By Abdulwahab Abdulah
ALHAJI Lateef Femi Okunnu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN needs no introduction when it comes to Nigeria legal profession and national issues. In this interview, the former Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing joined other prominent Nigerians to discuss the controversial issue of Sovereign National Conference (SNC) for a united Nigeria.
Many have argued that the convocation of a SNC is what can guarantee the continued corporate existence of the country, while others feel the National Assembly has the constitutional mandate to resolve all grievances with the collaboration of all relevant stakeholders.
To Alhaji Okunnu, the SNC is unnecessary and time-wasting. Meanwhile, the revered lawyer who has participated in several constitutional drafting and amendment processes since independence, picked holes in the sharing formula of the nation’s resources.
He also spoke on the local government system and how to boost the image of the nation’s judiciary, pointing out that we operated a unified judicial system contrary to the provisions in our federal constitution.
What is your view on clamour for review of the constitution in the area of revenue sharing formula among the tiers of government ?
I have five areas, which I will like to see amended in the constitution. But a wholesale review of the constitution is not right. Before independence, there were conferences. Don’t let us go back to the history of constitution-making in the country.
After independence, the 1960 Constitution was reviewed because Nigeria became a Republic. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, I was involved in the constitution-making or amending because of the crisis that led to the war.
I was also a member of the 50-man Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) in 1976 to 77, which prepared or drafted the 1979 Constitution. We were 49 in the committee because Chief Obafemi Awolowo declined the invitation to be a member.
Before 1999 Constitution, there was 1995 Constitution, which did not see the light of the day. I was also to be a member of the Reform Conference in 2005 but I told the governor, who asked me to lead the delegation that it was going to be a waste of time, because nothing would come out of it. Of course, you would remember that Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo used that for his third-term bid.
Incidentally, I see that the man, who was bidding for a third-term went to Senegal, a couple of days ago, to settle disputes about third-term. That is the irony of the situation. We waste too much time on the constitution review. I don’t believe in any conference to review the constitution.
Nigerians like to spend so much time on reviewing or amending constitution, though, I am not saying the constitution is perfect.
Are you in support of the recent call for a Sovereign National Conference?
I don’t believe in it. It is part of the time wasting exercise.
Which areas of the constitution did you say need to be amended?
There are five areas where I think the constitution needs to be reviewed. One; revenue allocation, it is a major issue in constitution review. I believe that the centre is taking too much, the constitution needs to be reviewed in such a way that the states take the larger share. There is also need to allocate more to the states who produce more.
Secondly, I will want the local councils to be expunged from the constitution, apart from Section 7 of the constitution that supports the principle of democratic elected local councils. Local councils are functions of state governments.
The Federal Government should have nothing to do with local councils, if we are practising true federalism. There was nothing wrong with the old system of Oba-in-Council established by Chief Obafemi Awolowo in Western Nigeria, or the Local Authority established by Sardauna of Sokoto in the Northern Nigeria or the County Council Chieftain established by Dr. Michael Okpara in the Eastern Nigeria.
Before the late Muritala Muhammed and Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo changed and unified the local council system, you could not unify local councils system in a federal system of government.
Local councils is like the way you want to arrange your rooms, if you want to make your house five bedrooms, three bedrooms, four or 10 bedrooms, or to determine how many people live in the room, it is your business. It has always been so. There was nothing wrong before they imposed the Northern system of the local council on the rest of the country and the result is chaos and non-performance.
I will like it to be expunged from the constitution and leave the principle of democratically-elected local council, which is what we did in the 1979 Constitution Drafting Committee.
Thirdly, I will want the removal of party dictatorship, which is enshrined in the constitution and allow independent candidates to contest elections. Right now, we are being forced to vote for someone imposed on us by the political parties.
In fact, the way they operate may not please us. We vote for parties now, we don’t vote for individuals. Candidates contesting for the national, states, local councils’ seat must belong to one party or the other recognised by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), that is wrong.
We are denied to vote for persons of our choice as governor or President, who may not belong to any party. So, insisting on candidates belonging to parties is party dictatorship. That is one huge problem Nigeria is facing.
The other one is about the judiciary. We have a federal system of government, but we have unified system of judiciary, a contradiction that should change. The fifth area I want an amendment, which is minor but crucial, is that part of Section 6 of the constitution; which enshrines or imposes on us, that all acts by the former military government cannot be challenged in the law courts.
That means you cannot challenge decrees of military governments in the law court. That is a perpetration or invitation to military coups. It said that you couldn’t challenge the act of military regimes, either regimes that followed the 1966 coup or 1975 coup or subsequent coups, let us feel free to challenge everything. That is why we still have these confusions because we run a unitary system of government with federal features.
Many have said that the recent verdict of the Supreme Court granting 180 days period for the conclusion of election petitions is political and a denial of rights to fair-hearing. Do you agree?
You know, if Allah pronounces judgement, Nigerians will appeal. They will challenge the judgment of Allah. We have that knack as a people to challenge even the order of God. There must be finality in what you do. People must accept defeat.
I don’t believe in any extension of time for election petition matters. What I believe is what Nigeria practised from 1978-79 during the election among President Shehu Shagari, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and two others. We did it in this country.
We concluded election petitions before the swearing-in of the governors or President. Before October 1, 1979, all appeals by Chief Awolowo had been concluded and on October 1, 1979, President Shehu Shagari was sworn in. We did it before in this country.
I cannot see why, like in America, election is held in November, the president is sworn in on January 28, two months after, all appeals concluded, and we cannot do that. I don’t believe in any extension of an appeal and the President, and all the governors and others must be sworn in on May 29. The judgement, to me, is a welcome development.
What is your assessment of standard of legal practice in Nigeria and the judiciary compared with what it used to be ?
Legal practice in the past was very exciting, only a few people were in the practice in the early 60s. I was the editor of the Nigeria Bar Journal for four years, before my appointment to the Federal Civil Service. I resigned in 1968, a year after my appointment, then I had the list of all persons called to the Nigerian Bar.
At that time, you could hardly count 500 barristers from the first Nigerian Call to Bar till that time. It was very exciting with little rancour, but strict adherence to the ethics of the profession. With more admission to the Bar and the number that runs into thousands now in the each of the ceremony, things are now different.
You can imagine 50 years of legal practice in Nigeria with population now running into thousands. The influx into the legal profession certainly has effect on the profession. My anxiety now is more of the state of the judiciary.
Of the events in the last two years of judges at the highest level, where you could not tell whether the Chief Justice of Nigeria was telling the truth or the President of the Court of Appeal was telling the truth. Obviously, the two of them would not be telling the truth.
One lied about the event, which brought the judiciary to its lowest ebb in the country. At a time of all these decades, where the executive has failed the country, many of those in authority, whether states’ Houses of Assembly or Aso Rock in Abuja, had failed the country.
Nigeria is yet to have a nationalist, a Nigerian as head of government, not somebody from Lagos State or Kaduna State or Bayelsa State or whatsoever; someone with a mission to make Nigeria what China and India or Brazil is today.
That was our dream in the 60s as students, a Nigeria at Independence, strong economically, a voice in the world politics. Nigeria is not a voice, G20 meeting is going to take place this year, Nigeria is not there as a member, a Nigeria we dreamt of, when you talk of five or seven countries in the world or first in Africa.
Our dream is to be that voice not just in Africa, but a strong voice in the world’s economy and politics. In all that, we have failed. Our leaders have failed. The Executive has failed; the Legislature has failed because of the excessive pay they received as legislators. The economy of the country cannot bear it.
I know that the present Legislature has reduced their pay, but they failed to tell us what is the pay they receive. How much do they receive? An open government should tell the public how much it receives. Is it N2 million per month, N1 million per month or is it still the same N13 million plus allowances? For senators N11 million plus allowances per month, how much deductions have
been made? They should let the public know, especially these days, when people are talking of N18,000 minimum wage. In any case, both the Executive and the Legislature have failed. The judiciary has been sustaining the dignity of this country except for the event of the past two years, which had brought the judiciary to its knees.
I am not talking about corruption, which the people are complaining now. We have seen cases in which judges were dismissed for taking bribes during the election petition. It is public knowledge. But the problems we had in the judiciary in the past two years were too heavy for Nigeria to bear. The load is too much.
Are you now in support of the recent steps taken by the CJN to restore the dignity of the judiciary?
I do support the recent steps by the CJN. I know him very well. I have not just known him as a Supreme Court judge but from his High Court days, he is a man of integrity. I support all the steps he is taking. But it takes time to repair this damage.
How do you react to some dissenting voices coming from the committee the CJN set up to sanitise the judiciary?
I don’t know what these dissenting voices and recommendations are. It has been a very terrible period of suspension of judges and manipulation of appointments. You don’t expect somebody to be the president of the Court of Appeal and let him go to the Supreme Court.
No! I don’t want to be in the Supreme Court. I prefer to stay where I am. You are to pervert the course of justice, suspend judgement, don’t give judgement or rulings, it is never done.
A judge is enjoined to deliver his judgement after hearing both sides before him. It is for the higher court afterwards to distort or reverse. Reverse or confirm that judgement, you don’t interfere with proceedings before a lower court, you don’t.
And these days, there is so much craft licence for people challenging judgement of courts by petitions and so on. You don’t do that. If you are not pleased with any judgement, go to the higher court. If you are not pleased with the decision of an election petition tribunal, go to the next tier of judiciary and accept verdicts. People should be gentlemanly. Because of the money they rake from these government appointments, some people are ready to die to get to certain positions.
Recently, I was listening to the former Foreign Minister of Australia, who was until two years ago, the Prime Minister. And the present Prime Minister, a lady dislodged him by due process and she became the Prime Minister.
Her Foreign Minister challenged her, the ballot took place last week, the woman, that is the Prime Minister, came up in the national television to accept the verdict of the electorate, the members of the Labour Party in power, who confirmed the election of the present Prime Minister and the defeated person promised to work with the winner for the victory of the Labour Party in the election next year.
That is how politics should be practised. That is how it is practised in the civilised world. He took his defeat with grace and promised to work with the victor for the victory of their party at the coming election next year. That is what we should do in Nigeria. It is not a matter of life and death.
A governor is pronounced wrongly elected, you appeal, the appeal is thrown out, and you write a petition against that. What is the business of the court looking at the petition? You cannot review the judgement of the court and the court cannot review its own judgement.
The Court of Appeal cannot review its own judgement. It is only the Supreme Court that can reverse or confirm that judgement. But, we have now reduced the legal practice to nothing. It is nauseating. That is not the law, a court cannot review its own judgement, but we have seen cases where defeated people or people who lost on appeal are asking the court to review its own judgement.
No court can review its own judgement but the higher court and the final Court of Appeal and when it makes a pronouncement, that is the end of the matter. Let there be sportsmen in politics.