By Soni Daniel, Regional Editor, North, & Levinus Nwabughiogu
His concerns for his job at the National Assembly stands tall. And he appears unperturbed ventilating his feelings irrespective of how provocative they might be. For over one hour, Hon. Charles Uzo Azubuike, a lawyer of 22 years standing, a former Deputy Speaker of Abia State House of Assembly and now, Chairman, House Committee on Public Petitions, speaks to Sunday Vanguard in a no-holds-barred interview. Amongst other controversial national issues, Azubuike says challenges threatening the unity of Nigeria make National Confab necessary.
Presiding over the House of Representatives Committee on Public Petitions must be risky due to very sensitive national issues you handle. How comfortable are you doing this kind of job?
I feel happy to have been given the privilege to chair the House Committee on Public Petitions. The mandate of the Committee is to consider all petitions laid on the floor of the House and advise on the next step or the proper decision to make. In that circumstance, my role is investigative and advisory. Being investigative, from the onset, I and all members of the Committee conditioned our minds to be open in listening to all parties.
We have no final say because our findings and recommendations are subject to the approval of the House of 360 members in the Committee of the whole. And if the findings and recommendations are not in line with the facts collected and collated from the investigative hearing, definitely, the logic will break and the House will reject the recommendations and that will be a kind of humiliation to the Committee.
Knowing that, the Committee has a duty to make convincing recommendations that will come in form of recommendations, we have no choice that to be open, transparent, very for thright and objective. In such environment, we have not had experience of any threat of any sort from any body. All parties that appear before us, before they leave, make what we call parting comments and all their comments always draw tears of joy from eyes They express satisfaction with our sense of justice, with our appreciation of issues and most times, before they leave, both parties already know what our recommendations are likely going to be because it is like a truth panel.
Can you mention some of the petitions you have handled and which one was most challenging to you and your members?
We have over 2,000 petitions pending. We have done over 300. Many of them, of course, involve people in top positions and many of them arise from the impunity in the system; from inability of certain privileged people to know the difference between their persons and their offices and they would want to overreach themselves. We have had some challenging cases. One of them was the Oyerinde (slain aide to the Edo governor) case because it was controversial.
The SSS investigated the incident and arrived at a conclusion with a set of suspects; the police investigated the same matter and arrived at a conclusion with another set of suspects. And if you read the stories, both of them were detailed enough and could secure conviction in court. And a body of civil society groups now petitioned, complaining of incompetence and miscarriage of justice against the police. In that case, the police institution was on trial. And either at the beginning or midway, there was politics in it.
We saw a situation where people wanted to take advantage of a criminal incident to overreact themselves politically. Of course, you will recall that that was the case where the Office of the Attorney-General confessed on national television because that hearing was fully covered by the media, that it was confused. And for us it was a very sad comment that on a legal issue, the Office of AG will confess in public that they are confused.
Well, that statement was made by the Deputy Director of Public Prosecution who came to represent the AG. The next morning, the AG wrote a two-page letter I will call an apology for what the officer said dissociating himself from it and stating his position. In fact, he stated that he had initiated disciplinary proceedings against that officer.
He said that the office of the AG could not be confused on legal issues. That will tell you how knotty that issue was. But if you had the privilege of listening to the police and SSS, you may not be able to run away from that blunder which the officer made. So, it was the most
knotty matter we ever had but its resolution was very simple.
Has it been resolved?
Well, my Committee has submitted a report to the House. Once you are able to identify and isolate the political influence in the matter, you come to terms with the facts. One happy thing about it is that the real murderers were in the net of the security agencies. The problem now was how to separate them because the challenge was, who assassinated Oyerinde?
And in the net they had people who all had evidence of murders previously. And you know, one crime leads unto another, one song leads unto another song and one friend another friend. This is how criminality flows. So, we were able to untie it. There was no need for the confusion in the Office of the AG because the Security Agencies Act is there.
The Police Act is there. And the agencies have their jurisdictions. In the first instance, whose primary duty is it to investigate a state crime? That is the issue. Then if you have the agency that has a key role to play, then other agencies have to collaborate and provide support. You cannot have two of them working on the same pedestal. I ordered and within four days, there was that cooperation.
So, have the real murders been unmasked?
All of them are there. What brought the confusion was that one of the suspects confessed to the police that they did the murder at the instance of David Ugolor. And police now started investigating on the theory of assassination instead of robbery but even the charge they had was robbery. The preliminary charge they brought to court and SSS on their own said, ‘look, it is not murder, it is robbery’.
So, that brought the twist on the side of the police. And the politics that came into it was that somebody now said, ‘okay’, in the police station where David Ugolor was detained, the entry of his detention predated the date of the incident and a gun one of them confessed that they used; in the police diary, that gun was registered before the date of the incident’.
But that shows complicity in the stations because Ugolor was there (at the hearing) and confirmed he was never arrested and never detained by the police before this date in connection with any other crime. And therefore, it becomes a crime for anybody to go and claim that police released somebody in their custody to come and do the assassination and they took him back. The police were deceived by the confession of a criminal and the confession of a hypocrite.
So, we recommended that the police should not rely on that confession. They should allow Ugolor to go but, if they have other facts implicating, they could go ahead and investigate and not rely on the confession of a criminal because even in law, the confession of a co-accused cannot convict another accused. It needs collaboration. That is how we untied that knotty matter.
We also had the Capital Oil controversy. That one came with its twists too. The respondents were Access Bank, Coscharis and Aig-Imuokuede. Aig-Imuokuede had dual personalities in that matter. He was Chairman, Presidential Task Force on Oil Subsidy and he was the Managing Director of Access Bank at the time Capital Oil took facility from Access Bank to go and procure petroleum products.
So, he granted the loan and he was on the other side to stop payment for the product purportedly (quote) procured and also using the same opportunity to secure repayment of the loan secured – remember that what brought the matter before us was the seizure of all assets of Capital Oil. And in Nigeria , there will always be pressure. That was a great challenge.
I had pressure from every where, from even the members of my Committee who didn’t believe it was possible for you to handle such a matter without making profit. And I said I will not have anything to do with any of the parties. I will not even read their briefs and that is my procedure in my Committee. I don’t read the briefs they submit before coming for hearing. We stay there, you present the matter; I will ask my foolish questions along with other people and everybody will know that you didn’t know anything about it.
By the time I am convinced and the other people are also convinced on where the case is going. The result is that many of the cases; we just report to the House for formality, the parties stay there and reconcile. Sometimes, you see a party will get up and weep and apologize to the person he petitioned against right before us because the truth has come out to the table.
We are not technical in our approach. You may be talking and you say something that is not correct, we stop you the way we do it in our native place and the truth will be on the table. Two weeks ago, it was the SSS that dismissed wrongfully their staff. They came for the hearing because SSS is a very disciplined organization and the security agencies we have in Nigeria have respect for democracy.
I want to tell you that they cooperate more with us than the people even in political offices. As the SSS was coming for the hearing, they came with a letter reinstating the man they sacked. A man from Cross River cried because he was in court for over 20 years with FCDA and he now came here. FCDA is a regular respondent before us and each time they come, they come prepared and when that one came they knew they had no answer to the man’s petitions, they came with alternative allocation because they revoked his land without due process but for public interest.
So, they came there with a replacement which was higher in value, bigger in size and the man never believed that such is possible. We make sure that the lowly placed is not oppressed. We also make sure that the lowly placed does not abuse the privilege of having the men of prominence embark on an engagement with them.
Let’s take you to some other contemporary issues. At the peak of the PDP crisis which, of course, spread to the House, speculations were rife that Speaker Tambuwal on one plank would be impeached. On the other plank, it was the President Goodluck Jonathan. We understand you are close to the House leadership. Was there a time such a thing came up in the House?
These were speculations by people who wanted to bring heat into the polity and into the National Assembly; on one hand, they said the National Assembly was going to impeach the Speaker and the President of the Senate; on another, they said the National Assembly was warming up to impeach the President. And there was no basis for that. I was at the center of this development even before we went on recess.
We saw a certain drift in our party and we saw the difficulties of certain leaderships in steering certain programmes and policies through because of the composition of the House itself and the incoherence among the PDP members in the House, so we floated what we called the PDP Patriots Forum. In that forum, we came together and said we had a duty to protect the policies of our party in the chambers.
It has even moved to something bigger. We have moved from the Patriots to the Unity Forum. But what we did first was to awaken that consciousness among the PDP members that we are PDP. The leadership of the House is PDP. The executive is PDP. Progammes and policies of the executive should be able to sail here. We saw there was a communication gap between the PDP leadership in the House and the executive.
A situation where polices will come to the House without even the knowledge of Hon. Molikat Akande who is the PDP leader and considering that she didn’t have prior notice, she wasn’t in a position to mobilize the PDP members to be aware and so, when such matters come, each man talks from his head. And we said we were not going to allow that drift again.
We now built a channel by which we will reach the leadership of the executive and the leadership of the House. The Speaker fully supported. He is a PDP member. He was the one taking the punches on the PDP failure of the House to work coherently. The legislative house is a volatile place. To impeach the executive, you need to first issue notice of allegation of gross misconduct which the executive has 14 days to respond to.
That one needs one- third of the members and, thereafter, whether or not they respond, you now bring a motion to investigate the allegations of gross misconduct. That one needs two-third of the members and when that one is passed, the Chief Justice will be mandated to set up an investigative panel of seven members and that panel has three months to complete its investigations and report back to the House and the House, if they find the allegations to be true, you need two-third members of the House to adopt that report.
Once you adopt it, the officer stands automatically removed. So, you see that there is latitude for the man you want to impeach to run around. The same with the judiciary. But in the case of the presiding officers of the legislature, they have no security of tenure. In the first instance, the chief executive of the executive, as he is elected, he is elected with a definite term.
The chief executive of the legislative has no tenure. He lives from day to day subject to good conduct; good behaviors in the eyes of the members. There is no procedure. No protocols for the removal of a Speaker or any presiding officer. All you need is two-third of the members. So, what we did was to put up the PDP Patriot Forum to galvanize the support of PDP members for the policies of the PDP that come to the House to sail through knowing that the presiding officers cannot rule contrary to, otherwise they will be risking their own offices. That was how we started and everybody was there.
How many are you?
PDP has over 200 members. But during the break, we had a mini-convention; we now have a new dimension that has overtaken the Patriots Forum. At the initial stage, some of the people who were patriots like us had joined the New PDP. So, how do we work to endure that there is peace and stability in the House? That is how we now metamorphosed into the Unity Forum. And let me say that even when we were running the Patriots Forum, we realized that there were other people, pockets of organizations that were still thinking along the same line. But they were few and meeting on their own. We first agreed before we went on recess to bring everybody together.
So, we had the Renaissance and we started working together. But when we now went on recess and this happened, some of the members of Patriots Forum, of course, followed their governors to the New PDP. So, how do we ensure that the crisis outside does not come into the House? That was why we now metamorphosed into the Unity Forum.
In the Unity Forum, we set up three objectives to ensure stability in the House by not letting anybody talk to us and how to remove the leadership of the House; the stability of the government by not letting anybody talk to us on how to remove the executive or put unnecessary pressure or distraction on the executive. And for the majority of us in the Patriots and still in the PDP, the stability of the PDP is a priority; we don’t see how anybody can wake up and begin to parade himself as National Chairman.
Aren’t you bothered that the crisis is escalating?
At the party level and in the national assembly
No, as far as National Assembly is concerned, there is no crisis. There has never been any crisis in the National Assembly flowing from this. People misread, maybe mischievously the visit of Baraje. Now, what caused problem was that we disagreed that his letter shouldn’t have been read on the floor of House because that would look like promoting illegality. And when we said it, the APC members in the House took advantage and made noise. They did not realize that those who had issues with PDP did not see anything worthy in them to join APC otherwise these seven governors could as well have just joined them. But they remained in PDP.
But the discussion in many circles is that the pro-Jonathan group in the House doesn’t have the number and that the people in the opposition can easily adopt Tambuwal and flush you out?
I wouldn’t want us to engage in street talks. It is a mathematical thing. The House has 360 members. Out of the 360, PDP has 214. Now, if you remove the 57 members of the so-called New PDP and add to what the opposition parties have, we still have more than half of the House. Now, beyond PDP, we have the Labour Party. We have the Accord Party, we have APGA and they are all on our side. So, where will they get that majority number? At every point in time, we have the majority to control the House.
Why are you supporting President Jonathan as an Igbo man?
I am not supporting President Jonathan as an Igbo man. I am supporting him as a Nigerian because I have seen his programmes. I have seen the improvement we are enjoying today in the power sector. I have seen the stability in the supply of our petroleum products on any price we agreed.
With all the support for the Presidency, when do you think it is appropriate for Igbo to produce a President?
I told you earlier that the basis for my support for the President is that there should be orderly transfer of power. I am not speaking for the Igbo. I am speaking for myself as a Nigerian and a believer in the Nigerian project. I believe in the unity of Nigeria but I believe that we should be explaining things to ourselves so that we should understand what we are doing. Now, it is not difficult. Presidency was in the North.
It came to south West. When they finished, peacefully, it was returned to the North, and when nature intercepted it, it came back to the South and went to the South-south. The vote we cast for President Jonathan in 2011 was for his person because he was already president and if you asked him to go, it means that we have ended his political career. He can’t be vice president again. He can’t be any other thing.
So, he is there, when he finishes, I believe that the proper thing to do is after Jonathan must have done his second term, power should go to the North. I am not speaking for the Igbo. When the North finishes their tenure, it comes back to the South. When it comes to the South, there is no way any other person outside the South-east should expect to be president. It will come to the South and Igbo man will become the president. He is not going to be Igbo president. He is going to be president of Nigeria. And we don’t want anybody to push us into asking for the presidency at a time there is chaos and crisis in Nigeria.
There are speculations that you are warning up to succeed Governor T. A. Orji in Abia State . Are you interested in the office?
I will tell you that I believe that power belongs to God; that the future belongs to God and He alone controls the future. I believe in the Lord’s prayer. The way I support President Jonathan is the way I support my governor, T. A. Orji. I am his radical and fanatic supporter. Out of 360 Nigerians, conservatively, I am one of the 360 elected into the highest legislative body in Nigeria . My prayer is that God should help me to represent my people well so that when I finish, Nigerians that I am working for will be satisfied that I put in my best. I believe that my performance today will determine where I am going tomorrow.