Prince Bola Ajibola (SAN),was president of the Nigeria Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) between 1984 and 1985 when he led Nigerian lawyers in a boycott of the courts in protest against the perceived dictatorial tendencies of the General Muhammadu Buhari military regime.
Following the overthrow of the Buhari regime, Ajibola was appointed the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, and notably served the nation gratis despite employing a number of enterprising lawyers as aides. One of the aides who served as his Senior Special Assistant was one Mr. Yemi Osibanjo, presently the Vice-President of the country.
Prince Ajibola subsequently rose to serve as a judge of the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Ajibola, 81, is the Olori Omo Olowu of Owu Kingdom, Abeokuta, Ogun State and is the proprietor, Crescent University Abeokuta, Ogun State. In this interview he encourages the government not to backtrack in the fight against corruption, advises his former ward, Prof. Osibanjo and laments how vice has hindered Nigeria’s growth. Excerpts:
What is your reaction to the ongoing anti-corruption battle of the Muhammadu Buhari administration?
Corruption is really sad and already endemic in our country. It is a kind of cankerworm that has eaten deep into our fabrics. It is an unfortunate act that has debarred many things that we could have done to make progress. It is terribly retarding our progress. It is very unfortunate that with corruption we are persistently regularly retrogressive. Otherwise, we would have been one of the best nations in the world.
Deep rooted corruption
We have quite a lot of intelligent and resourceful people in our country. We have people who are ready and willing to work to earn and take their integrity there. But unfortunately on the level of politics, a lot of things have gone wrong and it is sad that the situation is not encouraging.
Hopefully this new government will correct a lot of those bad situations that we have, because the name of Nigeria stinks to the outside world. Nobody is really interested in dealing with anything from Nigeria because of the problem of this deep rooted corruption that is still raging among our people.
The new government that we now have is all out to do its best to rid our country of corruption but the situation is very heavy and it is very serious. When you have so many people bent on dipping their hands corruptly into the purse of the government from all spheres of life in Nigeria, we still have a long way to go.
I have listened to a lot of hues and cries about the fact that the government is slow. How could government not be slow under the present circumstance? Because the government has a lot of hurdles to overcome in dealing with any problem.
In the midst of it all, unnecessary criticisms are always there and the people are just willing to criticise and not help develop the country. We only hope that the present government would do its best to ensure that at this time, everything could be done to get rid of corruption in this country.
Do you think that the judiciary is really an obstacle in the administration’s anti-corruption campaign given the issuance of allegedly frivolous injunctions by judges?
The situation is a very sad one as I have said and it is deeply rooted. And I mean deeply rooted in the past government and the past politicians.
A good example is this, there are so many politicians that EFCC and ICPC accused of corruption and they are all in court at the moment. How many of them have we concluded? How many of them have we convicted? How many of them are in prison? We are only informed about the fact that some have been accused and they have been granted bail and that is the end of it all. The whole thing is being treated with levity. There is the need for a serious action to be taken against these matters of corruption without which the whole thing will go on endlessly and they now consider it to be usual practice rather than for them to desist from this act of corruption.
And it is unfortunate because it is really downgrading our nation. It is really destroying our nation and a lot of the countries all over the world found that we are seriously and hopelessly enmeshed in corruption and that practice is continuing unabated. I only hope that this new government of Buhari would take it up seriously and deal with it.
Issue of Dasuki’s $2.1bn
Everybody is now watching the issue of Dasuki’s $2.1 billion and I hope he (the President) will, with that, send out the strong signal against those who are destroying the country.
When you look at the situation in the country and what is needed to develop the country, you will be sad to realise that we are so much put into our development box, that we are in need of power, that we are in need of roads, that there is need for security and safety of our people, that we need to develop our agriculture, that we need to develop our education and there are so many other things that we need to take care of.
Now, with all that we now have, this endemic, deteriorating situation about corruption, it is even a major assignment on its own that any government would face without facing any other problem at all. I must praise the efforts of those who are in government now because this is an attempt to change what looks unchangeable, what looks intractable.
It is sad and it is unfortunate but I hope and pray that they would be able to get hold of the problem and tackle everything about it.
Besides corruption, you had once called on President Buhari to also tackle infrastructure, security, education, health and power. Would you say the president is moving along the line of your suggestion?
Exactly! He is looking that way, though slowly, but he is looking at it along that line to fight corruption and develop the country. But it is extremely difficult to do both at the same time because divisive tactics and disturbances of these corrupt people continue to breed opposition against the government. They are not concerned about the very adverse approach now of the foreign countries against Nigeria.
But now that we have a government that is seriously looking into it, maybe with the assistance of the foreign governments, we would get somewhere and we would get their cooperation in order to develop further. But it is a kind of herculean task for any government to single-handedly handle corruption and at the same time continue to develop the nation because, corruption is a backward cankerworm that will continue to destroy the creations, the development and the growth of the government too.
Arms and ammunition
It will continue to do so. That is the sad aspect of it because corruption has its universal economic disadvantages not only locally, not only in states but the entire nation would suffer the effects. The whole nation will be soiled and deprived a lot of things.
The government will even not have enough to develop a lot of things that it ought to be doing. How many times have we had the problem about ASUU strikes because they are not being well treated? How many times have we suffered from the fact that we have not been able to deal with the issue of Boko Haram just because all the money earmarked for arms and ammunition were being stolen and taken away by some people? We are suffering in the midst of it all.
What is your reaction to the spew of allegations about the sharing of money meant for purchase of arms by some few people?
That is the reason I have always felt that going into any public office, the aspirants must first of all be thoroughly examined, tested and their past performances and their positions must be looked into. In fact, they should also examine them mentally whether they are fit and proper persons to go into the offices.
They must also ensure that they are not going to fix in all those greedy people who are desirous of going in there to steal and to take the money of the government for their own purpose just to enrich themselves.
A lot of people think that going into politics is just getting there to steal what they can steal. There is this idea now of stomach infrastructure. So, is it government they are now going to serve with this idea of stomach infrastructure? That is very sad. It is sad! When I was in government, I was there fully ready and conscious of my service to the nation and was interested in improving the position of the nation. Not only had I refused taking my salaries but also I was pumping my money into it. I was serving with my money being put into it. I was engaging the services of clerks, secretaries, staff into ministry of justice being paid for by myself. Who is doing that now among them? All they are interested in is to get there and steal money to buy SUVs and to acquire as much as possible because they all think about governing as a place of booty where they can enrich themselves either by hook or crook and they are even the highest paid public servants in the whole world.
Highest paid public servants
It is terrible. We are behaving like backward people.
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo worked as your Senior Special Assistant while you were Minister of Justice. Is there anything you would pass on to him to further the case for justice reform?
We did everything possible to engrave all those things there. It was our own time of law reform, law review and law projections and legislation with it. We did everything and I am sure that he will have enough materials that would help him at this time over there. Because we were all there together, we worked together and we served day and night and, quite sincerely, we knew we were there to serve our nation and we were dedicated and devoted to that service with all our time, with all our resources, with all our intelligence and I hope that the vestiges of all those things will still be available for him to get things developed.
Can we have your view of the whole system?
You see when things are broken down terribly like this, you have to handle matter with care and with caution. The situation is a very serious one and because the foreign countries are now having it hard on us and they will intend to do so for sometime, things may become harder in the country.
Even as of now, lawlessness continues to rage seriously and heavily all over this country. Now that the situation will become tougher and more serious, one will expect a lot of diabolical practices, a lot of terrible practices. You, yourself must have heard of Arepo where people kept vandalising the pipeline and draining off the oil of the nation without any regard for those who ought to check and control them.
Lawlessness is raging all over the country now and this government must put serious effort to contain it. It is very, very important.
This is the time that security must be taken as part of the priority of the nation knowing full well that those who had been doing it in the past would like to continue doing it, knowing that when the situation is so hard they will become more lawless.
Therefore, it behoves the government to ensure that on the list of its priority is not only the corruption issue but also security of the nation and safety of the people. That is important because, without that, the situation could be worse because everybody is looking for means of defrauding the nation or grabbing anything from anybody.
You must have noticed the increase in kidnapping. They are not kidnapping small people again and that is another area where media should be careful because, if the media is involved in encouraging them by telling the public how much they intend to take, that is another serious matter. Do you see what I mean? So, we are in a serious situation. We are in a dilemma and we must be very, very careful at this time to see what we can do to stop the menace.
And at this time the media should not be neutral. They should key into the anti-corruption programme of the government by not allowing corrupt people use them to whip the kind of sentiment that will make them escape justice.