By Innocent Anaba
Prof Epiphany Azinge, SAN, is the Director General of Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, NIALS. In this interview, he cautioned the Federal Government to be mindful of how it engages the Boko Haram Islamic sect, so that it (Government) is not perceived to be weak, as this may be manipulated by those who easily resort to means of coercion to achieve anti-social objectives. He also spoke on Bills sponsored by the Institute presently before the National Assembly and many other issues.
President Goodluck Jonathan recently assigned portfolios to ministerial nominees screened by the National Assembly. Do you think he has the right caliber of Ministers to move Nigeria forward?
I am of the considered opinion that this set of Ministers will rank among the best ever constituted by a President of this country.
Anyone privileged to listen to their responses to questions during the screening process will readily attest to the fact that they acquitted themselves creditably and a host of them demonstrated burning passion and commitment to help the President in his transformation agenda.
Having said that, it must be said that Ministers can not work alone. They need the support of Nigerians to succeed. They need people to generate ideas, to advise them appropriately and criticize them constructively.
They need our prayers, our collective faith and belief that Mr. President made the right choice in picking them to serve the country at this critical point in our national history.
Militant Islamic sect, Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the spate of bomb attacks in parts of the country, particularly, the North. How can the issues that gave rise to the sect be addressed?
I cannot claim to have all the relevant information that will enable me make informed comment on the grievances of the Boko Haram Sect. What is manifestly evident is that they have failed to ventilate their case in a way that will make it possible for them to win public support.
Indeed, their resort to bombing has further estranged them from the public and to that extent it is more difficult to address their case in rational manner. Any well meaning Nigerian, however, will advise them to sheath their sword and embrace dialogue as the most potent option in resolving any disagreement between them and perceived opponents.
Bombing and maiming of innocent citizens is clearly not an option. Intolerance to the views of others in the country is also not an option. Rather, bombing is heinous, condemnable, cowardly and treasonable.
It is anti-social, retrogressive and counter productive. Government must be mindful of how it engages the sect so that it is not perceived to be weak and capable of being manipulated by those who easily resort to means of coercion to achieve anti-social objectives.
Which areas do you think the Attorney-General of the Federation and the Chief Law Officer, give priority attention in this dispensation?
I must congratulate the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice for his reappointment. He has earned the confidence of Mr. President and all stake holders of the justice sector.
He must remain committed to Rule of Law, zero tolerance to corruption, justice sector reform, decongestion of prisons, computerization of criminal administration of justice sector, promote public interest litigation and champion legislative advocacy that will protect and preserve the fundamental human rights of Nigerians.
I believe that over and above all, the Honourable Attorney-General should champion the move towards the justiciability of chapter 2 of the constitution. As a deeply knowledgeable lawyer, I know that Mr. President will benefit immeasurably from the fertile mind of his Chief Law Officer.
The proposed interest free banking system, otherwise called Islamic Banking had generated a lot of controversy. What is the way out, in view of the religious colouration the issue is assuming?
At a time when many were not aware of the import of Islamic Banking, the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies under my watch, was the first agency to organize a public discourse on Islamic Banking. Indeed it was that roundtable and communiqué arising from it that brought the issue to the centre stage of public discourse.
More significantly however, it opened up all issues on both sides of the divide, both the protagonists and the antagonists. Honestly speaking, I am of the considered opinion that Islamic Banking has no religious colouration and is not intentionally pro Islam.
What appears to be resonating is the degree of religious intolerance that pervades the system and this is really shocking. Let me hasten to make this point and it should be for the benefit of all Christians.
Christian Scholars of all persuasion are not as thorough as Moslem Scholars in their research. While Moslem Scholars understand the Koran and the Bible thoroughly, the Christian Scholars know next to noting about the Koran. They don’t even bother to know.
Consequently their views are usually predicated on arguments that are ill-informed and unbalanced. Thus while Moslem Scholars speak authoritatively, others are sentimental, emotional and opinionated. This is usually the weakness of Christian Scholars.
Unfortunately, I belong to this category. Having said that, nobody wants a policy, no matter how well thought out to be rammed down his throat.
This is where dialogue, subtle diplomacy, massaging of ego and better enlightenment and education will be very useful. I expect the CBN Governor to engage CAN and reassure them.
I also expect him to be sensitive to the fears and sensibilities of Christians. On this issue finally, I expect that he will be patriotic enough to take a decision that will be in the greatest interest of the country.
The Freedom of Information Act is now law. How can ordinary Nigerians make maximum use of the new law?
President Goodluck Jonathan and the 6th National Assembly must be congratulated for the Freedom of Information Act. This law has single handedly opened up the political space in this country in such a way that every public officer is automatically accountable and responsible to the public.
The FOI Act has also added impetus to the freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
But there are balancing to be made. The Act did not repeal the official Secrets Act amongst other enactments that are still in force. So it is expected that guidelines or rules should be made in this regard. It is also expected that the FOI Act should be used in public interest and not as an instrument for witch hunting or political blackmail.
In all these, there is no denying the fact that the judiciary has once again been thrown into the fray and we hope that they will live up to expectation.
You have been the Director General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. How has it been manning the topmost legal training institute in the country?
It has been a humbling and challenging experience. For me the Institute should lead opinion in policy formulation and act as the legal think tank for the country. We have pursued this relentlessly and with missionary zeal.
The faculty available to the Institute is amazing and my goal is to make sure that we tap into this enormous intellectual reservoir. I can say without equivocation that we have made giant strides and people are deeply appreciative of our meaningful contributions.
How well has the Institute carried out the assignment of training and re-training Nigerian lawyers?
It is heart warming to note that our continuing legal education programme is easily the best in Africa. Under my watch we have injected more courses and this has made it possible for public officers to attend courses locally and save huge foreign exchange for government. Ordinarily, the thirst for knowledge by lawyers is unquenchable. They keep striving for excellence.
They keep coming to the Institute knowing full well that we can fill the void. Law being dynamic, there are always new emerging areas that many lawyers may not be familiar with and being that the Institute offers such a programme, lawyers stream to the Institute to gain such knowledge.
More significantly, the Institute is now recognized as a reputable training ground for continuing legal education by the Nigerian Bar Association and lawyers who attend courses at the Institute and are awarded certificates for purposes of licensing by the NBA, are adjudged to have scored some credits necessary for meeting the licensing requirements.
Yes, I can say we have fared fairly well and our organizational and administrative outlay is considered comparable to what obtains in similar Institute in Europe and United States of America.
We learnt that you had sponsored some Bill to the National Assembly. What are the bills on and what do you hope to achieve with the eventual passage of such bills into law?
The Institute’s mandate includes establishing programmes leading to award of post graduate degree in legislative drafting. Thus we are the only body authorized by law to award degree in this highly specialized field.
By teaching legislative drafting, it presupposes that we have the expertise to draft bills. Hitherto, we have restricted ourselves to commenting on bills already in the public domain by participating actively in public hearings. But we have decided to take our legislative advocacy to the next level.
Against this background, we have explored areas of public interest that we imagine that there is need for statutory or legislative framework to shape the conduct of society in that regard.
The Institute is therefore no longer restricted to policy formulation, but had gone an extra mile to initiate bills in the under listed areas: (a) Social Security/Welfare Bill, (b) Women Affirmative Action Enforcement Bill, (c) Senior Citizens Privileges Bill, (d) Enforcement of Education of Children and Young Persons Bill, (e) Road Accident Victims Compensation Bill, (f) Destitute Protection Bill, (g) Parental Rights and Child Control Bill, (h) Rehabilitation of Widows and Protection from Exploitative and Cultural Acts Bill and (i) Unfair Treatment of Employees Bill.
Although on paper, the Institute may be seen as sponsoring the bills, but in reality, all executive bills emanate from the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice. Thus we are duty bound to push any bill initiated by the Institute through the office of the Minister of Justice.
The idea of sponsoring bills for us is ennobling and challenging because it helps us in our research and brings us nearer to the public in the sense that we are compelled to figure our how best we can initiate laws that can help in developing society for the better.
More seriously, it is our small way of buying into Mr. Presidents agenda of transformation. Our motto is “knowledge that makes the difference”. We sincerely want to make a difference by helping to build a strong virile and progressive nation.