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Secretary-General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Dr. Lateef Adegbite

The Secretary General, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and legal practitioner, Dr. Abdul-Lateef Adegbite, speaks in this interview with Ademola Oni, on the zoning arrangement of the Peoples Democratic Party and the constitution review. Excerpts:

There are controversies on the zoning arrangement of the Peoples Democratic Party and whether President Goodluck Jonathan can contest the 2011 presidential election. What is your take on these?

Zoning is undemocratic. I have always been opposed to zoning because it does not afford us the opportunity to choose the best. It unduly narrows the space for choice. So, I have always been against it. We should always go for the best person no matter where he comes from. The time has come for us to get out of all these divisive principles: rotation, zoning, quota system and federal character. We must create a nation where we value merit. So, I don't think zoning is in the interest of the country. Fortunately, it is a political arrangement. There is no constitutional basis for it.

Do you think that President Goodluck Jonathan is entitled to contest the presidency in 2011?

Well, that is his problem. The President is entitled to contest like anybody else in Nigeria, who has the age qualification. He is free to contest under the law and the constitution but President Jonathan has a problem because he belongs to a party that appears to have taken the decision of zoning and rotation. The PDP has gone further to guarantee any President its ticket for eight years, that is two terms. The late President Umaru Yar' Adua was elected after (former) President (Olusegun) Obasanjo. Unfortunately, death has cut short his tenure in his first term. President Jonathan has stepped into his (Yar'Adua) shoes but Jonathan cannot now move out of that because he is also a beneficiary of the zoning arrangement because without zoning, he probably would not have been vice- president. Therefore, the internal political arrangement of PDP stands in his way. But if he desperately wants to contest he should remove that obstacle and get the PDP leaders to review the party's position on zoning and unban him. The party can review the decision. Without this, it will create a serious political problem.

In your view, how has President Goodluck fared since he took over?

He has shown promise of performing well. Promise of performance is a good promise. The various decisions he has taken have been quite sound, and we just hope he would sustain it.

He (Jonathan) seems to be so serious about electoral reform. What exactly do you think that electoral reform should contain?

He has a clear formula before him in the recommendations of the Justice Muhammadu Uwais panel. If I were him, I would throw my weight totally behind the Uwais report. Even though the National Assembly - the Senate and the House of Representatives - is dragging its feet, he should throw his weight behind it and ensure that we have a truly Independent National Electoral Commission. I will go further to say that he doesn't need to wait even for the enactment of law for the total reforms. He can adopt, willy-nilly, the spirit of the proposal.

Do you agree with some people that the Governors' Forum has been influencing the President in taking major decisions?

I don't know exactly what is happening. It is a strange political system in Nigeria with the incursion of governors into the federal governance. I'm not accusing the governors of mischief, but I think the President ought to really liberate himself from any circle, whether it is from the governors or the National Assembly because the National Assembly can say they are the executive authority. So, the President must really extricate himself.

How do you assess the ongoing constitutional review in the National Assembly?.

It has always been my position that the exercise embarked upon by the National Assembly is like putting the cart before the horse. They ought to have indicated and set up a machinery that will evolve the total involvement of the people in the making of the constitution by giving a framework for a national conference to be convened, where all interests will make their treaties and a special committee will then sit and draft a constitution. It is at that stage that the National Assembly will come in.

Former Zamfara State Governor, Ahmed Yerima, was said to have married a 13-year-old girl from Egypt and the man claimed he had not done anything against Islamic law. What is your position on this?

You don't talk of a uniform law or a national law in this matter. Each state regulates family affairs. But the Federal Government has taken the initiative to propose what we call Model Child Right Law or Child Right Act. So, each state has to adopt it, to say a state will not adopt it is not true because governors are bind by it. Each state has its own law but Zamfara State (Yerima's state) does not prescribe minimum age for marriage. So, people should understand this.

Do you think it's in tandem with Sharia law?
Yes. He can marry her. He has cited the Prophet's example. The Prophet married Aishat at the age of nine. People should be very careful when it comes to this thing because when the Prophet married the girl, he did not start anything with her immediately; it's like betrothing the girl to him. So, you don't know whether Yerima is just looking at this beautiful girl from Egypt and there is no show. And we don't know whether truly the girl is 13 or above.

As it is now, which area do you think the President should concentrate on?

The most important thing that is before him right now is power generation. It is very ridiculous that Nigeria could be in darkness and will be having epileptic power supply in her 50th year of independence. So, it's a very major challenge for the leadership of this country. He has a foresight on this issue because he considers it a priority by taking the portfolio of the ministry of power. But it should not just be on paper or pay lip service to it. He should really pursue the issue to its logical conclusion. It should not be like before when an emergency was to be declared for three years and nothing happened.

The second is the electoral reform. This is very crucial because it has really dented the image of this country. We have not been able to conduct free and fair elections except the 1993 poll, which was annulled. The number three is the Niger Delta issue. That is a tinder box that should not be allowed to explode again because Yar'Adua did an excellent job by holding the bull by the horn and coming out with the Amnesty programme. So, I want him to pursue it vigorously because he comes from that area and that is enough reason why he has to give it attention. The other thing is on corruption because Nigeria has a very bad image on that. The level of morality is low. He should take up from where his boss left it. He should take the war against corruption seriously and get all the agencies to be effective.

In fact, he should prepare an executive bill that will strengthen the anti-graft laws and create the court that will be prosecuting corruption cases apart from the normal court. We were not happy with military tribunals which came during Buhari. But we may need something close to that and we should fine-tune that. When it came then, the community felt bad but in Nigeria now, we have not really had any corruption cases being pursued to its logical conclusion except for the Bode George case.