Submitting that resolving the national question is a bigger existential challenge than corruption in the Nigerian state, renowned constitutional lawyer and elder statesman, Professor Ben Nwabueze assesses the President Muhammadu Buhari presidency, scoring it low on constitutional adherence and capacity. He also told The Authority correspondent John Silas that restructuring of Nigeria is imperative if it must survive and shared insights into several other topical issues.
Buhari is in power now. Is the way the country what you expected? Is it going in the direction that you’ve always wanted?
No, that’s a loaded question. It’s not going in the direction of democratic rule. He declared himself to be a born again democrat. That’s what he said after his election and his installation. But I don’t think the way he’s been going has really proved him to be a born again democrat. I’m not surprised considering his antecedents because I pointed that out before the election. I said 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. That’s the principle governing the armed forces in this country. The commander gives orders and those under him obey the orders without questioning. Two, for being the military commander, he became Head of the Federal Military government in absolutism. Everybody must carry out his orders. Now, with that background, with those antecedents, he cannot overnight change to become a born again democrat. I didn’t see it as possible. So, before the election I said all this at various fora as leader of The Patriots, leader of the Igbo, leader of thought. I gave a number of press interviews on this, issued a number of press releases. My advice in this country is that we have to beware of where we are going. And, I warned that we have experienced from Obasanjo, with the same antecedent: military commander, head of Federal Military government. We elected him in 1999 to lead us to democracy, he aborted it, subverted the rule of law and democracy for eight years. I said then that we should not allow history to repeat itself. In spite of all that, we elected Buhari as President, so we should not be surprised at what we are getting.
Are there specific steps that he has taken that actually show that he’s 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 is very clear, though it confers absolute power on him; he has to rule with a Council of Ministers. He ignored all that. He went ahead and imposed personal rule on us for four months. That’s not the action of a democrat. What he did was anti-democracy. That’s not to the command of our constitution. Four months, he did not appoint ministers. What are we getting? Are we really getting institutional government? The government is by institution not by one man, where are the Council of Ministers now? Is the government of this country really run by the Council of Ministers? Is it not whatever he tells them? Under the constitution he has the power, but the constitution also says that the power should be exercised in a certain way, manner and form. They are two issue; investing of power, investing of the title of power in him. Verse 75, the same constitution that invests the title of power in him goes on to say that he has to exercise it with advice of Council of Ministers and he must hold regular of meetings with his council of ministers who will I advise him on how to exercise these powers. He didn’t do that, for four months he was ruling alone, making appointments, deciding policies and doing all sorts of things for four months.
In October he installed ministers. What are we getting? Are we not still having more or less personal rule. The constitution knows the difference between personal rule and institutional rule, rule by institutions established by the constitutions. What are the institutions doing? The Council of Ministers is just one; there are so many institutions, Council of States, the Security Council, etc. The 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 right to every individual, every citizen. Are those rights being obeyed? That’s part of the essential character of democracy. The constitution outlaws inhuman treatment among so many rights that were with it. You see a citizen been handcuffed for corruption. Olisa Metuh, he’s not accused of anything else but for corruption. Is that enough to handcuff a citizen? The constitution prohibits inhuman treatment. Handcuffing is accepted if a man committed murder and there’s evidence that he may try to escape. That may well be justification for handcuffing. That’s the only circumstance where you can arguably justify such a treatment handcuffing. I heard also that Nnamdi Kanu was handcuffed. What did he do? Declaring Biafra, is that enough to handcuff him? There are several other things, appointments, thirty-one strategic appointments in a constitution that says that social order is founded in justice. What does justice mean and what does it require? He made thirty-one appointments none from the South-east, is that what they call justice?
But it was justified by your colleague Professor Osagie, who said that the South-east having not voted for him has no right to clamour for appointments from that zone.
He said that?
Yes he hasn’t denied it.
I’m aware that the President himself said it but I’m not aware Osagie said it. I will be surprised if he did, knowing that unequal treatment is there. In the constitution you must treat citizens equally irrespective of their state of origin, their ethnic affiliation, religion and so on. That many citizens did not vote for you, is that a ground for discriminating against him? Osagie is a man I respect. I doubt whether he will say that kind of thing.
There has been so much dust on the recent move by President Buhari dragging Nigeria into the Saudi-led coalition against Islamic terrorism. Some people feel it’s a way of getting Nigeria into Islamic organizations and that the move was not approved by the National Assembly. But constitutionally speaking, does it have to be approved by the National Assembly and did he in anyway violate the constitution?
We have had this kind of thing before when Babangida took Nigeria into the OIC. You remember that and that it nearly tore this country into pieces. I remember the crisis created by this. The circular status of this country must be respected. Religion is one of the things that arouse so much bitterness. People regard their religion, their faith as an essential part of their being. They shall not play with the religious character of this country. That’s why it’s said that no religion must be adopted as the religion of the state. Now this thing about coalition of countries headed by Saudi Arabia against terrorism; where are these terrorism? But they make it a religious issue because this country is not a Muslim country; it’s not a Muslim state. If they are forming alliances of Muslim states, okay. Don’t drag Nigeria into it. Nigeria is not a Muslim state. And I’m not surprised that Christian Association of Nigeria up North is up in arms. But the opposition by Christian Association of the North is not enough, CAN all over the country should be up in arms as they were when Babangida took us to OIC. I’m surprised that the action so far has not engulfed the whole country
Is it not possible because of his explanation that he only meant to help mobilize support for the fight against terrorism?
Don’t make the fight against terrorism a religious issue please. We are all against terrorism but you don’t drag this country to one religious group because of terrorism or because you are fighting corruption, using the war against corruption as a justification of almost everything. If you kill an individual today and you’ll say it’s part of the war against corruption, Nigerians will jump at it because we are all clamouring for an end to corruption. We should be very, very careful. I have said all that I can say on this issue. The use of war against corruption to do all sorts of things; to assault the constitution, to handcuff people because of war against corruption. No! In The AUTHORITY paper, I saw if ISIS then attacks this country, is it not all of us? The thing I’m saying is that he shouldn’t have done it without consultation. He should carried the National Assembly with him, he should carry all of us, we all have a stake in this country. We are all against terrorism. You can’t just do this kind of thing without consultation. The National Assembly is there. Was this approved even by his Council of Ministers?
Talking about fighting corruption specifically, you know it is one area you have for several years been campaigning, advocating and shouting that the way the nation is going in terms of corruption was not good. Is there anyway Buhari will fight against corruption without abusing the law?
That’s what I’ve been saying all the time. We are all against corruption. We all support the War against corruption but that war must be fought in accordance with the constitution. This is a decision, a choice we have to make whether we want to fight corruption at all cost irrespective of the constitution, disregarding all the restraints and the limitations of the constitution and power. Is that what we want? The moment you throw away the constitution you’re inviting anarchy, yes. The constitution is like glue, it may be weak glue but it is glue that holds all the 389 ethnic groups in this country together. The moment you throw it away- Relatively speaking, corruption is a very small part of the problem of this country.
What’s the bigger part?
The national question – that is the bigger part. How do you hold 389 nationalities together to form one nation, how do you? That is the problem and the fundamental question so complex, 389 nationalities all of them are nations by every definition. What we want is unity but not unity at total expense of the ethnic nations, it won’t work. We have to try and find a way to preserve the sacred identities of these ethnic nations and at the same time create some kind of unity. The so called principle of diversity or unity in diversity has not worked and doesn’t work because of over concentration of power at the centre. We need to restructure this country if we ever want Nigeria to continue to exist as one state.
Still taking about corruption, the past administrations especially the Jonathan presidency was accused of not being able to fight corruption because it was adhering to the rule of law and didn’t want to flout it and politicians take advantage of the same rule of law to make sure that corruption cases do not end. Is it not possible that some of these things may have informed the current posture of Buhari administration?
If it is true it’s a wrong posture, you have to define your priorities, our priority is to maintain the constitution, to maintain the rule of law and fight corruption within that framework. Once you abandon the constitution you are already jeopardizing your priorities, yes you are perverting your priorities which must always be to maintain the constitution and rule of law.
Coming to past administration including Jonathan in fighting corruption is not so much on constitution and respect to rule of law, is just that they had no will to fight corruption. They didn’t have the will, not only Jonathan but Obasanjo administration didn’t have the will to fight corruption. They didn’t believe in fight against corruption. Let them not use rule of law and others as an excuse for not doing what they are supposed to do because they themselves were corrupt. They were corrupt; let’s tell ourselves the honest truth.
Do we really need a special court to try corrupt cases as people are advocating?
We don’t because the courts are adequate to do the job but we are subverting the court.
Some are saying lawyers are involved in the subversion because we have some being held by EFCC on corruption issues?
Yes so many people are involved in it. There is dishonesty, you are not fighting corruption many lawyers are involved in it, the EFCC, agency created to fight corruption, they are in it. Haven’t you read the report prepared on the activities of EFCC under Nuhu Ribadu, the assets confiscated from Tafawa Balogun, former Inspector General of Police and assets confiscated from Diepreye Alamieyeseigha former governor of Bayelsa State, how he sold those assets worth billions of naira. Where is the money? Ibrahim Lamorde is a latter development. If you want to fight corruption you must investigate EFCC. You create thief catcher and he turns out to be principal thief, recover money and then embezzle it. It’s sad, very sad.
Away from the presidency, have we really had it good from the National Assembly and the Judiciary. Have they really done what is needed to move this country to what we want?
Every agency in this country is soaked into this corruption web, the National Assembly, the judiciary they are all soaked into it. So, it is a difficult problem but it is not impossible, what we need is the will, you have to have the will, let people believe that you are genuinely fighting corruption and that you yourself are free of corruption.
Is the President deficient of that will and the reputation that you are saying that people need to see and believe that you have what it takes to fight corruption?
They are two issues; the will is one issue, you may have will and I think he has the will but is he going about it the right way? Is perversion not an aspect of corruption? You pervert the constitution, institutions all in the name of the war against corruption, what is that? Is that not corruption? Perversion is part of corruption, we must appreciate this. Perversion is an important dimension of corruption. Don’t pervert existing institutions in the name of war against corruption. He may have the will but is it being exercised in the right way? Is he not complicating matters by perverting institutions in the name of war against corruption? Is he not making matters worse?
Before the elections you tried talking about the credentials of Buhari, but people also argued that Nigerians didn’t have a good alternative, that Jonathan wasn’t the best of alternative. If Nigerians have re-elected Jonathan would things have been better?
Is not the matter between Jonathan and Buhari, is Buhari the only man who could have succeeded Jonathan?
But the APC platform was a lucrative platform?
That’s where we derailed ourselves. I wanted APC, I wanted a change from PDP yes. PDP was miss-governing this country and I was praying for a change that I thought APC will give us that change. What happened? APC primaries the contest there was mainly between Atiku and Buhari, Atiku scored 954 votes against Buhari’s over 4000 votes. Why? The voters at the primaries were predominantly Muslims, we were looking at a man to solve the problem of corruption, that’s what informed that election. Atiku is a Muslim but he is a moderate Muslim, this is an enlightened broadminded man who didn’t have the antecedent of Buhari and yet they ignored him. That’s where I personally parted company with APC, they dashed my own hope. We needed a change from Jonathan, we didn’t get the change in Buhari, if we didn’t want Atiku, there are other northerners who could have done the job, you have Atiku, Kwankwaso and others. I don’t want people painting picture that Buhari is the only alternative, no! That’s not true.
Things appear to be standing still, economically. Even Soyinka has advocated for setting up a team on economy that will come up with economic solutions on how to address the economic problems, do you subscribe to such arrangements as a way out or does the country need little patience with the government?
What Soyinka suggested may help because the economic situation right now is really biting and nobody should ignore it. Some solutions must be looked for, I don’t know what the solution is, but we cannot continue like this. Look at the exchange rate of our currency is almost valueless. A week or so ago, we needed N490 to buy one pound sterling, I remember clearly when it was one pound to one naira and now it’s N490 to one pound sterling, N350 to one dollar. How can we go on like this, everything including sachet water has shot up because of exchange rate even things that has nothing to do with dollar.
Some have argued that it is a sign that this government was not actually prepared for governance, or should it be taken that he doesn’t have the capacity? We see some policy somersault like the issue of N5000 to unemployed youths among others?
I don’t think it is a case of not being prepared, don’t forget that the March 2015 elections was his fourth, he spent 16 years contesting for this position, is it not enough time to prepare himself if he has the capacity? So it all boils down not to not being prepared to not having the capacity. It’s beyond him. Give him twenty years to prepare it will still be beyond him. Nigeria is a very complex country, I have mentioned to you already that you have 389, the number may be disputed, ethnic nationalities, the complexity, the issues involved in ruling, forget the national unity at the moment, the issues involved in ruling a country comprising 389 ethnic nationalities. Capacity is not just a physical issue, is an intellectual issue. He doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to comprehend what it means to govern this country. Does he?
But he is blaming it on the level of decay and fraud that was in preceding government.
All that is a charade to his capacity; if everything is under decay, how do you get us out of that? How do you 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. The transition from colonial society to an independent society the complex issues involved, decolonization. People think that decolonization means independence no, it is not. There are issues involved? Now you have got independence, you have to solve all the problems created by colonialism for more than 100 years.