Dolapo Aina's The Interview Series with Olisa Agbakoba: Former President, Nigerian Bar Association

Federal character is the answer given by the elite conspirators to deceive those outside the room that they are entitled to be in the room-Dr Olisa Agbakoba

According to Wikipedia Dr Olisa Agbakoba, OON, SAN was born on 29 May 1953 to Chief Justice Godfrey Ubaka and Mrs Phina Agbakoba in Jos. He later moved to Onitsha in 1965. He is a maritime lawyer but more popularly known as a human rights activist in the Nigerian human rights movement from the early to late 90's.He is also a former President of Nigerian Bar Association

Olisa Agbakoba attended University of Nigeria Nsukka; 1973 1977, Nigerian Law School, Lagos, 1978; and London School of Economics & Political Science 1979 1980. He holds an LLB (Hons) of the University of Nigeria, BL of the Nigerian Law School and LLM (1980) of the University of London

Aside from human rights, his work in maritime law in Nigeria has been profound, he is the founder and first president of the Nigerian Shipping Chamber of Commerce (NCS).

Dolapo Aina had an exclusive interview with him. Do read the excerpts from the Youtube Interview.


DA: With the staggering amount being mentioned as being siphoned and the unrelenting approach of the Federal Government; how would you assess the Buhari Administration’s fight against this scourge?

OA: First, is to congratulate the government for at least recognising the blatant endemic corruption in Nigeria. I think this is the first government to go this length in attacking it; that is by saying something. That is to be saluted. But so did President Obasanjo and actually President Jonathan. So, I am not sure that there is to be a special prize to be given or awarded because the President said “I would tackle corruption.” Why do you elect the President in the first place? That is the job he has come to do.

OA: Don’t forget that Presidents come on the platforms and this President came on a platform of change. I expect that what he is doing is what he should do. Where I hope to see him go is the practical demonstration, measured by how much money is recovered and bought back into the coffers and plowed into development of roads, infrastructure, jobs and re-creating our national infrastructure, so that Nigeria can gain her prominent place. That coherent policy is still not very sharp. And I pray that, that is where he wants to go. All what he has said, as been said by past Presidents. Kudos to him but there is a long way to go to convince me, that there is some hard-biting to be done.

OA: For instance, I want Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be recalled because around her name circulates a lot of the potential corrupt practices. I don’t by this say that she has done anything wrong, but like Sepp Blatter, she needs to tell us her story. The only way she can tell us her story, is not by sitting in some fancy desk in the World Bank but by coming here.

OA: The way the corruption process would go, the law would be no respecter of persons. There would be brutal attack on all those who have stolen money. And if that is done, it is going to have a root and branch reform process and people would feel the hurricane. Right now, there is a drizzle. It is when the hurricane comes; that I can say, Mr President, you’ve done well.

DA: Do you think this present administration is different from previous governments, i.e. is the ideology different?

OA: I would expand it a bit. Do I think this administration is different from the previous ones? Yes. Because being a man on the left, this is the first government that says “we are on the left.” So, ideologically, I have a government that agrees with what I say. Never before (mark it) in the history of Nigeria as a leftist government being in office. What a leftist government does is social reforms and social recognition. Leftist governments take on the elite conspiracy, those who want things to remain as they are. And their pope is referred to as The Washington Consensus; neo-liberal economic policies, driven by the IMF and The World Bank.

OA: So, this government is taking the opposite view-standing for Nigerians. The National Bureau of Statistics has reported that 100 million Nigerians are unemployed-that isn’t acceptable. That is why the social part of my brain supports keep the oil subsidy; the economic part of my brain says remove it. But to remove it would make the market efficient. It would send a hardship signal down the road. So, for corruption, people need money but if money is in the hands of 1% of Nigerians, we would get it.

DA: While it looks like this administration is people-focused; do you think the administration can really maintain her people driven centric policies? Or is it just a flash in the pan?

OA: I hope it is not a flash in the pan. I don’t know but I just pray it is not; because for too long; Nigerians get deceived by lofty campaign promises. They get into office and nothing is delivered. So, I really hope that, this time around President Buhari’s leftist ideology would be implemented to the latter. Not in any way to drive away or put aside market efficiency. Both can go together. And that is why it is called social democracy. When you have social regulation and market efficiency working together, it is called social democracy and that is probably what they have in the UK. For all the pretence of The Conservatives in the UK to be a monetarist centre right party; it is also a social democratic party. They are supporting the National Health Service. They are supporting back to work programme for youth, supporting first-time mortgage loans for first time buyers (£20Billion for the programme). So indeed, even the UK is pushing a lot of social programmes in the context of being a centre right party. That is the model, I want to see here.  

DA: People say that the President makes some important announcements at international summits overseas. Why so? And is this proper?

OA: I think there is something wrong with the communications strategy, not only of this President but of many other Presidents


DA: Really?

OA: Absolutely. After all, President Jonathan gave the indication about the nature of the INEC Chair in Paris. I don’t know why they do that to be quite honest with you but it ought to stop. I don’t want to call it colonial mentality but I think there is something that makes us feel that we must please the international community without defining our own national agenda.

DA: The coconut syndrome?

OA: That is possibly it, which is not correct. I do hope they stop it. But quite recently, I did say that the current president had a very important ideological message to convey. But because he has two press secretaries doing the same thing, the message is cluttered. One man should concentrate on the “diariation” of his work and the other man should be the one dealing with communicating government’s larger agenda; dealing with the perception of government between people and the governed. And the third man is the information minister. And you also have the National Orientation Officer. There are far too many information mechanisms in the government that requires to be modernised and brought to speed, so that at each point in time; Nigerians would be clear about what their governors and leaders are doing. a lot needs to be done in the area of information management and strategy.

DA: How would you rate Nigeria’s human rights record? Any improvements?

OA: Yes and it depends on what you mean. Going back to the Ibrahim Badamosi Babaginda and Sani Abacha military days, of course, there has been massive improvement. It is not that we have democracy even though our democracy is illiberal. We have the vote but not the rule of law. It is not really a democracy. But clearly, it is different to what it was in those days. But there is still some ways to go. If Nigeria, were to apply to jin the European Union; we would not qualify.

DA: Why won’t Nigeria qualify?

OA: Because there is a European Union standard and we are below that. African countries are generally below that standard because they have set up themselves a lot of lofty national mechanisms which people in the chapters 2 and 4 of the constitution, the African Union’s charter and the African court. We are not adhering to it. The recent brutalisation of Nigerians in Zaria is a case in point. Yes, they may be doing the wrong thing but every Nigerian has the right to demonstrate. And a demonstration is not answered by shooting (if it were, everyone would be dead.) That shows you that whilst we have come a long way, we have still not attained the minimum standards. What about the men in prisons without due process?

DA: How come government prosecution teams always mishandle their cases? It appears they always go to court without being prepared. Why so?

OA: There are many factors involved. First, is the political will on the part of government to absolutely prosecute a case? Using the football analogy; Abrahamovic was not happy that Mourinho’s team was sliding to relegation. He fired him. In Nigeria, what is the objective of government in prosecuting cases? Is it to say to the Attorney-General; here are 10 crooks. I want them to be in jail within a year? What is the objective and what do we want from what we do? We call this “Management by Objective”. Now, if there is nothing that you want, you don’t set yourself a goal, there would be a drift. The biggest problem is the fact that the political will is not there to really attack corruption. 

OA: How is it that ISIS occupies territory, raises about $20billion a year and uses it t bomb places? It is the very complicit nature of the West, because money that they make from oil passes through the international system. Some days ago, the international community under the auspices of the United Nations has declared they are going to shut down all the avenues through which ISIS can evacuate and transfer money. That shows that finally, giving the Paris bombing and how ISIS is taking the war to America. The resolve is now to say, no more, enough is enough.

OA: Now, have we got to that point in Nigeria? No, it now goes back to one of the early questions. is there a President and is this President prepared to say ”if I do nothing else; I am going to run out every corrupt person in Nigeria.”To the point that if you go to the smallest village; they would ask, what is going on? They would know about it (it would shake Nigeria). If the will isn’t there; then you would have lazy prosecutors who draft poor charges and who aren’t well paid.

OA: To fight corruption is to assemble a formidable team of Senior Advocates of Nigeria. You can’t fight corruption with ill-qualified lawyers. You can not win the World Cup with a third-rate team. You want to fight corruption? You have to have the best. I do hope that the talk about constituting a national prosecution council would be announced soon, so that the best legal minds are given the assignment of going after these people. We can not use second or third rate people to get it.

OA: Now, to the judges, if you have what I call legal failure; the sped of justice is not working (i.e. it takes 20 years to finish a case) and nobody has really sat down to say, lets re-draft the rules of procedure. If you’ve a road that was built 100 years ago and you’re surprised there is a traffic jam? Why should you be surprised? You need to open the road of justice, so that a lot of traffic can go through it. There are a lot of reasons why the question you asked is happening.

DA: How best can lawyers help citizens get justice from previous administrations who misappropriated funds that affect service delivery and lead to loss of lives?

OA: Lawyers can play no role. Lawyers are not government. First, you need to construct the state apparatus to deal with the problem. What can a lawyer do? A lawyer goes to court; handicapped by the snail pace of justice, handicapped by a lack of interest on the part of the prosecutor; handicapped by lack of interest or political will. He can not do anything; he is only earning his income. The correct question is; how can the state construct the system in a way that motivates lawyers to assist in the process of fighting the anti-corruption crusade?

DA: When funds meant for a country’s military are diverted; thereby affecting the military’s efficiency. Isn’t that what is known as sabotage and treason?

OA: If referring to Colonel Dasuki and if true; that would rank as one of the most despicable acts of treasonable felony I have ever seen. If true, because he is entitled to a day in court. But if what is coming out is true, I would call on the President to take the strongest possible measures against anybody found to be associated (directly or indirectly) with this process. Because it is time that we stenched the slide of Nigeria into the abyss. A friend of mine, Larry Diamond-one of the world’s leading scholars on anti-corruption made a very profound statement. At the time, he made it; I did not quite appreciate what he was saying. He said that “when corruption is endemic and it has so eaten into the system; just reversing it, constitute a major challenge.” The President’s every energy must be focused on that cause. Now, when the President’s energy is focused on the cause, there is a positive association that Nigerians pick up. Nigerians are not corrupt people; it is just a few people giving us a bad name. I hope that the President’s every energy in whatever he is going to do, whether it s in water, roads, fuel subsidy, that the overriding policy of the President is to tackle this issue of corruption. When it is tackled, it would allow development to rear its head. Development has been smothered and of course as development is smothered, so is meritocracy and down the line, you have many rippling effects. You would be shocked what is happening. Quality of lawyers, doctors, journalists, aircrafts (mixing kerosene with aviation fuel and not caring that the likely consequence could be the death of passengers-remember the Sosoliso plane crash.) Nobody cares. It is all about what somebody wants to get from it because the system becomes overtaken by evil. That is what turning around this mess will assist Nigeria to come out of. Otherwise, Nigeria would continue to slide.

DA: Would you be willing to lead a class action lawsuit on behalf of citizens on any burning issue?  

OA: Yes. I have done it before and I would do it again. I have done so many across the field; on housing (when the military administration broke down Maroko), soldiers who were been court-martialled (Femi Falana went to court). Death penalty questions, prisoners’ rights, fair trial, education (and the fact that you cannot discriminate against one set of people in one part of the country as against the other. e.g. giving a part of the country a different cut-off University entrance examination marks.) The issue of my right to my passport. There is a lot to be said for what I call Strategic Impact Litigation; where you use strategic cases to push public causes. This is what we have been doing for the last 40 years. Late Chief Gani Fawehinmi was the pass master of this.

DA: What do you think would be the burning issues for 2016?

OA: Stability.

DA: Why do you say so? The country isn’t stable?

OA: The country isn’t stable and it is falling apart. Isn’t it obvious to you? If an earthquake occurs in Guatemala; you would not feel it except those who are there. Nigeria is too big that the systemic shocks it has been taken isn’t felt. But it is doing damage. Doing damage to the political stability of Nigeria. Nigeria is a very fragile country. I have been watching the ASI on the stock market; which is down by 50%. There is no confidence in investing here because there is nothing to invest in. Therefore, stability is what needs to be achieved. Stability is caused by all kinds of social unrest-Boko Haram being number one. I don’t know how the Shii’te thing would play out. The Biafra agitation has just commenced. I hear rumblings in the Niger-Delta. These rumblings mentioned knock out 40% of Nigeria. That is instability. We are at what I call low-grade war without realising it.

OA: You can’t go to many place. NYSC-National Youth Service Corps; cant post youth corps members to the North East. If rumblings continue in the South East, it would be difficult to go there when they can not secure the corps members’ safety. If that is the situation now and nothing happens to build confidence in the next few weeks and it continues to into 2016, then 2016 would be sign-posted by instability. The only way to attack it is to do 2 things.

OA: First, the anti-corruption crusade must be on top of the agenda. Second, is to ask the underlying causes of instability (to do with the failed federal structure we have and also inherited.) it is time for President Buhari to step up to the plate, end this nonsense of past Presidents, who use it for political gain. There have been 5 Presidents who held political confidences. It is time to say, we don’t need further talk, we need to have a President who would get behind a popular crusade espoused by every Nigerian for a new nation that would have peace and stability built on equity and inclusion. Every Nigerian must be shown his or her role in the house.

OA: Presently, 100 million Nigerians are outside. Why won’t they fight? They have nothing to lose. Then, few Nigerians (the 1 percenters) occupy 90% of the rooms in the Nigerian house (those outside the house are not going to give them peace). Unless you deal with the federal inequity, then the 1 percenters who I call “the elite conspirators” would continue to dominate the Nigerian space to the exclusion of the rest who would cause problems. Boko Haram and Biafra issues are economic problems. If you resolve it by re-dressing and re-structuring the federation, create a new constitution, then I think you would see more progress.

OA: The President should send a bill to the National Assembly styled a bill for an Act of Union of the Peoples and Nationalities of Nigeria. And make it pass in 3 months. You would be surprised by the energy that this country would release.

DA: Do you believe in Federal Character?

OA: Federal character is the answer given by the elite conspirators to deceive those outside the room that they are entitled to be in the room. Those who are in the room are not there by virtue of ethnicity or tribe. They are there by shooting their way to power. But they know that it would be unsettling if they are all from one place. They tell themselves, let’s pretend that in the Supreme Court we have a spread, so that it looks Federal. The answer to the problem is to say, why do we need to have just one Supreme Court? We need to have one Supreme Court on issues touching Nigeria. in the USA, you have 9 Supreme Court judges dealing with issues touching on United States. But not on local matters affecting California. If I dispute someone’s claim to inheritance of my village customs; I should go to the Supreme Court of Anambra State and deal with it there (and that is final).

OA: I find my redress in the context of my locality. If I have a problem with Federal System, then I go to the centres in which case, I am not too bothered who sits in the centre. My life is determined by local circumstances; so is Sharia. If Sharia were not a national religion has it has been made; then if we were all pleased to make themselves a Sharia State in the context of a Nigerian Constitution, no one is going to bother. If I decided as Governor of Anambra State and I put it to referendum; that the people said Catholicism shall be the religion of the state; that is their choice. It does not affect anybody. But it is because every single policy affects the whole country.

OA: Whether it is on education, on refuse bins, basic health etc; we fight and solve it by saying “federal character”. Since I see that you’ve not been included, bring your own (whether good or bad). Federal character promotes mediocrity. But the real problem of federal character is that it pretends to be the answer to the centripetal federal structure which is a pyramid. Remove the pyramid and there would be no means of federal character because the Supreme Court Justices of Eastern region would simply be the people from there. That question really strikes at this need for decomposing the Nigerian state and building a new one.

DA: What books are you reading?

OA: I am reading about ten books.

DA: 10 books simultaneously?

OA: Yes. I just concluded one titled; the fifth gospel by Ian Caldwell. It is about a conspiracy between the Eastern and Western Orthodox Catholics. I am also reading Henry Kissinger on China. I just finished a book titled “How to manage wealth.” Also, just concluded Sir Alex Ferguson’s Leadership-a fantastic book (where I learnt a lot about strategy.)

DA: Do you read the books simultaneously or one after the other?

OA: No, I can read them at the same time. I have a book in my car, on my table, on my bedside. Sometimes, I am taken in to follow through on one like when I read a brief history of time by Steven Hawkins also, when I read a brief history of the world which took me from antiquity to modern day. I have my speed and stamina with different books but basically, I read heavy books. I don’t read fiction. I like books on auto-biographies, religion, leadership and ideas.

DA: Thank you for this interview

OA: Thank you.


Dolapo Aina,

Lagos, Nigeria

dolapo@dolapoaina.com|dolapowrites@yahoo.com

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