Renowned lawyer, Prof Ben Nwabueze, SAN, is the President of Patriot, a revered group of intellectuals and elder statesmen campaigning for good governance.
In this chat, the legal luminary catalogued some constitutional breaches and missteps by President Muhammadu Buhari in the last 10 months.
He admonished the citizenry not to expect so much from the President because he lacked the intellectual capacity to govern Nigeria. He also spoke on corruption in National Assembly, Judiciary and the EFCC.
Are you satisfied with the direction President Buhari is going?
The President is not going in the direction of democratic rule. He is not going in that direction. He declared himself to be a born again democrat. He said that after his election and installation. But I don’t think the way he has been going has really proved him to be a born again democrat.
Quite frankly, I am not surprised considering his antecedents. I pointed that out before the election. I said that he is a man who, throughout his career, was a military commander commanding some units in the army, and therefore used to giving orders and requiring his orders to be obeyed and they were obeyed in line with the principles governing armed forces in the country. Secondly, from being military commander he became head of the federal military government. And absolutism was the case. Everybody must carry out his orders. Not only soldiers now but the whole country of which he was the head of state.
With that background, with those antecedents, I think it would be too much to expect that he can change overnight to become a born again democrat. I didn’t see it as possible. So, before the election, I said all these in different fora. As leader of the Patriot, as leader of Igbo Leaders of thought and other platforms, I pointed these facts out.
I issued a number of press releases advising this country that we had to be aware of where we were going. I warned that we have experienced such a thing from Obasanjo who has the same antecedents – military commander, head of the federal military government. We elected him in 1999 to transit us to democracy but he aborted it. He subverted the rule of law, subverted democracy for eight years. I cautioned that we should not allow history to repeat itself.
In spite of all that, we elected Gen Buhari. We should not be surprised at what we are getting.
Are the specific steps that he has taken that show that he is not really a born again democrat?
The first step was to rule this country for four months without ministers contrary to the constitution. The constitution does not confer absolute power on the president to rule anyhow. It specifies that he must rule with a council of ministers. But he ignored all that. He went ahead and imposed personal rule on us for four months. What he did was anti-democracy. It is not in line with the command of our constitution.
We are not really getting institutional government, a government that is based on institutions and not by one man. He has a council of ministers now but the question again is: Is the government of this country really run by that council? Is it not whatever he says that happen? Yes, the constitution gives him the power to take certain decision but the same constitution says the power must be exercised in a certain way, manner and form.
The same constitution that vests the title of power in him goes on to say that he has to exercise it with the advice of the council of ministers. He must hold regular meetings with the council of ministers to advise him on how to exercise his powers. He didn’t do that for four months. He was ruling alone, making appointments, deciding policies, doing all sorts of things for four months.
In October he installed ministers but what we are getting, are we not still having personal rule? There is difference between personal rule and institutional rule, rule by institutions established by the constitution. What are the institutions doing? The council of ministers is just one. There are so many other institutions – Council of State, Security Council, etc.
Constitution can fairly be described as consultative government. You have to consult with various agencies established by the constitution. Is he doing that?
The constitution imposes so many other limitations in power. Are those limitations being observed? The bill of right is there guaranteeing rights to every individual, every citizen. Are those rights being obeyed? The constitution outlaws inhuman treatment. We are seeing citizens being hand cuffed for corruption. Is that enough to handcuff a citizen? The constitution prohibits inhuman treatment. If a man commits murder and there is evidence that he may escape, you can handcuff him. That is the only circumstance where you can justify, arguably, handcuffing of a citizen.
I heard also that Nnamdi Kanu was handcuffed. What did he do? Radio Biafra? Is that enough to handcuff him? There are several other things to point at. He made 31 strategic appointments that were not based on justice. He did that in a constitution that says the social order is founded on justice. He made 31 appointments and none was from the South- East. Is that justice?
But the appointments were justified by one of your colleague, Prof Sagay, who argued that South-East having followed and voted for the former president, Goodluck Jonathan in the last election should not expect to get appointments in Buhari’s government…
Did Sagay say that? I am aware that the President himself said it but I am not aware that Sagay said it. I would be surprised if he did, knowing that equal treatment is there in the constitution. You must treat citizens equally irrespective of the place of origin, ethnic and religious affiliation. Merely that citizens did not vote for you is not a ground for discriminating against them. It is not a ground. Sagay is a man I respect but I would doubt if he said that kind of thing.
What do you make of the current dust over the enlisting of Nigeria into the Saudi Arabia-led Coalition against terrorism by President Buhari without getting the backing of the National Assembly? Did the President act outside his constitutional power?
Section 10 makes the country a secular state. We had this kind of row before. That was under Gen Ibrahim Babangida when he took Nigeria into OIC. The action nearly tore this country into pieces. It was against section 10. The secular status of this country must be respected. Religion is one of the things that arouse so much bitterness among the people. People regard their religion, their faith as an essential part of themselves, their being. Nobody should play with the religious character of this country and that is why section 10 says that no religion must be adopted as a religion of the state.
We are all against terrorism but don’t make it a religious issue. This country is not a Muslim country; it is not a Muslim state. He does not need to drag Nigeria into the coalition. Nigeria is not a Muslim state and that is why CAN in the North is up in arms over that. The opposition by CAN in the North is not enough, CAN all over the country should be up in arms as was the case when Babangida took the country to OIC. I am surprised that the reaction so far has not engulfed the whole country.
Are you not satisfied with his explanation that the move is only meant to mobilize enough force against insurgency in the country
Don’t make the fight against terrorism a religious issue. We are all against terrorism but don’t drag this country into one religious group because of terrorism or because we are fighting terrorism. We cannot use the war on corruption as a justification for everything. We should be very careful. I have said all that I need to say on this issue of hiding under fight against corruption to do all sorts of things including assaulting the constitution.
If ISIS attacks this country, it is all of us that would suffer it. The first thing he should have done would be to consult widely. He should carry the National Assembly with him. He should carry all of us along. We all have a stake in this country. The war against terrorism involves everybody. The President should not drag us to the coalition without consultation. The National Assembly is there. The enlisting of Nigeria into this Islamic coalition led by the Saudi against terrorism …was it approved even by his council of ministers?
Some have accused the President of not following due process in the fight against corruption, is it possible to tackle corruption without such allegation flying in the air?
We all support the war against corruption, but that war must be fought according to the constitution. It is a choice we have to make whether we want to fight corruption at all costs, irrespective of the constitution; is that what we want? The moment we throw away the constitution, you are inviting anarchy.
The constitution is like a glue, maybe a weak glue, but it is still a glue that holds all the over 389 ethnic groups in this country together. The moment you throw it away, there would be problems. Corruption is a very small part of the problems of this country, relatively speaking.
What is the bigger part?
It is the national question of how to hold 389 nationalities together to form one nation. That is the problem which is so complex. These ethnic nationalities are nations by every definition. What we want is unity, but we do not want unity at the total expense of the ethnic nations because it won’t work. We have to try and find a way to preserve the separate identity of these ethnic nations and at the same time, create some type of unity. The so-called unity in diversity does not work. And it doesn’t work, because of over- concentration of power. We need to restructure this country if we want Nigeria to continue to exist as one state.
The Jonathan administration was accused of not fighting corruption and the reason that those who participated in that government gave was that they were adhering to the rule of law. Is it not possible that such excuse may have informed the current posture of the Buhari administration?
If it is true, it is a wrong posture. We have to define our priorities and our priorities are to maintain the constitution and the rule of law. We should fight corruption within that framework. Once you abandon the constitution, you are jeopardizing and perverting your priorities. And your priorities must be to maintain the constitution.
The problem with the past administration is not so much about the constitution, but it is the fact that there was no will to fight corruption. Not only Jonathan, but the Obasanjo administration did not have the will to fight corruption. They did not believe in the genuine fight against corruption and only used the constitution as an excuse for not doing what they were supposed to do, because they themselves were corrupt. Let us tell ourselves the honest truth; they were corrupt.
Do we really need a special court in the fight against corruption as some people are advocating?
We do not need a special court because there are adequate courts to do the jobs. The problem is that we are subverting the courts.
But there are allegations that some lawyers are part of the problem and as a way of justifying such claim, a few have been detained by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Where do you stand on such allegation?
The saddest thing is that so many people are involved in it. The lawyers are involved and even the EFCC; the agency which is supposed to fight corruption is also in it. Have you not read the report on the activities of the EFCC under Nuhu Ribadu? In that report, it showed that the assets that were confiscated from a former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, and the late Governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha were sold.
But the question now is where is the money which was said to have been recovered? If anyone wants to fight corruption, he must investigate the EFCC and overhaul it. You created a ‘thief catcher’, and the ‘thief catcher’ turns out to be the principal thief. They recovered looted funds and they re-looted the funds.
Away from the Presidency, have we really had it good from the National Assembly and the judiciary?
Every agency in this country is sucked into this corruption web. The National Assembly and the judiciary are all sucked into it; so, it makes it a difficult problem. But it is not impossible to surmount. What you need is the will and let people believe that you are genuinely fighting corruption, and that you yourself are free of corruption.
Is this President deficient of that will and the reputation that you say that people needed to see to believe in the genuineness of the intent to fight corruption?
There are two issues here. The will is one issue and I think he has the will; but the issue is if he is going about it the right way. Is perversion not an aspect of corruption? You pervert the constitution and you pervert institutions in the name of war against corruption. What is that? Is that not corruption? That is also part of corruption and we must appreciate this.
Perversion is an important dimension of corruption. Don’t pervert existing institutions and say that it is because you are fighting corruption. I do not agree with that. He may have the will, but is it being exercised in the right way? Are we complicating matters by perverting institutions in the name of fighting corruption? Are we not making matters worse?
Before the election, you came up with Buhari’s past credentials, was Jonathan a better alternative?
Jonathan was not. I wanted PDP voted out because it had misgoverned the country. The question now is: if Nigerians had voted Jonathan, would the nation’s economy have been any better?
Was Buhari the only man who could have succeeded Jonathan? Is he?
But the platform on which he contested was strong, we had only APC and PDP, they were strong and had the spread…
Who created the platform? That is where we derailed ourselves. I wanted a change because the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was misgoverning this country and I thought that All Progressives Congress (APC) would give us that change; but what happened? During the APC primary, the contest was between former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar and Buhari. Atiku scored 954 votes, against Buhari’s over 4000 votes. Why was that?
The voters in the primary were Muslims and they were waiting for a man whom they felt would solve the problem of corruption. They were looking for a man who could implement the Sharia in Nigeria and that was what informed their decision. Atiku is a Muslim, but he is a moderate Muslim. He is enlightened and broadminded. He does not have the antecedents of Buhari, but they ignored him and it was there and then that I parted company with the APC.
They dashed my hopes for this country. We needed a change from Jonathan, but we didn’t get the change in Buhari. If they didn’t want Atiku, there were other northerners who could have done the job. I do not like the picture that was being painted that Buhari was the only alternative. That is not true.
The country’s economy appears to be at a standstill and some people have advocated an economic summit that would come up with solutions to our economic problems. Do you subscribe to that, or do you recommend that Nigerians be patient with the President?
It may help, because the economic situation right now is really biting hard. Some solution has to be looked for. I do not know what the solution is, but we can’t continue like this. Our currency is almost valueless because of the exchange rate. Some weeks ago, you needed almost N490 to buy a British pound and I immediately remembered when the exchange rate was one pound to N1. The price of everything including pure water has shot up because of the exchange rate. A bag of pure water that used to be N60 or N70 is now sold for N150.
Some have argued that these developments shows that this administration was not actually prepared for governance, while others say that President Buhari does not have the capacity to govern the country. Which of the two claims is correct?
I do not think that it is a question of not being prepared. Don’t forget that the 2015 election was his fourth time of contesting, of making attempt at being President. He tried to be president for 12 years. So, he had more than enough time to prepare himself if he had the capacity. So, it is not that he was not prepared; the fact is that he lacks the capacity to govern as the problems are beyond him. Even if you give him 20 years to prepare, it would still be beyond his capacity. Nigeria is a very complex country. I have told you before, that we have 389 ethnic nationalities. The complexities and the issues involved in ruling such a country are huge. Leading such a complex country is an intellectual issue and Buhari does not have the intellectual capacity to comprehend what it means to govern this country.
Could it also be because of the level of rot that was in place before he came?
All of that is a challenge and anyone who chooses to lead the country has to understand the complexity of the issues involved. How do you understand the issues of transition from colonialism to independence? Those issues are still staring everybody in the face. People think that decolonization means independence, but it is not true. How do we solve the problems created by colonialism?