The Speaker, Kwara State House of Assembly, Honourable Ali Ahmad, a legal practitioner, speaks to BIOLA AZEEZ on some issues affecting the polity. Excerpts:
There is said to be a general decline in professional ethics among lawyers. How do you see the situation?
There is no doubt that there is a decline in the legal profession. It is a noble profession, as we used to know it, but we have seen an erosion of the values and culture in the profession. I believe there is the need to take a step back and fortify the rules. We have so many lawyers now. We have to enforce the rules and everybody will sit up. We have to bring back the glory of the profession.
A common manifestation of the decline has been given as enticement of judges by lawyers. How do you react to this?
That is the root of corruption among lawyers. Once you step out of court, you have nothing else to do with the judge except to pay respect to him. But now you see lawyers hobnobbing with judges. When they say there is corruption in the judiciary, a client doesn’t have access to the judge, lawyers do. Let the truth be told. It is the lawyers that act as middlemen. So, once lawyers don’t do that, clients or a party to a case cannot have access to the judge. Lawyers should stop this practice.
Some say President Muhammadu Buhari’s fight against corruption is selective, others say it is in public interest. What do you say?
Fight against corruption should not be personalised. I believe it should be institutionalised otherwise the administration of President Buhari will be for naught; once he leaves the scene, corruption will come back, because, for now, there is nothing institutional about it. Now it is not institutionalised; it is personal. Let us institutionalise it. Unless we do that, we are wasting our time because it means that the day he leaves, it [corruption] will come back. President Buhari should reform the process, empower the institutions, step back and let the institutions fight the fight. If they are not fighting well, call them and ask them why they are not succeeding. Empower them and fund them. That is the way to go. That is why some people are saying it is being done by selection. I don’t want to go into that. I know they have their reasons and facts. If the fight against corruption is institutionalised, it will be on a steady course. Now, they look at the body language of whoever is there [in power] and if he wants them to go, they go and they look at the body language of somebody who is close to the president and if he does not want them to go, they get back. So, we are wasting our time.
All this fight against corruption is a waste of time because it is personalised. I urge the president to institutionalise the fight against corruption. Nobody wants corruption but when you personalise the effort to stop it and then the people see you as being selective, it will not succeed. Everybody must support the fight against corruption – lawyers, judges, institutions, teachers, students…everybody, not Buhari alone. The president cannot fight it alone. Corruption is bigger than him. It is bigger than the EFCC. It is bigger than the ICPC. It is bigger than the CCT. What are we talking about? We are wasting our time. Corruption fight should be institutionalised. Why has the president said despite the enactment of criminal justice law, cases are still being delayed? That is a valid question. Going after one person or one political party is not encouraging.
Some are saying rule of law is also necessary to fight the menace.
Rule of law is necessary in the fight against corruption. If you throw out rule of law in the fight, we are in great trouble. Every step you take, you must follow the due process. So, when some people say when you arrest someone over allegation of corruption, throw them in jail, as we are seeing, it is not the process.
What do you think the recovered loot should be used for?
They should go to the National Assembly to do something about it and appropriate it. I will suggest we pay salaries with it. Let us pay workers. About 27 states cannot pay salaries. I urge them to take it back to the National Assembly. Let’s say this is a version of the ‘Excess Crude Account.’
Why are Nigerian lawyers not participating much in politics?
I have been passionate about this question for a long time. Why are we in the minority in Nigeria? Why is Nigeria an exception? The only answer I can come up with, having thought about it is that the United States system, which I know a little about more than any other countries, encourages lawyers. It is lawyers-friendly but the Nigerian system is not. In the US system, when you have the district attorney, it is an elective position. You go out there and campaign. And when you get to court, you start winning public interest cases. You become popular. From there, you become a mayor. From there, you become a state legislator. Then you become a congress man. From there, you become president. So, the US system is lawyers-friendly. The American system is prescriptive. Lawyers are good in America because the system encourages the participation of lawyers. That is why you see that 70 percent of politicians in America are lawyers. Nigeria has the same system as America, but why are we not getting involved? It is because we believe that politics is dirty on the one hand and on the other hand, you have the issue of the godfather as entry point. America encourages lawyers; it is suitable for lawyers.
In Nigeria, you don’t get in politics because you are a process man, which lawyers are. Lawyers are process people. Politics is a process, just like legislature. You are a fantastic legislator if you are a good lawyer. Our legislature today is suffering because we have a small number of lawyers there. But lawyers cannot get in.
When I contested for the House of Representatives, I lamented; I spent N50 million campaigning. I was lamenting and wondering where I would recover my money from. A friend from Imo State said, ‘Ali!’ I said yes. ‘You say you spent N50 million?’ I said yes. He said, ‘for what?!’ I said for primaries, for election, for post-election, thanksgiving, and for everything. He said, ‘are you kidding?’ He said he spent N250 million on primaries, and that is true. In the East, you cannot get anywhere without spending about half a billion naira. If you spent half a billion naira, how do you get the best people in there? So, these things discourage lawyers from getting in there. Now, how do you confront the issue of godfather? You are a lawyer. That toga of lawyer is a disadvantage because the helmsman in the local government is not a lawyer. He is a fat, pot-bellied politician. And when you say you are a lawyer, he says you?! You know too much book. You want to come and dislodge people who will be bringing this and that. Am I not telling the truth? He would say you want to go and be discouraging people from bringing returns for me from councillors and this and that. You are a lawyer. You are too wise for me. As you try to come in, he will block you. If you want to see the governor, he would have bribed the people that will get you in. You can’t even gain entry. So that is the challenge.
But what is the solution?
You know what, politics is too important to keep lawyers out perpetually. We have to break it and we have to enter. Nigerians cannot be an exception. Our system is suffering, haemorrhaging, because those that we have entrusted our public life to cannot manage it. Our public life is too important to leave to those people. So, I say that lawyers, like in other countries, should get involved. Lawyers should come out for our society to move forward.