By ONOZURE DANIA
Chief Ladi Rotimi-Williams (SAN), is one of the prominent voices at the inner bar. He is known for baring his mind on National issues without mincing words in this interview he spoke on constitution amendment, immunity clause, six years single tenure, Sovereign national conference, Rivers crisis and the effort of the current Chief Justice of Nigeria to sanitize the Judiciary Excerpts:
How would you describe the 1999 Constitution, which some critics have described as not a peoples’ constitution but a product of military rule? Do you think there should be continuous amendment, or a brand new one should be produced?
Well, it is not every part of the 1999 constitution that is defective. For example, the section on fundamental rights, section on citizenship, large areas concerning the legislative process and the judiciary are quite okay. But I agree that there are certain areas which need to be revisited. The legislators have the power to amend the constitution but they don’t have the power to do a wholesale reconstruction of the constitution.
So, they may continue with the amendment but they should realize that they don’t have the mandate to totally change its character. For instance, some people have said that we should jettison the federal system of government. I don’t think they can do that because it is too fundamental.
Let us look at the removal of immunity clause for president and governors as being canvassed by the lawmakers. Some Nigerians have said it will lead to distractions, do you share this view?
Yes, I agree with those who said the removal of immunity clause will lead to a lot of distractions. Perhaps, what can be considered is to look at the immunity clause and limit it. For instance, a school of thought feels that when it comes to criminal proceedings, we should lift the immunity clause such that an incumbent executive office holder can be liable to be prosecuted for a criminal offence.
But then, can you have that situation whereby the Attorney- General and Minister of Justice who is an appointee of the executive prosecutes his boss? Don’t we need to have a separate office, maybe like they do in Sweden where they have an ombudsman, a separate office with an independent prosecutor that is independent and is appointed by the legislature and not the executive to carry out such prosecution?
When it comes to civil proceedings, I think the immunity clause should remain so that the president cannot be prosecuted for civil proceedings. But for criminal offences, he can be prosecuted. This will make it very difficult for some of the executives who had been found guilty of embezzlement of public funds, abuse of office and treasury looting to do so if they know that even whilst in office, criminal prosecution can be brought against them. They will be extremely careful. So far as the criminal aspect is concerned, I will say that the immunity can be lifted but not for the whole proceedings.
You said they can be prosecuted for criminal offences. Why can’t we wait after four years since the constitution stipulates that they can be prosecuted immediately after serving out their terms of office?
The reason why some people feel we cannot wait till their tenure expires is because the damage would have been done irreparably. Money meant to develop infrastructural projects; purchase of hospital equipments, to develop power and education could have been wasted before anything can be done about it. Otherwise, what we have now is like a man who is trying to press the brake of his car after the car has had an accident. And it cannot continue like that.
What is your take on the argument for a six year single tenure as against the current four years of two terms each?
I think we should continue with what we have now. A man that is elected into office who knows that come four years time, he will have to go back to his people to renew his mandate will make sure that he behaves properly in that first four years so that he can come back to the people and say ‘based on my record, I am requesting you to give me a mandate for another four-year term’.
And then it will now be up to the people to determine if he is justified in asking for another term. But if it is just one term of six years, immediately he gets there, he may not be bothered to please the people. He can just do whatever he likes, knowing full well that he holds office just for a single term of six years without having to come back to his people for another mandate, especially in situation like this where there is immunity from civil and criminal actions.
Don’t you think it is time to convene a Sovereign national conference to address some of these anomalies?
I know that a lot of people have said this; I have also mooted the idea. But the problem is this, what will be the parameters?. How do we appoint the members of that body? Some people have said we should have market women, workers, farmers included. Now the problem is that Nigeria is a vast country, complicated. How are they going to communicate in English language?
So, we have an interpreter, so when a farmer from Gbaraun Bayelsa state or a fisherman wants to talk to a cattle rearer in Kebbi , how do they sit down to talk if they don’t speak English? So, it is not an easy thing and the difficulty is the way that we have been structured. So, let us do what we can for now. Let us use our representatives. You can‘t have a market woman who can hardly read and write legislating for us or drafting a constitution for us. So, these are the problems which I foresee. It is not that they should be excluded, but what are they coming to say?
If the masses cannot undertake the project, don’t you think the elites should do that , as long as all the various ethnic nationalities are represented?
Even if you bring in only the elites, they will tell you that it is an elitist constitution, it is not for the masses but for the few. So, there is nothing you can do that you will not have such criticism. What I believe has to happen is that we have to be realistic. Usually, those who propel a change in society are few in numbers and you cannot carry the entire population with you because of the disparity in educational standards.
Writing a constitution is a very serious matter. So, it will be very difficult not to rely on the elites at the same time the elites will have to realize that they are not making the constitution for themselves but for the people of Nigeria with diverse ethnic nationalities. The problem of Nigeria is monumental and this is because the country is founded on certain assumptions which have proven not to be quite right.
But because we have shed blood in making this country remain one, those who have been involved in fighting the cause of Nigeria’s civil war will obviously not like to feel that their efforts have been in vain. But one thing is certain, Nigeria cannot continue the way it is right now, whereby some people will say it is our turn, another people will say ‘no, it is our turn.
Even when you look at various states, there are certain states that you find certain people who cannot be in charge of the executive of the state because of the demography. Take Benue state for instance, an Idoma will find it very difficult to be governor of Benue state because the Tiv are in the majority. You come to Delta, it will be difficult for somebody from Delta North, that is the Ibo speaking area of the state to be governor because the Ijaws, Itsekiri and the Urhobos will tell you that ‘look, you have the capital in Asaba already. Why do you want to have governorship in addition?’. So, the complexity of the problem is such that it will take a superhuman to blend this country into an indivisible, one strong united company. Be that as it may, we will continue to strive for unity.
To move the country forward from where it is presently, don’t you think we should begin to look at merit when making appointments into key positions as against the zoning arrangement we currently have?
The whole idea of merit is good, that is the right man for the job. but because of the nature of Nigeria, you can only do that maybe in sports. If you look at the senior national team, I dare say that most of the footballers were from the core east. Some people have remarked on this saying it is because the coach, Stephen Keshi is from the East, so he is putting his people there.
The answer the coach will give you is that ‘these are the people that he finds that are good enough to be members of the team’. This may not be so and it could also be so. So, in order to avoid suspicion, that one group is dominating the other group, that is why they have put the federal character principle in the constitution.
That is where you have various commanding heights in the economy that is being distributed among the various groups in the country. That is why for instance; in the federal cabinet you have ministers from various parts of the country. Even within the states, they look at the local government you come from,
otherwise, if you take Ogun state for instance, you cannot put everybody from Abeokuta central into Governor Amosun’s cabinet and say that they are the only ones who merit the posts.
There will be problems because what about the Ijebus, Yewas etc. Again, if President Jonathan were to fill his cabinet with only Ijaws, and all of them from Bayelsa, won’t there be a problem in the country? That is why we have to retain the federal character principle. What we can say is that where the government wants to give a particular post and there are 10 applicants for that post from Taraba state, then out of those 10 applicants, the government has to pick the best among them and be given the job. That best from Taraba state is not necessarily better than that person from Sokoto who is also probably more competent to hold that post. So, we have to blend the two, a bit of merit and federal character.
Let us look at the current political crisis rocking Rivers state. Are you in support of the taking over of the state’s House of Assembly by the National Assembly?
This is not the first time that a regional or state government is being taken over by the federal. It started with the old Western region, when there was fighting in the Western House of Assembly and somebody took the mace and then shouted ‘There is fire on the mountain, run, run, run. When that happened, the federal government took over and appointed the late Dr Moses Majekodunmi as administrator.
One thing led to the other and we had the first military government. When former President Obasanjo declared emergency rule in Plateau, he actually went ahead and appointed a military administrator for that period and suspended the governor. President Jonathan did a similar thing but he did not go that far when he declared emergency rule but left the political structures in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states.
In taking over Rivers State (House of Assembly), we have to be very careful because Rivers state is a very complex state to govern. The demography is not monolithic. There are various different groups that are there. I believe that the National Assembly did not need to take over the legislative functions of Rivers Assembly. Time will make everybody calm down and go back to their normal business after sometime.. It has not helped in the past and we should learn from history because we are not learning at present.
Maybe the National Assembly is afraid that the same ugly scenario will play itself out again if the lawmakers are allowed to continue sitting.
Well, they do not need to have had that fight before an incident happened. After all, when that incident happened the last time, there was no fight. So, whatever will be, will be. But I think that the lawmakers have learnt their lessons. I believe that those who actually fought have regretted it and probably ashamed because it was a show of shame.
What they did went on internet and across all social networking sites. People in Japan saw it, even those in Siberia saw it. I don’t think they will want to do that again. I believe they will respect themselves and will also remember the reason why they were elected into the Rivers State House of Assembly that is to legislate for order and good governance of the state.
ASUU is presently on strike and the Minister of State for Education, Nyesom Wike is neck-deep in the Rivers crisis, don’t you think the president should call him to order?
I think what the president should do is to redeploy the Minister of State for Education and give him another portfolio or make him an ambassador somewhere. Because he is one of the president’s loyalists and even though the president may not have endorsed every step that he has taken, at the same time, the president will not want to abandon one of his loyalists.
But the interest of Rivers state is higher than the loyalty of Wike to Mr. President. Just as the presidency is higher than the president. So, I believe the best solution is to redeploy Wike quietly and bring somebody from another part of the country to take that post. Get the Minister of Labour to intervene in the ASUU crisis alongside Prof. Ruquayatu Rufai.
Let us look at the current Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Aloma Mukhtar’s one year in office. How will you describe her journey so far?
You see the best way to appreciate the efforts of the present CJN is to compare her one year in office with that of her predecessor, Dahiru Musdapher. If we are to be brutally honest, let us just compare, the records are there. If it was an elective office and the immediate past CJN were to contest for an elective post with the present CJN, which one will you vote for? Obviously, it is the current CJN.
It is when you measure it like that that you begin to respect the input of the Honourable Justice Aloma Mukhtar. She has taken the bull by the horn and she is determined to fight the battle. Mind you, I am not that naïve. She alone cannot win against forces of corruption. She needs alliances from men of good will and patriots, those who love Nigeria. She also needs encouragement from the executive and the legislators.
We in the inner bar appreciate what she is doing. I can also assure you that lawyers who don’t take money to judges appreciate her too, but she cannot win because a tree cannot make a forest. She can only make a start and try to institutionalize some of the things she is doing but that she will win the fight against corruption, she cannot because just a single person cannot do it. But she is making a very bold start by trying to make the judiciary better than how she met it.