Fiery human rights lawyer and activist, Mr Femi Falana, SAN, is not only a consummate social justice crusader, but a throbbing liberator of knotty discourses.
He opens a can of worms on the real genesis of the Boko Haram insurgency which the nation is currently grappling with, placing it squarely on the laps of former president Olusegun Obasanjo and those governors who introduced sharia laws in their states and allowed it to spin out of control.
He says Obasanjo’s blunt refusal to halt the strict code of Islamic laws which was ab-initio political, through an overriding constitutional interpretation at the Supreme Court to halt its spread, emboldened nascent groups and individuals in the affected states to seek for a profound purification of the application of the laws, ultimately, washing up’ with Boko Haram.
He opens up more on the military which is faced with the responsibility of taming the Frankenstein monster, and is in the process of courting controversies on corruption, mutiny, and court martials.
He says the war has so far defied all known prognosis by producing no heroes on both sides.
Falana takes on the brouhaha in Ekiti State with the engaging passion of a son of the soil, declaring emphatically that the state has slipped back to ‘Egypt’. “ After the Ekiti State governorship election on June 20 this year, a newspaper interviewed me, and I did say that by the choice of Ekiti people, they have gone back to Egypt”, he intones.
He roves round to other burning national issues including the controversial $9.3 million arms deal cache in South Africa, why president Jonathan shuns investigation into varnishing defense budgets, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, among others. Excerpts:
Let me begin with your state, Ekiti. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, the judiciary came under physical attack. There are also threats of violence, and an assassination. Why is the state boiling at this time, just on the verge of a transition to another government?
After the Ekiti State governorship election on June 20 this year, a newspaper interviewed me, and I did say that by the choice of Ekiti people, they have gone back to Egypt. What has happened in the last few days has unfortunately confirmed that the Ekiti people are fully back in the wilderness. They are in the wilderness of shame and embarrassments. Ekiti is being dragged in the mud because of the culture of impunity in our country. This was complicated this time around by the connivance of the police. On Monday last week, (August 22) a gang of thugs invaded theHigh Court premises in Ado-Ekiti; and that is where you have the Court of Appeal, the Federal High Court, as well as a number of magistrate courts. The thugs disrupted the proceedings of the court, and chased out the judge presiding over a case which had to do with the competence of the candidate of the PDP, Mr Ayo Fayose. The court had just given a ruling. Because the counsel to Mr Ayo Fayose challenged the jurisdiction of the court, the court ruled that it had jurisdiction and stood down the matter for two hours for continuation. From the information at my disposal, that was when somebody signaled to the thugs, to invade the court. And they did, by force of arms. At the end of the eviction, the judge was chased out of the court, lawyers were assaulted, and that particular judge had to be ferried out of the court by the police.
What do you think is the appropriate sanction for this kind of misdemeanor?
Because nobody was sanctioned, or brought to book, on Thursday, of the same week, the thugs regrouped, invaded the same court premises; a judge who was in his chambers, who had dressed up to sit just discovered that there were some thugs just beside his court. And he came out and recognized the Governor-elect, Mr Ayo Fayose, and pleaded with him to check his supporters, because according to the judge, they were within the precincts of a court. For that single request, the thugs pounced on the judge, beat him up, and tore his gown.
So, what is the appropriate sanction? Has there been any investigation yet? And what should be done to the culprits, because this is the first time a thing like this is happening in Africa?
Before we go to the culprits ,let us examine the issue, because you have just said now that for the first time in Nigeria, a thing like this is happening. Apart from Uganda, under Idi Amin, this is the first time in Africa, that a judge will be chased out of a court, that a judge will be beaten up in the court premises, that judges will have their records torn, and that the courts will be closed down because of the threat of violence; which is unleashed by thugs. What is required to be done is for the criminal justice system to identify each of the thugs who operated in daylight and ensure that the full wrath of the law is brought on them, otherwise it will be the beginning of anarchy.
Soldiers have been drafted to the state to keep the peace. Do you think that is enough remedy?
I am totally opposed to the militarization of the Civil Society. It is not the business of soldiers to maintain law and order in any country. Soldiers have a duty under the constitution to protect the territorial integrity of the country. Right now, soldiers are operating in over 30 states in the country; and that is why the Armed Forces are overstretched. What is required, and I did suggest to the Acting Inspector General of police, Mr Suleiman Abba, that having regard to the fact that the Ekiti State Police Command is compromised, that there will be need for new people brought in entirely with firm instructions to deal decisively with whoever breaks the law, or threatens to break the law. Soldiers cannot replace the police in the civil society. All the policemen who are complicit in the mayhem that Ekiti State has witnessed in the last one week should be sanctioned.
How about the assassination of one of the supporters of Fayose on the day of the mayhem?
Unfortunately, the former chairman of the NURTW was killed in the dead of the night on Thursday, and unfortunately that led to arson and rioting that took place that day. Again, a city that is well policed, and Ado-Ekiti is not a large city by any standards, should have prevented such unfortunate occurrence because there was already tension in the state with what happened on Monday and Thursday in the court premises. One would have expected the police to be up and doing to prevent such a tragic situation as witnessed in the assassination of the former chairman of NURTW.
Do you see or read any political motive in the assassination?
I am a lawyer. I deal with evidence. I don’t engage in speculation. I am not in a position to determine or guess what would have happened. The following morning, a band of 50 armed young men went to town in the presence of the police. They burnt houses and destroyed order in the presence of the police. Nobody was arrested.
But we learnt that some arrests were made, and about six people have been taken to court?
Which court? When the courts have been closed down? So they couldn’t have been in court. They closed down following the first attack on Monday. I understand that some arrests were made. But the police arranged that they were taken to court and released.
Given the spiraling violence in the state now, and the state of uncertainty it has imposed, what do you suggest should be done? Should there be a state of emergency declared in the state, or should the handover to Fayose be aborted?
I am opposed to a declaration of a state of emergency in any part of the country, when there is no basis for it.
But there is violence in the state?
No. It is not every time there is violence that you declare a state of emergency. It is when the enforcement agencies in a country are unable to contain violence that you can talk of declaring a state of emergency, so that extraordinary measures can be adopted by the President. But as far as the police in Ekiti are concerned, they supported violence unleashed on the state by criminals. Once you isolate, identify them and their police collaborators and bring them to book, law and order will be restored in the state. What I am saying is that no matter whose ox is gored this time around, the law must take its course. That state has witnessed an orgy of violence because of the complicity of the state.
Should the handover be suspended? The governor-elect alleged a judicial ambush.
With profound respect to Mr Ayo Fayose, that statement is an admission of his involvement in the violence. The burden is on him more than anybody to ensure that law and order is restored in Ekiti State, otherwise he won’t be sworn in. The duty is on him.
Who will stop him?
Between 2003 and 2006, while he was in power, many indigenes were in exile. They couldn’t go home. The last straw that broke the camel’s back, which led to his impeachment was the killing of Dr Ayo Daramola, a world bank expert. So, when he was re-elected, I did predict that Ekiti State will witness more violence than before. And this is what we are seeing, which is very unfortunate. I know Governor Fayemi very well. I know the one that is of violent disposition. Fayemi has ruled that state for four years now. He has never been associated with violence. The contrary is the case with Ayo Fayose. Since he is the one who is interested in acquiring power, he has a duty to obey the law, and not resort to violence. As is done in all civilized societies, a suit was instituted before the election. The case could not be heard before the election. But being a pre-election matter, you continue after the election. Even if you lose at the High Court, the Court of Appeal is there, next door to the High Court in Ado-Ekiti. The Supreme Court is there, and that will take the next two to three years, having regards to the way the judicial system is manipulated by winners of election. What is the whole thing about ambushing anybody? How can the court ambush you when you have your lawyer, when you are given the opportunity to file your processes? Apart from the pre-election matter, there is also the election petition case before the Elections Petition Tribunal. To say that you cannot be taken to court, is to invite anarchy by saying let us go to the streets and fight it out. That is alien to the democratic culture. A stone throw from Ekiti State, Osun State, the PDP and its candidate Otunba Iyiola Omisore have gone to the tribunal. They dragged Aregbesola to the tribunal. So, why should heavens collapse in Ekiti because some aggrieved people have gone to court? I don’t understand what Ayo Fayose would gain to besmear Nigeria, when he has an opportunity to go to court.
But going by the constitution, should the swearing-in be suspended?
I am not for suspension of the swearing-in. I am demanding that all those who have unleashed violence on that state should be brought to book. The system does not warrant any intervention outside the provisions of the constitution. What I am demanding is that all those who are part of this nonsense, who desecrated the temple of justice be identified and brought to book, whoever they are. I want law and order to be restored.
Nigeria has been grappling with a lot of violence at the national level especially in the North. It has taken a new vigor in the last few months. Are you satisfied with the way the government is prosecuting the war against terror?
Nobody is satisfied with the way and manner the war on terror is being prosecuted. In the first place, the culture of impunity that I alluded to earlier, is also likely to blame for the wave of violence being witnessed across the country – armed robbery, kidnapping, terrorism and other violent crimes. Under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, the then governor of Zamfara State, Alhaji Ahmed Yerima proclaimed Sharia as state religion, contrary to section 10 of the constitution. Some of us demanded that he be stopped by the Federal Government by approaching the Supreme Court. That was ignored. Other governors, for purposes of election equally proclaimed Sharia in most parts of the North. Obasanjo later admitted, it was political Sharia, not religious one. But it has caused many political crises for the country – religio-political crises for the country, innocent people, ignorant people, young men and women, who thought that those governors genuinely wanted Sharia states, were hoodwinked. They even set up extra legal, extra judicial outfits to enforce Sharia. It was in the process that the Boko Haram phenomenon came up. If you go deeper, the actual name of the Boko Haram sect was a group that was out for the purification of Islam, which has been corrupted by these governors. In Borno State, ex-governor Ali Modu Sheriff recruited these guys to help him win the 2003 governorship election. He won, and appointed one of them, as commissioner for religious affairs to prosecute Sharia. Of course, the guy was asked to resign by the Boko Haram sect from the government. This is the genesis of the Boko Haram crisis. President Goodluck Jonathan set up a panel of inquiry in 2011. The panel came out with profound recommendations, including the identification and trial of the sponsors and founders of the Boko Haram sect. The report was issued in August 2012. Since then, the recommendations have not been implemented. We now have a dangerous situation in our hands whereby the state is tailing the Boko Haram sect, which obviously is more armed with more sophisticated weapons and modern gadgets of warfare. The Nigerian state is simply sending soldiers to commit suicide. The boys who are protesting, are now on trial. Some have been convicted of mutiny.
In other words, you’re saying the state is culpable for the insurgency and Obasanjo in particular is liable for his inaction when Sharia came up?
Yes. Honestly, that was the same case with the crisis in the Niger Delta. Governors who were close to the presidency set up the boys, the militants in the Niger Delta before the state lost control. So, ultimately, you have to point fingers at the Nigerian neo-colonial state that engages thieves, promoting violence as a diversionary measure. But more importantly, apart from the immediate cause, you must look at the remote cause of violence which is a kind of socio-political economy. I mean the neo-colonial political economy that we operate.
You mentioned the court martial of some soldiers over the war. Some of them have been sentenced to death. But some people insist they have no case, as the service rules are clear on obedience to superior orders, and that when you sign up as a soldier, it’s all about a death game?
No! No! the argument goes beyond that. I have taken part in a number of cases at court martials. I had pleaded with the military authorities to learn to respect the rights of the rank and file in the military, because they are Nigerians primarily, before joining the Armed Forces. And there are laws in the country, there are rights entrenched in the constitution which takes precedence over rules of the military or public service rules. The right to life is a constitutional right. It is the most basic of all fundamental rights. I have a duty not to commit suicide. I have a duty to protect my life and property. If I attempt to commit suicide and I am saved, the state has a duty to try me. If you pack boys and girls together, and you throw them into a moving train, you can be punished in law. These are the same soldiers they send to work without bullet proof vests and other safety gadgets. You are killing them. In this instance, boys and girls in Maimalari barracks in Maiduguri complained and protested. Even their wives protested saying, stop sending our husbands to their early graves. Not that they shouldn’t go to war. Now a serious state will not ignore such complaints. The very day the boys engaged in mutinous acts, when they fired at the vehicle of the GOC, some of their colleagues who had been ambushed and killed by the Boko Haram sect, their bodies were being brought to their barracks. Of course, that is not to support mutiny, because in any part of the world, mutiny is a serious offence. More importantly, when there is a war going on. But as I argued, if nobody was killed, you cannot sentence somebody to death. But they were charged with attempted murder. It does not carry the death penalty. In the case of the Akure 27, which I handled, 850 soldiers, men and women had gone to Liberia to take part in the U.N peace keeping operation. They did very well. They earned a good name for the country. Their operational allowances which were kept for them by the military authorities were nowhere to be found. They were diverted, and that was what led to the riot in Akure where soldiers were forced to disobey their superiors and blocked the roads, which was very bad in itself. But again, you must look at the extenuating circumstances , for each of these mutinous acts. And that was what I tried to impress on the military authorities on that occasion. But they ignored me and sentenced them to life imprisonment. We took it up, and were able to proffer very convincing arguments that led the military authorities in the first place to slash the sentences to seven years, and later to commute the general sentences, and pardoned them. In the case of Yusuf – the Cairo 23, which was handled by the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, these fellows were sent to ECOMOG to fight in Sierre Leone – 23 of them. They were injured. Nigeria could not treat them. They sent them to a Cairo hospital. They were there for several months without their medical allowances being remitted to them. Of course, the day they were to be brought back, there was a riot at the airport. They misbehaved, and turned the airport upside down. Of course that was embarrassing. That was disgraceful. They were brought in and charged with mutiny. They were convicted and sentenced to several terms of imprisonment. However, we took the matter up to the Court of Appeal, and the Court of Appeal said that they could not sustain the charge in the first place, being that they are Nigerians who have fundamental rights like all citizens. Two, you admitted that you have stolen their money. So, why sentence them to imprisonment. And that was the end of the matter. So, I expect the military authorities to have studied these things and take precautionary measures to prevent their members from engaging in mutiny.
You mentioned some people who are allegedly behind the insurgency. An Australian, Dr Steven Davis recently alleged that the former Chief of Army Staff, Gen Ihejirika had a hand in the whole affair. What do you say to that? Secondly, what has happened to our huge defence budgets over the years? Why then do we not have the armaments to fight?
Now, contrary to the statement credited to the Department of State Services, DSS, Deputy Director of Public Relations, Marylyn Ogar, Davis was engaged by the Federal Government. He is a special envoy of the Federal Government, and this assignment started during the Niger Delta crisis. As a matter of fact, when I was defending Henry Orkar, I met him in Jos. He came to see my client with the permission of the authorities. We know him. He has been in it for several years. It is therefore embarrassing for an official of the government to say that such a man is on his own. To say that he is a self-appointed envoy is not true. But, be that as it may, the allegation made by him, requires full investigations. From what you have just said, in the last four years, not less than N3 trillion has been voted for defense. What has happened to the funds? N3 trillion? This year alone it is N968 billion, almost a trillion. Now, if you are going to carry out an investigation, there is no way all the Army chiefs would not be interrogated.
With respect to the allegation against Gen Ihejirika, even in his own interest, in the interest of the general, he should support an investigation so that he can clear his name. And Nigerians must learn to put aside sentiments – religious or political, when allegations of criminality are made. In this same country, we have had a regime, not one, not two, that was sending boys to town to throw bombs. Dele Giwa was killed by bombs suspected to have come from the government. Baganda Kaltho and other journalists and several other people were killed by bombs from the state. A detachment of State Security Services was unleashed on town, to set fire on houses. The Guardian Newspaper premises was almost set on fire.
But that was under the military?
Yes of course. The Nigerian state remains. All those who carried out those illegal, terrorist activities were never brought to book. So, for that reason, you simply cannot dismiss any allegation linking the Nigerian state, or its officials to terrorist activities. That’s why we need a full investigation.
But what do you think the government will gain from funding Boko Haram that is arraigned against the government?.
I have not said the government is funding Boko Haram. What I have said is that there are officials of government involved. The president himself said it, that there are Boko Haram people in his government. So, I am not the one saying it for the government. I have no cause to doubt the President, who is the chief security officer of the country. It is now for us Nigerians to demand that such people who are 5th columnists be fished out and punished.
There are speculations that an Islamic state may be carved out in the North. If the ugly tend is not arrested fast, and if that happens, what is the fate of Nigeria?
The Boko Haram sect has sworn to turn Nigeria, not Northern Nigeria alone, into an Islamic state. We must all appreciate that the Boko Haram sect has become part of international terrorist groups. It’s now an arm of al-Qaeda. It has linked up with al-Qaeda. You have them in ISIS operating in Iraq and Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al shabab in Somalia and Central African Republic, up to Libya. These terrorists have made it impossible for people to have a stable government in Libya, since the illegal removal of Ghadaffi by the West. We need to go back to the drawing table and re- strategize in fighting the war against terror. It is not just about acquiring arms and ammunition. You must take care of the men and women who are being sent to the war front. You guys in the media, are busy reporting since the war started; 10 soldiers killed, 5 soldiers killed. What are their names? Has anybody gone to pay a condolence visit to their family members to encourage other Nigerians to learn to lay down their lives for the country? In the United states, if a soldier is killed in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, or wherever, before the information is released to the press, the secretary of defense, which is like our minister of defense will write a letter in long hand to commiserate with the family of the deceased soldier. And within a month, all the entitlements are paid to the family. Here it is not the same. We do not know the soldiers who are dying. They are anonymous; nobody is paying any attention to their family members including their wives and children in the barracks who are thrown out. Nobody is paying their entitlements. So, you are not motivating your soldiers to fight, and that is not good enough. If they protest, they are charged with mutiny. They want to do their work as soldiers, they want to be armed. And this is the first time this country has fought a war now for 4 – 5 years and there is no hero. We had a 30- month war, and we had heroes on both sides. Col Adekunle just died. Who are the heroes today? Shekau?
The seizure of $9.3million cash in South Africa is still creating ripples. Government insists the money was to be used to buy arms. Do you pick any hole in that?
I did a lecture in Abuja recently for the EFCC prosecutors, and I did say on that occasion, appealing to the Federal Government to distance itself from the scandalous $9.3m. For the purposes of argument, the Federal Government awarded a contract for the purchase of arms to 2 Nigerians and an Israeli. What is the business of the Government if they divert the money? How do you now hold yourself vicariously liable for their illegal or criminal actions? You have given a contract to buy arms for you. Under your own law, (the Money Laundering Act of the country and the financial regulations of 2011); that of South Africa is financial regulations act of 2001, any amount beyond $10,000 has to be declared.
The money was neither declared here nor in South Africa. And the guys who hauled the money to that country were arrested. What is the business of the Nigerian government there? The best you can do for them is to advise them to get a lawyer. It is not a political matter, and Nigerians must understand the South African legal system. South Africa is not a banana republic that you simply can reach out to the president to ask for the release of the suspects. No. President Zuma cannot interfere because he is under investigation for the palace he built. He has to explain whether state funds were diverted for the construction of the house. And there, you don’t give amnesty to suspects, or pardon convicts. You will be torn to pieces by the law. What they are saying is that this fund that has been seized on the orders of a court, if you want to get back the money, you have 90 days to appeal to the court to reverse the order, and you have to convince the court. It is not an explanation in law; oh we wanted to use the money to buy arms. A sovereign state like Nigeria has the right to buy arms. You don’t do it under the table. It is a legitimate duty of the state to protect its people.
But the argument is that some western powers blocked the purchase of arms leading to the resort to the black market?
Nobody has said that. Those who are saying that have not been quoted. That is one of the problems of the media. You are just publishing rumours. The US has said it never asked any country not to sell any arms to Nigeria. In any case, can the U.S ask Russia or China not to sell arms to Nigeria? Look at the insult from CAN – Christian Association of Nigeria. If CAN is not careful, it is going to get its fingers burnt in this whole business. When Pastor Oritsejafor was accused of buying a plane, he said it was for evangelism, the work of God. Churches are registered as non-profit making organizations. How can you divert a jet meant for evangelism for commercial purposes? The moment you do that, you have violated the provisions of the Companies and Allied Matters Act, that registered you as a non-profit making organization. If you lease or rent the plane, and you are collecting money, then it is illegal. There is no grandstanding by CAN or its leadership in this matter. They owe Nigerians some explanation or at least an apology; that their plane was involved in this illegal action. You don’t then abuse people for challenging you, under the law.
There’s crises all over the country, yet political activities are going on. Elections will hold in February next year. Can’t the election be postponed until normalcy and peace return to the country?
Elections are held in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other troubled spots in the world. There is no basis for postponing the elections in Nigeria. Last year, the Yobe State government held local government elections successfully. So, what will be the basis of postponing elections?
Campaigns are going on by the ruling party all over the country. Is there any indication that we are fighting a war? We are aware of TAN rallies all over the place. We are even being told that over 8 million Nigerians have signed to drag President Jonathan to contest.
INEC has been assailed for prosecuting an obviously dubious agenda in the redistribution of polling units, as well as a lopsided hierarchical structure. Do you think that is healthy?
I followed the argument. It is difficult for me to isolate one institution from the other. If you talk about the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, the Presidency, or any federal establishment, there are similar allegations of lopsidedness. If we are going to ask for equitable distribution of position, it must be across board. So, that’s why the argument is very difficult for me to follow. But with respect to polling units, my advice is that INEC should withdraw those polling units, review its position, and perhaps wait till after the elections because of the bad blood that it has generated. It has gone to the extent that INEC officials were polarized along north – south basis.
It is not good for a country. We must have a ruling class, and elite, a middle class that can rise beyond their immediate parochial ethnic interests. This is what we have just witnessed in the United kingdom, where those who came out to fight against the breaking away of Scotland were their former prime ministers like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Here, such people will be leading the campaign for the balkanization of the country. It’s not right when members of the ruling class are engaged in such acts. I don’t shed any tear because when it is convenient, they convert the plot to carry out anti-people policies. I would be prepared to join hands with people on the other side of the divide, if it is about moving the country forward, improving the democratic process, or making the dividends of democracy available to the ordinary people in the North and South, I like to take part in such. The INEC chairman should call all the Resident Commissioners.
They should agree to review their positions and postpone the allocation of additional polling units until after the election. I have known Jega for years. We worked together when he was ASUU president. I have never known him as a rabid ethnic chauvinist. Again, as I said, reality is different from perception. If this has embarrassed him to the extent that he is now being paraded as an ethnic champion, he doesn’t lose anything if he reviews it, because the timing is not auspicious. I think it is the timing that has given a lot of room for those who are looking at it from the ethnic perspective.
Take a peep into post 2015 elections. What do you see?
I am not a futurologist.
You can fall back on your experiences over the years in the struggle…
Rather than predicting, I would like to appeal to the media, to make the 2015 election issue-based. It must not be business as usual for the ruling class. Any candidate who is not ready to debate his programmes, must be taken to the cleaners. Every candidate must show commitment to the democratic process.
You must extract from candidates commitment to promote the welfare and security of the people; which is the primary purpose of government, according to the constitution. You must get candidates to respond to serious issues, such as increasing wave of terrorism. How would they combat the dangerous trend? How would they create jobs for our army of unemployed people? How would they fix our roads, and infrastructural decay? How would they address them? And then, the monster of corruption, how are you going to tame it? We must take our politicians out of their cocoon of ethnicity and religion, to the social plane, to show that they are ready to address the ills plaguing this country, so that Nigeria can take its rightful place in the comity of nations. When you guys in the media continue to talk about ethnicity and religion you are simply promoting politicians who have nothing to offer.
There are serious threats of violence if certain candidates don’t win. Aren’t there?
It is either we have democracy, or not. Under the constitution, or Electoral Act, candidates who contest and lose, will have to go to court. And that is where we started from. What is playing out in Ekiti is alien to the democratic process. I expect the supporters of those who are issuing empty threats to have called them to order. Nobody is above the law. One group says if A does not win, we make the country ungovernable. Another group says if B does not win, we make the country ungovernable. In whose interest? It cannot be in the interest of the masses of our people who are wallowing in abject poverty.We now have North/South, East/West. Poverty is on the increase.