Nigeria’s democracy is maturing – Barrister Akpa

Barrister Chinedu Akpa Interview pix 2

Barrister Chinedu Akpa, a Lagos-based lawyer believes the decision of former President Goodluck Jonathan to accept the outcome of the 2015 general election saved the country from the brink of collapse.

The former Lagos state governorship aspirant equally believes that the task before the new administration of President Muhammadu Buhari would be daunting but not impossible to deliver if he remains focus and committed to his electoral promises.

In this interview with Olisemeka Obeche, Akpa takes hard-look on critical issues at the front national burner and how best to tackle them. Excerpts:

There were fears that violence capable of causing disintegration of Nigeria could erupt during the  2015 general elections, judging from the tensions it generated coupled with the challenge of insurgency in the North East. But at the end of the day peace prevailed. What do you consider as the turning point during electoral contest?

Well, I think the turning point was what happened towards the end of collation of results of the presidential poll. Specifically, that moment President Goodluck Jonathan called General Muhammadu Buhari to concede defeat and congratulate him as the winner. That singular act diffused all the tension and brought the entire country back from the brink. Though the exercise was largely violence free in many parts of the country except for places like Rivers and Akwa Ibom, but right up to that point Jonathan called Buhari the entire country was literarily sitting on a keg of gun powder. If you consider all the factors that led to that singular action, you will know that for once, the hawks failed to have their way and that was the turning point. Imagine, if he had listened to numerous voices within his party and government with options on what to do to scuttle the exercise and remain in power, the country could have exploded. But, thank God, Jonathan listened to his heart and did the right thing. History will treat him with kindness, for that singular act of selflessness and courage.

For the first time in Nigeria’s political history, an incumbent president and ruling party lost to an election. What does this portend for democracy in the country?

Certainly, it is a very positive development for Nigerian democracy because it can only lead to better things for the country and its citizens. What it shows is that our democracy is now maturing; and no longer nascent as we have been calling it since 1999. I believe that our democracy has finally crossed that nascent phase and that is positive development. All we have to do now is work towards consolidation of the modicum success achieved through this exercise by cleaning up the grey areas of our democracy to ensure that we do not relapse but forge ahead.

Now we know, as with all democracies across the world, that accountability has become entrenched in our polity. And that any elected or appointed leader who fails to deliver on the electoral promises can be voted out of office irrespective of how much money he deploys to win an election. So to that extent, I say it is a very positive development. If the actors realize that they can no longer get away with dereliction of duties and failure to deliver on electoral promises, they will be forced to change and do the right thing. Perhaps, with this, good governance can begin to be entrenched in this country.

What are the key issues you expect the new administration of President Buhari to accord priority in order to ensure peace, stability and sustainable development?

I can tell you that the key issues appear to have already been tackled by President Goodluck Jonathan and handed over to Buhari on a platter of gold. So, all he has to do is to consolidate and improve upon them. Let’s take the issue of peace as one key example- prior to the election, we all can feel the political temperature risen almost to a boiling point; the sheer bad-blood that threatens the peace and unity of Nigeria manifesting in various forms and only waiting for that tiny spark. But President Jonathan’s action he made at that crucial stage of the election doused the whole tension. Through singular phone call to Buhari and conceding of defeat, Jonathan has ushered in peaceful transition to a level that we have not experienced in this country for a very long time. Right now, all the Buhari-led administration should to do is to consolidate on this atmosphere of peace it inherited from Jonathan. I believe it is when this country has genuine peace and unity that other meaningful socio-economic development can thrive.

Secondly, if you take a very close look at different sectors of the economy and what Jonathan administration did thus far, you will discover that some meaningful efforts have been made to deliver on some of his promises. Even though, he didn’t deliver on his key electoral promises, but we have seen progress made. I will take power sector as one typical example. We all know that the whole idea of unbundling the National Electricity Power Authority (NEPA) and later Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) has been on the table since 1999 and no meaningful progress was made. There has always been a consideration that the liberalization/privatization that took place in other sectors could happen in the power sector. But nothing significant happened until Jonathan stepped into the presidency. Even though Jonathan’s power reform has not ushered in the much expected improvement in power supply and efficiency in service delivery, we recorded a milestone during Jonathan era than his predecessors.

Maybe, what Buhari administration can do is to take a second look at the entire exercise and find out how best to fine-tune it to meet the desired goals. This is very crucial because anywhere you go around the world, you will find out that power utilities have been unbundled with private entities in-charge. Even in communist China, power utilities are under private entities, because it is no longer fashionable to see power infrastructure owned and managed exclusively by government. Nigeria should follow suit and that was exactly what Jonathan administration did, regardless of the shortcomings of the privatization programme.

Incidentally, power is one sector that if government can manage to fix, it would act as a catalyst for transformation of so many other areas of our national life. So, I expect the new administration to seize the momentum and fix the power sector. That would drastically increase national productivity, business/industrial growth and general improvement in standard of living, among others.

The issue of corruption has generated hullabaloo across Nigeria and beyond. Now that Buhari, who anchored his campaign on strict anti-corruption crusade has  taken over  the reins of leadership, what should he do to actually win this war?

With the benefit of hindsight, Buhari has been at the helm of federal government top position before and he did well in that area. This time around, he has taken a definite stand on corruption. In fact, his entire presidential campaign was built around that mission to stamp out corruption from Nigeria as well as tackle insurgency, infrastructure and other national challenges. But I have my own reservations about Buhari’s ability to tackle corruption in Nigeria, especially in the light of the former methods he employed.

If he is thinking of employing similar method to tackle corruption this time around, then I don’t think there would be any change in the status quo. I said this because corruption has become so deeply engraved in the fabric of our society that you need total renaissance of the Nigerian people for it to be expelled. It is virtually like a virus in our blood stream because every aspect of Nigerian life is affected. And it manifests mainly in lack of integrity in our systems, methods and daily official and unofficial conducts.

So, for us to deal with corruption in this country, we need a total national rebirth, the kind that could require the Nigerian people to be re-educated on the utmost need for virtue in our lives. This becomes important because an average Nigerian is corrupt and this manifest at every levels of dealings across the country. You will be surprised to know that the bulk of the corruption we experience from this country actually emanates from the populace rather than from the government. But we all focus our attention to the corruption in government. If we can control corruption in ourselves, it would be a lot easier to curb corruption in public offices.

Incidentally, there is no way the new administration can come up with a particular programme that can handle this, because there are some of them that are structural and systemic. For instance, even the kind of corruption that emanates from the arena of government, you will find out that there are some existing laws actually encourage corruption. Some of the government policies and systems in this country also encourage corruption. So, until you tackle that you won’t make any headway.

For instance, we have this curious policy about retiring whatever amount that is appropriated at the end of the year, whether spent on the specific items budgeted for or not. You find out that every December usually witness some kind of bazar in most ministries, departments and agencies of government as those in charge of spending those funds try to find ways to dispense them because they are empowered to finish spending every fund budgeted for the year. This is so because the system does not make provisions for carrying it over to the following year. That automatically encourages corruption. Until we are able to tackle this kind of policies, corruption would continue to thrive, regardless of who is calling the shots at the center.

Of course finding the right policy is not in itself an end, but a means to ending corruption. You will find out that our government have come up with several concepts like ‘Due Process’, ‘Procurement Policy’ and so in a bid to checkmate how it manages public resources judiciously, equitably and fairly but none has so far been well implemented. They seem to just scratch the problems at the surface, either because the implementers did not show fidelity to the principles that gave birth to it or they chose to play to the gallery. At the end of the day, the very thing you decided to fight would be allowed to thrive.

So, these are areas that worries people like me most. But I think one best thing the new leadership can do to make a breakthrough is by setting some form of examples. Nothing will speak of anti-corruption fight as eloquently as showing personal examples of non-profligate or non-corrupt leadership. If you are not given to frivolities, those besides you would pick up on your body language and before you know it, it would begin to trickle down and spread.

For example, we expect General Buhari to do away with this needless thing called ‘Presidential (aircraft) fleets’. They have tried to justify why the presidency must maintain such large cache of aircraft at huge cost to the nation to no avail. It is high time someone like Buhari takes the bull by the horn by disposing them off so that such funds can be ploughed back to other basic national developmental needs. The United Kingdom, for example has no single aircraft assigned to the office of the Prime Minister or the Queen.

If the presidency of other more developed countries of the world does not maintain such money-guzzling aircraft fleets, I don’t see the reason a third world nation like Nigeria should have as many as ten aircrafts in the presidential fleets. Our officials should fly commercial airlines, just as their colleagues elsewhere do. Such act of frugality will sell the idea of anti-corruption better than just haunting former leaders while committing the same acts of profligacy that led to their fall from grace. They should first demonstrate to ordinary Nigerians that they are not in government to fritter away our common wealth but to use it judiciously for common developmental purpose. That is the most effective way of fighting corruption.

A major challenge facing anti-corruption war in Nigeria remains prosecution of corrupt offenders and obtaining justice at the right price and pace. What do you consider as the key factors militating against effective adjudication of corruption cases in the country?

I think one major problem is lack of capacity of the anti-corruption agencies to effectively carry out diligent prosecution of high-profile corrupt cases. The institutions like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other offences Commission (ICPC) are not strong or well-equipped enough to cope with the tasks they are saddled with. The worst affected is the EFCC, whose capacity and funding is far below what it requires to deliver results. You want the agency to bring to justice, mostly powerful men in the society who have embezzled about N5 billion and so have enough resources to spend to wriggle out of the case. Then you sent an EFCC that does not even have enough funds to do thorough investigation on the case to be able to establish beyond reasonable doubt that he actually embezzled such funds to be able to secure a conviction against such person. How do you expect them to nail him when they lack the capacity to get to the root of the corruption case?

As a legal practitioner, I interact with most of their legal teams and I know that much of the cases they were not able to secure conviction was not due to lack of evidence but largely due to capacity to go deeper for thorough investigation to establish beyond reasonable doubts the case before court. Let’s take the corruption case against Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode as an example. They dragged him to court with 40 count charges, and at the end of the day they couldn’t secure a conviction on any of the charges yet. The trial judge struck out 38 of those charges, remaining just two, the reason being that the EFCC was not able to prove any of the charges beyond reasonable doubts. That is the standard of proofs in criminal cases.

That is worrisome because that is how most of these corrupt leaders escape being punished. I strongly believe that if the EFCC had narrowed their case down to about three solid charges that they can prove, it would have been easier for them to secure conviction. With that they would have more focus and capacity to secure conviction. All that they have to do to nail the man is to narrow their charges down to the crux of the matter.

However, most times, they would come up with those thirty something, forty something charges and at the end of the day, the accused would walk away free. And that is because the anti-corruption agencies are not well equipped to establish those charges. Technically speaking, it is tantamount to biting off more than you can chew or swallow. With such approach to prosecution of corruption cases, the accused with the amount of resources at their disposal, including engaging best team of lawyers to be able to wriggle out of the web. If they narrow their charges down to few manageable ones, the considerable amount of trail times would be reduced and the possibility of securing conviction would be higher because they can do thorough investigations on those few charges than having over thirty to contend with.

The EFCC can even borrow a leaf from what prosecutors in other developed societies do by taking up corruption charges against an individual in piecemeal and securing conviction rather than lumping over 100 charges together and not securing conviction. They will just take the count charge(s) that they feel is strongest on trial and most times they don’t miss getting conviction.

Apart from that, we also need to take a second look at the whole of criminal justice system in Nigeria. There is need for a serious review of the applicable laws to be able to cope with the modern day adjudication demands. We should be able to have a system that can deal with corruption cases on a real-time basis as well as have well-funded and technically savvy anti-graft agencies that can be able to track down corrupt officials, establish cases and go on to secure conviction in record times.

We should also ask ourselves, how equipped are the institutions to deal with certain peculiar crimes like stock market, banking sector frauds? How many policemen are well trained to understand the nature of such crimes, investigate them thoroughly and be able to prosecute offenders and obtain conviction? If you carry out investigations now, you will discover that even those working in the specialized units of the police force are not well equipped to deal with such technical cases. So, we need to reform the system to address those loopholes.

As former governorship aspirant in Lagos State, are you satisfied with the level of participation of non-indigenes in the politics and governance of the state?

I will say that it is very encouraging compared to other states where non-indigenes especially Igbos are in large number as well. It is our hope and expectations that it would be improved upon in future, especially now that the current rulers of the state uphold tenaciously a vision of Lagos being a mega city. Any mega city in the world can only thrive based on the diversity of the people they have not just in the economy but also in the politics and governance. So, it is in the best interest of these leaders to deepen the level of participation of the non-aborigines or indigenes of the state if they hope to actualize such vision. They need to open up every sector for greater participation of non-Yorubas to be able to effectively unleash the full potential of the people in the state. If they continue to place restriction on certain areas to the aborigines of the state, they are short-changing themselves.

Besides, the issue of appointive or elective political positions and offices, there is equally the issue of professional services. For instance, if you restrict employment of qualified medical doctors to Lagos indigenes alone, it would drastically affect the pool of available doctors and so cannot cope with the demands for such services in the state.  So, if non-indigenes are essential in such areas, they should also be absorbed in top management and political positions because they equally have the requisite know-how for such jobs. That is the only way they can tap the best that the state has in offer.

To what extent has this indigenship-citizenship dichotomy hampered Nigeria’s socio-economic and political development?

It has affected Nigeria’s progress in many aspects of its national life to a very large extent. And that is because; most political leaders, actors and followers don’t seem to understand the difference between the citizenship and indegenship as provided in the constitution. Unknown to many people, if you go by the basis of what the Nigerian constitution says, rights, duties and otherwise are conferred on individuals on the basis of their citizenship and not on the basis of your indigenship of a particular place or state. If only we can stick to that standard, things would be better for us in this country, because it is really causing confusion. You find out that certain segment of people, having identified themselves as indigenes of such place always wish to appropriate to themselves almost all of the opportunities arising from that particular enclave.

And when such selfish approach is allowed to thrive, it hinders sustainable development of our systems and country, because it acts as a hindrance to getting the best out of our available human and material resources. You find out that people are excluded from roles and opportunities that they are better equipped to discharge than those who are claiming the exclusive rights to that based on their indigenization policy. So, the earlier we recognize the fact that the constitution recognizes every individual first and foremost as a citizen and not just an indigene of any particular part of the country and treat our affairs like that, the better. If rights and privileges are ascribed to us on the basis of our citizenship and not indigenship, then it means that whatever benefits available in the society should also be distributed on the basis of the same citizenship. It is the only way Nigeria can truly become a global player and an advanced society.

By Olisemeka Obeche

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