Former National Legal Adviser of the All Progressives Congress and immediate past chairman of the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria, Dr Muiz Banire (SAN), shares with TUNDE AJAJA his thoughts on the judiciary, future of the ruling party after 2023 elections and other issues
PRIOR to the coronavirus pandemic, your party was enmeshed in serious crisis and it seemed you stayed aloof, could it be because some of the happenings were things you warned against when you served as the party’s National Legal Adviser?
I wrote an article on the issue in February and I mentioned that it would be my final comment on the crisis, because substantially, most of these issues are subjudice. However, I had predicted rightly what is happening to them now. I told them verbally and in writing that this would happen if they didn’t change their style. The only way to sanitise that party is to return to the rule of law, whereby nobody is above the rules and the constitution is followed to the letter. It’s as simple as that. Once you fail to follow the rule of law, you are inviting anarchy, and that was what eventually happened.
Some members of the party have even speculated that the party may not survive after the tenure of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), do you share such fears?
Honestly, I’m not too sure the party can survive it. And the reason is simple. In recent times, there has been no unity; they do not have a united front; there are so many contending forces, there are many aggrieved persons and the foundation is shaky. The party has continuously experienced shocks, particularly poor compliance with the party’s constitution, and when that happens it means you are in a jungle and anything goes. I don’t like to associate with such groups.
Does it mean you are considering leaving the APC?
More than a year ago, I think I have ceased to keep what I call bad company. As far as I’m concerned, I have left the party officially, because I’m a man given to the rule of law. Once I don’t see rule of law exist anywhere, I quickly take my leave because I won’t wait till the house collapses on my head. Remember they even said they had expelled me, which I gladly accepted (laughs). I’m not one of the scavengers in the political arena, so we are all on the same page now.
Are you leaving politics or you want to join another party?
No, I’m not. When there is a party with proper, fundamental ideology, which is lacking currently, we will consider our position. But now, I have not seen any.
You were the National Legal Adviser when Chief Bisi Akande and Chief John Odigie-Oyegun led the party. If you are to compare their tenure with that of the current chairman, Mr Adams Oshiomhole, what changed that the party found itself in such crisis?
As far as I’m concerned, I would consider the tenure of Chief Bisi Akande and Chief Odigie-Oyegun respectively as the respective chairmen of the party as the glorious days of the party. These were days in which the rule of law was substantially adopted in the administration of the party. You would have read when the current National Legal Adviser of APC (Babatunde Ogala) complained that nobody takes advice from him on legal issues. That tells you what has changed, and with that, what do you expect as the outcome? In my days as the National Legal Adviser, both Chief Akande and Odigie-Oyegun listened and followed legal opinion and advice to the core. I will keep on making the point that rule of law is the key, and once you decide to disregard it, honestly, you can’t end up anywhere else than where APC has found itself.
One of the allegations against the suspended chairman is that he does things by himself and doesn’t call for meetings. At the time you served the party, were you having regular meetings?
Yes, there were so many meetings. In fact, I must confess that I was almost unable to keep pace. During Chief Akande’s period, it was much easier for me because he’s highly IT compliant, so he engaged people via different platforms a lot. Anywhere in the world you were, Chief Akande would involve you in every discussion. With Chief Oyegun, virtually all meetings had to be physical and honestly, there were too many meetings that I couldn’t keep pace. But in this case, they should understand that nobody has the monopoly of wisdom.
Some people are of the view that there may not be absolute peace if Oshiomhole doesn’t quit as the chairman, do you think that’s the solution?
It looks so to me too, but you can’t say conclusively that it will resolve all issues.
People have expressed reservations with the disconnect between what your party promised and some of the things government is doing, should there not be a way the party gets involved in how its manifesto is implemented by people who rode to power on its platform?
Even though I agree with you that government and the party that brought it to power are inextricably tied together, there is always a dichotomy and I’m one of those who believe in the dichotomy. However, I agree with you; there should be such a mechanism. Government is expected to implement the manifesto of the party and the actors need not necessarily be members of the party. Regardless of where you come from, who you are or your party, I’m more concerned with your competence. But the problem about the party having a voice is that the party is never independent, most times because of what I would consider the poverty level of the party. In those days, parties funded themselves, but now parties depend largely on patronage from government, so they cannot speak the truth to power.
Are there times you get tired of the system?
Honestly, you are absolutely correct. I’m getting to a level that substantially I’m beginning to be indifferent to the system. We all see solutions but we run away from them. You take your time to propose reforms but you don’t see them coming to life. It’s frustrating.
By 2023, a northerner would have been in power for eight years, do you subscribe to calls for presidency to go to the south?
We are expected to be patriotic as Nigerians but the atmosphere around us tells us otherwise. Let me give you a very simple, practical illustration. A Lagosian sat an exam and got 320, while somebody in Zamfara did same exam and got 120. In consideration of quota system or federal character, you decided to take the one who scored 120. Will that boy from Lagos ever be patriotic or have the interest of Nigeria at heart? No. I’m not part of those who believe in federal character, zoning or rotational presidency. What I advocate is merit and competence. If our football team comprises of only people from Edo State and they are the best, so be it. When they win, it would be said that Nigeria won, not that Edo won. So, instead of doing the right thing, they share it among the states and that is why we are not moving forward. It’s unfortunate that we are like this. I would rather want them to take it from the competence angle. Today, everyone is crying that corruption is killing us, but if you have done your research, the price of incompetence is higher than corruption.
Former Lagos State governor and National Leader of the APC, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, is rumoured to be interested in the presidency in 2023. Are you aware?
He has not told any of us that he’s contesting, but he’s qualified, undoubtedly.
If he does, will you support him, given that your relationship with him had been strained over the years?
Of course I will, if he wants me to support him. I have worked with Asiwaju directly and that is why I could tell you I would support him. We have had what I would call a challenging relationship in recent times due to what I consider to be the activities of saboteurs who profit from conflict. I call them political scavengers. Gaining each other’s confidence is still a challenge; maybe with time we would be able to build it. That is why I said if I’m invited.
There are rumours that people like El-Rufai and the governor of Ekiti State, Kayode Fayemi, are also interested, have you heard too?
When we get to the bridge we will cross it. Let’s even see those who are available and let’s examine their profiles.
Asiwaju said few weeks ago that the crisis in the party was towards 2023. What do you foresee in the APC ahead of 2023?
The first thing is that I’m not sure it’s this executive that would conduct the primary against 2023 elections. If their tenure would have expired, it’s meaningless fighting over that. I wrote recently that there might be no party again in 2023 the way the party was going before now. Maybe with this incident now, if he (Oshiomhole) is lucky to survive it, then he would retrace his steps and start abiding by the rule of law, but the way they were going before, certainly they would crash.
It’s uncommon to have crisis at the Lagos State House of Assembly and people were saying the removal and suspension of some members by the Speaker couldn’t have been possible without Tinubu’s knowledge. Even though they have been reinstated now after he intervened, could he have been totally unaware initially?
I have not taken any interest in the Assembly or this issue. If I know Asiwaju very well, it will be extremely difficult for him to say go and remove somebody. What you can accuse him of is that he might not be that categorical or forthcoming in reinstating such persons, but in saying go and remove the person, it’s remote. And that’s his (Tinubu) nature; give that to him when it comes to being magnanimous, except he’s spurred by some charlatans to hurt anybody. He’s substantially harmless and generous. That is his nature.
You said you don’t take interest in issues that have to do with the state House of Assembly, why?
I’m not interested. The quality of some of the people there is worrisome, and I do not agree with the quality of some of the people they are putting forth. For that reason, in order not to continue to injure yourself, it’s better to look away from them. How progressive-minded are they? If they are part of this government and they know what the government is going through, will they buy N2.4bn vehicles? I remember that for a long time when we first came into government during Asiwaju’s period, he refused to buy even official vehicles for us. It also happened during Rauf Aregbesola’s tenure as the governor of Osun State, when he didn’t appoint commissioners early, and he said the amount he would use to pay them, he could use it fix a few roads. That is the way progressive-minded people should be thinking. It’s not in the face of this hunger in the land that you would be parading fleet of cars all over the place.
With the resources Lagos has, and having served as a commissioner for many years, are you satisfied with the level of development in the state?
The actors (the governor and his deputy) are people I have worked with and I will not say they are doing badly; there are quite a lot of challenges for them. I mean so many challenges. I even sympathise with them every day and I pray a lot for them. Some of them who have access to them will continue to encourage them. Lagos is a different case when it comes to governance, because you would sleep with one thing and wake up with another thing entirely. Look at the explosion at Festac, when they were still battling coronavirus. Also, so much had been left undone in recent past, like the number of roads that they have to contend with. Where they will get the money to sort them out, I don’t know. Beyond fixing the roads, there are other things that need attention too. So, I sympathise with them. There is need for what I will call radical cut in recurrent expenditure in favour of capital expenditure because there are too many challenges. When I read that the House of Assembly spent N2.4bn on vehicles, I felt that was irresponsible and reckless.
When you said so much was left undone in recent past in Lagos State, are you passing that blame to the administration of former governor Akinwunmi Ambode?
One of the fundamental flaws of Ambode was that he refused to consult with people, especially people who have experience. He isolated himself and for me, it was his isolation that was responsible for his fate. In Lagos, because of the magnitude of challenges, iconic projects are not easily funded without paying the price for the basics. If you want to do an iconic project, go and look for external funding for that; the funds you have are not enough for the basic things. If he had consulted, people would have advised him. At the end of the day, I became vindicated because I warned them.
On the N2.4bn spent on vehicles, why do you think public office holders waste funds when the masses are suffering?
The allure of office is part of the problems we have. Political offices are too attractive. That is why people don’t want to do anything than be a politician. That is why they want to die there. Somebody would serve as a councillor and for the rest of his life he wants to remain in the political arena. They (many politicians) don’t have jobs; that is why they are not performing because most of them are not even competent. Some have never run a business successfully, yet we are entrusting the affairs of all of us into their hands.
Do you think politics is making people to be lazy?
Yes, entirely. Our politics has made people to be very lazy. I have seen some of my contemporaries and friends who used to be extraordinary become jobless. This is because after public office, they can’t do anything again. They are so lazy, begging all over the place for public office. When I was in office as a commissioner, people who knew me knew that once I left Alausa I would go back to my office. I don’t joke with my work because that is my permanent address. Many politicians don’t have a second address and that is why you have that degree of desperation in the system.
What are your fears if Nigeria continues like this?
Except we want to pretend, where we are now is discomforting already. If I say we have a bleak future, I’m not even sure we have a future, not to talk of qualifying it as bleak. If we keep parading this quality of people and character, honestly, we will remain a nation of potential, except we get quality people to manage our affairs for us. We also need to educate the electorate because we have a sizeable number of them that are ignorant. They don’t know the relationship between their life and their vote. They see their vote as a merchandise or product and until we are able to educate them on their rights and power, then, we are heading nowhere. INEC and National Orientation Agency have not done a good job. I have challenged the NGOs to wake up. The fourth estate of the realm (media) also has a major work to do on this continuously. I did an analysis that over 80 per cent of the people that determine our fate today are people that are largely not literate; people who don’t know what is right. The elite won’t go and vote. That is why the political gladiators continuously subject the voters to abject poverty so they cannot reason.
Your unpopular views have set you against many people, are there things your stand have cost you?
A philosopher said there is no way you can be principled and you will not suffer pain. Being principled comes with sacrifice and pain. You can’t say you want to be a person of integrity in our clime and expect that everything will be fine and dandy. It’s not possible. They will victimise, harass, intimidate and deprive you of certain things. So, you have to be resolute. Some of us were innately born with some virtues, which in those days were normal virtues of omoluabi in Yorubaland. So, I have suffered a lot and I’m still suffering it but I remain undaunted because I knew the price before I engaged in it. I don’t mind because I’m driven by my conviction and conscience.
Have there been threats to your life?
There have been several and they have become consistent.
There was a rumour at a time that you wanted to become the governor of Lagos State, do you still have the ambition?
No, I have never had the intention of contesting any political position, because for me, the prerequisites for someone like me contesting are not there, they have never been there and I don’t know when they would ever be there. For example, I cannot start sharing my hard-earned money for people to vote for me. A lot of people believed at a point in time that I was the next governor of Lagos State. I was just laughing. Some people came to me on three different occasions that they were putting funds together for me to campaign. Even, some other political parties other than the one I belonged to at the time approached me to contest under their platform and that they would fund it, but I declined. Unfortunately, some people go there to make money. We have seen in this nation several people who have had so much money, where are their children today? The money they steal in office is tainted. If you convert the money meant to provide schools, hospitals and drugs for the masses to go and train your own children in Harvard University and you think that child would be beneficial to you, you are joking. At our level, how many food can we eat, how many clothes can you wear and how many vehicles do you want to drive. My best vehicle is my Toyota Corolla. I enjoy it and I’m very comfortable in it.
With the level at which public office holders plunder the commonwealth, do you think the punishment against corruption is stiff enough?
The solution that I want, which I have always said but people are not doing, is that at every Friday Jumat service and every Sunday Church service, let us be praying against them. Every week, we should mention what we want God to do to them. I know God will answer. That is my first and major antidote to it. There are people who dare the consequences because they know they would not get more than 14 years and after that they would come back to enjoy their loot. So, let us invoke the wrath of God on them first. Secondly, those who have advocated death penalty for corruption are not out of place. I honestly believe that we might start considering death penalty.
As a senior lawyer, is there any case you don’t do?
Yes, I decline cases a lot. I find some immoral and against my principle or conscience, but not necessarily in a particular area. It depends on the facts of the case. I ask myself if I want to be seen handling some kinds of cases, particularly if I’m not sure of your facts. Some I refer and sometimes I use fee to drive them away.
You hardly do election cases, is that deliberate?
I have handled so many election cases in the past. It’s of recent that I have not because that field is becoming so much contaminated for me. So, it’s deliberate. As much as possible, I have refrained, because some of the things you see there are ungodly and you don’t want to be seen or counted along in that regard.
When the President nominated you to be the chairman of AMCON, the three senators from Lagos State opposed your nomination. But after you survived that, the AMCON Act was amended to stipulate that only a deputy governor at the CBN can be chairman of the corporation, do you think that was orchestrated to ease you out eventually?
With my believe in God, who I am and just like the former Kano Emir, Muhammadu Sanusi, said, God gives and takes power. The Quran says all good things are in God’s hands. So, if anybody had plotted to remove you from office, that means it has pleased God like that and vice-versa. Some of these things can be very interesting. The impression given then was that three senators were against me, but I came across Senator Oluremi Tinubu who told me she never signed any petition against me and at no point did she oppose me. She told me that much and I believed her. I have always respected her but I respect her so much more now and I have come to admire her for her independent mind. To my knowledge, the only person that was active on that was (Senator Adeola) Olamilekan. Beyond that, there are some people who believe that I was an obstacle. Those people responsible for it are not even politicians, but we know them. For me, even before I left, I was already overburdened and was losing the much goodwill that I have built over the years because people expected me to perform some magic on their behalf, particularly the debtors, and I couldn’t. Even fellow lawyers were expecting me to do some patronage for them but I couldn’t. Even up till now some of them are still fighting me. So, at the time the disengagement came, it was more or less a good exit for me, if I can put it that way. So, I was excited when I had to leave. You engaged me to help and if you say you have helped enough, go to your house. Why should I be quarrelling over that? However, I cannot pretend that I’m not aware of the intrigues and I also know that the entire exercise is illegal. I know clearly. When Mr Femi Falana (SAN) and Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN) wrote on the illegality, I was just laughing because they were right.
Why didn’t you challenge the removal?
I wasn’t ready to pursue it because I didn’t want the job. They had relieved me of a major burden, why should I start quarrelling over it? I have my job and I’m even overwhelmed. Now, I have peace of mind and a lot of my clients are happier now seeing me handle their cases in court personally. So, the architects are human beings who believe that one could be an obstacle to certain unorthodox moves.
The President appointed you, so if those people you spoke about succeeded on their own, there must have been a disconnect somewhere. Do you feel so too?
You are right, there was total disconnect. For example, the memo taken to the President was to give him an impression that a new office was created under the new AMCON Act and there was nobody there. I had the privilege of seeing that memo, but like I said, I’m not ready to pursue it. The President, certainly, was misled into signing it.
As a senior lawyer and member of the National Judicial Council, the Supreme Court should have a full complement of 21 justices, but there are only 13, are there no lawyers that could be called to the bench or there are no judges that could be elevated to the apex court?
We have more than qualified number of justices of the Court of Appeal and senior lawyers that are even interested in occupying the position. It’s the system that is not producing them. I have had cause to write and I wrote a memo personally to the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council to do something about it; that this is terrible because we are part of the people who bear the brunt. At the end of the day, our clients’ cases don’t go on smoothly. If you file a case today, it may take years before it will be your turn to be heard. We have lost it totally. Also, the people there are overwhelmed with work.
Who do we blame for the shortage?
I’m a member of the NJC and I’m aware the NJC has recommended four names already that have not been sent to the Senate. So, whatever is responsible, I don’t know. but I’m aware that we have recommended four names brought to us from the Federal Judicial Service Commission, which recruits. Ours is endorsement of what they have brought where we find them to be meritorious. As of the time we did the four, we were meant to do six, somehow along the line, there was a problem with two zones that we couldn’t go ahead with. That was to take the number to 21, but now about three others have left, so the gap is there again. Federal High Court is substantially okay, though not enough. At the Court of Appeal due to movement, retirement and deaths, we definitely need to shore it up too.
Why do we have shortage across the board if we have qualified judges?
Honestly, I would say it is lack of seriousness. I won’t say more than that. And I tell you there is no reason why there shouldn’t be the full complement at all levels, because with the workload there, even if you have three times that figure, they can’t finish the backlog of the cases before them in five years. So, I don’t know why we cannot ensure that at every point in time three panels are sitting. I do not see any reason. That is why there is so much contradiction in our system. We want foreign direct investments but somebody wants to invest money in your country, yet if he goes to the Supreme Court, he knows he might wait for 15 years to get judgement and you think he will encourage another person to come? I don’t think so.
How best do we reduce or tackle the high number of cases in our various courts?
That is where the legislature is to be blamed. So many suggestions have been made, but nothing has been done. So, we would keep on waiting.