In this section of the interview, Professor ItseSagay speaks on his controversial comment on Buhari, the acting Chief Justice of Federation, and his relationship with Transport Minister, RotimiAmaechi, among others:
When you make statements like, “Without Buhari Nigeria would have ceased to exist,” that’s more politics than what you have been appointed to do. You don’t think you’re exposing yourself and your office to political attacks?
I think that is a bit exaggerated, but I think we would have probably degenerated to the level of Zimbabwe where existence will be more precarious, our currency will be of no use and we will become colonized because we will be using dollars as legal tender. God saved us from that situation because the government that was there before didn’t seem to appreciate the consequences of the looting and total emptying of the Nigerian state of its resources. I think Buhari came to save us. We have very little resources now but it’s been well-managed. You may question competency in one or two little areas, but in terms of integrity, no one is sharing among themselves; it is all going into our governance and our own interests. If you appreciate the fact that the price of oil has crashed and the Niger Delta militants don’t even allow us to take the little left in order to earn money, you can see what the government is going through. If we didn’t have someone like President Buhari, Vice President Osinbajo and others in power, in my view, we would be telling another story.
But the recession is also bad, some states cannot pay salaries, people are suffering.
It is bad. What pains me is that many don’t appreciate the extent. If you look at the National Assembly, they are still living as if we are an oil-rich Arab country, giving themselves cars and allowances totally unrelated to what we are going through as a country. People have no feeling, particularly the elite. What frightens me is that they are creating a situation in which Nigerians can revolt and attack anybody. We pray to God that they won’t bring us to that level.
Buhari’s government is sometimes accused of sending mixed messages in the fight against corruption by being soft on cases involving his loyal aides. Recently, you also defended Transport Minister, RotimiAmaechi, when a judge accused him of offering bribe. Of course, you said you were speaking in your personal capacity. What do you have to say about this?
There is a difference between oral accusation and accusation with evidence. All the people saying this, to my knowledge so far, are political antagonists. They have not provided any evidence; they just say it without evidence. EFCC already has its hands full with cases where the evidence is overwhelming for them to go fishing in bare accusations, which tend to have political motivation. That’s the problem. If any case is brought with evidence, the EFCC is bound to go after it. They cannot say, “Oh, it’s an APC person.” They will not do that.
What’s your relationship with Amaechi?
He’s my friend. I will tell you the basis of the friendship. You know I am a public commentator. When his case was going on against Celestine Omehia, I spoke in his support and said it was unfair for him to have been denied (his governorship ticket). He got nomination from INEC and was the rightful candidate. Somehow he got to know about it and after he won his case, he gave me a call and said he was very grateful that I spoke up for him. That was the basis of our friendship. We became friends, and when he was governor, he was doing so many things: monorail, hospital, schools, etc., and he invited me to come and see and I was impressed. So he is somebody I like very much. And I like his courage, the way he stood up to the Jonathan government at the risk of his life because he had a belief, he had a principle. He is a man I like, there’s no doubt about that.
What would you say to those who accuse you of talking like a government spokesman?
(Hearty laughter!) If I give you the background, you will understand. I joined politics in 1962. I joined the Action Groupparty when Chief ObafemiAwolowo was in prison, so I was not looking for power or material gain. I was a university student when I organized and campaigned for UPGA. From that time, Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) came and I joined. UPN was never in federal government. Nothing tempted me to join the federal government of President ShehuShagari because I thought it was inept and incompetent. But Awolowo had the wherewithal, principle and knowledge to run this country, so I joined his party again. When that was over, I supported Alliance for Democracy (AD). I regarded AD as an offshoot (of UPN), then AC (Action Congress), then ACN (Action Congress of Nigeria), then APC (All Progressives Congress). I have been consistent. Now, since 1964 to 2015, all these parties have been in opposition, so I never expected to support a party in power in my lifetime. What happened last year was a big surprise to me. So you can imagine why I will support this government to the last drop of my blood, because I have seen one good, progressive government in Nigerian in my lifetime. I will support it to the end.
The new Chief Justice is acting. If he’s not confirmed in three months, his acting appointment can only be renewed once. Aren’t we heading for a constitutional crisis?
I hope that before the three months are over, the matter might be resolved. Technically, the reason is that his name or his recommendation has not been approved by Senate. What is behind that, I cannot discuss with you. The way I see it, at the end of the day, everything that is happening is to ensure that you have a judiciary that is above suspicion, a judiciary that will fight corruption. In essence, that is what is behind what is going on now. I think, eventually, and I speak as an intelligent layman and not someone in government, the present acting CJ is likely to be confirmed.
What if he is not confirmed? What happens?
I cannot tell what is going to happen. I hope that situation does not arise. It will be something very serious. I’m sure if such a thing happens, the country will understand. But as things stand, I believe by the end of the three months, there will be a confirmation unless something very grave happens to upstage the process.
The chairman of the EFCC has spent one year in office without confirmation. What is the problem?
Corruption is fighting back. The people who are supposed to confirm him, many of them are under investigation and, somehow, they think if they don’t confirm him, the investigation will gradually fade away, forgetting that an acting chairman is a chairman. There is no difference in powers. He is going to be there.
How long can he continue in this position without confirmation and what signal does it send?
Whether they like it or not, he will be there. His chairmanship will keep on being renewed. Since NuhuRibadu left, we have not had a man with such sterling qualities as Ibrahim Magu, and whether they like it or not, Magu is going to be there until he completes all the terms he is supposed to under the law.
Do you think your committee will outlive the Buhari administration?
It’s difficult to say. We are a creature of the Buhari government. If a government comes that is not happy with what Buhari has done, we will be the first casualty; there is no question about that.
Would you recommend that it should be a statutory body?
Yes. It has to pass into law and be established as a legally constituted body, but I don’t see the people in the National Assembly now supporting such a law because they will feel it is against their interests.
What were some of the surprising things you noticed in the first six months after your committee’s appointment?
The issue of prosecution that was not well prepared. We have done some training. We noticed that the judges were not familiar with their role in presiding over corruption cases, so we did a rigorous training programme. This included judges in the six geopolitical regions of Nigeria and the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court judges, to bring them abreast of their responsibilities under the law. Also there were agencies that usually didn’t communicate with each other. We have created a forum for them to pass on information among themselves so that they can benefit from each other. We have also got them to revive cases on which injunctions have been placed - special injunctions and all that. We are going to see it to the end.
One of the widely known ones is that of former Governor Peter Odili.
Yes. Definitely, it is being revived. The case will be heard at the end of the day.
How did the Bar and the Bench receive you during your fact-finding tours?
Funnily enough, the Bench has been very friendly towards us. We have been well received at every level of the Bench. It was all very warm and everybody was ready to cooperate. Where we have a problem is the NBA. It is the lawyers who are hostile to our work because they have the impression that we want to reduce their income. The NBA and its members are not cooperating with us.
What lasting changes do you hope your committee will be able to make when your job is done?
That’s what we are working on now. Firstly, the effectiveness and efficiency of the anti-corruption agencies in their investigations. Secondly, reducing the level of corruption to an unnoticeable level so that confidence in the judiciary will return. Thirdly, we are also pursuing how to make cases come to an end - whether acquittals or convictions - and we are trying to review the system in which there will be effective investigation, a speedy prosecution and effective judgement. We are also working on sentencing so we don’t have a situation where the sentence is not related to the offence. We are creating a manual on that so that judges will know what sentences go with a particular offence. We are working on all these areas, generally, to make prosecution and judgement faster and agencies cooperating among each other more effectively.
You have been blessed with longevity of career and have seen many governments come and go. Do you think we can eradicate corruption in this country?
We cannot eradicate corruption in this country but we can reduce the level of corruption, the degree to a minimal level that it no longer affects our development. It is affecting the activities of the state and preventing us from marching on and achieving our potential as a country. It discourages foreigners from investing in the country. So although we cannot completely eradicate it, we are going to reduce corruption to a minimal level. That is our objective.
The president said a few days ago that corruption is fighting back.
Absolutely. I also just told you, because corruption is very well-armed. There is all this money they have stolen with them, so they can hire the best lawyers and, of course, those lawyers have an incentive in maintaining the status quo because that is how they themselves grow fat financially. So, yes there is a big fight going on, but I don’t think they will succeed because we, too, are absolutely determined. We have raised a team of 160 prosecutors who are going to enter the field at every level. We have streamlined how prosecutors are engaged. You will see less and less of going to source prosecutors from private law firms because, in the past, once they collect their fee, they hardly do anything, and some of them were compromised. We are now going to be using prosecutors who are working within the government administrative system and we encourage them to work hard and, of course, get rewards for their hard work.
Have you made enemies in the course of this job?
Obviously, I have made enemies. Some have attacked me publicly, others on the phone. But on the positive side, the public has received us very well. I have got so many positive phone calls, letters and emails from Nigerians who are happy with the work we are doing, praying for us and telling us not to give up, not to be frightened; that we should continue; that they are happy with what we are doing. That is very encouraging. That absolutely gives us hope.
Why do you think the government is dragging its foot on Halliburton?
Will I call it dragging its foot? I think work is going on but I don’t know to what extent. It is something you will have to ask about, but I think they are investigating more and asking people based on information released of late about the people involved. But why you may not see it being too prominent is that the actual cases that have been arising from Jonathan’s government are so many. The amounts involved are so huge and frightening that they are battling with that as a priority. Halliburton came earlier and is not such a hot priority as the recent ones, the ones we call the low-hanging fruits.
Could it be because it involves some former heads of state?
I don’t think so. If I know this government, it is not one that respects corruption.
You once said you used to be a shy young man. How did you overcome that?
It’s just the passion. I was shy but I have a sense of justice, of what is fair and what is right. That is why, as a young student of 21, I joined the Action Group because I felt it was comprised of those people most qualified to run this nation. And I felt they were being harassed and oppressed. The best brains were in prison. Because the then NPC (Northern People’s Congress) government was afraid that if these people were let loose, they would convince Nigerians about the quality of their minds and their programmes and probably win an election and take over the country. I felt these people needed to be supported.
Share memorable seasons of your youth with us.
Still on politics, I am a non-Yoruba-speaking person. When politics became hot in the 1964 federal election where I campaigned, I had to learn Yoruba because I was campaigning in Yoruba territory – Ile-Ife, Ogbomoso and so on. I remember that very well. I learnt the political language of the Yorubas on the trail - “digbofope” and suchlike because the palm tree was the symbol of the party. I had to learn all these things.
Another significant thing in my life was that I wanted to be a medical doctor from the age of five. I went to secondary school and my father observed that my strength was not in science. I said, “No, sir, I want to be a doctor.” When I left secondary school, I enrolled at the Federal School of Science, then at Onikan. I was working and closing at 2pm, and after attending classes, I would stroll to the National Assembly, then at TafawaBalewa Square, to watch the debates and the politicians. I saw Awolowo, TafawaBalewa, Festus Okotie-Eboh and all those ministers of the First Republic and I was carried away by the brilliance of the opposition. The shadow cabinet seemed to know more about their subjects than those actually occupying the offices. I got carried away and jettisoned science. Then I enrolled for A-levels and passed them and went to the university to read law.
What is your single greatest wish for the country?
For this country to not only be democratic but to be rid of corruption and to start a development process that is based on competence and determination to excel, the kind that saw Singapore, which in the 60s was at the same level we are now, become a developed nation. I wish for all of us, the elite particularly, to put our hands behind the oars and work seriously to raise this country to a level of development, and that the majority of people will be hopeful and optimistic about the direction in which we are going.