the infrastructural development. Now, when people begin to see meaningful impacts of this, then this concept of deregulation can be introduced in a gradual manner. I think that introducing it outright, in the light of all these problems, will certainly lead to more hardship.

What is needed now is consistent efforts in some of the key areas that we are lacking, such as petroleum refinery, electricity, road development, rail development and host of others. We need to see results in all these, and if the government is seen to be doing something along these areas and at the same time trying to remove these subsidies, then it will make sense to many Nigerians.

When president Umaru Yar’Adua was elected in 2007, he admitted that the process that brought him to office was flawed, thereafter he set up the Justice Mohammed Uwais Electoral Reform Committee, whose report was manipulated by the Federal Government and sent to the National Assembly in questionable circumstances. What is your reaction to this?

I don’t think that the government has refused to act on the recommendations of the committee’s report, because in fairness, they have taken steps to send a bill to the National Assembly on it. I think that the main issue relates to the type of changes needed.

Certain important recommendations have been made by the Justice Uwais panel, which obviously, the government didn’t feel comfortable with and they have modified those areas and sent a bill to the National Assembly. Right now, the Senate is on a retreat and one of the major issues expected to be examined at the retreat is the problem of electoral reforms.

It appears to me that the president has made a commitment and clearly, the government is seriously looking at those issues. Now the question is, what the key areas of reform are and this is where there is divergence of opinions. In my view, the government should listen to the people and should look at those important areas a lot of people think are needed to have credible electoral system.

The National Assembly must, in this process, pay attention to what the stakeholders are saying, and come up with very fair measures in the new law that will be passed which will demonstrate very clear commitment to open transparency in the election that we are going to have in the future.

Unless this is done, then of course, the matter will be put to question as to the sincerity of the government to Nigerians, especially the political elite on their commitment to credible elections.

Given the fact that majority of the members of the National Assembly are beneficiaries of the flawed electoral system, don’t you think that approving the bill will make it difficult for them to return to the National Assembly?

To the commitment of the members themselves one would hope that, regardless of the process that brought them into the Legislature, they should be committed to the constitutional development of the country and they should not put their personal interests above national interests.

I would sincerely hope that if the debate as to what sort of electoral system we should have, what sort of changes are needed, whether constitutionally or in terms of the Electoral Act, that this should be done with the interest of the country at heart by the National Assembly members and that this should transcend any immediate personal considerations or gains. They must ensure that this is the spirit with which this matter should be approached.

How would you appraise the judiciary so far in its determination of electoral disputes. How do we ensure expeditious determination of electoral disputes?

We need to do something about it. Obviously the Judiciary has done its best under the circumstances, you have to bear in mind that even if the Judiciary is slow, it is not just the fault of the judiciary. A lot of it, is contributed by the litigants, the lawyers, etc.

For instance, I am now in a matter in Kaduna which came up last week, the reason is that the candidate has refused to accept the finality of the results of the outcome of the election petitions.

He keeps going back to the court, asking the court to do this, to do that. And the system is such that when you bring a matter to court, the court has to listen to you, even if it has no merit, the court must listen to you first to decide that it has no merit.

I think that the legal profession as a whole has the responsibility and role on this matter. We have to be able to adjudicate such matters so speedily, and we ought to be able to put the interest of the country uppermost when we do this sort of  things. I think there is need for the law to be clear on the time frame within which electoral disputes would be resolved. I hope that the ongoing review process will come up with something like that.

The President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi retired last month. What are your expectations from the incoming President of the Court of Appeal?

On the conflicting issues at the Court of Appeal, you know that the Court of Appeal has several Divisions and panels. Under the existing structure, it will be difficult to say that there must be complete harmony on all issues. Invariably in some situations, there would be some variations and so on. Internal measures can be taken to streamline certain things bothering on policy and attitude of the court.

This can be encouraged through interactions, through the exchange of decisions and discussing those decisions at the level of the court. But where you have several Divisions of the court and different panels, you do not expect to have a complete agreement on all issues, so it is part of the system that we operate.

But be that as it may, a process can be put in place to minimize this, I am sure that the court will be looking at this, especially at the level of electoral disputes.

Now, as to the outgoing president of the Court of Appeal, I think that he has done a lot for the appellate court both in terms of court expansion and various reforms.

He expanded the infrastructure of the court, he commissioned the court headquarters in Abuja, I hope that the new president who will assume office next month will continue in this light to develop the court and to encourage in the area of infrastructure especially electronic recording, electronic reporting, electronic filing of processes, this is a new frontier which we hope will continue to develop in the country.

What is your reaction to the controversy trailing the appointment of Justices of the Court of Appeal?
This has not been very nice for the country or for the court. We hope they will be resolved and that the process of the appointment will be more rigorous and more transparent. If that is done, I hope this issue will be buried and the court will continue to make progress.

What is your reaction to the leadership crisis rocking the NBA?

The most recent development within he national body of the Bar is really unfortunate. It is very embarrassing to the Bar association, for the leadership to engage in this kind of bickering openly. It is ridiculing the association and it is rendering it ineffective. If an association cannot speak with one voice and its leadership cannot be respected because those at the helm, choose to bring out their quarrels openly, then the legal profession is the worst for it.

So, I would be hoping that the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the NBA would intervene and  probably look into this and call the warring factions to order.

I pray that this should be done quickly. I believe that there have been some informal interventions which apparently have not been successful. So we need to move in within the relevant organs of the association and call the parties to order.

As an active participant in NBA politics, are you going to contest for the presidency of the organisation at the end of Akeredolu’s tenure?

Whenever people talk about NBA politics, my position has always been that the NBA, first and foremost, is a professional body. And I have always frowned at this idea of excessive politicization of the Bar while carrying out our elections. People talk about elections continually, the life of the current administration has even just passed one year.

People start politicking and have started campaigning; I don’t think that is right. The election is going to come up in August next year, it is wrong for anybody to start campaigning and to start going round engaging in partisan politics.

We should allow the current administration to concentrate on its efforts and at the appropriate time, when the ban on politics is lifted according to the provision of the NBA Constitution,  that is when people should come out and declare their interest  in any office. At the appropriate time, when I think it is right, I will make my views and position known.


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