In this interview with WALE AKINSELURE, legal practitioner, Mr Niyi Akintola (SAN) speaks on the current separatist agitations, suspension of Twitter by the Federal Government, constitution amendment and other issues.
IT is 22 years after the country began the current democratic experience. What do you consider as the highs and lows over the course of these years?
Is there any high now? Even the little gains that we have made over the years: freedom of expression, freedom to air your opinions are being thrown to the dogs – if it has not been thrown to the dogs already. This is because there is a culture of fear now. Democracy is hinged on four pillars and one of them has been thrown away by the various actors in the polity. Freedom of expression is the cardinal point of democracy. Today, there is culture of fear everywhere. Even, if you meet those in authority in their private closet, what they will tell you will be different from what they will say in public because they are afraid. Only very few state actors have the courage to express their opinion on national politics which is very dangerous and rather unfortunate. The culture of fear is so much. The provision of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is very clear: the primary duty of any government is to protect lives and property. Are the lives and property of Nigerians secure now? Certainly not. We have gone back to the Stone Age, where life is short, nasty and brutish. Life is so cheap in Nigeria. There is no day that you will not read or hear of unnecessary killing. We have never been this divided in our 22 years.
When we came on board in 1999, Nigeria had high hopes about democracy. But, somewhere along the line, we started retrogressing, from 2010. Things started sliding and it was not nipped in the bud timeously. The slide did not start with this administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. When it started, former President Olusegun Obasanjo dealt a decisive blow. You might condemn his act on Odi and Zaki-Biam but give it to him. The man understands Nigeria like the back of his hands. No one will try anything of such in that region. But things started sliding back in 2010 because of the type of leadership we had then and it has now become the order of the day.
Are you talking about the nation’s handling of the outset of Boko Haram?
Yes. Now we have banditry, kidnapping, unnecessary killings, herders/farmers clashes. The primary duty of any government is to secure lives and property of its citizens. Freedom of expression has been thrown to the dogs; there is culture of fear everywhere plus insecurity. So, where is the high? All we have been lows and lows.
The separatist agitations by the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) and some Yoruba for Oduduwa Republic are reverberating loud. Will the nation survive this round of agitation without a breakup?
As far as I know, this country has come to stay. The country will survive the challenges but when the survival will come is what I do not know. If you look at the configuration, demographic distribution of the country, you will understand that this country has come to stay. For instance, in this country today, there are more Yoruba in the North than in the six states of the South-West put together. Let us take a cue from what happened during the Jos riots, where I represented the Yoruba community before the Bola Ajibola panel. The panel was constituted by Obasanjo and there was another panel. The Yoruba lost more lives in the crisis in Jos than any other nationality. When the settlers were attacking the indigenes, they were attacking the indigenes who were mainly Christians and the Yoruba Christians as well. So when the indigenes carried out their reprisal on the settlers, they too were attacking the Muslims and the Yoruba Muslims. When you see an average Yoruba Muslim on the streets of the North, he looks very much like his Fulani counterpart. You cannot differentiate between him and Hausa Fulani; he speaks the language. Most of the people who bear the name Gusau, Ayuba Wabba, Adamu Aliyu, you will be surprised to know that they are Yoruba. If you see a Nigerian Muslim of Yoruba extraction, you will be shocked when you discover that he is actually a Yoruba man. There are many of them there. There are two or three of them that have become governors in the North using a kind of strategy. They have done what is called assimilation and integration. I give it to the North westerners that once you integrate and assimilate, you become part of them. Once you don’t dabble into their culture or religion, you are welcome. That is why the likes of Rimi will become governor in Kano State – Rimi was not actually from there. Abacha was not actually from Kano – he was a Kanuri man and from a village called Abacha village. So, Yoruba have so much integrated and assimilated with the culture of the North. Some of them have been there for the past 300 to 400 years. How many of us appreciate the fact that Oyo state is so close to Kebbi that only one local government separates the two. By the time you cross Ilesha Baruba, Borgu in Niger state, you are already in Kebbi State. So, the interaction has been there for long. Over 50 percent of the tertiary institution workers, especially the academics, in the North, are of Yoruba extraction. In any institution in the North, you will find the Yoruba in large numbers. Many of them were born there, many schooled there.
The current Emir of Kano has a Yoruba mother. The mother just passed some few months ago. How do you ban the children of that woman from going to their ancestral home? So, we just have to navigate through the murky waters of this state quagmire that we have found ourselves. The statement credited to the Sardauna in 1953 at that constitutional conference is still very much germane. Obafemi Awolowo too imbibed the same statement saying we should respect our differences while Nnamdi Azikwe asked us to respect our differences. Nigeria is not a nation; Nigeria is a country of many nationalities. And we must appreciate it like the Americans have done. We can navigate through it by allowing every component part develop at its own pace.
Talking about freedom, the Federal Government recently suspended the use of Twitter in Nigeria after Twitter had deleted a comment of President Muhammadu Buhari. Opinions are divided over the government decision. Is the action part of the infringement of the freedom of Nigerians that you are talking about?
It is a misnomer to say that you are suspending Twitter; you are suspending what you don’t have control over. Twitter is not operating in Nigeria; the operation of Twitter in Nigeria is limited to your access. You are to access Twitter and Twitter is not the originator of any content. You are the originator of the content you put on Twitter; Twitter only helps you to disseminate it. Twitter was not incorporated in Nigeria; it does not have license from Nigeria. It is you and I that goes out to access it. When you download the app, you access it. If you are accessing it, like your WhatsApp or Facebook, you put the content there. So, how can you use the word, suspension, for Twitter? You can only restrict the access of your citizens or residents to Twitter. This is legal illiteracy I talked about.
You mean President Buhari was not well-informed before sanctioning the suspension?
I don’t think President Buhari is well versed in it. He must have been misadvised. Things are done in the name of the President, governors, and other leaders. But when you discover that things that were done in your name is not appropriate, you retreat and eat the humble pie. It is an exhibition of ignorance to say that you are suspending Twitter. What you are doing is to restrict access to Twitter. And this infringes on freedom of expression. What happened that Twitter restricted the access of President Buhari to Twitter and you now want to restrict the access of all Nigerians to Twitter. Those Nigerians were not the ones that originated the content that Twitter pulled down. Twitter itself has not suspended Buhari’s handle. What Twitter has done was to pull down the content that you put on their system. This is unlike that of former President Donald Trump, where Twitter pulled down his handle. That of Buhari has not been pulled down; what they did was to pull down that particular content which he put on the system. It is like the Minster of Information, Culture and Tourism, Lai Mohammed, who incidentally happens to be my classmate though an elderly person, has allowed politics to cloud his sense of judgment. He has forgotten what he read in his law classes. For instance, it is like hitting Nigeria through the backdoor, remembering the two bills on social media that were killed at the National Assembly. Now, it is like bringing back Decree 4. The Fifth Columnists that brought Decree 4 under the Buhari/Idiagbon regime never knew the implications; they were playing to the gallery; they don’t love Buhari more than us who voted him into power. Buhari had an unprecedented number of votes to become President of Nigeria. The Lai Mohammeds of this world cannot claim to love Buhari more than those millions that voted Buhari into power. So, whatever you do must take into consideration those millions of Nigerians.
To better our current state of affairs, suggestions to include restructuring, implementation of the 2014 Confab report, return to the 1963 constitution have been advanced. How do you think we should deal with all these suggestions?
I am for restructuring. Also, I want to subscribe to the views of those calling for a return to the 1963 Constitution, which comes close to what we are clamouring for now. Restructuring will save us a lot of trouble. When somebody sits down in Abuja and wants to dictate the norm and form of primary education that Ekiti should have, it cannot just work. In the First Republic, primary education is for seven years in the North; it was six years in the South. For the North, in terms of education structure, they had something like Interim Joint Management Board to bridge the gap between the North and South because they were failing WAEC enmasse. So, the North introduced a stopgap and I know people from the North that got into the university through JAMB and they are doing very well in their chosen career. That was recognition of diversity by the then ruler who seemed to understand Nigeria better than the present set of rulers, who want to centralise everything.
One of the cardinal principles of a federal system is that every component part will be allowed to develop at its own pace. If it is the wish of the people of Oyo State to spend 90 percent of their income on education, so be it. Why should that be the concern of anybody in Abuja? Why should a body sit down in Abuja and propose ambulance for the 774 local government areas in Nigeria? There was a time when Association for Local Government of Nigeria (ALGON) was made to sign a contract in Abuja without the input of the state and local government concerned and they were deducting local government money from source. These are the kind of things that have been bringing disharmony, friction. If someone in Zamfara says he doesn’t want alcoholic drinks there, so be it. If my church, Baptist decides to set up a university and says only those who share their beliefs should come in, why should that be the concern of anybody? Why should anybody insist that his or her ward must not wear hijab? If you decide to wear hijab, it is your private affair. Why should anybody stop you from expressing your views and believing your faith provided you understand the fact that where your freedom stops, mine begins. So, we must recognise our diversity and respect it. One of the issues we are having, really, is that the various unions are doing things that are against separation of powers and true federalism. I am talking about the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC), the National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), JUSUN, PASAN and others. Their actions are direct opposite of they are clamouring for. I am a consultant to the National Assembly on constitutional review and I discovered that most of the clamour for devolution of powers and restructuring are actually very popular with the majority of people from the North. Ninety-nine percent of the memos we receive from the North supported the creation of state police; they want some form of devolution of power. They want state autonomy; they want to be able to determine what they should pay to their workers. But the NULGE, NLC and TUC will not take that. In fact, they came kicking and protesting at the National Assembly. The ASUU too are not left out. Why should anyone teaching in LAUTECH want to have the same salary as his counterpart in UNILAG? Why should there be sympathy strike by JUSUN in a federation? If Rivers and Lagos have met the demands of JUSUN, why should you continue in a nationwide strike? Why should there be sympathy strike?
Can the ongoing drive towards constitution amendment help correct the anomalies you have talked about? Are we on the right direction?
We are on the right direction if they allow it to fly. But from the suggestions and feelers I am getting and what I have seen so far, it has not gone down well enough to attain the realities of Nigerians’ demand.
Is starting the process of having a new constitution, therefore, the way to go?
Some have argued that the National Assembly is not empowered to make a new constitution, which I do not agree to. I remember that statement was made by my own classmate and deputy President of the Senate, OvieOmo-Agege, and I do not agree with that. The present constitution we are operating makes provision for a referendum where and when necessary. It makes provision for consultation and that is what making of new constitution entails. We can keep on operating the one we have while making a new constitution. It is my personal opinion and not the opinion of the committee which I represent. For instance, a lot of things are being done that bothers on ignorance. It will interest you to know that under the present constitution, the opportunities contained in the present constitution are not being utilized by the present actors. Most of the governors don’t even understand the tenets, contents and importance of the constitution they have sworn to operate and abide by. Do you know that there is nothing stopping any state from generating its own power?
But, there are limits to the number of megawatts you can generate. Are you aware that Oyo State does not need more than five megawatts for its local consumption and industrialisation? Except Lagos State, how many states are taking advantage of this? There are so many areas that the present actors at the state level could have exploited to better the lot of the people they govern. They don’t know or they pretend not to know or they are afraid. Are you aware that under the present constitution, states are allowed to create courts of their own? How many states are taking advantage of this? They are allowed to make laws for good governance and public order. How many states are taking advantage of this? Again, it is only Lagos state. Lagos has become the flagship of the little gains we have made in terms of federal structure like town planning, hotel. But, unfortunately, the states themselves have been making incursion into areas reserved for local government that will make for devolution of powers and restructuring. The states themselves have been emasculating the local government. For instance, if you look at schedule 4 of the present constitution, only local government are allowed to collect television, market, motor park licenses. But today the states have taken over all those areas from the local government. And only the councilors in Cross Rivers State have challenged that obnoxious move by their state and they won up to the Supreme Court. Today, you see state sending out bills to residents to pay taxes on their properties other than state land. States are allowed to charge ground rent on their own land not on individual properties that should be charged by the local government.
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