BY OKEY NDIRIBE & EMMAN OVUAKPORIE
Prof. Oserhiemen Osunbor, a law teacher and former Governor of Edo State is presently a member of the Nigeria Law Reform Commission. In this interview he casts a retrospective look at Nigeria’s 52 years as an independent nation.
Many people feel that the 52nd anniversary of Nigeria’s independence was not worth celebrating. What is your comment on this considering the deteriorating standard of living of Nigerians?
Well, there are some Nigerians who believe that birthdays are not worth celebrating while others feel it is good to always reflect on October 1 as the nation’s birthday which is what the independence anniversary is all about.
I personally believe that October 1 deserves to be marked . The next question from there is how elaborate should an event be marked? You can either celebrate an event in a high or low key manner.
You may mark your 40th, 50th , 60th or 70th birthday because of its significance, but if you attain 43, 26 or 66, there is really nothing special to celebrate.
At this point in time we need not celebrate it on a big scale. We did that when we attained the golden age of 50 some two years ago. This year’s celebration was on a small scale.
But in a situation where there is unemployment, insecurity, terrorism and corruption in high places, was there any reason to celebrate ?
Again, people surprise me when they say government is not doing anything. For example when government started an intervention scheme to save the lives of pregnant women and reduce maternal deaths, people started saying government should have looked at other areas like malaria. The question is should government shut its eyes in other areas when there are a variety of things that should be done? You have to consider how much resources that should be deployed into different sectors because governance is all embracing.
What is important is if you consider that the number of pregnant women dying is alarming compared to other places. This notwithstanding, the importance of infrastructures such as roads, provision of security and power cannot be denied.
But there are other issues which are quite germane such as culture and the plight of prisoners; they also deserve attention of government because governance is all embracing.
On the issue of national security, I agree with you that government should do something, but let me go back to your first question where you mentioned that the situation of Nigerians now is worse than what it was in the previous years. I don’t share that view because Nigerians have more access now to telecommunications via the telephone; there is greater access to education than the previous years particularly in the last 12 years of democratic governance in the country. I equally understand that electricity generation is on the increase .
I understand that government is building more power plants nationwide. Some of these infrastructure were left to decay in the 30 years of military rule and they became dilapidated. There is government intervention in all spheres. So when I hear people say we are worse off, I don’t agree. I think we are better off. I know we earned so much from oil which is the mainstay of our economy and should have invested more but more of these resources went into private pockets. This is because we have not gotten the kind of leadership some countries have been blessed with.
Such countries have gone far ahead of Nigeria. We suffered a lot of retardation due to military incursion into civil administration. we didn’t keep the pace especially with the Asian countries but we are making progress.
Now people are talking about corruption. During military rule can you dare talk about corruption?
People are talking about the implementation of the 2012 budget; could you talk about budget implementation during the military era? You just cast your mind back to the military era. So when people are talking about corruption now, it is because you can now scrutinize things unlike during the military era . You remember that during the military era adulterated fuel was imported into the country and nobody voiced out anything, but now under democracy people can ask questions .
The fight against corruption has been so slow and there are only few cases to show that the battle is on-going and the judiciary has not been able to give a good account of itself in this direction; what us your comment on this?
Thank you. I want to agree with you that one of the impediments in the fight against corruption today is the judiciary. At the inception of this democratic dispensation in 1999, the first or second bill that the Obasanjo administration introduced was the ICPC bill. This meant that Obasanjo recognized corruption as the number one problem of Nigeria. Then I was a member of the Senate committee on Judiciary. Although there were dissenting voices on whether we had the legislative competence to legislate on it because crime was under the residual list, we went ahead and the Supreme court upheld our position.
That was how the Corrupt Offences and Allied Matters Act came into existence. Then the passage of the EFCC Act followed. But the question now is how far have we fared? Some people are of the opinion that some judges have provided convenient escape routes for some people; sometimes under the guise of plea bargain thereby allowing some convicted people to escape with a mere slap on the wrist thereby allowing them to go with their ill gotten wealth.
One of such instances was the infamous judgement of a judge who struck out a 171 count charge against James Onanefe Ibori. It was a London court that corrected such an abnormality for us.
Another area is the Election Petition Cases; everybody knows that things were not being properly done. The National Assembly has tried to remedy that by ensuring that such cases end at the Supreme court which means people knew that something was wrong. Some retired Chief Justices had made public statements that something was wrong with the judiciary. People like the past CJ of Lagos state, the immediate past President of Nigeria Bar Association and Justice Uwaifo had observed that something was wrong with the judiciary.
I do hope that the constitution Review being carried out by NASS thoroughly examines this situation particularly with appointment of people into the bench and to hold these judges to a higher degree of accountability.
All in all , the major weak link in fighting corruption in Nigeria is the judiciary and the nation ought to do something about it fast.
But it has been argued in some quarters that state Governors do not obey court orders thereby making the jobs of judges more difficult. What was your experience like when you were a Governor?
As a lawyer I respect the rule of law a great deal and as a Governor I never disobeyed any court order. I earlier told you about my contributions in the Senate. During my time as Governor, I obeyed all court orders. Again we should not generalize, some Governors do obey court orders. Again there are Governors who benefitted from the judiciary but do not respect court orders.
What can you say about the current security situation in the country especially considering the activities of some groups that are unleashing mayhem on the nation.
I quite agree with you that there has been a heightened level of insecurity in the country in the past two years. It is a matter of serious concern because no country can develop where there is no peace and there is constant fear. Now people are even scared to go to the market and even churches, the mosques are not exempted too. You can’t be sure that you will go to the market and come back with your limbs or life complete. We must not ignore it.
However, we are on the path of winning the war against terrorism and as you are aware, you cannot attain 100 percent security and the price of liberty is internal vigilance. I am very optimistic about the future of Nigeria. On whether Nigeria will be able to survive this challenge, we have always survived right from the time of wetie in the Western Region.
Even at the peak of the civil strife people had thought that Nigeria will disintegrate but we survived it. During the reign of Abacha people thought we may not survive but we survived it. Somehow, Nigeria has managed to survive its tribulations. We have always pulled through. We have always survived and found lasting solutions to these destabilizing factors and remained one indivisible entity. Education will go a long way to help us solve these problems; education is central to what we are doing. Once we have sufficient education nationwide, we will surmount these challenges.
What is your comment on the debate over creation of state police?
In my personal opinion, there is need for devolution of powers. The Federal Government should devolve some powers to the states; that is the principle I will support, not state police. We are not ripe for that now. If you look at Federal institutions and compare them with state institutions, there is no doubt that the Federal institutions fare better. The Nigeria Police is a Federal institution. I do not think any state can set up a police force that will be comparable to the Federal police both in standard and quality. The National Assembly at the Federal level performs better than state legislatures . At the state level, the legislators dare not ask the kind of questions the Federal legislators ask the President.
At the Federal level, the legislators elect their principal officers internally but at the state level it is the Governors who decide not the members. Look at the educational sector; unity schools are better than state owned schools; Federal Polytechnics, are better than state owned polytechnics and the Federal universities are better than state owned universities. Also I do not think anybody can compare state electoral commissions to INEC. Take a look at elections conducted by INEC in terms of credibility, fairness and transparency. Can you compare them to elections conducted by state electoral commissions? The relationship between the Federal and the state governments is far better than the relationship between the states and Local Governments. The FG releases funds directly to the states but monies that comes to the LGs are pocketed and spent as the Governor pleases.
Another disturbing scenario is that if you decide to float state police in the 36 states of the federation all of them would begin to import arms and ammunition for their various police forces. Is that the kind of thing we want to encourage?
Look at this scenario; supposing a group of states within a part of the country have various police forces and are in opposition. What happens if there is a clash between the police forces controlled by such states? Can you imagine what such a crisis could snowball into?
So there are constitutional issues that need to be addressed. If a state police makes an arrest, can the offender be tried in a Federal High Court? All these will require a lot of efforts at amending our constitution. I believe that if the constitution and the rule of law are allowed to work properly there will be no need for state police.