Rights activist, and the stormy petrel of the Nigerian legal system, Femi Falana SAN in this interview with Publisher, Mustapha Ogunsakin, takes a look at the first real transition of power in Nigeria and what it portends for the Nigerian people. He conclude that the Muhammadu Buhari administration would ignore Nigerians call for change at its own peril. Excerpts:
We are transiting for the first time, from a civilian to a real democratic government, as it were, where a ruling party has been defeated by the opposition, what do you think this portend for Nigerians as a country?
For me, it has established advancement in the struggle for the consolidation of liberal democracy in Nigeria. For the first time as you rightly acknowledged since 1960, an opposition party has unseated a ruling party. A ruling party that had threatened to be in charge of affairs for not less than 60 years. I think it is a sign of good development. It is also a sign of warning to the in-coming government that if it fails to perform to the expectation of the Nigerian people, if it fails to meet the yearnings and aspirations of the Nigerian people; it is also going to be shown the way out.
But I am disturbed, when I read a number of comments on the significance of this development. I have heard some Nigerians saying that this is the first time it is happening in Africa. No! Ghana has had about 4 transitions within 1990 and now, South Africa had some transitions even though it is from the same political party. But in the case of Nigeria because of our influence in the West African sub region and in the African continent, it is very significant.
Nigeria now has the moral right to wade in, when there is any political crisis in the continent by asking the ruling party if there is a move not to hand over that we did it and we are better for it, can’t you emulate us? We couldn’t have said that before now. To that extent we’ve made some progress. But Nigerians are not simply asking for a change. They want a change that will better their lot; that would deliver the dividends of democracy which has eluded them for the past 16 years.
So the challenges before the new government are enormous. Nigerians expect the government to hit the ground once inauguration is performed, in fact, Nigerians cannot afford to wait for the Buhari administration to start fulfilling the promises made to the electorates.
Having regards to where we are now, particularly in terms of infrastructural decay and corruption that the outgoing government is noted for, are we expecting the incoming government to perform miracles?
Certainly, both the president-elect and vice-president elect never promised to perform miracles, they have promised to address the problems confronting the country in a holistic and honest manner. Both are humble enough to appreciate that they are not an island of wisdom, that they would need the input of the Nigerian people in looking for solutions to our problems. Having said that, the problem of corruption, employment, infrastructural decay and corruption are not insurmountable.
First of all, the government will have to fight the culture of impunity. I have no doubt that the combination of General Buhari and Prof. Osinbajo will be able to deliver on the promise to eradicate the culture of impunity in our country.
Do you think all these problems could be addressed in four years?
Oh yes. You don’t even need four years. Once the government impresses it on Nigerians that it is not going to be business as usual, that there would be no scared cows, that whoever runs afoul of the law will be brought to book. Everybody will have to adjust themselves. Secondly, the economy cannot be left at the mercy of market forces; the government will have to examine the economy in line with the provision of Section 16 of the constitution which provides that the government shall control the major sectors of the economy. The government has to appreciate that the greatest investment is in the people, so instead of wasting time waiting for foreign investors, the government has to invest in the Nigerian people. The issue of job creation has to be seriously addressed, it has to create opportunities for our army of unemployed people to be productively engaged.
But to do that effectively, the crisis in the energy sector will have to be addressed. Without fixing the energy crisis, you hardly can address job creation, or you need to get back to the manufacturing industries. Some of the countries that have pulled out of Nigeria will have to be brought back because in the entire continent, this is the largest market, over 170 million people, so if you have our industries working, the youths can be meaning fully engaged.
So if you fix the energy sector, it has a multiplier effect to save a lot of resources that we are wasting on purchases and maintenance of generators; buying of diesels and the rest of them. Other areas of waste – importation of fuel – the government has to look at those four refineries. Incidentally, Gen Buhari built two of them when he was Minister of Petroleum under Obasanjo regime so it is a familiar terrain to him. He should look at the corrupt practices in that industry. We are the only country that produces oil but imports petroleum products.
The private initiative by the private sector, like the Dangote group to build a refinery has to be encouraged by the government; but that project will not be completed until 2017, between now and that time, why should we waste over a trillion naira to import fuel, that is why the government has to examine so many options. I did suggest to the government at a stage, why not examine refinery in the African continent, rather than go to Europe and America to import fuel. I don’t know now; that we refine about 60,000 barrels of oil in Cote d’Voire per day, we must look for other refineries in the continent together with what we are refining locally, so that we can meet our domestic consumption.
Once you can save money in the areas of waste now, government can put such money in productive ventures in job creation and of course the question of corruption will have to die. Once again I am confident that we have two leaders who are men of integrity who will get it right. Nigerians are looking for a leadership that is honest and dedicated and committed to change and we will be ready to follow. For me, fighting corruption, you must go beyond symbolism, must examine the root cause of corruption, which is the nature of the economy we operate.
You think it is the nation of our economy that breeds corruption?
The neo-colonial capitalist economy has to be addressed. It is what leads people to engage in corruption in a very significant way. First of all, we must learn to reward those who made sacrifices to the country. The government must desist from engaging in mass national award. Honours and awards should be given to those who deserve them, who have contributed to the development of the country. I can’t see how you can justify giving 200, 300 awards every year. Those who are going to be honoured should be heroes, role models for our youths. Secondly, we have to show leadership by example. It is not just enough to condemn corruption; the leaders must distance themselves from corruption. Nobody should be pointing accusing fingers to the leaders of the country in the area of corruption. The dollarization of the economy has to stop. It is illegal, indeed criminal to refuse to accept the naira as a medium of exchange in Nigeria.
And that is happening now?
Oh Yes. Some landlords in highbrow of our cities collect rent in dollars; some schools charge fees in dollars. In the on-going elections, people have been distributing dollars; those practices should become a thing of the past if we want to get the naira to appreciate. Right now, there is so much pressure on the naira. Today, Nigeria is the largest importer of the American dollar in the world. In fact because America is a cashless economy, we spend more dollars in Nigeria than the United States of America in terms of fiscal cash. There can be no justification for this. When you do that, you destroy your own national currency which is the naira. These are areas the government will have to look into and there is no time, Nigerians have been there for too long. We need quick solution to these problems. They don’t need excuses from the government that have promised a change.
In terms of corruption, one area that people have always complained of is corruption administration of justice system. What do you think sir; will help to reverse the corruption in the judicial sector?
The anti-graft agencies would have to be given autonomy to perform their statutory function of investigating and prosecuting of corruption cases, because the system will have to seriously reviewed. A situation whereby a corruption case will last between 10 and 15 years is unacceptable. The practice of delaying cases by resorting to filing stay of proceedings and other legal gymnastics must stop. We need a regime that will not interfere at all with the anti graft agencies. In other words, if you are caught with committing any criminal offence including a corruption related offence, you have to look for a lawyer, you have to defend yourself.
If you are charged to court, the question of asking the anti-graft agencies to drop charges of investigations against certain people will have to become a thing of the past. In order words, the regime should be ready to deal with anybody who commits the eleventh commandment offence that says “Thou Shall Not Be Caught.” Once you are caught on the wrong side of the law, the law must deal with you, no matter how high you are. That is how you can get political stability in the country.
Do you think the present government has the political will to do this?
I have no cause to doubt the commitment of the leadership to do that. The regime has promised Nigerians we’re going to fight corruption, and the anti-corruption mantra resonated in the entire campaign, as General Buhari promised to fight corruption; President Jonathan was warning Nigerians against voting for a man that would build more prisons to house corrupt people. Nigerians made their choice, so the government has a challenge therefore not to allow party members to make a mockery of the anti corruption crusade.
The government will be taking a risk if it allows party forces in the party to hijack the anti-corruption crusade. I can tell you Nigerians, if you take Lagos for instance, it was fashionable to drive against the traffic a few years ago, but when the government decided to stop it, nobody wanted to be booked, nobody wanted to be sent to the mental hospital so that you don’t have any record of insanity in your CV. It can happen against the fight against corruption, when it is accepted by party members by all and sundry that once you are caught, you are on your own, am convinced that people will adjust. I do know that there would be attempts by party chieftains and leaders to say we’re going to lose the next election if you go on this way; but once the government is resolved to fight the menace of corruption, confidently Nigerians will go with them.
As a matter of fact, sir, a lot of people have argued that the constitution of the federal executive council will determine whether or not this people are ready to fight corruption, do you agree with them?
I fully agree. And I think that Gen. Buhari has said he will not appoint any corrupt person to serve in his government. He has also promised to declare his assets and compel everybody who is going to serve in his government to do so. And I don’t mean declaring assets and sending it to the shelves of the code of conduct bureau. They will be released to the public so that the public can monitor and track and find out when a public officer has gone outside his assets declaration form. This in itself will discourage people from going into the government. Those who do not want facts about them would not venture go to the government.
As a lawyer, what advise will you give to this government in order to carry people along in this journey?
As I said, the government will have to invest confidence in Nigerians. From day one, the government has to carry people along in its politics. The promises made to Nigerians during the campaigns will have to be fully implemented. If the government fails to fulfil these promises, it is not going to enjoy the confidence of the Nigerian people. Nigerians may appreciate that maybe the government did not understand the enormity of the crisis in one particular sector of the economy, but to give excuses for non performance will be rejected by Nigerians.