Chief Chris Uche, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN,with an eye on constitutional, political and electoral cases, in this interview, x-rays the forces that have given Nigeria high and low points at 53 and goes further to admonish President Goodluck Jonathan on what lies ahead of him and Nigeria.
By Soni Daniel, Regional Editor, North
How has Nigeria performed in 53 years of nationhood?
I must say that 53 years in the life of a nation is obviously not really a long time, but it is for a nation that actually didn’t just begin to exist 53 years ago but merely got independence, which was a platform for self-development. Looking through these years, I am not happy that as a nation we are still grappling with elemental issues that ought to have been sorted out long time ago if we had good leadership and followership. Looking back too, one begins to even feel that each year that passes by seems better than the present year, which now creates the impression that we are retrogressing on annual basis. If you ask the average Nigerian today whether he is happy than he was 15 years ago, naturally he would tell you he is not-not even the few privileged ones, who are occupying political offices and controlling our fortune and future. Our problems have even been complicated by the overwhelming issue of insecurity that government is finding almost incapable of handling. So, looking back over the years, I don’t think we have done well. And I don’t think we should continue to blame our misfortune on military interregnum-yes it is true that the military, which was not trained for political leadership, ruled us and they have since been out of the way for many years. The question to ask ourselves and those who are always quick to blame the military is, what have we achieved many years after the military quit the scene for civilian administration? It is on that score that I say that our score card is still negative.
On what do you put the blame then?
I put the blame on two key issues-poor leadership and amorphous structure of the country-both have contributed to the conundrum we have in Nigeria today. In the first place, because the country is structured to emphasize ethnicity, religion, tribalism, it is very difficult to talk about nationalism and patriotism. Every section of the country now talks about what to take from the centre and not what to bake to sustain the nation. That attitude has affected out attitude to politics-politics in Nigeria is not generally about service but about what to take from the system. Because of the attitude, everyone now feels that the easiest route to making wealth is public office and that is why the Nigerian brand of politics is do-or die. And that also explains why all the political parties in Nigeria do not have ideology. All they are concerned about is how to win election and corner the common wealth. You can see what is happening in the ruling People’s Democratic Party and you can begin to ask: is it a dispute over ideology or a dispute over service delivery to the citizenry or a dispute over how to provide dividends of democracy to the people? None of these applies to the current dispute, which is unduly heating up the polity. It is all about self-interest and how to retain political power because it is only through political power in that they have unhindered access to wealth. It is only in Nigeria that political offices have been imbued with financial attractions and I believe that the first thing we must do if we are to succeed is to make political offices less attractive. The other day, I got to know that the British Prime Minister went to a wedding in a train and that he does not even own a private jet and goes to events on British Airways as opposed to our own country where those in government fly jets maintained with public funds and where even people with questionable means of livelihood own private jets. I understand that we have over 200 private jets in the country where government officials who do not own private jets fly first class or business class not minding the poverty level in the nation and the effect on the ordinary citizens.
This tells you something about the distortion in our economy and the distortion of values in our country. That is why it is difficult to really get Nigerians together to think as one nation because everybody is working for his own selfish interest. And that is why one is pissed off by the current emphasis on 2015 election when we still have about two years to the election. And what is 2015? Nobody is even asking those in powers what they have done in the past years. Why should we be struggling for our turn or not our turn? Why should our leadership be on rotational basis? If we are offering the ideals of democracy, then we should be talking about merit and not where a leader comes from. Even for me as a southerner, I should be able to ask myself, for these years that southerners have been the Presidents of this country, how has that impacted my life as a person or my community or my state? I don’t see any difference; that is why I am calling on Nigerians to de-emphasis the struggle about where our leaders come from. Boko Haram is an offshoot of the political struggle and it has become hydra-headed; there is no way the issue will not become an issue in the next election. We should begin to ask ourselves what we really want in the next 50years especially as there is the prediction that the country can disintegrate by 2015. Unfortunately, those at the helm of affairs are doing everything to make the prediction come through. This is worrisome and the trouble we are talking about is within the leadership. These are the same people who are expected to do everything to galvanise the country for development. I read about the Anambra election, which people are saying will be the litmus test for the 2015 election. What amazes me most is that the parties and INEC had more than four years to prepare for the election. They had more than four years notice to avoid the trouble of the past. Now, there are multiple lists for the same election and the stage is set for a protracted legal tussle that may outlast the election. Why would the parties not sit down and streamline? It is embarrassing. And it is the foretaste of what is coming. The litigations will get to the Supreme Court and it means that whoever is sworn in will be sitting on banana peels until the final court gives a verdict. Let us begin to think. Disintegration will not serve the interest of any section of this country. Both the section where oil is being produced and those without oil will not benefit from disintegration.
Many Nigerians have been speaking about oil as a curse and blessing. Do you think Nigeria would have been better off if oil was not discovered on August 6, 1956 in Oloibiri in the present Bayelsa State?
Oil is a blessing to this country. What is the curse is stealing the oil by our leaders and their cronies? That is the curse. Oil has assisted this country for so many decades in its developmental programmes in terms of infrastructure and global leadership. If oil has not been there, we could not have gone this far. Oil is not a curse but it is just that it has been mismanaged. As a country, we don’t know exactly how much we produce, we don’t know how much we export and we don’t know how much is stolen. And then, we now import the same product that we produce. It is unfortunate that a country like Nigeria does not have functional refineries. All we keep hearing is that these refineries are bad and nothing is done to revive them. We hear the same thing every four years. How many years of decay did they have to wait before they built the refineries that we used before they were abandoned? This government does not have any excuse why the oil sector cannot be streamlined so that Nigerians can derive the greatest benefit from it. This government has no excuse having been in power for so long and we do not have regular power supply. Every day they tell us stories of how we will have so and so megawatt and comparing us to countries that don’t have the same resources like Nigeria. I think our problem is one of leadership. And once the head of the fish is rotten, the entire body is affected. That is why you can never really talk about good followership because nobody is committed and ready to die for this country. The only thing you hear is that so and so persons have stolen so and so billions of Naira and that ASUU and other groups are on strike over unfulfilled promises by government. And government is beating its chest that it has achieved so much at 53. It says the big thing at 53 is that we are still one nation. It is like a 70-year man who has accomplished nothing boasting that he is still alive. It does not make sense at.
Nigeria is also fighting for a seat at the UN Security Council. Is this not an achievement?
I am seriously thinking of how that will translate to benefits for the Nigerian on the street because those things he is asking for are not many: steady light, water, good roads, hospitals and schools. So if you take a seat at the Security Council of the UN or you become the UN Secretary General it does not really amount to anything for the average households in this country. We must be more inward-looking. Government should begin to think more about the things that will help Nigerians to live more happily and fulfil their dreams as human beings. As we approach the next election in 2015, government should be able to let Nigerians see what is on the ground and be able to voluntarily elect their governors, their President. But in a situation where the party in power and government believe that votes shouldn’t count because they have never really counted in the past; that is not fair enough after 53 years of nationhood.
As a lawyer, do you think the legal framework in Nigeria is adequate to give the nation a good society?
I believe the necessary legal framework and infrastructure are there for a nation that wants to develop. We have a constitution that is very comprehensive. There is nothing that our constitution has not taken care of. Very few countries have constitutions that are as comprehensive and forward-looking like that of Nigeria. Apart from the constitution, we have Acts and statutes that make ample provisions for virtually everything that you can think about. So the problem with our country is not the absence of legal framework or the absence of relevant laws or whether the laws are obsolete or whether we have current laws. There is really no situation in Nigeria that you don’t have existing and extant laws to take care of but our problems have always been the operators of the system. Our operators have always manipulated the system in such a way that it has become common that laws are not actually made for everybody in society. The laws are made by the rich in order to keep the poor in check. That has become the summary of what law is all about. That is why all this talk about constitutional amendment to me sounds like a jamboree and a distraction. I don’t think that constitution amendment is our problem as a nation. There is nothing the President can do for the country or the governors can do for their states that is being hampered because of its absence in the constitution. The constitution adequately provides for the building of roads, schools, health care facilities and the like in all ramifications as the main objectives of the states. So, we have adequate laws to facilitate investments, physical and human capital development if our leaders are not distracted by their continuous quest to remain in power.
Are our anti-graft laws also adequate to fight financial crimes? If not, do we need special courts for such offences?
The current clamour for special courts is well founded because of the experience of people with what is happening now. For instance, the trial of people charged with corruption cases does not progress speedily as people would have expected. But then, people are not also asking why the cases are not moving fast. Indeed, where are the cases and who are the ones being prosecuted? When things are not being done objectively, the cases cannot move in the expected direction. When you decide to use a system for witch hunting and political victimisation, you make many mistakes and, in that attempt, there will be roadblocks. Because everybody knows that these institutions are being influenced in the choice of suspects. And that is why the constitution knows that things like that happen and the law provides defence for such people. And that is the same facility that those who are ‘unjustly being prosecuted’ are also exploiting. To railroad people into the prison within four or five months, that does not make a legal system just. You cannot sacrifice justice on the altar of speed. Talking about special courts, we have had them in this country. We had the Special Military Tribunal, we had the Failed Banks Tribunal, Miscellaneous Offences Tribunal and so on and everybody knows that they brought more injustice than justice to the nation and that was a real danger to the nation and its people. If you now want to set up special courts for the EFCC and the ICPC, there will be new challenges; one of them being that there would be a ‘special relationship’ between the commissions and the courts.
Sometimes, the commissions would sponsor them on ‘courses’, sometimes they discuss the management of cases with them to the detriment of the defence and you know that one of the constitutional guarantees which is the foundation of the rule of law itself is that an accused person is presumed innocent until the contrary is proved. So, if you now create special courts that will have special relationship with these commissions, there won’t be any guaranty of fairness. The principle in law is that it is better for nine guilty persons to escape than one innocent person to be unjustly punished. We know our political leaders and we know that institutions like that could become handy tool for manipulation and witch-hunting. Therefore, there is the danger in creating special courts. And again, to create such special courts could throw up social dilemmas. If such courts are created, would they be at par or below High Courts? For them to assume the status of High Courts, in which case appeals from the special courts can go directly to the Appeal Court, it means there must be a constitutional provision in place putting them at par with High Courts. That is a big constitutional problem that we would have. And if you make them inferior to High Courts, the problem you wanted to solve would have been complicated. Anybody arraigned by the special courts would run to the High Courts to quash the trial and that would create more problems for the system.
We don’t really need special courts to solve the problems in the judiciary. If special courts are created, who will man them? Are the people to man them not Nigerians, who graduated from the same universities, who have relations in the courts and commissions? Are we going to import foreign judges or even angels to run the special courts? The Nigerian factor is one of the greatest problems and that is why when we are talking about corruption, we are merely dealing with the symptoms and not the root causes. Now you find a situation where even judges would begin to lobby to go to the special courts because they would have special litigants, high calibre men and women and internal corruption would emerge.
Why are you so apolitical despite being very successful as a lawyer?
I believe we must not all occupy the same position or do the same thing even if we are gifted to do such things. I would be very happy to be a governor and do all these things I am saying the governor should do. But I know that by my calling and training, I have been equipped to manage the laws to help develop the society. So I believe that if I am doing my own part from my own sector, that I would be contributing my own part to nation building rather than going to struggle, to displace and fight or challenge other persons, who may be better prepared or more endowed for political leadership. That is why I believe that my role is that of using the law to advance the welfare of the society. And that is why I find myself doing mostly constitutional, political and electoral cases.
What advice would you give to President Goodluck Jonathan if you were to meet him on the 53rd anniversary of Nigeria?
President Goodluck Jonathan means well for this country, but his problem is that he has not equipped himself adequately in order to obtain the desired results. When you hear him speak or you hear a few things about him, you discover that he has the best intention for Nigeria. But intentions and good wishes alone cannot transform a country. So, I would advise him to distance himself a bit from politicians. It was not politicians who put him in office but the Almighty God. I would advise him to have a pact with God that between now and 2015, he would leave his marks on the sands of times by delivering to Nigerians basic things like power, medicare, education, good roads and water. Let him do that and forget who the chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum is. Once he has satisfied the basic needs of the people, they would naturally vote for him when the time comes.