CORRUPTION: NIGERIA IN TROUBLE -ADEGBITE
Alhaji Lateef Adegbite is a man of many parts-Lawyer, teacher and religious leader, all rolled into one. In view of his new assignment as the Chairman of the Presidential Committee on Public Awareness on Security, he has also assumed a toga of an apostle of peace. In this interview, he charges the Northern leaders to go beyond propounding theory in their elusive search for peace in the region.
He also speaks on the international perspective of Nigeria's rejection of same sex marriage. Excerpts…
A lot of Nigerians have applauded the Senate for passing into law a bill prohibiting same sex marriage in the country. Should they have even introduced the bill in the first place?
It was a timely intervention by the National Assembly. As you know, some elements in the society are trying to promote the legalization of same sex marriage.
So, the best way to save the situation was for the National Assembly to come in and say same sex marriage will not be allowed in this country. And I think that was a good leadership role by the National Assembly, which ought to be commended. Failure to do that, there will be a bill by some elements in the society asking that same sex marriage be legalized. Though they wouldn't get approval, it will be debated for quite a while. I think the best approach to save time and energy was for the National Assembly to introduce the bill prohibiting same sex marriage.
The western powers are spending a lot of money to promote the rights of homosexuals. But isn't there a limit to the abuse of other peoples' values?
That exactly is the heart of the matter. We are a different people with different culture. We should learn to respect cultures of all the elements making up the humanity today. But the western world doesn't want to do that. Rather, they want to impose their own culture and way of life on other people. I don't think that is right. We cannot have uniform culture universally; it is not possible.
So, it is best to respect our culture. They talk of human rights and individual freedom but there is always a limit to freedom. Nobody should go and insist on a freedom that is so offensive to the overwhelming majority of the community. In fact, if we are not very careful, the practice could trigger violence. Those opposed to homosexuality can go about attacking people as it is being done in some of the countries in Africa. The idea of saying, if you don't go our way, we will withdraw aid is a matter for them. If they do, that will not be the end of the world. I don't think because of material support, we should do what God forbids.
From the point of view of international law, isn't it also a violation of the sovereign right of other countries for the western powers to be dictating the domestic affairs of other states?
We cannot argue that because international law has gone beyond regulating actions and policies of states. It has gone to the level of regulation of the activities of individuals through adoption of conventions, universal declaration of human rights, human rights covenants, convention against discrimination on grounds of sex and all that. So, there are many international interventions, which we can no longer regard as interference.
In observance of these declarations, they will place at our door that we are the one not ready to respect those conventions and declarations. And I think we must learn our lessons here. In the past, we have tended to accept wholesale all these conventions and covenants. Even those that we were not signatories to initially, we have tended to become signatories later without examining their implications clause by clause to see where they actually infringe our rights.
While joining other signatories, we could say well, we accept these conventions, but we will make what we call in international law reservations because they conflict with our value system. Otherwise, they will tell us that we have accepted some of these conventions. We ought to have made some reservation at the time we were signing those conventions and notify other signatories in respect of these clauses.
Can that be done retrogressively?
It can be done but that will involve calling for a review of the conventions. But we might not get it through. And if the review is not undertaken and the clauses are not modified to reflect our position and recognized by the majority, we go back to the status quo and we will still remain bound by it. But I believe that international law will also recognize our rights to reserve our positions on a number of issues.
Based on what you have said, what is the implication of our rejection of this same sex marriage?
One important implication is that they are already throwing the kite of economic sanctions, saying that they will withhold aids that they are giving us. Another consequence, of course, is that we can be made to appear before the United Nations Human Rights Commission for violating some clauses of the relevant conventions that I say there should be no discrimination on grounds of gender, sex and all that.
And the Human Rights Commission may resolve to call us to order or recommend to the UN that we should be punished. But I don't expect them to take that step because it will be extremely unpopular and they will be pitching themselves against a whole of Africa; after all, almost African countries find this same sex marriage as an abomination.
In that case, what form of sanction would you be looking at?
I wouldn't know. It depends on the countries sponsoring the sanction. They can always ask them to impose certain restrictions of an economic nature on us. Let us just say that there can be sanctions either economic or political imposed upon us.
How far has your committee on public awareness on security gone about your assignment?
We are doing our best; we are spending most of our times on planning actions. And of course, we need a lot of resources because ours is not to check insecurity but to make every Nigerian conscious of their role in safeguarding the security of this nation. We are to let them know that security is not just for the state alone but for everybody. Therefore, we are trying to reach out to all sectors of the community, the young and the old, to let them know that this security is a matter for everybody and to appeal to them that they should also play their own role.
One simple role is for them to be security alert at all times. If they see anything suspicious, they should raise the alarm to the immediate authority in their localities, which could be traditional head or the police. More importantly, we also feel that part of our responsibility is to promote civic responsibility so that the kind of virtues we are thinking of can be restored back in our communities. For instance, if you are what the Yoruba call omoluabi, you will be a good citizen.
And if you are a good citizen, you will be loyal and patriotic and you will not see issues as a matter only for the government. These are some of the things that we are working out and we have gone round the media houses to try and buy them into the ideas. We are also looking at school syllabuses in respect of teaching of civics and to get school authorities to re-impose the subject at primary, secondary and even university for the cultivation of good citizenship.
If you are a good citizen, two things will happen. One, you will be concerned to help government. Two, you yourself will behave well. Most times, those who breach the security of the state don't look at it as an act of civic irresponsibility. So, if we succeed in buying their support from their school days, as they grow up, they will not want to do anything that is against the interest of the state. It is an enormous task and also an enduring one. If we get enough resources from government, we will be able to do the work well.
Are you looking at government sponsorship or private involvement?
We are looking at both. But we want to get clearance from government so that we can reach out to the corporate institutions so that they can also play their own role in the discharge of our responsibility. And we will not want people to see it as if government is shying away from its responsibility.
As you know, leadership is not a one-way traffic; government and the citizens have their responsibilities. Would you say that government itself has lived up to its responsibilities towards the citizens?
We are conscious of this and that is why we are telling government that if you want to buy loyalty and cooperation of the people, you must do things that will make them responsible to the government. A hungry man is an angry man. If there is too much poverty in the land, the poor will not listen to you. Instead, there will be a clear disconnect between them and the government.
So, we are insisting that government must put in place people- oriented economic policy and quickly spread the wealth to reach out to everybody. Secondly, they have to ensure that every employable person is employed. As rulers, they cannot continue to live ostentatiously, taking away peoples' money. They know your circumstances before you got to power and then suddenly you become rich overnight. That has to stop. We need a strict leadership in this regard. We know how the great leaders in both Islam and Christianity lived their lives. Jesus Christ, Peace be upon him, lived a very humble live. He was not seen to be ostentatious. Prophet Muhammed also lived a very austere live. In fact, we have it from the Hadith that he was always very unhappy going to bed with as little as N2 in his pocket feeling concerned over the welfare of the less privileged.
We must see to it that leadership is less flamboyant and it must not be an avenue for unjust enrichment. And of course, there is also this serious issue of corruption. Government must be seen to be checking corruption.
It was recently discovered by the National Assembly that Nigeria loses over N3 trillion to corruption in the civil service annually. What do you think the government is not doing right in its fight against corruption?
We are in a serious problem with the frightening figure you have just quoted. There are two approaches to the problem. One is for the current government in power to make sure that no corruption is indulged in by any member of government. Secondly, they must try and get at those corrupt ones who had left government. These two approaches are very important. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be credible machinery for this.
Yes, there is the EFCC; it appears that it has more than what it can chew. And secondly, the procedure for dealing with corrupt people is tied to the existing judicial system. And we all know what the courts are like because of the kind of legal system we have which is inquisitorial rather than accusatorial. It is accusatorial in the sense you want government to prove that you have stolen which is very difficult with all the technicalities in the law; whereas, if it is inquisitorial, the burden of proof of innocence is on you. So, even if we don't want to change the entire legal system to inquisitorial, because of the serious nature of corruption, we can say that the prosecution should be inquisitorial. It is the man that has been accused of corruption to justify that he has not stolen. And I don't see reason why that should be difficult.
On the other hand, the issue about indecent allowances in the National Assembly is also another form of corruption. So, the National Assembly ought to review their allowances if they seriously believe in the fight against corruption. The point I am making is that we know how much salaries are paid to every public officer. At any time they are investigating any public officer, all that needs to be done is to calculate how much that person ought to have earned for a particular period so that anything in excess of the amount is seized by the state.
It is a very straight forward thing. In a way, that has to do with the whole purpose of asset declaration. At the end of tenure of a public office holder, if you know how much that person is worth, then you go and investigate how much he has and then, the difference there is kept for the state. By doing so, it will now be left to that person to show proof why that amount should not be taken away from him. And if the person takes Abacha-way because Abacha said he was not corrupt. He said he got all he had through his private business. Is a ruler expected to have parallel business while in government? So, that argument can never stand.
If you have any business, even if you don't get anything from it, because of principle of conflict of interest, it is either you are removed immediately or you are made to surrender all your assets. Above all, I think the idea of having special courts to try corrupt cases is a very sound one.
Now that the judiciary is trying to reform itself; is it possible to include this in the process?
The judiciary can not do that alone, they still have to go to the National Assembly to pass the necessary enabling laws. But I don't think the National Assembly feels seriously challenged by the extent of corruption in the country. And this is because many of them have been parts of what have been going on in the system. May be, we have to wait for another generation of elected members to take up this challenge.
Some people have suggested the idea of merging the two anti-graft agencies-the ICPC and the EFCC. Do you think this proposal is desirable considering the enormity of the challenges facing the crusade against corruption?
For now, the two bodies have not achieved much. I have felt in the past that it is probably better not to have two bodies. But if we have one body, we must also have some kind of decentralization. There is no reason why we cannot have regional EFCC or whatever new body takes over. Apart from Abuja, there should also be presence of anti-corruption bodies in the various geo-political zones in the country. Each state might also need to set up anti-corruption bodies. But I don't think the governors will be enthusiastic about it.
To which body will the state anti-corruption be answerable?
You are asking this question because we are not loyal to the law; otherwise, if we have state anti-corruption body, it should be answerable to the state assembly. In the first instance, the state anti-corruption body will be set up by the assembly. So, it is for them to receive periodic report of the activities of the agency may be quarterly. They have the right to question the agency or the state executive if is interfering. If we are really loyal to the law, all these things will work. But we are not loyal to the law. And it is a very serious problem.
Of course, there is corruption in every part of the world, including the most advanced democracies. But the thing is that the law is so strong that it can catch any corrupt person. And once a person is caught, he would be dealt with according to the law no matter how high. In our case, we don't have that kind of commitment to the law because of sacred cows. For instance, look at the way we introduce plea bargaining from the back door.
You can imagine someone who has stolen millions upon millions of naira and you just take some part of the money from him and tell him to take a bow and go or you sentence him to three months imprisonment which he spends in the hospital.
Recently, the Arewa Consultative Forum met in Kaduna to discuss security challenge in the North. What measures would you want to see political leaders in the north take to seriously address this security challenge?
Political leaders as well as religious leaders must be seen to play a role in educating the people against act of violence, banditry, armed robbery and kidnapping. I have said it before that there seems to be a disconnect between the rulers and the people. And I am happy that people are beginning to see it. Government needs to introduce people-oriented policies. We should not be too aloof from our people. In those days, the common man will find his way to the palace of the Emir or Oba if he is aggrieved about anything.
But the role of Oba and Emir in the community has diminished because the local people know that power is in the hands of local government chairman and the councillors. I believe we have to devise some kind of system now that will provide for platforms for contacts between the leaders and the people. If a man who is planning to disturb the peace of the state knows there is an avenue to voice out his anger to those who matter, he would do so and that may prevent him from doing mischief. We also need more welfare attention.
So, all leaders must have something they are giving back to the society directly to the underprivileged. In the past, one of the reasons why there were no outstandingly rich people was the presence of welfare system whereby you give out of your wealth to the extended family. We must restore that welfarism. When we all behave as a single family, you will not proceed against that family. Although we now find all kinds of explanations for the emergence of Boko Haram people, but the reason they may not articulate is that they feel that they have lost out under the new system of government. And they did not do enough self-examination to find out that they themselves are the ones that put themselves in that position by rejecting western education. They failed to realize that western education is the avenue to move forward.
What they did not know is that they can have western education and Islamic education together. When you cannot beat them, you join them. The British colonial power had imposed western education upon us to the exclusion of Islamic way of life. If we have not had western education, may be Islamic way of life would have prevailed and they would have been on top. But having lost out, they are now looking for all kinds of ways of redressing their loss.
I believe that is the underlying problem. What is, therefore, important is a kind of general welfarism by which means those who have can help those who don't have. So, it is not enough for leaders to propound theories, there must be practicalisation of idea about how to draw the less privileged in the community closer. That is what I will want to add to the idea that has come from the Arewa people.
What was your background like for you to be able to combine your vast knowledge in western education as a doctorate degree holder in law with Islamic education?
I was born 78 years ago into a strong Islamic family. Both my paternal and maternal sides were strong leaders in Islam in Abeokuta. Interestingly, there was no Islamic school; so, I went to Christian school for my primary education. And from there, I moved to Kings' College, Lagos, where I had a federal government scholarship to read law. At Kings' College, we were allowed to practice our religion and to organise as religious groups.
And I was very active as a Muslim leader. In 1954, we formed the Muslim Society of Nigeria (MSS) of which I was the founder president and National President for that society for five years before I went to England to study law. And, of course, in England, I continued and tried to establish a branch of the society of Nigeria in London as well. So, I have always been very active in Islamic activities. And when I came back, I championed the formation of the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs.
I formed an organization in the west called Western State Joint Muslim Association (WESJOMA) with a view to getting west to link up with Jamat Nasirul- Islam, the northern group, and the Lagos Muslim Council. And with some individuals in the East and Midwest at the time, we formed the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in 1974 and I was the legal Adviser to that council till 1988 when Dasuki who was the first Secretary-General of the Supreme Council became the Sultan. Between 1988 and 1989, I was the Acting Secretary-General of the body. In 1989, I was elected the Secretary-General of the Islamic Council for Islamic Affairs. So, I have been very much involved in drafting the constitution of the council. Whatever I did, I made sure I combine it with my Islamic interest.
I went to the University of Southampton in England where I had my degree in law and then came back to the University of Lagos to do my doctorate degree. When I returned to Nigeria, I lectured at the University of Lagos, Faculty of Law from 1966 to 1971. I was later appointed as Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs in the West. In1973, I became Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice. When the coup against Gowon took place in 1975, we were disbanded and I returned to the University of Lagos to continue with my lecturing. I did that for only one year and then decided to establish legal practice in commercial law in the law firm of Lateef Adegbite and Co. And that is what I have been doing.
Why didn't you then join politics after serving out your term as Attorney-General?
I was dragged at one time. In 1988, I served in the Constituent Assembly which Gen. Babangida set up. From there, there was a lot of pressure on me to join politics. I reluctantly accepted to do so and joined National Republican Convention (NRC). But it didn't last six months because I was so averse to the style of our politics and I felt that I should not soil my reputation. People were surprised that I did that because many young ones wanted me to continue with a view to having a shot at the presidency because they saw me as a bridge between the North and South.
But I felt that I could not continue because the kind of politics we play was not the kind of things I found compatible with my character and with my religious inclination and orientation. So, I withdrew within six months. But that does not mean that everybody should do so. In fact, I am very happy to see quite a number of people who are enlightened and who have status within their communities going into politics, hoping that with time, they will be able to reverse the recklessness and rascality of our politicians.
Regardless of parental background, there is always this tendency for young people to exhibit some deviant behaviours as they grow up in life. Was there no tendency in you to be rascally?
Of course, there was always this boyish rascality. We all engaged in it in our school days particularly in my native city-Abeokuta. Even against my parents' order, we were always following masquerade all over the place. And when we came back, we would be beaten. But that didn't stop me from going the next day. But ours was what you call constructive rascality. We were doing many things for fun not to cause mischief.
What do you do to keep fit?
I have tread mill and stationary bicycle. And sometimes, I walk. But the programme could be so crowded at times that there may be no time to do this.