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How crisis in UNILAG accelerated 1966 coup — Ben Nwabueze

By Clifford Ndujihe, Deputy Political Editor
ARGUABLY, Legal luminary, elder statesman, and chairman of The Patriots, Professor Ben Nwabueze, SAN, 85, is the oldest senior advocate in the country. Of the 13 SANs crowned in 1978, he is one of the two still alive. The other is Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN, who Nwabueze claims is younger than him. Both are 85, but while Nwabueze was born in March, Akinjide was born in November.

The next in seniority after them, he said, is Professor Dele Kasumu, SAN, who was made senior advocate in 1979. Although he is older in age, Nwabueze said Akinjide is higher than him in the SAN rank because the latter got called to the Nigerian Bar earlier. On the other hand, he was called to the English Bar earlier than Akinjide. Reason: Upon completion of their law degrees in London, Akinjide returned immediately to Nigeria while he elected to remain in London and teach at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

At 85, Nwabueze said he is disturbed by what is happening in the country, especially in his much-loved profession – law, and he had to come out of retirement to intervene. Specifically, he said the unconstitutional manner the Department of State Service, DSS and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, are waging the war against the monster of graft could create a worse monster – anarchy, total break down of law and order. In this interview, weekend, after a press conference at his Ajao Estate, Lagos residence, Nwabueze, who was one of the law teachers that established the Law Faculty of the University of Lagos, UNILAG, in 1962, recounted how the crisis in the university quickened the military coup of 1966. He also said that the prevailing crackdown on some justices and judges is not only about going after corrupt judges but also borne out of President Muhammadu Buhari’s alleged angst against the Judiciary.
n why he came out of retirement to intervene in spite of his age and ill-health

There is a problem before all of us. I am doing my part, you (media) have your own part to play, and a lot depends on you. The question is: Can constitutional democracy and state terrorism or police state co-exist?

Prof. Ben Nwabueze
Prof. Ben Nwabueze

What has been going on for the past 12 years since the enactment of the EFCC Act to today, all in the name of war against corruption, is wrong. I keep on saying that while we fight the monster of corruption, as vigorously as we can, let us not do it at the expense of our constitution, which is the charter of our corporate existence.

We cannot afford to do away with our constitution in the name of war against corruption because if we do that we will create a worse monster than corruption – anarchy, which is total break down of law and order. Anarchy is a far greater evil for any society.

On the DSS crackdown on justices, judges and the judges’ allegations that the Presidency is after them because they refused to help the All Progressives Congress, APC to win election petitions in some states

It is difficult for me to react to allegations because I don’t have any proof of the allegations whether from the judges or what the minister said in defence are correct. At my age and level, it will be wrong for me to make public comments based on allegations.

However, the whole thing is part of the problem we are contending with, the problem of state terrorism. Why do you have to terrorise people?

The instruments of the state for coercion are irresistible. The state has an exclusive monopoly of force, and they are using that force. The Constitution has safeguards to protect the individual against the use of that force, which is a monster to prevent the emergence of personal power.

At the constitutional conferences held in London before independence, the minorities were apprehensive, they wanted to be protected against the operational use of this force, primarily, the Nigeria Police Force and secondarily, the armed forces.

The minorities wanted safeguards against this and insisted that the use of the NPF must be controlled by constitutional safeguards, which were provided.

Constitutional  safeguards

Can you imagine a Supreme Court justice being coerced, forced to sign a document against his will? How can that happen in a constitutional democracy? Compelling a judge or anyone to sign a document at gun point, is that not a terror? It is state terrorism.

Some are making noise saying that judges are not sacred cows. Nobody says they are sacred cows, but they are not like you and me. They are not common people. Not because there is anything special in their personality but because they represent an institution, the Judiciary, the Third Estate of the Realm, don’t destroy that institution. If a judge is corrupt, investigate him. And if you have evidence, prosecute him. Don’t use terroristic method.

On NBA’s call on the affected judges to step aside until their innocence is proven

To be able to settle disputes between people creditably, the judge must be seen to be totally impartial. He must be seen to have clean hands to administer justice.

There is a good reason for the position taken by the NBA. If I were one of the judges affected I will not continue to sit in justice. I will not feel comfortable that such allegations are hanging on my head, and still I am sitting on the throne of justice. I will feel embarrassed and uncomfortable.

I will step aside and allow the investigation to be concluded and if I am vindicated, I will resume my functions. Not while I am still under the couch. It is not right. I agree entirely with the position taken by NBA.

His take on comments that the war is not against the judiciary but on individuals, who have soiled their hands

I think it is both. You remember what somebody said on television that right from the beginning of his administration President Buhari had expressed a grievance against the Judiciary.

War against corruption

He said the greatest problem facing his war against corruption is the Judiciary. So, he has a grouse against the Judiciary, rightly or wrongly. So what he did must have been motivated by that grouse.

That is the first part. The other part is against the individuals. I don’t have evidence, some of the judges are saying they (government) have something against them as individuals because they refused to do what the government wanted them to do.

If the government cracks down on all judges who refuse to do its bidding and you ask them to step down, don’t you think it will be disastrous for the Judiciary and the country?

You are imagining too much. I don’t think they will pick every judge one after the other. Do they want to close down the Judiciary? If you happen to be one of those mentioned, it is your bad luck. It is unfortunate, if I were a judge and mentioned, I will step down.

His UNILAG crisis experience

A lot of things happened to us by luck or bad luck. Some call it fate. I don’t believe in fate. You stayed in your home and trumped up charges, something I never saw is alleged against me. I don’t know those of you old enough, who observed the crisis at UNILAG in 1962.

I was one of the first lecturers appointed in UNILAG. I was teaching in London, and I had to come down with Professor Gawa, my Dean in London School of Economics, to open the Law Faculty in the University of Lagos in 1962.

Three years after, in 1965, there was a crisis over the appointment of the vice chancellor. Professor Eni Njoku was the pioneer vice chancellor, and there was trouble between Igbo and the Yoruba and he was dropped for Professor Sabiru Biobaku, and there was a crisis. The students would not have it.

I happened to be a leader of the staff in support of Eni Njoku, on principle. This man had done first class work. Why do you want to drop him after three years purely on tribal grounds? And there was a crisis. I was charged. My trial was one of the big events in this country in 1965.

The university took you to court?

The state took me to court, and it was prosecuted by the then DPP before a Chief Magistrate, at Igbosere, Lagos, who had been promised by Akintola that he would make him a judge.

One of the lecturers, Adeyemi, in the course of the clashes was beaten up by students. During the trial, Adeyemi came out in court and said that when the students were beating him up, he saw me with a chair and that I hit him with the chair, which sent him unconscious.

The chief magistrate said he believed Adeyemi and sentenced me to six months imprisonment. Something I never saw. I was not there. I was presiding at a meeting of my own group of lecturers when this happened. I never saw the incident, yet I was convicted.

I was only saved because on appeal, JSC Taylor, chief judge of Lagos, said he could not understand how any trained lawyer let alone a chief magistrate could convict me based on the evidence before the court.

The UNILAG crisis heated the polity and also led to the first military coup of January 1966. General Ironsi, immediately he took over sacked the chief magistrate.

That brings us to the question of the affected judges stepping aside. An allegation could be made against you on completely false grounds.

If you are unfortunate to be dragged in what can you do? Somebody like me, I was dragged in and convicted. So if it is your lot, bad luck, you accept it and pray that you are vindicated. To say that you believe that you are innocent and you should go on trying people is wrong.

Agitation for self-determination

If you are not vindicated, you suffer it. Some people die innocently. But the innocent, generally, are vindicated at the end of the day either in their life time or after.

On IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu

The Federal Government must respect the laws of the country. Agitation for self-determination is not necessarily agitation for secession, as is conclusively demonstrated in the insightful judgement of the South African Constitutional Court.

Agitation for self-determination is therefore, not a crime; besides it is guaranteed by United Nations and the African Charter.

Political agitations for self-determination are taking place in various parts of the world – in Europe, Asia, America, etc. and the agitators are not massacred with state-owned arms and ammunition but are brought round for dialogue. The situation here should not be different. Dialogue is the appropriate approach.

The detained leader of IPOB, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, should be released unconditionally. It should be appreciated that his continued incarceration is the factor that inflames the agitation and has kept it alive.

On alleged Islamisation of Nigeria

The actions of the Federal Government in question include, among other things, the appointment of the President’s kinsmen, tribesmen and fellow adherents of the Islamic faith to critical positions in the security services – Chief of Army, Inspector General of Police, Minister of Defence, Minister of Internal Affairs, National Security Adviser, Director-General, Department of State Service (DSS), Chief of Staff, ADC to the President, CSO to the President, Private Secretary to the President, Protocol to the President, Director-General Customs, DG Prisons, DG Immigration, the sensitive positions of Minister of Petroleum and FCT are also in the same hands.

The Ag EFCC director general is still on seat, thereby overstaying his tenure of six months in acting capacity. These are all agents in the implementation of the Islamization Agenda.

Constitutional  democracy

One of the cardinal elements of constitutional democracy is the concept of government of laws by institutions established by law, i.e. institutional government, not government of men or personal government. The Islamization of the personnel of these institutions means the Islamization of the institutions themselves, and consequently the Islamization of the government and, by reason thereof, the state itself.

The activities of armed Fulani herdsmen who kill, kidnap, rape, burn and destroy crops and land with impunity have continued without any real action by the Federal Government to stop them. The herdsmen have been rightly perceived as advance foot soldiers of the Fulani jihadists.

The taking of Nigeria into the Organisation of Islamic Congress (OIC) and into the Islamic Bank Organisation as a member thereof is among the actions of the Federal Government designed to implement the Islamization Agenda. The Federal Government should stop the Islamization Agenda being pursued in these brazen manners.


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