Wednesday, December 23, 2015 3:32 pm
Femi Falana, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and a fiery human rights lawyer, has an unalloyed passion for issues bordering on the common man and for almost three decades, he has been in the vanguard for a just and egalitarian society. Last week, the lawyer granted TheNEWS an interview at his Ikeja GRA, Lagos Chambers. During the chat with Ademola Adegbamigbe, Editor, TheNEWS; David Odey, Editor, P.M.NEWS; Funsho Arogundade and Idowu Ogunleye, Photo Editor, who snapped the shots, Falana spoke on the corruption war of President Muhammadu Buhari and how he can succeed in the fight, the Dasuki/Armsgate scandal, the fuel subsidy saga and the looting of Abacha loot
Q: What do you think could be responsible for the recurring issue of corruption that has been identified as our major problem right from the First Republic?
A: In the first place, we have to locate corruption in the socio-economic system that we operate. Corruption was inherited from the colonial administration. It is very important to note that the slave trade was corruption on the part of the West. Colonialism was corruption on the part of the West. For example, they descended on our people, exploited their human and natural resources and carted them away. And for four centuries, people in Africa were kidnapped, stolen and taken to Europe and the Americas. At the end of the slave trade, colonialism set in. Again, for over a hundred years, taxes were illegally collected, our resources were taken away without our consent. So, colonialism was anchored on corruption. Of course, laws were enacted by the colonial administration to legitimise the stealing of our resources. They also imposed laws to stop us from protesting and to keep us silent. Their obnoxious laws on seditious publications and the rest of them were meant to silence the colonial subjects. Secondly, the independence struggle was compromised.
The nationalists were bribed to accept the continued underdevelopment of Nigeria. In our history books, even in political science lectures in our universities, students are still told of the advantages of colonial rule. Political science students are told that human rights were introduced in our Constitution to allay the fears of the minorities in the country. That is dubious history because in all the colonies, the imperial regimes failed to recognise human rights. But because there was the need to protect the interests of the colonial masters after they might have departed, human rights were then entrenched in all the constitutions of independent states . The first generation of politicians, having learnt corruption from the colonial administration, continued in the first republic. But at that time, it didn’t go beyond 10 per cent. In other words, if you were awarded a contract, all that was taken away corruptly was not more than 10 per cent. But the situation became worse and the crisis became compounded when military adventurers took over the politics of Nigeria.
Whereas in 1966, one of the allegations levelled against the civilian regime was that 10 percenters had taken over the country. But under successive military regimes, corruption assumed a dangerous dimension. Indeed, under the Ibrahim Babangida junta, corruption became the directive principle of state policy. The menace of corruption became institutionalised. And with the introduction of the imperialist-inspired Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, the middle class was wiped out of our system completely. You are either very rich or extremely poor. So, it became the survival of the fittest. Whereas, if the state had continued to promote the welfare of the generality of the people, if the young people leaving schools were gainfully employed, if there were facilities in our schools to accommodate new students, we wouldn’t need Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, JAMB. But JAMB was a product of the crisis of insufficiency of space in the universities. So, to get admission, corruption had to set in. That has been our undoing.
In other words, the socio-economic system that we are practising, a neo-colonial capitalist system manned by a short sighted and parasitic ruling class cannot but be corrupt. Unlike Western or advanced capitalist states where the rule of law has taken roots, there is a facade of equality before the law. Whoever you are, once you are caught, as Professor Akin Oyebode would put it, once you commit the eleventh commandment of the bourgeoisie, which is “Thou shall not be caught”, the law will deal with you. In such a society we talk of the rule of law but in a neo-colonial environment like ours, we talk of the rule of the rulers. Here, the rule of law is the law of the rulers. If you are a big man or woman, you are influential and well-connected, if you violate the law, the law will be bent to accommodate your criminality. In the last seven years, the impunity of the ruling class became unprecedented. It was a complete laissez faire approach to governance. Anybody could do whatever he wanted. We had a situation where a Special Adviser usurped the functions of the Minister of Defence. He usurped the functions of the service chiefs and took over the ruling party. Out of sheer impunity he was dishing out the funds of this country to whoever he liked. You can only have such a system in an environment of crass impunity.
Hence, over the years, corruption has assumed a catastrophic proportion in our country. But the government is to be blamed, aided by the media, religious bodies and traditional institutions. When we had no Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, and Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, the media fought corruption in Nigeria and assisted the society to maintain high ethical standards. In the 1970s under the Gowon regime, it was a case of ‘if you Daboh me, I Tarka you’. Then, it was a case of no matter how powerful you were in government, once you were caught and a concerned person rushed to court to file an affidavit, the press would not let go until such a person resigned from the government. Until recently, in the churches and mosques, corrupt people were ostracised but today they are celebrated and given religious titles and chieftaincy titles by traditional rulers.
Indeed, under the Ibrahim Babangida junta, corruption became the directive principle of state policy. The menace of corruption became institutionalised. And with the introduction of the imperialist-inspired Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, the middle class was wiped out of our system completely. You are either very rich or extremely poor. So, it became the survival of the fittest. Whereas, if the state had continued to promote the welfare of the generality of the people, if the young people leaving schools were gainfully employed, if there were facilities in our schools to accommodate new students, we wouldn’t need Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, JAMB. But JAMB was a product of the crisis of insufficiency of space in the universities. So, to get admission, corruption had to set in. That has been our undoing.
They are also celebrated by the media. We even have a situation in our country today, whereby a person is charged with looting the treasury to the tune of billions of naira, jobless people are recruited to demonstrate in his support in the court premises to demand for his release. The criminal suspect is treated like a political detainee. That is the level we have degenerated to in this country. But as I often say, the government must never be allowed to give the impression that corruption is the root cause of our crises of underdevelopment. The point I am making is that corruption is a manifestation of the socio-economic system that we are practising. So, there is no amount of goodwill, no amount of good faith on the part of President Buhari or his administration, that will stop corruption without addressing the root cause of the crime.
Q: What are those root causes?
A: Chapter two of the Nigerian Constitution stipulates that the economy of Nigeria shall be operated in such a manner that the happiness of our people is promoted. That no person or a group of persons shall be allowed to control the means of production and exchange, and that the resources of our country will be harnessed or husbanded to provide for all and sundry. But what do we have today? Liberalisation. Open all our borders and allow goods to come in to destroy our local industries and the economy. Sell the assets of the government to a few rent collectors, who use the same assets as collaterals to take loans from the banks. What about the guys who bought the electricity Distribution Companies, DISCOs. Before the government sold the DISCOs to them, electricity tariffs were increased. According to the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, NERC, this was done to make them attractive to the investors. Upon the sale of DISCOs at give-away prices, the government made available to the buyers what they called ‘an intervention fund’ of about N300 billion. Since then, in addition to generating darkness, tariffs have been incessantly increased. Even where no electricity has been supplied at all, prohibitive bills have been imposed on hapless Nigerians. And contrary to the law the government does not intervene on behalf of the people. My position is that unless the government is prepared to drop the policies of Structural Adjustment Programme that is liberalisation, privatisation, and all other policies that are meant to under develop our country, we cannot stop corruption. In an atmosphere of impunity and uncertainty people are bound to make ends meet through illegal means.
In any modern state, no public officer saves millions to build a house. How much is your salary? How can a public officer acquire a mansion in Abuja through legitimate means? In any modern state, you must have in place an effective mortgage system. You must have arrangement in place that allows anyone who wants to buy a car to pay monthly or on a yearly basis. You must have a system that takes from the rich to serve the poor. That is what capitalism is about. All those who earn below certain levels in America have their children taken care of by the government. The state pays their school fees and takes care of their health challenges. Some of our women travel to the United States to deliver babies because the system takes care of those kids. Their future is guaranteed. So, unless the state is prepared to make the welfare and security of our people as enjoined by the Section 14 of the Constitution the primary purpose of government, we cannot reduce corruption substantially. Because corruption feasts on inadequacies, lack of facilities and lack of opportunities. So, while the Buhari government might be commended for having the political will to deal with the corrupt people, it must go further to challenge our socio-economic system that is built on exploitation and corruption.
Q: Do we have adequate laws to deal with corruption?
A: We have more than enough laws to deal with corruption. But there are certain inbuilt frustrations in the system that make it impossible for those who have looted the wealth of the country to be brought to book.
Q: What are those frustrations?
A: In the first place, you will be surprised to know that there is a law that prescribes life imprisonment for corrupt people. The law is there but the ruling class will not touch that. The Recovery of Properties Act prescribes life imprisonment for whoever has stolen more than a million naira. The least punishment under that law is five years. Under the Criminal Code, stealing attracts seven years imprisonment. But what the ruling class does through the EFCC is to charge influential crooks with money laundering. Mind you, the maximum punishment for money laundering is two years. Since the Court of Appeal decided the case of James Ibori v Federal Republic of Nigeria, bail has become automatic for people charged with corruption and other serious economic and financial crimes.
Once you get your bail, you apply for your international passport. In another Ibori’s case, the Court of Appeal held that giving somebody bail without releasing his passport is a denial of his freedom of movement. If you compare that to what happens to the ordinary man, in fact, he (the ordinary man) has no passport not to talk of travelling abroad. Even if he has a passport he cannot raise money to travel overseas. In any case, common people are rarely granted bail. That is what is happening in the case of the fellow leading the pro-Biafran cause, Nnamdi Kanu. He has not been granted bail because he’s alleged to have threatened the security of the state. But those who are accused of stealing billions, monies meant for arms procurement, monies meant for building hospitals, for job creation and the rest are granted bail even though they threaten our collective security.
I am talking of the class character of the bourgeoisie legal system in Nigeria. Out of class solidarity, our judges ensure that big people are kept in the cosy cells of the EFCC while the poor are kept in the prison while awaiting trial. When you are a big man, you have access to very senior counsel. In most cases, the poor have no lawyer at all. At best, they are defended by young lawyers undergoing youth service with the Legal Aid Council. Once a big man is admitted to bail, his lawyer will file a frivolous appeal and stay of proceedings and hang the case for the next 10 years. There was a guy who hanged a case for 14 years. So, by the time the interlocutory appeals are concluded, the State could no longer find the witnesses and the society would have lost interest in the case. The judge is likely to have been promoted, retired or transferred. Hence such cases are struck out for want of diligent prosecution. And the big man goes back to enjoy his loot.
I am talking of the class character of the bourgeoisie legal system in Nigeria. Out of class solidarity, our judges ensure that big people are kept in the cosy cells of the EFCC while the poor are kept in the prison while awaiting trial. When you are a big man, you have access to very senior counsel. In most cases, the poor have no lawyer at all. At best, they are defended by young lawyers undergoing youth service with the Legal Aid Council. Once a big man is admitted to bail, his lawyer will file a frivolous appeal and stay of proceedings and hang the case for the next 10 years.
Q: Are you saying the judiciary is complicit in this issue?
A: I would say the legal system is complicit. Out of class solidarity judges are bound to identify with the ruling class. The so-called corrupt people are influential members of the ruling class. You don’t treat a VIP shabbily. Have you ever seen the police parading a former governor? They only parade the poor. I am talking of victims of socio-economic injustice like armed robbery suspects. People who took to robbery because they have no job. Young people who took to kidnapping because they are unemployed. I am sure you know that armed robbery and kidnapping attract the death penalty; money laundering attracts two years imprisonment or option of fine. When VIPs who loot the treasury are convicted they are asked to pay a ridiculously low fine .
So, the government has to look at the legal system. It was the resolve of the government to stop unending trials and suspension of criminal cases, particularly cases of terrorism and corruption, that led to the promulgation of the ‘Administration of Criminal Justice Act’ of 2015. Even right now, there are moves by agents of impunity to make a mockery of the law. For instance, under the law once the plea of the accused is taken, trials shall be conducted day by day. But corruption cases are being adjourned for two or three months by trial judges. The National Judicial Council ought to intervene to save the image of the judiciary in the interest of the majority of our judges who are incorruptible.