Festus Keyamo is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and Minister of State for Labour and Employment. In this interview on Hard Copy, a programme on Channels Television, he speaks on the Nigerian democratic system, constitutional amendment and how to address issues of marginalization and social exclusion in Nigeria. ANAYO EZUGWU monitored it
At some point during the military era, we all imagined that democracy was some Eldorado, which we were all clamouring for at that time. But now, we have been told that it is a journey. Did you imagine that our journey in democracy was going to be this torturous?
I think we just wanted to take one at a time. We didn’t want to bother ourselves with how we are going to work on our democracy. You can’t put the cart before the horse. The horse has to come before the cart. So, we just wanted the military to go out first.
The military was trying to teach us about democracy. Former Gen. Ibrahim Babangida especially, was trying to teach us how to practice democracy. He set so many rules and he cancelled the rules.
He set so many processes in place and he cancelled the processes himself. In fact, he was the ultimate arbiter. He felt at some point that the politicians were not behaving themselves. So, he disqualified 23 aspirants.
At some point and that was when the senior (Shehu Musa) Yar’Adua and others were disqualified and they now set new rules and that was when the two parties emerged. So, they were trying to teach us about democracy.
At a point, our anger then was look, don’t teach us about democracy, just leave; don’t teach us how to behave. When we get there, we will cross the bridge and so that was what happened. We thought very little then about how the journey was going to be.
We just felt that we needed to arrive there. Guess what? I think it was only the foolish that would have thought then that democracy was going to be just one cure for all our problems.
I’m worried, why do you think that democracy was important to us?
It is just to hear the voice of the people. Military intervention was an anathema all over the world at that point and completely unacceptable.
It wasn’t because we sought development?
It was just that we wanted to hear the voices of Nigerians and all over the world too, democracy was now becoming the fashionable thing. Yes, there are so many countries all over the world that had good development with military dictatorship but we didn’t care at that point.
We just felt that, look, freedom is more important than for example, what they call pleasure. If you keep somebody in a room for instance and you give him everything he wants but you tell him not to go out.
That is why prisons in places like Norway and good prisons all over the world are still not pleasurable. Give them everything they want, feed them three times a day, access to the internet, everything and you say don’t go out for three years, the person will die. The person would rather die.
If you give the person an option of say look, you can go out of this room; you may not have the same pleasure you have when you are in this room but you have the right to go out, speak your mind, travel anywhere you want; I guess 99 per cent of people will say I want to go out. I don’t want pleasure in prison.
So, the goal set for democracy was good for us because of freedom but people will also, recall the fact that every time there was a coup, the people will rejoice and it will be seen they are waiting for development to come with that coup. That there was some joy. I don’t know if you recollect?
At a time we ran out of those expectations.
But it was there…?
At some point and perhaps when there is a change, you will always have jubilation from those who felt they have lost out in the system.
Even today, if you have a military coup, in some parts of the country that don’t like the present government, they will come out of the streets jubilating. But that is not the voice of the people.
The loudest is not necessarily the majority. At every point in time, we have government, we have people who voted against that government. So, those people will always be happy to see the back of that government but then, the reality will always set in after that government exits and you ask yourself, what do we have in place?
At the end of the day, all governments of the world, you have your period of what they call grace, your period of romance with the people and once that period is over, the reality will set in and people will begin to ask hard questions all over the world.
From your assessment, 22 years down the line, this is about the longest we have practised and experimenting with this form of government but a number of people will say we are far from the ideal democracy. Do you agree that this is an ideal form of democracy or do you think that every democracy is homegrown? Where do you think that Nigerian democracy lies between an ideal and say a homegrown democracy?
I think that is where I will use your cliché again, it is a journey and I don’t think that there is an ideal democracy. You see what happened recently in America. It just brought it home to us that there is no perfect democracy. With all the America we look up to and all their years of democracy, it almost crumbled recently and people began to question certain processes in the electoral structure of America.
People began to question how do you award electoral college votes to different states, is that democratic enough? How does it work that after somebody had on a popular vote you still have to calculate electoral college votes and the person may still lose even if he wins the popular votes?P People began to question all of these in the American system. How does it happen too that after somebody has won the Electoral College votes, it also has to be certified again by some kind of parliament?
That is unique to them and their system. And I think it is time we also begin to look at our own system and see how it can satisfy us.
How we can develop a homegrown democracy or a system that can stabilize our democracy? I will speak on top of my head here not as a Minister of Labour, not as a member of APC but as Keyamo and I think that we need to begin to see how we can bring all the different regions. First of all, we have to do proper zoning because I don’t think the zones are properly placed the way they are now. We have Igbo speaking people in South-South and we have some Igbo speaking in North-Central. We need to do proper zoning to put the autonomous people in their different zones and allow them to have their voices.
And then, perhaps give them a sense of belonging to the whole federation. If we cannot restructure quickly, perhaps we should start with single term rotational presidency, so that every part of the country will know that at a point, I can aspire to the highest office. I will be given a chance to prove my worth and I can rule this country.
Something like that. Like I said, it is not perfect; it is not in a straight jacket but I think from the top of my head as an individual that perhaps we begin to think about all of these to make these whole tension come down about access to power, access to the centre. We need to begin to think about it. Something to satisfy us so that you will not say in America, it is practised like this. They have their own unique system, unique history and unique environment.
We agree that the American system is democratic.
In the UK, they have a different system but it is a democracy nonetheless. In many European countries, they have their own method of practicing democracy but in all of these, we know that there are common elements that bind whatever it is that identifies itself as a democracy.
The routine election of leaders is one of them. We know that the rule of law is another one. We know that the active participation of citizens in the civic space is another one. If we are to go by these parameters, how far would you say that we are off the mark of democracy?
I think that it is the copycat system that has affected us. To say that we just want to import the wholesale into Nigeria some models in other parts of the world. I think we are in a position now to begin to develop our own system.
That is why this whole debate about a constitutional amendment, attrition and all that; well, it is very important but there are people who felt that perhaps their voices were not heard enough in drafting the constitution; their input was not taken.
They have the opportunity to do so now. And so we can begin to develop our own system.
You said it is a copycat system that has affected us?
Yes, because in 1963 all we did was import the British system. It didn’t work. In 1979, we went and imported the American Presidential System.
That is what we did. Look at the constitution of 1979 …
Is it really a copycat system or a lack of will to truly implement the system we have copied…?
What I mean is that implementation is a different thing. You are going to a different argument. What I mean first of all is that what we try to do, we didn’t sit down to say what are our unique circumstances and develop something to take care of these unique circumstances. We did not do that.
What do you think is unique to us that have made it difficult for us to …?
For instance, you don’t have this type of multi-plural system we have in America in terms of people who are holding back according to their original nations. America did not develop like that. Britain did not develop like that.
That is our unique experience and we don’t have a lingua franca as it is, where that is a traditional in language. English is a traditional language of the British people and it is spoken everywhere.
But this is a foreign language we speak as a lingua franca because we cannot adopt Hausa, Yoruba or Igbo as the case may be. So, we have different nations here. We don’t have a native language that everybody speaks.
Some people think that now we do. Maybe, pidgin is something we can look at? Pidgin is also an offshoot of the English language. It is a corruption of the English language and it can be developed.
But some people will say that there is nothing wrong with copying. It is the intention with which you copy that matter. Two, the fact that we copied; if something has been done before and is working, why do you have to sit down and try and find your own when you can copy and adapt to your own difficult situation?
Let me tell you why it was not even right to just copy and why your assumption is even wrong because the Second Republic collapsed in 1983. We are not the one that invented the term, reinventing the wheel.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel? Hold on, it collapsed with the 1979 Constitution because that was the constitution that was being practised. But then we came back in 1999 and adopted almost the same constitution.
It collapsed because there was a coup?
Yes, that was because the people felt the system was not working and they attributed it to the constitution.
Even that constitution, you have had the cause of going to court for more than one occasion to challenge the government to say even this constitution you are not following it. You took a president to court to say this is what the constitution prescribed. One of them I remember with the appointment of the service chiefs. Would you say that we have truly looked into this constitution to implement even what it says in its own letters? Is it not a matter of not copying wholly and understanding what it is we are copied rather than blaming it on the fact that we copied at all?
I like the argument the way you are drifting because you are coming to a point now where perhaps, you are also thinking the way we are thinking that perhaps, it is not the letters of the constitution that are failing but the operators of the constitution that are failing. They are not ready to follow the spirit and letters of the constitution.
Would you agree with that?
Yes, that is the problem. So, when people trumpet it all the time that the constitution has failed; no, it is the operators that have refused to follow the provisions of the constitution. Even if they go back to the people of Nigeria now in a referendum or any way and they bring a brand new constitution, you still need the same Nigerians and these same people to operate it.
Recently, the president was speaking to a group of people and he was talking about why is it that he is having so many criticisms? Hasn’t he implemented the constitution and you just say something about the operators failing in implementing the constitution?
The operators are not just the president alone. All the way down; in fact, I will give one example. For instance, it is extremely laughable and outrageous that the same governors who are always blaming the president are always trying to protect their space as state governors.
No, Federal Government, you can’t do this for us; you can’t dictate for us and all of that. They are the same people that have killed the local government system. The same governors. It is very laughable.
They just refused the local government to work and you heard from the president and Commanderin- Chief. So, it is no longer rumour again that a state governor will call a local government chairman and say look sign that you have received N300 million because they are their thugs and boys.
No election takes place in local government now. They just put them and write results. The person will be so happy to sign that he received N300 million on a monthly basis but they actually give him N100 million to go and pay workers and all that and then that is the end.
The state governors take the N200 million and the local government chairman has signed that he collected N300 million. I want to ask you a question. Can you imagine that every month at FAAC, when they come and take their money, that that kind of thing can ever happen?
Can the president try that kind of nonsense with any state in Nigeria? But that is what the governors actively practice.
And we have an EFCC, an anti-corruption institution and the president is aware of this?
And they have immunity.
And the president is aware of that?
But the governors have immunity.
But they don’t have immunity forever?
That is the problem. When he goes, the next regime takes care of that. When the next government comes and begins to hunt them, what do you hear? You hear political persecution because it is a new government; that is why they are pursuing them for nothing.
The National Assembly often time is considered the major defining factor between an autocracy and a democracy. You have had cause to defend the powers of the National Assembly but only recently, you had a running battle in with the National Assembly. Has it changed your perception of the National Assembly?
No, it has not. Just as I fight for you and defend you, if you also exceed your powers I will also oppose you. I’m not doing it to please anybody. At the level of my training and learning and the height I have reached in the legal profession, I should be able to advise everybody. I was the same person that advised them when their powers were being usurped. I advised them and said, look, they are robbing you of your powers.
Go and take your powers! They said no. I wrote letters to them for years saying that they are robbing you of your powers because you are supposed to confirm these service chiefs.
They said no. I went to court before the court said yes. So, if they are also exceeding their powers, I should also tell them so.
The question is at what cost? How has it affected your work as a minister?
I just have to do what is right. I
wanted to know what happened with the 774,000 jobs. There was an update on how the jobs would be implemented. What was the compromise you reached first and what is the situation especially with the payment of these people?
We are going ahead to implement and we are paying people. But those who are complaining, perhaps they have one problem or the other in their accounts. For me, the probity in the process is more important than just paying people and making people very happy because it comes under my purview.
And under my purview, I make sure I give clear directives to the agency to ensure that everybody is paid through the BVN. There will be no double payment. There will be no fraud in the system and we are sticking to that to the letter.
Some people are complaining that they are being paid cash?
No, they collect cash from the banks. When you are credited, you can go and collect cash from the banks. That is what they mean by cash not that the Federal Government pays them cash.
When you say cash, it means that once you are credited, you can go to the bank and the bank will naturally pay you cash. You withdraw your money from your account but the trail from the Federal Government to those accounts must be by electronic means and by BVN.
If you are to look at the security today, would you consider the constitution a hindrance to achieving basic security of lives and property, which is what government is meant for?
As I said, I think it is very defeatist and easy for us to heap all the blames on the constitution for areas where we are failing as a nation, just like people heap everything on the president. It is easy to do so but practically, when you come to the real analysis of it, perhaps, that is not the problem.
When you say security, the major issue about security where they say the constitution is failing is that there is no power given to the governors. We don’t have state police.
That the governors cannot be the final authority when it comes to controlling their commissioners of police and perhaps recruiting, training and also operating the police forces in their different states. That is the state police they are talking about and so they want the constitution to be amended to that effect. Is that why we are failing as a nation in terms of security?
That is a lie. It is the same thing people have said over and over.
Why are we failing?
It is equipment, funds and then of course, having the different levels of government take on their responsibilities. You heard in the president recently in his interview and maybe he did not make it as forcefully as he could make it but he said it quietly too, in his characteristic manner, that look, there are different levels of government.
If they give you money every month for security votes, what are security vote and they keep doing it because the Federal Government realizes that sitting here in Abuja, it cannot have intelligence at every unit of Nigeria regarding security situation? So, you are given that money for you to also push it down to the local government level in order to gather security, equip the police, provide equipment for …
Equip the police?
Yes, that is why you see governors buying operational vehicles for police, buy arms for police.
They do it out of necessity? No, it is from their security votes. If it is not their responsibility, then the Federal Government should stop giving them security votes. Security vote has a wide bet.
Who gives them security vote?
Are they given or generally taking from the state allocations and decide that this is what we are going to allocate to security from whatever comes to us? But the system allows it. People have gone to court and lost in court over the issue. Who gives them the right? It has been happening over the years. When national security is involved, everything is suspended until national security is addressed.
How would you respond to those who think that increasingly free speech is being threatened? Because even before now, a lot of people felt that they couldn’t speak freely especially in criticisms of government?
Who said so? Who has been arrested for speaking? Look, it is all complete rubbish and nonsense