The NBA constituted a panel to harmonize the positions of lawyers to the planned National Conference and you were named the chairman of that committee. How do you see NBA’s move with respect to your committee’s expected output?
You know that NBA is the umbrella association that articulates the views and responsibilities of lawyers across the country. Since the formation of the association, it has been in the vanguard of providing a voice for the voiceless. So in that connection, it is my belief that the NBA is a critical stakeholder in any conference that wishes to articulate the way forward for the constitution of Nigeria, or improving or deepening our democracy.
The task before the committee deals with, on one limb, the national conference and the second leg, constitutional reforms. So when you consider these two limbs of our assignment, you know how very central to our present circumstances our deliberations will impact on what we are doing in Nigeria.
So I think the challenges are enormous. But when you look at the men and women who make up that committee – the secretary is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, there are one or two PhD holders and lawyers with vast experience – you will know that the committee is equal to the task.
Considering that there have been some discordant tunes across the country about the conference, with some saying that it is diversionary, and thers say it is a tenure elongation measure by the president, do you think this conference is necessary at this point in time?
Well, in my line of business as a legal practitioner, I don’t deal with speculation; I deal with facts and how they impact on the law. At this moment I don’t have any indication the president is interested in elongating his tenure, so that will be in the realms of speculation. But talking about whether we need a conference, what many people think is manifested in the long clamour for some conference of some sort for the different ethnic nationalities in Nigeria to sit down and decide on our future.
Our coming together was decided 100 years ago by a colonial government through amalgamation. Because of that Nigeria became one. And the history of Nigeria clearly shows that we have tried many things to enable us remain one – including fighting a bitter fratricidal war. The consequences of remaining together have led to forces pulling west-east and north-ward. The question is how we determine our centre of gravity. If you are driving a faulty vehicle on a long journey, every reasonable driver will clear, check the temperature etc. So I don’t see why Nigerians cannot come together and talk; in large families talk is necessary. The talk is necessary for cohesion and improvement in the management of our collective destiny.
The NBA during the inauguration did say that the minority report by Solomon Asemota (SAN) was not accepted by the president, and the president himself has come out to deny any such report. Do you think it is necessary for the minority report to be tendered and accepted in the exercise of this conference?
Solomon Asemota (SAN) is not just a senior lawyer chronologically and by virtue of age. I do not remember him saying that he produced a minority report which the president refused to accept. At the same time, I cannot sit down here and say that the President of NBA does not know what he is talking about. The presidency has denied the existence of a minority report. But what I find is that the presidency has thrown a direct challenge to Asemota. The chairman of the advisory committee in his presence said contrary to reports of a minority report, there was none, and he allegedly didn’t raise a voice. So the ball is in his court to produce the minority report.
The president during the inauguration of the advisory committee on the conference last year said the report would be sent to the National Assembly, while the NBA is saying only a referendum will make the outcome acceptable. What is your take on this?
That’s why you have people that are referred to as interest groups and stakeholders. The constitution reform is on so you will expect more disputations from different groups. On the important question of what will be done with the outcome of the conference, let’s start with the stage one. When the conference winds up, whether they issue a communiqué, or document, let the law takes its full course. The NBA says it wants a referendum, and other groups also say they want a referendum. Referendum involves coalescing the views of adult members of society. There is nothing unlawful about a referendum. But I raise a poser, which is of importance to me as a lawyer: Can a referendum be a law creating fact? Can the referendum on its own become law within the confines of the constitution?
That is a question that will be answered by my committee. I am not venturing any view on it. We have held our first meeting – we have gratefully acknowledged the terms of reference of the NBA. By the time we submit our report within two months, you will see what we think. And we are going to pigeon-hole our deliberations within the constitution. Because for us as lawyers we recognize what is and what ought to be.
Are you then arguing that though sovereignty belongs to the people, it has been submitted to the elected representatives?
When we conclude our deliberations, we are going to make our views known. All I have done is to look at the constitution to tells us what is possible and what is impossible within it. So we are going to look at that and make our position to the NBA.
One of your terms of reference is ‘representation’ for that conference. What would your committee be looking at in terms of this?
The handicap we have at this time is that we don’t have a copy of the Okorunmu’s report. And the secretariat of the NBA has promised to make it available within seven days. When we look at the report we will then be able to know whether we agree with it in totality or part or whether we are going to make any decision. So for us we don’t speculate.
Recently two law courts were set on fire in Rivers State, since then two political factions within the state have traded blames over the incident. As a senior lawyer, what are your view here?
First, I will like to align myself with the statement by the NBA which condemned in very strong terms any act of brigandage affecting a court or judiciary. If you subtract the judiciary from Nigeria’s democracy, the journey will end immediately. I have no doubt about that. So I want to appeal to anybody who causes that level of violence to desist. When you destroy a court house, you have not destroyed the case or determined the outcome. That development is dangerous, tendentious and can only lead to anarchy and nobody wants anarchy.
In same Rivers State, the governor presented the 2014 budget proposal at the government house outside the state assembly. Some people are threatening to go to court to declare the budget presentation null and void because of the manner it was presented?
Nigeria is an interesting country. Anything must have a cause and must lead to consequences. I must take account that the legislative arm of Rivers State has not sat for a while and I know that it was taken over by the National Assembly. And somewhere along the line, a court declared it unconstitutional. I also know that there is a minority faction in the assembly with the majority still intact. I also know that without a budget, the year 2014 will be rough for Rivers State government. The question is if the budget must be presented, what should the governor do? I see the Rivers State situation as an exigency. This is not the first time it has happened. A governor has presented a budget in a TV station in this country.
EFCC recently announced plans to prosecute some judges. What’s your reaction to this?
As a constitutional democracy, whether you are in the executive, legislature or judiciary, the rule of law must prevail. But it is correct to say that the prosecutorial powers of the law enforcement should be exercised with caution. Judicial corrupt officers present a peculiar challenge.