By Davies Iheamnachor
Chief Barinua Wifa, SAN, is the former Attorney-General of Rivers State and one of the notable persons who spearheaded the amendment of the 1999 Constitution. In this interview, he spoke on some national issues. Excerpt.
Some state Houses of Assembly have unsuccessfully tried to pass laws giving themselves life pension. What is your position on this?
It is absolutely scandalous. My worry is that this country, whether you admit it or not, is broke, there is no money. We should be concerned about the ordinary people. In Nigeria, politics is the only industry that is thriving and the politicians are maximizing that opportunity. For me, we must take a critical look at the bloated expenditure of federal and state governments. Those who want to serve this nation should do so on part-time basis. They should not use running an office to earn humongous allowances. Those who wish to hold political offices should be ready to serve this nation.
Recently the Nigeria Financial Intelligence Unit, NFIU, issued a guideline to regulate disbursement of LGA funds. Do you foresee a constitutional crisis on the issue, given the provisions of section 6 and 162 of the Constitution?
When you look at it, you will see that the fate of local governments has been tied to states and when they go for Federal Executive Council meeting, they only come back to their state capitals and share the money. If they want to liberate the LGAs from all that, they should do the necessary amendments. For me, the question of local governments should be left to states, so that each state will determine whether it wants local governments and at what time. There are some states in Nigeria that the Federal Government has created so many local governments all because the expectation was that they will go to Abuja and get money and share. I think it is inequitable.
Judicial officers and senior members of the Bar are increasingly facing trial over allegations of fraud. What does this portend for the judiciary? What impression does this create in the mind of the common man?
No person is above the law, but it is the instruments that are used in maintaining the rule of law that has been thoroughly abused. The executive has not only invaded, but has succeeded in crippling what should have been an independent and critical arm of government, the judiciary. They have done that successfully and it is a sad thing for the rule of law. Lawyers and judicial officers have always been facing that.
Let me tell you this, the National Judicial Council, NJC, is a body set up by the constitution and I was a member of that body and I know that they did investigate matters of professional misconduct against judicial officers. When the allegation is on criminality, it is referred to prosecuting bodies. With the current fight against corruption, I see that the mantra is more or less ‘show them (judiciary) that we have the power- I mean the executive. What is happening now is like the Executive is using all this to show that they are more powerful than the judiciary. It is very sad. There is a kind of ignorance on people. People are even saying, ‘are you lawyers and judges above the law,’ but it takes more than that to examine the intricacy of the demands of rule of law.
Capital punishment remains a major part of our justice system, yet, many state governors refuse to sign death warrants for condemned prisoners. Do you think the provision for death sentence should be reviewed?
This throws up a lot of questions. Some governors are afraid to sign it because they have moral conscience. They don’t want to sign it so that people will not say, ‘ you authorised the execution of this man,’ even if it was subject to the judgment of court. I think that the time for capital punishment is over because the deterring factor does not work. I mean, if they say they want to deter you, the next man does not think that. He will be thinking on how he will not be apprehended. So, I think the society should look critically on how we can afford to reform the penal system with the death penalty. The time for it to be thrown overboard is done. I am not in support of capital punishment.
The FG is working with some state governments to build more prisons across the country. In your opinion, is this the solution to prison congestion?
This very issue came before me as Attorney-General of Rivers State, 24 years ago. I looked at it and made my recommendations. The nation needs more prisons because of the explosion in the population of those who have been found guilty of committing crimes. You cannot just put them together in pigeon halls like what happened in India. We need more places. That does not go to say that we do not need reforms. So many things that are happening in that sector are not well thought out. Most of the inmates of prisons are awaiting trial suspects and I have looked at it and sought ways of proffering solutions to that.
But the government advisers tell them something differently. I chaired one of the sessions of conference of the Nigerian Bar Association here in Port Harcourt in that respect and I told them what to do. Building prisons cannot be a solution to that, but we also need to separate the convicts from those awaiting trial. We can have remand homes that are secured enough and you know what it takes to mix those on awaiting trials and the convicts. The damage to the psyche of those presumed innocent people is huge.
Delay in cases in courts has persisted despite new innovations and rules introduced by different heads of courts to address the issue. Why is this so and what in your view should be done to reduce the time it takes for cases to be concluded in our courts?
The delay of cases in court has to do with what I said 25 years ago, when I delivered a keynote address during a conference of the Nigerian Bar Association here in Rivers State. Judicial officers are human beings. Those in the bench and bar and those in the institute and ministry of justice are subject to the vagaries of life,including the lack of motivation. Judicial officers should be motivated to do the work. People will say they have done the upward review of the salaries of judges and others, to some extent yes. There is need to also build more courts, employ more magistrates and judges, building more judges quarters and all of that. This will help to speed up the process. It all boils down to how much money Nigeria has to give such allocation for those purposes. You cannot be talking about delays when the core issues have not been addressed. For me, 20% of the Net distributed income of the federation should go to the Judiciary. We should not be hoping on the executive to give us money.
Some Nigerians are of the view that election petitions should be concluded before the swearing in of eventual winners. What is your reaction to this?
About 25 years ago, I proposed that Election Petition Tribunal should be abolished. The politicians have taken over the place, that is why you see all manner of things taking place there, like where you see two speakers emerging in the same state Assembly. We need to sanitize our electoral process to ensure we get the best and stop involving the judiciary in the process. Those who are contesting election see it as, (somebody called it a ‘meal ticket’) but I think that is too mild, it is rather a ‘live jacket.’ I think we should let the politicians run the politics the way they want to run it. Let them go out there and fight and leave out the judiciary. They should stop politicizing the judiciary. The crisis we have is because the politicians who are in power want to see that judicial officers are used to do this or that against their opponent and it is not a good thing. They should try and phase election tribunal out. You may have disagreement here and there, Kenya, America and Ghana had their elections recently, are you hearing of Tribunal? If we must continue with the Election Petition Tribunal then of course, it will make sense that you finish all of that before swearing-in takes place.
Kaduna High Court, in judgment voided Gov. El-Rufai’s law to give licence to preachers and Imam, do you think it’s the right path?
I know El-Rufai and his political stands on so many things. I have known him for more than 20 years, particularly when I was a Pro-Chancellor. He has his way of doing things. I think Nigeria is afflicted with all kinds of cancers, including religious and ethnic cancers. It is about time that Nigeria got rid of those cancers and their carriers. There are people who feel that the preachers are collecting so much money and that they ought to at least give some back to the state. Anything that can be legitimately looked at in the form of taxation devoid of the nuances of targeting a particular religion, I think the government may look at it. When you look at men of God who have aeroplanes, and all that, it tells you that they are making money, so you can tax them. But it should not be used as a religious weapon.
What is your reaction to the Tribunal order barring the PDP from accessing the result on INEC server?
Court rulings are based on fact of the cases. You may have a server for the election, but the question will be ‘was server used for the election?’ If yes, was it used in accordance with any law that permitted it to do so? These are crucial issues that court will examine. When I heard that PDP said they wanted to inspect the server and the other side said, we don’t have a server, they could have said we have a server, but it was not used for the election. Because the question would have been was there any law backing the use of server? I don’t see how that ruling should affect the confidence on the judicial system. If they are not happy, they should go on appeal, but there is no need for unnecessary hype to be given to it.
What is your take on calls for restructuring?
Restructuring means so many thing to so many people, but my candid view is that Nigeria is overdue to embark on what some of us have called fiscal federalism to put an end to what Ekweremadu called Feeding Bottle Federalism and I called Beggar federalism. There is no need going cap in hand, bucket in hand to go to the nation’s capital every month to say give us what is due to us. I think restructuring should be properly understood and implemented to demystify governance. Now people are dangling it before my brothers in the South-East, 2023 presidency should come to South-East, it does not matter. They should dismantle the NNPC and let states that produce oil take charge of what the NNPC is doing. What we need is strong industrialisation. Diversification is part of restructuring. We need true fiscal federalism and you see that the economic space will be opened for Nigerians to grow their wealth.