Chief Olisa Agbakoba, a Senior Advocate and former President, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in this interview with PETER FOWOYO, took a swipe at the members of the National Assembly for the outrageous salaries being paid to the lawmakers by the Revenue Fiscal and Mobilization Committee and quickly call on the President-elect to revert same without delay. He also spoke on corruption, the need for constitutional reform and sundry other issues.
What informed your decision to write the president-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari, before his assumption of office?
Well, I challenge the political leaders, at this auspicious moment of an interesting transition from one president to the other which has not happened in Nigeria history is a big opportunity for the incoming president to stand at the summit of history and resolve Nigeria’s most important challenge which is disorder, indiscipline, lack of peace and stability, without this, if you don’t set the framework for order we are going nowhere.
Think of a man who has four wives and many children, he has not sorted out the peace and stability and how he will provides for his home, even if he is a billionaire, he won’t have peace. Nigeria’s problem is not her economic resources, Nigeria’s problem is not her finances, Nigeria’s problem is lack of peace and it has a history in the shape of three political constitutions we have operated.
The colonial constitution was not in the interest of Nigeria, the civil constitution that lasted between 1960 and 1966 wasn’t in the interest of Nigeria, the military constitutions were designed to enable the various heads of states we had from Gowon to General Buhari interestingly and General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida and his interminable transition process up to the late General Sani Abacha. They didn’t have the Nigeria’s interest at heart, they were ruling for the sake of themselves and their constituency therefore there wasn’t any peace and that was why the pro-democracy movement rose to challenge and confront them so, this is the first time, then of course, we’ve had both the Obasanjo and Jonathan’s attempt to find peace so, the national conference is really about peace and stability.
That is why the biggest power that the president enjoys is the power given to him by section 5 of the constitution to order the state of things in Nigeria for the peace and good governance of the country but unfortunately the national conference process starting from Obasanjo who had a third term agenda so, it wasn’t genuine, as you will remember and the Jonathan process which I was a party to but was incomplete has meant that as I speak to you, we don’t have any political compass for Nigeria. We are a mass of peoples with various cleavages and fault lines, religious, ethnic, linguistic, roaming in a vast territorial space called Nigeria which Chief Obafemi Awolowo referred to as a geographical expression because we have not condescended Nigeria into a national spirit we can say for the love of country, we haven’t.
Unless this is tackled and that is why I’ve written this letter to the incoming president to be aware of the bobby trap he has a historic moment to deal with the lack of constitutional order that is why I identified this as the number one issue. Once this is resolved there can be peace and stability. If you’re building a house and the architecture gives you a design then to build the house is easy but Nigeria lacks the constitutional architecture. If we don’t do that we can’t go anywhere. I have identified that and I have talked about the second most important thing, corruption.
What is your assessment of the out-going administration especially in the areas of anti-corruption crusade and what is your advice for the incoming administration?
President Goodluck Jonathan as we all know paid lip service to the issue of corruption but, General Buhari has presented himself as a person and he has gotten ground swell of support from Nigerians across to tackle corruption. He has to be held accountable to the political promises he made. If he can first of all deal with the unconstitutional salaries payment of the National Assembly, the Revenue Fiscal and Mobilization Commission set salaries but the National Assembly refused to follow it and get paid with large sums of money, you remember when Mallam el-Rufai and former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi accused them of been paid large sums of money, that is true.
Why won’t I want to go to the National Assembly if as a member of the House of Representatives, I can get an average of about N600million a year why won’t they kill themselves? Some of them in other side of the House get as much as N1 billion a year so the desire to be there is intense, it is not to go and pass laws and that is why they performed below average, it’s the money that is there. So, what General Buhari has to do is to confront that challenge and see it as a corrupt practice.
The National Assembly must be brought to book, they must conform with the constitution, it is a big shame that the lawmakers are the ones who break the constitution, pay themselves the type of stupendous salaries that they take home. I put this as a litmus test, if president elect can be able to bring the National Assembly within the lawful pay structures of some Nigerians, I will clap for him but, of course, the life style of the political offices has to go, 10 aircraft on the presidential fleet when we have no Nigeria Airways is unacceptable.
The national security votes of states governors is more than two trillion naira which is half of our entire budget so you can see that the life style has contributed to the fight to finish of politicians. If as a governor I have N2billion every month that I don’t account to anybody, in this case, permitted by law, in the case of the National Assembly not permitted, you can imagine why people will not like to die for that job, not for the love of country but, for the love of pocket so, this is the task, it is not rocket science, it is very easy to do this thing, the presidential villa spends about N50 billion and everybody who goes there feels entitled to a meal, why?
Why should they be entitled to a meal like if you go to White House and after meeting president Obama, he will say go to the kitchen and have a meal? All of that has to stop, the culture that does not promote accountability, that if you go to visit someone you will get a meal, I don’t see why you should get a meal, visit and go. So, those are the things that President Buhari needs to do different otherwise, it will be same old story. We are tired of election promises, this time we have a president who has come to office on the major campaign slogan of incorruptibility, public accountability and so it is the duty of us who speak out to hold him into account.
In the first 30 days, we want to see result. I give the example of Nigeria reminding me of the great depression in the US when president Roosevelt was the president, the country had collapsed, people where despondent, Nigeria has the same parallel so what Roosevelt did is what I hope president Buhari will do. Have massive plans of actions which will be executed because having being elected president, he must have come with a clear idea of what he wants to do and who will assist him to develop the plan.
So what is the way forward for the aviation sector?
The way forward is to redeploy all aircraft in the presidential fleet to form the hub of a national carrier. Business for this new national carrier is easy to generate. I have proposed a Bill; the fly Nigeria Bill, to ensure that every government naira used to purchase a ticket must originate and terminate on a Nigeria carrier. The fly Nigeria Bill when passed into law will create an instant market for our national carrier.
What is your take on our legal system; do you think this sector is in need of reform?
The legal and justice sector has suffered institutional failure over the last three decades. Comprehensive and radical reform of the legal and justice sector is overdue. The rule of law is vital to economic development. But lip service is paid to this vital process. Investors, whether local or international will not invest in a lawless country. We must give urgency to this sector and reverse legal failure.
Expectations are high; in what areas of the economy would you advise the president-elect to concentrate so as to meet the expectations of the people that voted him into power?
It is inconceivable that a person in UK will not be entitled to mortgage after employment, none of you here has a house that you owned, you’re all tenants but you have jobs. Now in the UK, you will be owners of a house because the same ability to pay rent, remove the rent and put mortgage that’s all. A lot of what they do in abroad isn’t rocket science because they have legal framework and they have policies that promotes public good.
Now, a bank in Nigeria is not going to give any loan, they are going to give three, four, five big men who will trade and return the loan. I challenge a single bank in Nigeria to say that they are bank in the proper sense of the word, they are all money lender. The duty of a CBN and the financial regulatory authority is to prevent banks from exploiting the system to their own advantage, it has happened in the United Kingdom where their own CBN punished even Berkley’s bank, you find the regulators are also at alert to push the banks in the direction of the public interest.
Now, an area where I hope President Buhari can work strongly is the financial sector why? It is the oxygen, it is the blood of the system, if you stop breathing now you know what will happen so, the banking system delivers oxygen to the system. Any president who is not concerned with whether Nigerians are getting oxygen is not fit to be our president, you must be alert to what the banks are doing, the banks are supposed to lend to consumers not to traders, if they lend to everybody, if the money is readily available then you can easily borrow to meet your needs, this is called consumer banking. In Nigeria, we have trader banking, the economy is bleeding.
Banks do two things before they crash first, they give money for importation of diesel, petrol, kerosene and two, they gave money to buy shares, that’s all. Go to the bank that you want to borrow money as a consumer, you cannot get it. We need to see policies; I have identified what policies are required to correct the problem. In aviation, I don’t understand how we don’t have a single aircraft in the air called Air Nigeria yet, we have foreign airlines dominating our airspace because you see, if you’re a prudent business man, money comes when you get here, there and then you put them together so, I don’t know whether Nigeria policy makers understand that money cannot only come from oil, money will come from oil, agriculture, aviation.
Now, Nigeria’s entire cash package is only N4trillion but in just one sector, the aviation sector, foreign airlines take away a quarter of our budget. MTN that is giving us problem in South Africa makes more money than Dangote group and all the banks in Nigeria yet they have nothing here, how can any serious policy planner allow such a thing where people are allowed to come into the country, make money, take it away, you will bleed. The financial planning required by Buhari is complete reform. The statement credited to Minister Obanikoro is not acceptable, if I were him; I will summon the South African envoy and tell him if this continues, it will have grievous consequences on our relationship.
But section 2 of the 1999 constitution stipulates that some of the amenities you mentioned above are the rights of the citizens however, it is not enforceable in a court of law. How can the citizens ensure that the government is accountable to them under the law?
No country can afford to treat the elderly, vulnerable and disabled as societal outcasts. The standard operating model around the world is the creation of a benefits agency as it is called in England, and a societal security agency as it is known in the United States, to cater for those who are unable to look after themselves.
It is vital that the incoming administration deals with this issue. Happily chapter 2 of the 1999 constitution provides a programme of action with which the proposed social security administration can be charged. It can be made to be enforceable without much ado.
As a legal practitioner, looking at the cash crunch that has bedeviled the country recently, would you advise the president elect to probe corruption in the past administration?
It’s going to be a difficult and complex issue, you do not want to give the impression of a witch hunt but at the same time, you don’t want to let go of stolen money so it has nothing to do with cash crunch. What I think, is that if I were president Buhari’s adviser, I would say adopt the position of the blind fold of justice. If you erect a credible institutional framework to fight corruption, it will catch the mice, create a structure, let the structure do its work and whatever the structure turns up, don’t interfere, your job is to create strong police force.
Unless he promulgates a process to put in place a new constitution, it will be same old story. A lot of your questions show why this national order is so important. Can you envisage a situation where the president-elect gets a letter from the Attorney-General of the Federation saying what the president has done is wrong? That is the kind of credible anti-corruption process I want to see the president unfold once he has done that, the job is done. So nobody will accuse him of a personal agenda.
Is it constitutional for President Goodluck Jonathan to hand over power on May 28th when the constitution recognizes May 29th as the handing over date?
I don’t see anything wrong with the May 28 handing over, the May 29 is the constitutional ordained hand over but that is not to say the May 28 is wrong, it is only a dinner, are you telling the president he can’t have his dinner on May 28th? He can have it. There’s no problem in that so long as the president continues to hold on to power in fact, he is bound to so do by the constitution but he can have his dinner and just like when I became NBA president, it was three weeks before, so that is not a big issue.