By OMONIYI SALAUDEEN
The suit challenging the right of President Goodluck Jonathan to contest the 2015 election is still subsisting in the court some weeks to the March 28 presidential poll. In this interview, the lead counsel in the case, Yusuf Ali (SAN), insists that he will pursue the case to a conclusive end even after the elections. Excerpts:
What is your opinion on the new amended constitution by the National Assembly?
I have been privileged to see the new amendment. The only areas that unfortunately didn’t scale through, which is very dear to my heart, is the autonomy of Local Government. Majority of the states rejected it. You cannot say because most of the people running Local Governments are not serious and you kill the institution. What I think we should do is to make it autonomous and put the necessary safeguards to ensure that there is responsibility at that level. I have been made to understand that the amendment had been passed only waiting for the president to put his assent.
Some of your learned colleagues have come out to argue that sovereignty belongs to the people and so the National Assembly cannot amend the constitution. Do you also subscribe to that position?
Anybody who raises up that argument now is just playing to the gallery. Yes, sovereignty belongs to the people, but people elected those who are in the national and state assemblies. So, what are we talking about? There is no other method of amending the constitution other than the one prescribed by the same constitution. So, you can’t prescribe something that is illegal to attain a legal document. With due respect, I think some of those people just want to talk for the public to hear them. If you are law abiding, you have to follow the law. If you don’t like the law, then you have to make sure that it is amended. You can’t show your displeasure to a law by disobeying it. You become lawless. The constitution has prescribed the process by which it can be amended. I think anybody who is serious about amendment will agree to work with what we have to achieve our end.
Apart from the autonomy of Local Governments which you said is very dear to your heart, would you say that the amendment is far reaching enough to address some of the fundamental problems facing the country as a nation?
You can amend the constitution one hundred and million times, but our attitude is very important to implementation. In size, American constitution is not up to one quarter of the Nigerian constitution and their system is working. Why are we so indisciplined with so much corruption? Is it because there are no laws? There are laws, but we don’t have the will-power to ensure that there is enforcement. Sometimes we leave the disease to attack something else. Our attitude is what is causing all the problems in this country. Our attitude to corruption, our attitude to leadership, our attitude to so many things is what is holding us back. For me, it is not about being far reaching, it is about our attitude. We amend the constitution too often. How many years has this constitution spent? Less than 20 years and we are still tinkering with it. We have not even tested the provisions of the last amendment sufficiently and you only test the provisions by ensuring that they are used. In the process of using it, some aspects of it will be challenged in court. Court will make pronouncement. It appears we just like changing things. You can’t build an enduring legal system, enduring nation by changing things every time.
You recall that the national conference also made some recommendations on the constitution. How do you think positions of the two bodies can be harmonized?
For me, national confab was just a diversionary thing put in place by this government. All the jobs done by the confab had been done by another conference. What happened to their reports? I laughed when I saw Afenifere supporting a particular candidate so that he can implement the recommendations. One, if it is a policy that is accepted by the government, anybody in government will implement it. So, it is neither here nor there. Our problem is not shortage of confab, it is how we implement. One way by which recommendations of the National Confab can be implemented is by amending the constitution. For me, I have not seen anything the confab did that has not been done before. All we should have done was just to dust those reports. The reports done during Obasanjo’s time, which were swept away because of third term agenda, had addressed virtually every issue. I don’t know why we are just interested in congregating people and waste the little resources we have. What the confab did could have been done by committee of experts. For me, honestly, I think our problem is not that the constitution is not good enough, but we don’t have the right attitude and the will-power to make things work.
What is the way to building an enduring institution?
One, there must be transparency. Two, there must be will-power. Three, the people must buy into the institutions and believe in them. They must be able to appreciate what the institutions stand for. Whatever the institutions do must be beneficial to majority of the people at the end of the day. We must put the right people at the right places. We must put people of integrity who can speak with high moral authority to run such institutions. One of the problems we have in this country is that most people appointed into political offices are those looking for appointment; whereas, we need people who are not looking for positions to be recognized.
It is only when most people get to office that you know they ever existed. And that is why the culture of resignation is almost an anathema because as soon as they leave the office, they go into oblivion. If you put people who already have names in positions of authority, they won’t mess up because they know they have integrity to protect and they also have something to fall back on. It is a vicious circle.
You spoke about corruption, but most people have always blamed judiciary for the delay in prosecuting corrupt offenders. Isn’t it true?
It is not true. Yes, we have two anti-corruption bodies, but I have told you that the problem of Nigeria is not shortage of laws but the will-power to make those laws work. The work of anti-corruption is specialized. The two anti-corruption bodies need specialised people to unearth some of these cases. You can’t use 18th century implement to do the work of 21st century. For example, if you want to investigate the kind of corruption that is based on IT, you can’t bring somebody who doesn’t know how to operate computer to unravel the crime. For the anti-corruption bodies to work, we need professionals who are well trained and patriotic to do the job. If you don’t do investigation very well, it leads to delays. Ordinarily, under our constitution, a person is not supposed to be taken to court unless you have concluded your investigations. It is only in Nigeria that offenders will be taken to court while investigation is still continuing. Why will there not be delay? If you have not completed the investigation, you ought not to take them to court. Of course, the judiciary has its own role to play there, but you have to also look into the environment under which judiciary operates. In most of the state judiciary, they still write in long hand as if they are taking dictations. Delay in prosecution is a combination of so many factors. In all states of the federation, there are special judges appointed to handle corrupt cases, and they are ready to do their work. But what about the enabling environment? Judiciary is not going to be the prosecutor and investigator. Those are the work of other people. If other people don’t do their work well, how do you now blame the final arbiter? You cannot say you want the trial of offenders to be fast and deny them access to lawyers to represent them because there is assumption of innocence. Even when you are charged with the most heinous crime, you are still presumed to be innocent. If there are no such safeguards, with mere allegation of suspicion, people’s names and integrity will be damaged forever.
You are the leading counsel in the case challenging eligibility of President Goodluck Jonathan to contest the 2015 presidential election. What do you think you can achieve between now and the time of the elections?
Just wait. Election does not stop the case. If the law says you cannot be this, even if you erroneously become, the court will tell you that you are not entitled to be there. I don’t want to argue the case on the pages of newspapers. We will do it in court and we are doing it already.
So, it is like laying a landmine for the President?
The purpose of anybody going to court is to get redress. Let’s wait. It is not the purpose of lawyers to know how a case will end. How it will end depends on other factors.
The elections were postponed because of security situation in the country. Is the situation now good enough to guarantee peaceful conduct of the polls?
We are praying that peace will return to Eastern part of Nigeria. We all agree that this insurgency is principally in three states of Borno, Yobe and Afdamawa out of 36 states. There was war in virtually every part of Syria, the same thing with Iraq. Even in Afghanistan that has been virtually in perpetual war, in Kashmir in India where there has been war for so many years, they hold elections there. Nigerians deserve to have the elections. I am one of those who hope and pray that election will not be shifted; otherwise, Nigeria will become a permanent laughing stock in the eye of the rest of the world.
How do you see endorsement of President Jonathan by some leaders of Afenifere?
Yoruba are very bad politicians. Whatever Yoruba discuss within the confine of their room, they will still call a press conference on it later. Yoruba is one nation where elders don’t believe in grooming their successors. It is the same set of people who have been in the forefront since when I was a boy that are still circulating themselves.
How many young people do you find among them? I had occasion to challenge a few of these elders years back. I asked them, ‘who are your successors? It is a wwmatter for them to think about if they really want to be relevant in the scheme of things.