Professor Damilola Olawuyi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State. Olawuyi, who became a Law Professor at 32 was this year conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN. In this interview, he speaks on the EndSARS crisis and what Federal Government must do to avert international backlash. He also speaks on other sundry issues. Excerpts.
By Henry Ojelu
Nigeria is officially in recession. What are your thoughts on how the economy can be better managed to ensure a quick recovery?
As far back as June of this year, the World Bank already predicted that COVID-19 will plunge the global economy into the worst and deepest recession ever witnessed since World War II. Sadly, in Nigeria, we tend to politicize everything. Nigeria has suffered two significant economic blows over the last two years, that will be naturally difficult for any country on earth.
First, as an oil and gas-dependent economy, we have seen a significant drop in the price of oil since 2014 which has eroded government revenue and savings. Secondly, this year, we have seen prolonged lockdowns and disruptions to domestic demand and supply, international trade, and cross border finance occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that the pandemic and the decline in the price of oil are causative effects that may be around for several months to come, there is a need for strategic thinking and planning for us to speedily exit the recession.
A first practical step is to induce spending. Governments at all levels will need to roll out infrastructure development projects in critical sectors in order to generate short to medium-term fiscal activity. Secondly, there is a need to increase government spending on social investment programs that can boost entrepreneurial activity at local levels.
Some of the innovative programs such as the Home Grown School Feeding Programme, Conditional Cash Transfer, N-Power and the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme are now needed more than ever. If effectively and transparently implemented, these programs can provide a basis for boosting small and medium scale entrepreneurial activities that can stimulate economic recovery across the country.
Furthermore, we need to achieve a stable and attractive investment climate that can restore international confidence in terms of boosting foreign direct investment in all key sectors. As we all know, international trade and investment can boost economic spending, but such investments only tend to go to safe, secure, stable and predictable economies that guarantee the maximum rate of return on investments.
Nigeria recently experienced a wave of protest over SARS brutality. What is your assessment of the actions of the protesters and the response by the government and what are your thoughts on the way forward?
In every form of human relationship, trust is key. Whether spousal, family, government, institutional or any other form of relationship, lack of trust can easily degenerate to chaos. When the youths of this country took to the streets to say they no longer trust the Nigerian Police, it was widely acknowledged as a legitimate demand and a wake-up call.
By the way, demand for police reform is not peculiar to Nigeria alone. In the United States, the brazen murder of George Floyd by a police officer resulted in similar calls. Go to South Africa, Canada and Tunisia, you see similar demands for police reforms over the last few years. What is however shocking is the manner in which we have handled this same demand in this country. We have to ask, have we handled the protests and demands in a manner that will foster and increase trust or are we further banishing and eroding trust?
Across the world, countries are moving towards a partnership model of governance, in which youths are empowered to take care of their own destinies, and I do not mean appointing one or two youths into government position. What I have noticed working in different parts of the world is that in countries where youths are empowered with jobs, venture capital, government incentives and other fiscal support for their projects, they hardly worry about who the current governor or president is.
Imagine if all Nigerian graduates have well-paying jobs if non-graduates have their own thriving businesses and enjoy some form of monthly support from the government. Trust and support for government becomes natural. Even in a family setting, children tend to draw closer to those that support them. Unfortunately, trust can never be declared into existence. It has to be cultivated, earned and nourished. I, therefore, hope that all stakeholders can see the recent developments as an opportunity to rebuild trust and to unlock the full potential of Nigerian youths.
Various panels have been constituted to investigate human rights abuses by the police across the country. In your view, what kind of recommendations should the panels make to tackle this issue?
Establishing the panels is indeed a commendable first step in the search for truth, trust and reconciliation. I am keenly monitoring the activity of the various panels, and so far they have been progressing in an orderly and transparent manner. In my view, the most basic and effective recommendation is the powerful four-letter word “sorry”.
Several world events have been positively turned around through remorseful and transparent acknowledgement of the wrong done and a genuine outline of plans to ensure it never happens again. No human being or institution is perfect. So there comes a time when only the truth can heal wounds and set the nation free. You cannot win trust by complex machinations, intimidations or trying to sweep facts under the carpet.
I, therefore, encourage all stakeholders to approach the panels with transparency in order to defuse tension and ensure that the sensibilities of the families of those that have lost their loved ones are not further hurt or insulted. In my discussions with colleagues across the world, you see the keen interest with which the whole world is watching the end product of the ongoing proceedings. The transparency of the proceedings and the effective implementation of their recommendations and outcomes at all levels of government will go a long way to boost Nigeria’s perception and reputation to the world as a democratic, free and responsible society.
There have been calls for foreign human rights bodies to investigate Nigeria’s actions during the EndSARS protest. Do you think there is enough evidence to justify such agitations?
Some regional bodies and countries are already doing so. The parliaments in the UK, Canada and the European Union are already reviewing evidence of any possible violations of human rights during the protest. Their findings will be critical in terms of how Nigeria is perceived. Such perception is tied to our investment climate and the ability to secure international partnerships in key areas especially accessing training and weapons to fight banditry and terrorism.
It is therefore in the best interest of everyone to defuse tensions and come forward with more transparent and forward-looking proposals. Protracted denials and counter denials will only result in further international backlash. If trust has been eroded by some officials in the course of the discharge of their duties, they should be sanctioned and disciplined in the most transparent manner.
On the other hand, if there are youths that have truly committed arson, larceny and other punishable offenses, then they should face the consequences of their actions as well. No responsible youth that was involved in peaceful protests will also be involved in lynching police officers, so issues should not be muddled up. We need to separate the wheat from the chaff and be transparent in our analysis.
Officials should also avoid making irresponsible press or social media statements that they then have to backtrack upon when faced with facts. The more such factual reversals take place, the less trust Nigerians and the whole world will have in the process. Now is a time for responsible actions that will allow the statewide panels to do their work, without any incendiary rhetoric or remarks that will make a mockery of the process.
What is your view on the plan by FG to regulate social media?
I do not support the current clamour for social media regulation in Nigeria. Even some of the worst countries in the world in terms of human rights record have not proscribed social media. If we are going to learn examples from other countries, it should be examples of civilized and advanced democracies.
When commentators want to align Nigerian laws and practices with autocratic countries then it gives me sleepless nights. I share the concerns that social media can be abused. However, everything else and every other form of human freedom can be abused. Even human relationships can be abused. So do we then proscribe marriage?
The ultimate responsibility of every government is to protect and fulfil fundamental human rights. We exercise our right to free speech in different ways, and social media is just one of them. There are already several laws that provide safeguards in terms of balancing constitutionally guaranteed human rights with norms of fairness, decency and decorum. As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
So if I publish any libellous or factually incorrect statement about you, you can secure significant remedy in court by suing me for defamation. Cyber defamation on social media is just another form of defamation that the courts can adjudicate upon. There are already several cases in India and the United Kingdom where the courts have awarded significant damages in cases of trolling, cyber harassment and cyber defamation.
Social media is an important tool for disseminating government plans and programs in real-time, and you see several world leaders with one or more social media accounts. Given its benefits in terms of impact, outreach and timely dialogue, we should not do anything to politicize or regulate it.
Rather than having discussions about proscribing social media, we should strengthen our democracy by educating and sensitizing the people about the dangers of tortious liability that may arise from unguarded online activities. Social media has not been around for several years, so like every new tool, there is a danger of misuse in the early days. Our orientation agencies can create greater awareness in multiple languages, on what is wrong, what is right, what is defamatory and what is not defamatory in the cyberspace. This is the kind of discussion we should be leading as the giant of Africa.
What lessons do you think Nigeria can learn from other nations in terms of diversification and policies during this recession period?
The recession provides yet another opportunity for us to diversify the economy, reduce excessive dependence on oil and gas revenue and become less of a rentier economy. A rentier economy is any country that depends substantially on rents received from its natural resources or other assets. Many other oil and gas producing countries have realized the danger of lack of economic diversification in rentier economies and have therefore diligently utilized resources from oil and gas to rapidly develop other key sectors.
When you look at the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and other Middle East oil and gas giants, you see how they have invested their oil and gas revenue to develop tourism, sports, healthcare and education. For example, Qatar is now known for its world-class universities, its upscale tourism and sporting infrastructure, and as a destination of choice for world-class healthcare. There is a need for us to learn from these countries and achieve similar transformations.
Achieving this requires several deliberate actions that can incentivize other sectors and transition from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a knowledge and innovation-driven economy. .The pandemic provides a great opportunity to achieve this. For example, many countries are killing two birds with one stone in terms of the COVID-19 economic recovery plan. They are spending on projects that can achieve both economic growth and low-carbon transition.
For example, the EU’s €75 billion recovery plan (Next Generation EU program) reserves 25% of EU spending on climate-friendly expenditure. Also, Canada has carefully tied its COVID-19 economic recovery plan with green objectives. It gave a $1.72 billion bailout to the oil and gas industry, but the fund is to clean up orphan or inactive wells in oil-producing states.
”Similarly, the UK has announced its “Build back better and build back greener” project. It is important for us to devote a significant chunk of our recovery plans to financing SMEs working on ‘soft’ and green technologies that can improve social, economic and environmental conditions in Nigeria.
For example, governments should actively support SMEs working on renewable energy and power generation (microgrids), solid minerals development, recycling, waste management, sanitation, urban planning, clean water, climate technology, research, education. These are viable climate-friendly ventures that can advance almost all the SDGs at the same time.
What post COVID-19 challenges do you foresee for the judiciary and law practice in Nigeria and what is your advice on the way out?
History tells us that in times of global catastrophe and economic distress, disputes and litigation will significantly increase, ranging from employment cases, to breach of contract, bankruptcy, insurance claims and supply chain disruptions amongst others. Over the last months, in response to the pandemic, lawyers and the judiciary have had to embrace online meetings, virtual court appearances, online dispute resolution, as well as online legal education.
These measures must be understood as the new normal. In addition to technological, digitalization, financial and infrastructure needs, a number of disaster response mechanisms will need to be put in place at all levels to avoid institutional gridlock.
Whether in times of peace, pandemic or economic slowdown, justice delivery should never stop. When justice delivery is disrupted or delayed, it is an invitation to our anarchy, self-help, insecurity and other conduct that will cause substantial harm to the population at large. A starting point, therefore, will be for Governments at all levels to recognize the essential nature of the justice system by providing strong financial support for our courts to be able to acquire the state of the art technology and infrastructure needed to deliver e-justice.
For example, the European Union has already launched an E-JUSTICE program that is meant to modernize the European judicial system with state of the art technology. We need similar significant financial commitment in Nigeria in order to reposition our judiciary to deliver e-justice.
Without addressing the old developmental challenges of limited funding for the judiciary, poor infrastructure, limited availability of technology and innovation especially in rural areas, taking the lead in terms of e-justice delivery will be extremely difficult. Also, challenges relating to internet connectivity, network reliability, data costs and cybersecurity to prevent interruptions by hackers, will need to be addressed with unique homegrown solutions.
A good starting point will be for the judiciary to work closely with ICT firms to develop our own homegrown online dispute resolution platforms that work well in the context of our available network infrastructure.