Professor Egerton Uvieghara, read law at the London School of Economics (LSE) and was called to the Bar in 1964. Two years later, the octogenarian joined the University of Lagos(UNILAG), Akoka, Lagos as a law teacher specialising in Labour Law, Commercial Transaction and Copyrights. In this interview with PETER FOWOYO, the erudite scholar lamented the inability of government to successfully fight corruption. Besides, he criticises lawyers’ non commitment to develop the law and sundry other issues. Excerpts:
The National Assembly recently sought to amend the Constitution to enable devolution of powers without success. Do you think the Constitution should be amended in order to whittle down the powers of the president?
I don’t think so, once we have adopted the presidential system of government that is the style. In America
the president has all the powers. But I think to be asking that type of question is really missing the issue.
What we need is good governance based on merit. If the executive is doing well, there wouldn’t be
complaint. Does he deserve that? Did he earn it? If he does, he defends it. How many system of
government do we have in the world? There are two major ones. The parliamentary and presidential
system of government. I don’t think we are ripe for parliamentary system, presidential system is
expensive no doubt, we are the ones making it more expensive, we can cut down on the expense if we
want. We are not ripe for parliamentary system of government in fact, nobody is ever ripe for parliamentary system of government. It has taken root in the United Kingdom and some European countries because it has been going on for years. Labour tried to wrestle power from the executive but, they couldn’t. Parliamentary system of government almost finished us in 1963. So, we adopted the
presidential system and once we did that power has always been vested in the president. But,
constitutionally, the president cannot do everything because he will be overwhelmed if he does that. He gives powers to experts and there you may prefer military rules to these politicians, military usually will
call on experts who can do the job properly. I don’t know how they get to know those experts. Yes, we
don’t like them, the way they come to power, that is wrong but, once they come to power, they choose
experts. Politicians give job only to politicians even idiots and the great majority of politicians are idiots, they give themselves because they think of their constituencies. I really don’t subscribe to the idea that we begin to whittle down the powers of the executive, it should be used properly, based on merit.
Don’t you think merit as against federal character will negate the spirit of the constitution?
Federal character? How? Why? Federal character should be removed from the Constitution. Let people go to school. Nothing is peculiar to us, we are all human beings whether Whites or Blacks. Wales, for centuries, families took over from father, grand father, great grand father in mining. They were not going to school, it was a pride to continue to be a miner because your great grand father was a miner but it was wrong. When Great Britain was created, money was made available, go to school. You want to get a good job, you must go to school. You don’t get a job because you’re a Welsh man, no. I’m not saying it will happen overnight but, there’s a goal you’re pursuing. We have not done that. What is federal character? It is not based on merit. Things should be based on merit. Admission into the university is not based on merit in some universities. I was in charge of admission in the faculty of law, University of Lagos. We gave admission to some people in the North but, they didn’t come, we had all sorts of guidelines. The only guideline should be merit. If we adopt a policy of good governance, we would get what we deserve. All this agitations for self determination would go. We are not near it yet, we are still based on tribes, regions,
Ibo, Hausa, Yoruba. The minorities even suffer. I was the first none Yoruba man to become a professor
of law in the faculty. I represented Senate by election on Council, the highest body in the University of
Lagos. Arthur Mbanefo was then the Chairman of Council, a brilliant accountant. The Chancellor was
Adebo from Egba land. The Yoruba people regard UNILAG as theirs. They are not alone even the University of Nigeria in Nsuka, the Ibo people regard it as their own, Benin people regard University of Benin as their own, Uthman Danfodio University, Sokoto is worst. Hausa people regard it as theirs.
JAMB has reduced the cut off mark for this year’s examination. What effect will this have on law students?
It will not help our university system. I hope University of Lagos will still regard minimum as 200 marks. If you don’t score 200 you have failed in the University of Lagos but, all these is part of federal character. It
is not everybody who will go to school and I believe that is what is wrong with our electricity too. I told
my friends that our major problem in the supply of electricity is personnel. All those they call engineers are not engineers, they went to polytechnic. I’m not looking down on polytechnic but, they are not supposed to be decision makers. Decision makers are universities people, brilliant people who have ideas, who think. It is not everybody that will go to the university, if you don’t have the brain, you don’t go, stay somewhere else, go to polytechnic. When we have decided, do this, then, we will call on you. In Nigeria, everybody want to earn the same salary. We have no goal. We don’t know where we are going. Things are wrong completely.
The Vice President has equated hate speech with terrorism and the president has also ordered the military chiefs to monitor social media for hate speech in order to bring perpetrators to book. Is this constitutional?
The Vice President is a very intelligent man. Terrorism is a serious matter, hate speech is also serious. But you don’t have to equate it with terrorism. Both are reprehensible, both are wrong, hate speech, you’re
inciting people and that is wrong. Criticise constructively. Recently when I got to know that the present
Attorney General has created another body parallel to COSAN, I wrote a letter to him and pointed out some things. I said we don’t want to create a monopoly, there’s room for two collecting society in any copyright
regime but before you do it, you must go to the Nigerian Copyright Commission and it was my idea, most of the countries in the world are now copying it, we were the first to do it, the powers we gave to
Copyright inspectors I got from the Factory Act because I was teaching Labour Law. I was the first to
teach Labour Law in this country in the University of Lagos in 1966. I have written good books on
Labour Law. We applied to the Nigerian Copyright Commission and one has been registered that is
COSAN. Is it doing well? That question has to be answered even if it is not doing well, the other one, will it be representative enough? You don’t just use political power, ministerial power to say let’s create this, no, it is wrong. I wrote a letter to him and I told him my interest is to see to the proper development of our laws. Lawyers here in Nigeria are too interested about money. My criticism of lawyers is quite clear. I was called to the Bar in 1964 mind you, if you look at our law reports, all of them, it is on jurisdiction, jurisdiction and jurisdiction. A lawyer goes to court, he is defeated in that court for one reason or the other, he will appeal, leave the appeal there, he goes to another court and says you have no jurisdiction. There is an absence of commitment to the development of our laws. All a lawyer wants is collect more money from a client, they know there is no jurisdiction but, they go there, it’s all about jurisdiction, jurisdiction, jurisdiction. Substantive laws are never examined even Nigerians are afraid of the court. Take Bigamy for instance, it is there in our criminal code. Your husband takes another wife, you don’t go to court, you rumble all about the place, you say because you have children. We can’t develop bigamy that way. We don’t go to court, we are afraid of the court. Only one case of bigamy which was done by a White man many years ago. There is need to develop our laws. There is need for government itself to review the constitution. For example, Nigerian Law Reform Commission where I served for 10 years, power is vested in four commissioners, the Chairman and three other members. For instance the local government, the constitution says there must be an elected local government chairman, a governor comes in, sacks the chairmen and appoints somebody else as caretaker committee, it is wrong. It is unconstitutional and state government does that regularly. It is wrong. Elected, not appointed. That’s what the constitution says. We don’t respect the Constitution. In Israel, they don’t have a written Constitution, it is what is in the interest of the country, if there is any issue, war against Syria they go to Parliament. What are we going to do? We take a common stand, that is what they do in Israel. There are problems here in Nigeria. We need somebody who has a focus. We just have to take a stand. So many visions but, we have no vision, we are blind that even spectacles cannot help us. A lot of money is spent on this vision thing.
What is your assessment of this government fight against corruption?
Again, it’s a lot of rumour, take for instance the case of that man called Gusau, he’s alleged to have enriched himself, government should not behave that way, charge him to court for a specific crime but, that has not been done. The other time, I asked Professor Itse Sagay SAN, chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption, what is happening? Your government has not jailed anybody yet? Itse’s father, Andrew Sagay taught us Biology in secondary school. He said a lot of cases are still pending in various courts. I told him, we have heard that before. A lot of cases then you blamed the judiciary. Obviously, the judiciary is corrupt, no doubt about that but, you send an executive bill to the National Assembly. This is what we want, a specialised court. We are doing nothing. This is not how to fight corruption.
This government has been able to seize a substantial amount of money from politicians and those who
occupied public positions. We have the right to know how much the government has collected. The
money belongs to every Nigerian, not to the government. I think that is a big fault in Nigeria. The
governor, the president think that the money belongs to them. It is not your money, it’s our money, either
from tax or from oil, government must spend it judiciously on interest, welfare of the people. We are not doing that.
QUOTE: “Lawyers here in Nigeria are too interested about money. My criticism of lawyers is quite clear. I was called to the Bar in 1964 mind you, if you look at our law reports, all of them, it is on jurisdiction, jurisdiction and jurisdiction. A lawyer goes to court, he is defeated in that court for one reason or the other, he will appeal, leave the appeal there, he goes to another court and says you have no jurisdiction. There is an absence of commitment to the development of our laws.”