Human rights lawyer and a chieftain of All Progressive Congress, APC, Dr Tunji Abayomi, in this interview, speaks on the removal of immunity clause from the 1999 Constitution (as amended) being reviewed by the National Assembly, the reason he went to court to stop constitutional amendment, the politicisation of the Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and the need to scrap or reform it to meet the professional needs of the law profession.
You were a governorship aspirant of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria, now merged with other parties to become All Progressive Congress (APC), in Ondo State. What precipitated your interest in politics?
I asked former President Olusegun Obasanjo the same question. His response to me was that regardless of how important you are, when the condition of your people is pitiful, it affects your image.
He added that if you have all the money, how many hospitals can you build? If you have the desire to improve the condition of the people and you have personal wealth, how much can you really give to the people?
My interest in politics is essentially how I can use the energy, might, perceptibility, my connections in the world and my compassion to improve the lives of the people, to see if I can make government work for the people. I grew up in an environment of high value, I lived abroad, I was in Ohio University and, twice, I won the President Leadership Award among others. I asked myself, ‘what really should you be judged by?’
If you don’t want a situation with the level of corruption, disorder, poverty, wretchedness, a country without water, a country without good hospital, not even one primary school that the elite can put their children. I feel that if I can help somebody as I move on, if I can give a little bit of helping hands to the people, then my life is not in vain. I think I have a better chance to use my life, now that I am in the last quarter of it in a way to improve the lives of the people.
In politics, what dictates your ideology? You know we have the conservatives and progressives.
My ideology is dictated by humanism and, when I am taking of humanism, it is same principle as human right. Human right is to be humane; if you are humane you will not corrupt yourself because you know that every penny, even if you have all the wealth, is not sufficient to meet the needs of the people.
If you are humane, you will know that education is crucial for the future of the poor and the wealthy. If you are humane, you will know that the environment should be improved so that people can live more fulfilling lives, you will be satisfied and thank God for the privilege that history has given you to serve the people.
But you can do that without necessarily being an APC member?
The problem is the limitation. I might have been doing that; give scholarship to the people, I have people but it is limited. If we have collective wealth, we can solve collective problem in a larger and extensive manner.
What about the choice of a political party?
When I chose a political party, I set out the criteria that I wanted to achieve. First of all, the party must have historical mentors that I share their vision. The second one is that the party must have history and the third is that the party must have relevance among my people. The last thing is that the party must be humane.
When I laid down those criteria at that time, Alliance for Democracy (AD) met those criteria because you must appreciate that I was not going into politics as a politician, I was going into politics as a professional and my interest was not to win at all costs. I looked at somebody like (the late) Chief Obafemi Awolowo and I said he was committed to the people and was humane, he was my mentor.
I looked at the history of the struggle of Action Group to AD, I looked at their ideas; education, development of the society, environment and commerce; that was the basis that I chose to go into politics.
If you have made it as governor of Ondo State, what would you have done differently from what Governor Olusegun Mimiko is doing?
If I was the governor of Ondo State, the people would develop the state. First and foremost, I would not spend N1billion to celebrate my first year anniversary. I will not establish wasteful ventures like Kaadi Igbe Ayo, and Dome which are totally irrelevant to the poverty of the people.
If you take the road, when I was close to him and they were discussing the issue of Oba-Adesida Road, one night, I drove on the road and I was fascinated about how fantastic that road was before the wasteful reconstruction. What was the problem of the road as there was no single pothole?
The problem was that the road was crowded and vehicular passage was impeded. To my mind, what was necessary was to have modern car parks which would also generate commerce. It would have freed that road and save billions of Naira that would have been pumped into wealth generating projects.
Elections are around the corner, what are the chances of your party both in the state and the country?
We have a chance if we work hard and are determined, but if we take things for granted, we will fail. But if we work hard and we are serious about our own affairs and we allow due process to take its course and we have good candidates, we have a good chance to do well in this state.
Many people are of the view that your party should take advantage of the defection of the governor to the PDP, but it seems nothing is happening.
We are taking advantage (of it); about 3,000 people just defected in Ondo South, and people are coming into APC because they are traumatized about the governor’s surprise movements in and out of political parties. The governor was of Labour Party (LP). What is surprising is that he turned the whole state to orange, it was as if LP would live in Ondo State in perpetuity only for you to turn around and abandon the same LP and turn to PDP. I don’t understand the governor.
What is your view about two-party system? Is it desirable?
It is desirable. It is less wasteful in terms of energy, interest and resources. Again, most democracies move towards two-party system, Labour and Conservative in Europe, Democrats and Republicans in America, I think it is good because sustaining political party needs more than a name, it needs people, ideas and resources and I don’t think small party can maintain national reach that a larger political party is expected to have.
The House of Representatives recommended the removal of immunity clause from the Constitution. What is your take on this?
They don’t understand the law. Of course the President, Vice President, Governors and Deputies must enjoy immunity. You cannot say a President or Governor could be subjected to a legal process anyhow. Let us understand that in a sense, they don’t enjoy immunity as their enjoyment of immunity is only limited to the term they are in office.
There is no statute of limitation in prosecution for criminality. In the whole process of constitutionalism, they (lawmakers) don’t understand immunity. This is part of the problem of this country. When you look at the people discussing the Constitution, amendment or emergence, I always ask them, how many times have they invited constitutional experts and interacted with them?
When America celebrated its 200 years of Constitution, it invited Prof Ben Nwabueze as one of the special guests and he delivered a lecture. Now, has Nigeria invited Prof Nwabueze not to talk of Tunji Abayomi or other constitutional experts in terms of new Constitution for Nigeria? What did they do? They went from zone to zone and brought together market women and gave them meat pie.
The Constitution itself is not amendable, it is illegitimate and an illegitimate Constitution cannot be amended. You must first of all legitimize the Constitution by the proper approbation of the people and, as I always say, the Constitution is not law.
A law by its definition is passed by a legislative house and assented to by the President but a Constitution is an agreement among the people on how they want to be governed and it is not the content of the Constitution that validates it, it is the procedure of making it. The people in the National Assembly refuse to learn because they spend billions of Naira on wasteful constitutional amendment.
If the Constitution is legitimate, you don’t need to waste money on the amendment. Any legitimate Constitution has internal prescription on the process of amendment. You begin by raising a bill, you send it to the Houses of Assembly, they pass it usually by two third and it becomes an amendment. Theses ones have spent billions wastefully on a venture they don’t care to understand. In our nation, anything goes and so we are where we are.
Is this the reason you went to court to stop the constitutional amendment or because you are a member of APC?
It has nothing to do with being a member of APC, it is because I don’t want the country to enter into another voyage of period of desolation and confusion. They have gone to the National Conference without any law; they have come out with resolutions from the conference, where do they go? They are talking about referendum, how do you get referendum?
Do you go on the street and say ‘I want a referendum?’ How do you turn it into a Constitution? If you send it to the National Assembly, part of the recommendations is that we should have unicameral Assembly, can the National Assembly vote out its existence?
What the President is supposed to do is to act according to the law. In my case before the court, the President has no job constitutionally except few jobs, he can be a chief executive, appoint ambassadors, command the armed forces and grant prerogative of mercy.
If you take those four jobs, he has only one job and that is to execute the law and the Constitution. The question is, where is the law he is executing? He is convoking National Conference.
If he wants to amend the Constitution, that is not his job; the Constitution is amended by the legislature worldwide. If he says he want to give us a new Constitution, he started on a wrong footing because he appointed invalidly about 140 people into the conference whereas, under the law, he has just one voting right like any other Nigerian, he has no power to give us a new Constitution.
You have spent 32 years at the Bar. Many of your junior colleagues would have been Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) and you are not. Are you not worried?
I am not worried. I never get worried over any issue I am not convinced about. The issue of SAN, I always ask the question, what really is in it? Is it an award or a promotion? If it is an award, my understanding of award is that it is independent of the awardees. Eminent people who are deserving to sit and judge over others will meet and decide that for the distinction or the achievement of this person, ‘let us confer him with this honour’, it is totally independent of the honouree.
Let me give an example of a friend of mine who we were handling a major case together in Abuja. Every evening, he was going to the Supreme Court. One day I said to him, ‘why are you going to the Supreme Court after 4pm?’ He said this SAN; you cannot get it without lobbying for it. Eventually, he got the SAN. We have occasion people go to birthdays, death ceremonies and all kinds of ceremonies because they are looking for SAN.
In my view, if it is honour, it should be totally independent of the honouree. On the other hand, if it is a promotion, we should sit for the same exam and judged impartially. I do not see that in reference to SAN.
If all you achieve is to increase your fees in service to the people, that is of no interest to me. I am not interested in wealth without character. If on the other hand, it is simply to ask your colleague to move from the front seat and move back, to me that violates the cardinal principle of equal protection under the law and I cannot surrender myself to that.
The whole thing that surrounds it, to my mind, does not connote eminent value that should inspire anyone. In our nation, people enjoy titles, they want to be chief, Dr, SAN and all have you. In most cases, these titles become oppressive.
In view of your position, should the title of SAN be scrapped?
There are two options in my view that is possible, you can scrap it and people will be judged by their performance or, in the alternative, you can reform it so much so that the conferment would purely be based on objective assessment without the influence of the honouree.
In order words, the privilege committee, on their own, look at this person and invite him to submit even if they have criteria for consideration. If they invite people on their own, they would know who to confer with the title. Even the concept of asking them to submit is indeed an honour, they can now decide to honour the person with the title of SAN.
Are you saying the title is political?
It is not only political, it is subject to all sorts of things, politicized, influence peddling, I even believe it is spiritualized. I cannot surrender myself to that kind of thing. I have been in a court where a SAN was talking to a judge anyhow and I felt because you are SAN, you just behave anyhow. There are good SANs and there are good lawyers who are not SAN. We should respect one another. In my view, SAN disrespects the professionals.