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How I fought corruption as Minister – Bola Ajibola


Prince Abdul-Jabaar Bolaji Ajibola was former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation and one time Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
Since his return from the diplomatic mission in the UK, he has headed several commissions and panels particularly the National Commission on Boundariaes between Nigeria and Cameroun. He spoke to BASHIR ADEFAKA at his residence in Abeokuta.    Excerpts:

How did you start sir?

Well, the way I can present it is this: That at the early possible stage of one’s life there is that inherent ambition and desire to grow up to be somebody, somehow, within the society and be counted among the achievers to be reckoned with as successful individual in life.  And it was the prevailing idea among the young ones then.  But it was all about the philosophy of hard work and honesty.

During our time, for one to be there, I mean to make it, one must  work very, very hard.

As a matter of fact, one of the very important aspects of my life is that, I hold dearly to what I call ‘My Golden Nights’.  In fact, on that particular topic I have started to put down my life history.  Its very, very encouraging to see how those nights led to the successes that I have achieved.

Do you mean that you have a book in the pipeline?

Yes.  But first and foremost, let us look at it this way, that in our days, attachment to moral uprightness and not being in desperate love for money were more the rule.  You see, we were not then ruled or controlled or directed by money.

Money wasn’t that much available  that time at all. Little from groundnut or vegetable products were not anything to make anybody too much engulfed in money grabbing.

So our time was not controlled by money. Therefore, it was predominantly controlled by character and good behaviour.  For us to hear of anybody being imprisoned for anything was then an abomination and a kind of immediate excommunication when people would refrain from having anything to do with that family!  Even getting married to that family would be a thing that no one would like to see.

I give you one example. One of our ruling monarchs at that time was served with a warrant of arrest and charged that he should appear in court the following morning.    There wasn’t anything called criminal investigation, you would nevertheless be considered innocent until the contrary.

Bola Ajibola ... We were selling the supposed gifts giving to me  ... and the whole amount realized was paid to the government
Bola Ajibola ... We were selling the supposed gifts giving to me ... and the whole amount realized was paid to the government

But that Saturday, after being served on Friday, he invited all his relations from all places.  They came to him, they dined and wined together.  He told them nothing.  On the night of the following day, which was Sunday, he died.  He committed suicide.

And what he said was this: That his father, his forefathers, his ancestors never had to be summoned by any court for that matter for an allegation of a crime committed!  That was the approach, attitude and perception at that time.  It was very clear at that early stage of one’s life that, to be there you must work and work very hard.

When I was a very small boy, not yet in my teens, I was still at the primary school, my mother was very keen to persuade my father to send my immediate sister to school, whereas that was not so in our home.  All those females in our family were not given that privilege.

I was in school at Baptist Day Primary School.  But she noticed that I was not performing as expected and she called me and said: You have now turned to become a bad boy.  I am no longer worried because, your sister is now doing very well.

And what you can do your sister will do something better for me.  So you can go away, you can do whatever you like and you are condemned! And you will be ignored!

And it was perhaps the most important challenges in my life. It was from that   moment that I stopped to be absent from school and I started being very serious, studying, not only during the day time but also, in the nights.

Which began your Golden Nights?

Yes.  Which began ‘My Golden Nights’.  It was then that I learnt of that important statement and saying of a fellow that, “The height that great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden light but they, while their companions had slept, kept toiling on through the nights.”

That was part of the first things I ever memorized and kept to, at all those challenging moments in my life when a decision had to be taken on how best I had to arrange myself to move forward and to achieve my aims and objectives.

And it was nothing else but the Golden Nights with the help of Almighty God.

You are here now, this place was my bungalow before I raised it to this height.  When eventually I succeeded in the elections to the International Court of Justice in The Hague toward the tail end of 1991, I knew I was going to the world court to practice, not the area where I had specialized; but international law. And I had to try to see what I can do to read international law thoroughly, carefully and effectively.

It was here in this house that I got that opportunity called Golden Nights of reading days and nights to put myself in a proper position of knowledge and understanding of international law before moving to The Hague where I became a judge in March.  They elected me into The Hague in March, 1991.

That was it and that was just one of the examples.  And before I left the International Court there was a day during our deliberation that they registered me as ‘The Solomon of the Court’.  That was just an aberration to what I do describe as

‘My Golden Nights’.  But that was not all: ‘My Golden Nights’ was rather, in fact, very, very extensive.  While I was still studying for my law degree in England, I was going through the scripts in colleges and the universities all days and was going to work all nights.

And you would still work without sleeping?

Yes! Throughout the nights I was not sleeping.  My chance of sleeping was only on Sundays and those were My Golden Nights.

But that approach to hard work is no longer in vogue because not many people want to make it through  sleepless nights.

Desperate love for money is the cause.  This corruptly grabbed money being thrown around these days has virtually destroyed the appreciation of good people.  A lot of people now in positions of authority in our country are crooks!

The idea of working hard to get something done has been thrown to the dustbin.

I will give you a good example: When eventually I was called upon to serve as the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, before then I had practiced law for twenty-three years, I was very, very rich and I had properties all over Nigeria.  And before then I already served as the President of the Nigerian Bar Association.

So when I got to the office, I asked myself: Should I take the salary here?  Haven’t I enough with me that could sustain me in this job without taking a kobo from the government?  I went back home the same day, which was the 12th of September, 1985 and when I got home, I checked my assets, my stocks shares, my rents on the buildings that I had then, my properties and realized that I could safely, prudently with some carefulness, take care of myself and my family without taking money from the government.

The second day, when I got to the office, I called my Personal Assistant in the Ministry of Justice to give me some papers and I put it in writing that throughout my service in this ministry my salaries, every emolument and whatsoever should be directed as follows:

Thirty-five per cent should go back to the government, pay the government back its money in order to give us better governance; my root was from the Nigerian Bar Association, give them twenty-five per cent of this salary every month without fail; then the rest of the forty per cent should be distributed among eight charitable, humanitarian organizations all over Nigeria.  They should be paid five per cent each of this money every month.

It was in addition to that I engaged the services of three lawyers being paid for directly from my purse by myself to work in the Ministry of Justice in order to build something good for Nigerian Monthly Law Reports, which was started before me, which was neglected and which I updated and we put it on in 1990.

I am now proprietor of a university, the Crescent University, Abeokuta and also the Founder and President of the Islamic Mission for Africa (IMA).  All those things I possessed from selling my assets.  I sold all my assets in bringing about those things.

I must recognize and commend those people who were in government at that time with regard to their attitudes towards me.  I was given my  due respect and regard in this world, and they sincerely appreciated what I stood for and my position in the land.

I beg to insist that since you gave so much to the State, you should be lifted at the time of need.  Why did it not happen?
Well, that is all their own problem.  But concentrating on the point and what you asked me is that, because of my attitude, my perception, my position, my stand, my firmness on basic principles of life, of law, of the rule of law, of human rights, of due process of law, they respected every statement of mine whenever an advice was given.

But that was not all.  Now that they realized that I have come to serve without any hope of getting anything, without the hope of being enriched, they gave me more and more respect now.

I will give a good example: Once IBB (Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida) called me and said: What then do you think we can give you?  I said, nothing, just this national service is a pleasure and that my wish is to serve the nation free of charge.  I am just someone serving my own country and I derive joy for doing so without any hope of acquiring anything from there.

It is not like these thieves now.  I will tell you something but let me give you one other example, I will come back to that later.  I gave instructions to all the people in my office not to take anything for me from anybody.  And people kept inundating them with gifts and presents for me and presenting some to me.  I then kept telling them: Okay, if that is your wish to give me something, all these presents; these wrist watches, televisions, fridges, dressing materials and all that; please be informed that I will not be the beneficiary and that it would be the government.

Every quarter we were always selling and it was always a trade fair.  We spread on tables in the Ministry of Justice…
(cuts in) Selling no more than the supposed minister’s gifts and presents?

Go and ask them there in the ministry.  We were selling the supposed gifts given to me.  And I was always asking them to take account of it and the whole amount realized was paid to the government.

Just the opposite of what’s going on now.  Those people stealing the money of the government used same to buy me gifts, thinking that I would take it?  No!  That was what we were doing then and it was to the knowledge of the government.  In fact, they were aware that I was being induced to take bribes and that I refused left, right and centre in those days.

That was the situation at that time and because of that, once the President (General Babangida) was to locate two universities of agriculture; one in the North and another one in the South and they were looking for locations.  As soon as I heard about it, I went to him and said you kept asking me about what can be done to help me.  He said yes.

And I went on to say you are looking for where to locate two universities of agriculture and I said the one for the South, put it in Abeokuta.  That was how the University of Agriculture (UNAAB) came to be in Abeokuta, it was my gift given to me by the government and that was what was done.

That was the understanding.    People had come to my office unexpectedly with their brief cases loaded with money.  And I honestly turned them back.  One broke down crying and I said with your crying, you better get out!  That was it.

But things have terribly changed seeing the distressful and disturbing level at which people grab government money any how.  And people that we consider should keep away from them have kept supporting them.

You harp so much on corruption.  But this I think is an offshoot from two dimensions: Collapse in family value and State’s lack of appreciation of hard work.  Could I not be right?

You see, the most unfortunate thing is that, the acquisition of wealth became the order of the day.  It became be-all-and-earn-all.  Culture died.  Good upbringing died.  The family integrity is no more there.  Family interest now is, go there and have everything for yourself.  I personally believe that this has made a lot of people get into any position only to corruptly enrich themselves and thereby corrupting the whole society.  It is very, very sad!

But something must be done. Somebody must come from somewhere to help us because the situation is becoming unbearable.  And demonstrating this wealth openly even in the face of the poor people is saddening.

We did not start this way.  The whole thing happened immediately when we discovered oil.  And once we realised that we could amass wealth from this oil, we started to misplace our priority, our way of life.  We stopped getting things right.

I think somebody should teach us something better.  We must be ready to do something better.

But don’t you think that the government also needs to up its standard to be able to curb these socio-cultural problems?

You see, I don’t understand.  Running things down this way will not help.  To start with, some people must be ready to do it in a very clean way.  They must discourage corruption not by talking but by doing it physically with the cooperation of the three arms of government: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

We need to show some love for the country by not destroying it.  We need psychological re-orientation believing in ourselves that things must be done properly for things to be all right.  We need to work hard toward a better life.  We need to make people understand that it is only hard work, honesty, sincerity, transparency and accountability that can lead us to the right place in life.

We will soon be fifty years .  We cannot afford to continue to go on the way we are going; something must be done to move us away from all these areas of hopelessness, chaos and destruction.  We must move back and move out.  Things are not being properly done at all!  The situation is terrible!

Look at a country like Nigeria, with all the wealth in this country, yet, we cannot afford ordinary power to run this country all these years!  With the trillions and trillions of dollars that we have made, we cannot provide ourselves with clean water, life is terribly insecure.  At this time the new dimension is kidnap.

This is very sad.  It is ridiculous and something must be done urgently.


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