Barr Festus Keyamo ( SAN) is a human rights activist lawyers. In this interview with LEADERSHIP Sunday, he speaks on the state of the nation and some other issues.
There has been a lot of clamour for federalism in the nation recently. What is your take on that?
There are three types of people who are campaigning for federalism, all of them with different motives. Some are the true patriots, with whom I identify, with whom we must all join hands. True patriots who have always being on this foyer forever and those who want genuine change in Nigeria and those who are looking at the future and they feel like something has to change for every part of this country to feel wanted.
We have another category, the category of some opportunist politicians who are not sincere about the project of federalism, those want to ride on it to gain popularity and gain power. They are not sincere, they are not keen on it. They are only using it as a sing song to make the people trust them more. And for those people, the moment they get into power, you will no longer hear restructuring in their mouth again, they’d drop it like hot potato. The third set of people who have been raising alarm about federalism are those people who have lost out in power. The simple question to ask this group of people is why did they not push for the same issue when they were in power?
They are people who have held key positions in this country before and they never campaigned for federalism, never even pushed the idea. Now because they’ve lost out on power and are disgruntled, they just want to put heat in the system by campaigning for federalism. So, we have those kinds of people. However, we cannot throw away the baby and the bath water. So, my take is that it is essential, we cannot run away from the fact that at some point, we need to restructure. It is only the content, the character and the nature of the restructuring that we have differed over. The fear however, and that’s what we should be talking about now, is not whether there should be restructuring, that’s taking as given already, the fear should be how possible would it be within the constitutional arrangement that we have. Why do I say so? It’s because you cannot have restructuring without involving as much representatives of ethnic, political, religious and other groups in this country.
There’s no constitutional provision for such, the only provision we have in terms of representation is the house of assembly. Again, it’s also important that such principal issue that would define restructuring goes to a referendum, we also do not have a provision for a referendum in the entire constitution. The end product of restructuring includes having a brand new constitution, that’s the whole purpose of restructuring. Because all the provision as to how the country should be run, how we should live together and all, is about the constitution. Now, there’s only one provision for how the constitution can be amended. Those provisions are contained in section nine of the present 1999 constitution. So, anything you do outside section nine in a bid to change the constitution, whether restructuring, national conference, is a waste of time. Because after all of that, everything must still come back in form of a bill to the national assembly.
At that point, nothing stops the national assembly from tinkering, removing what the people would have decided, bringing things back to the same thing, because at that point, it is the national assembly that’s amending. Now, if it’s the national assembly that has the power to amend, why go through all the process of conferences here and there instead of allowing the joint committee of the national assembly to work to amend the constitution since you’ll still come back to them? That is why former president Jonathan’s conference, ended in a fiasco. I had the opportunity to be part of the conference, I was to be nominated on the platform of my people but I refused because it was a waste of time.
Many of us wrote off the conference from the beginning and at the end of the day, it amounted to nothing because at that point, when they were meeting, the joint assembly was also carrying out an exercise to amend the constitution. So, while many of my good friends were at that conference and they were sincere, the president was just using it as a political gathering. He just wanted to gather as much elites together and bribe them, that’s all he was doing.
Concerning the NGO regulatory bill, what is your take on it.
I think that bill was dead on arrival, with the good work that many of my friends put into destroying that bill. It was a bill that was wrongly conceived, and based on extremely wrong logic and principles. It’s a bill that if passed into law, would destroy the very essence of democracy and freedom. And the very essence really of the people’s power because while the voters go to sleep after elections, it’s the NGOs that remain to criticise and monitor. And they are the only groups that still have credibility because outside the NGOs, the only groups that criticise the government are the opposition parties. And opposition parties, to most people, are partisan because once they criticise, they are only seen as political. Nobody takes them seriously because it’s assumed that they are only criticising because they want to get into power themselves. There’s nothing that destroys good deeds more in the world like politics. No matter what good deeds you do, once people can associate it with politics, they dismiss it.
Politics destroys everything in this world and reduces the credibility of anything you’re doing. So, the only people that remain credible are the NGOs who are not looking for power, who are not political parties but are doing their work genuinely and for humanity. If you now make them subject to the control of the government agencies and institutions, you make them an apology of those institutions and at the end of the day, they lose their credibility, lose the essence of democracy, lose the rights of the people to monitor activities of government. It was a bill that was conceived in treachery, developed in treachery, and died a still birth.
This present administration has less than 20 months to go. How would you rate their performance so far?
Not the best. Not the worst. But obviously a far cry from where we were. It has not brought the desired change that we expected even though we knew it was going to be tough, but we were confident that we were going to take a big leap from where the country was at that time. The mantra of this regime is the anti corruption crusade. And if you look at the anti corruption crusade, it’s like a journey that has started. We’ve left the bus stop, because we were at the bus stop and not moving until 2015. We’ve left the bus stop but we are not yet at the destination, in fact, we are still far away from the destination. The reason being that, we have again, put the issue of anti corruption on the front burner of public discuss. Before, we couldn’t even talk about it. It was difficult to talk about it before, but now we have started talking about it. That itself is progress.
Secondly, no government in the history of this country has embarked on the recovery of stolen public funds as much as this government. There’s no reason on planet earth for me to sit down here and massage the ego of this government. I have reached the pinnacle of my career, I’m not a political jobber, I’m not looking for government appointment, I’m not looking for anything from government. So, I have no reason to sit here and massage the ego of the government. I’m only thinking of my country and what’s best for my country and I know that what is best for my country is what is hapenning now. We’ve always known that it was going to be painful for some set of people once an anti corruption crusade takes off in full swing. We’ve also always known that the status quo that was over thrown in 2015, that status quo that had access to so much funds. People that had never seen money before who virtually ran mad when they saw public money. We knew that those people were going to fight back. What you see going on now in cyber spaces and opinion leaders coming out to challenge the anti corruption law. What you see now in form of some dubious so called human rights activists trying to come and tell us what human rights means in order to dampen the war against corruption, they are all part of the game to protect those who have stolen our public funds. We always knew that it was going to be unpleasant for us to get the anti corruption crusade right.
So, the message I have for those who believe that this war must continue, no matter what, is that they stand firm no matter the abuse or attack by certain people. Because it’s only by encouragement, don’t forget that government also needs encouragement, that the government would know that it’s on the right track and continue to do what is right. Having said that, there are thieves in this government just like there were in the past government. I’m not here to talk about PDP and APC, they are the same in terms of their moving like stream of water, mixing from one river to the other. What is different between the last regime and now? So, I cannot sit and deceive my self and begin to say one person is a saint and the other is not but let me tell you where the difference lies. The difference lies in leadership, the past and present. In every organisation, you must look at the leadership. So, people should not be carried away by the fact that most of the people in APC were also in government. But what is the quality of the leadership? Leadership changes every thing. It’s the attitude of the leadership that trickles down to all the other parts in the society. And I tell you confidently that there’s no way that you can compare the passion of this government to tackle and fight corruption with what was prevalent before. Even perception alone is enough to take us some distance in the fight against corruption, perception of a leader. In the old leadership, it was even perceived that the leadership itself was part of the problem.
So much so that you could be negotiating a public contract and someone would tell you that you’ll have to build it with so and so and that within the money you’re building on it, 50 per cent is for ‘Oga’ and 50 per cent is for the first lady. Everything in the country at the time, anywhere you go, whatever public bidding or anything that has to do with government, the first thing you hear is that the first lady and oga are interested. They were interested in everything. Let me sound a note of caution: it may not all have been correct. It may have been thieves too who were trying to fill their pockets by dropping the name of oga and first lady. But that was also perception. Because when they were dropping it, the people involved did not do anything about it because they too were involved in doing things like that. So, when you had times when people were dropping their names, there was no way to ascertain if it was true or false. And with the revelations coming out now, you’d know that we were not far from the truth. Where ministers under you, ran amock with public funds under your watch. That’s why I asked the question on social media if the former president would want to claim that he was not aware of all the money diverted by his minister of petroleum. Was he not aware?
What’s the perception today? I want to tell you the difference. If you tell anybody now in the bidding for any contract that the president is interested in this 500m you’re adding on it, the first lady is interested, Yemi Osibanjo is interested and so on. The person would first of all spit in your face. It’s a perception, and it may be a reality too. It is very important to bring sanity within a system because we have a president who may have all his flaws, I do concede that he has all his flaws, but whom, locally and internationally and even within opposition, people admit that he has a very high level, it may not be 100 per cent, of credibility, when it comes to the fight against corruption.
In fact, one of the campaign front against him by the opposition was that this man was going to throw all of them in jail. Officially, by the first lady and former president. He went to Anambra at the time and said that somebody was thrown into jail for stealing a beetle, a mere beetle during his campaign. He had no appetite, no passion and no zeal to fight corruption. This was a campaign point against the man here now. And then you want to tell me with those with whom I have fought to enthrone this government that no matter his flaws, that I should now rise and start destroying his own government overnight? I’d be a fool for doing that. There’s only one man, one head of state that my late boss who trained me, Gani Fawehinmi supported all his life, only one man he believed in. From 1960, he fought all governments but it was only one government that he did not fight, it is the government of Muhammadu Buhari. So, for those people who think I’m deviating from the ideals of my boss, they don’t even know my boss at all. It’s not even because I’m following the passion of my boss and following what he said about Buhari, I have my own conscience and my own thoughts about it too. But let me tell you that, before he passed on during the 2007 campaign, he came out openly to endorse Buhari even though he lost the election that year. He said this is the only person he knows could fight corruption.
For the opposition to even have a face again in this country, they must first apologise for all the things that happened under their watch. APC came out boldly to say that they were embarrassed by Maina. He was not convicted, only declared wanted and found his way back to service again. There has been no statement from the main opposition even till now apologising to Nigerians that, ‘these things that happened under our watch we are extremely sorry about it, it would not happen again.’ They are instead, telling us that they’re all rumours. Meanwhile, houses and cash are being seized. They are even going to the ridiculous extent of telling us that the cash and houses were planted, to divert the attention of Nigerians, how low can they sink? I’m anxious to see a group of young men who are not part of government or opposition, who have the capacity and the money, to challenge the government and the opposition so that we can have a breath of fresh air.
What necessary improvements do you think should be made?
First, the President must be firm and decisive regarding the Fulani herdsmen. It’s one of the sore points of his regime. Yes, he has issued very strong statements and given marching orders that they should be dealt with. The problem did not start with him but because he is Fulani, people have read all kinds of interpretation to their activities. During Jonathan’s regime, Fulani herdsmen killed a serving senator in Jos, so the problem has been there, even under Yar’Adua. The problem had always been more in the middle belt. But because of his own origin he has to be more decisive. I want to see a situation where Fulani herdsmen are actually arrested and charged to court. He doesn’t need to make just tough statements, he needs to be decisive about them.
The second is the problem of some people around him that have become most difficult for him to change. People around him who are perceived to be running down his government, not keying into his vision and running down his presidency. Government is also responding to the desire of the people. He needs to be decisive about them. Look at the fresh air that the new SGF has brought into government. Those who have also being in detention for too long and who have been granted court orders, I don’t know the cases so I can’t be too forward about them, but I understand that so many court orders are existing in some of these cases, he needs to also respond. We don’t have wide spread issues of human rights but one violation of human rights somewhere is capable of being a violation anywhere else too. He needs to address that.
What is your position on the current IPOB position?
Let me start by saying that I have defended people and groups campaigning for self determination in this country, more than anybody living on the earth, even though it’s immodest to say so but I have to so that people would not just think that I’m a torn coat coming from no where, just talking nonsense. I’ve defended people who believe in self determination. So, I’m not just going to speak about IPOB from an angle of ignorance. Even as a young lawyer, I was part of the team that defended late Ken Sarowiwa who was campaigning for the independence of the Ogoni nation, and I believed in that. I was also the lawyer to Asari Dokubo, I brought him out of detention. I was also the lawyer to Ralph Nwazurike who was detained for four or five years, I brought him out of detention. I have been the lawyer to MASOB for years even till now. I’ve been the lawyer to the Biafra Independent Movement (BIM) for years till now.
I’m also lawyer to Charles Okah, who is in prison, part of the Niger Delta that struggled, I was also part of that. I was also part of the defense team of Henry Okah. Beyond this, there are also smaller groups of Niger Delta Agitators and all that, who are all part of our clientele. So, I want you to know that it is a philosophy I believe in, self determination. But having said that, what has IPOB done? IPOB has not only carried the mantra of self determination, it has gone beyond that, they have sought to destroy other tribes. In campaigning for self determination, you don’t seek genocide of other tribes or seek to destroy and cause ethnic war. My mother is Yoruba, and you come out and tell me that Yoruba people are goats and fools and you want my support, I’m sorry but you won’t. I have wonderful friends from the north, cousins married to northern women, cousins married to northern men, wonderful neighbours in the north.
Nice people, Fulani men, Hausa men who I know as honest people. I have them as workers. Some of my most trusted honest workers are northern men. And you now come out and call them Hausa goats, Fulani idiots and paint Hausa people as infidels, imbeciles, all because you’re campaigning for what? That is not self determination, that is promoting a war, genocide and spewing hatred and I’ll not support such. I still support self determination till tomorrow. It should be supported to promote culture and identity because we need to continue to promote our identity in this country so that in the end it helps us in the even distribution of opportunities and positions and makes us sensitive to the fact that there are some who are Igbos, some who are Yorubas, Hausas, you must be sensitive to that. And it’s only when those people continue to promote their right to self determination within the context of one Nigeria. Even the call to true federalism is a call of self determination because you want to control your own resources, resource control is self determination too. And you see how people have carried out the campaign peacefully and in line with international standard. There may be faults here and there but they don’t seek to destroy other people, don’t make hate speeches or ask their supporters to carry cutlass and go to bushes to hunt Hausa people in their region. We all saw those videos. Supposing there was a reaction from the north? That is why the Operation Python Dance is the best decision ever taken by the Buhari regime.
The python did not even dance enough, honestly because no government would allow that nonsense. I support it fully no matter what anybody says. I was the one who took Asari Dokubos case to the Supreme Court so anyone who wants to quote law for me should come and sit with me for a discussion so they can tell me if they’ve handled such cases. I went to the Supreme Court for bridge of human rights in Asari Dokubos case. I was preaching human rights, the same one people are preaching on Facebook this days. I argued it, cases bothering on treason, felony, I did. I was shouting human rights, bail at the Supreme Court. The court told me to my face, ‘when national security is threatened, human rights are suspended’. You want me to disobey the court and go against them, I’ll not, that’s my Forte, so I’ll not run away from that but must obey.
The president came back from his sick leave and the speech he made is exactly what we are seeing here. You’re talking about people who have experience, who have fought war, civil war in this country. What did he say in his speech? He said he warned that these are the type of people that when the chips are down, would run away and leave other people to pay the price with their blood. What has happened now? It’s almost like he prophesied. Has he not run away? People are dying while others are in jail but he has run away. All my life, I’ve never seen a freedom fighter that vanishes. All freedom fighters do two things: they remain in jail and appear for their trials and dare the state to jail them and convict them. And when they are convicted, they move the struggle to a higher level. That’s the first decision a freedom fighter takes, I’m prepared for jail, for any sentence. Another decision that they take, which is also okay, is that they run to exile from where they campaign and wax stronger. Those are the two decisions that freedom fighters, who are leading their people to freedom, take. This is the first time I’m seeing somebody vanish into thin air as a freedom fighter.
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