Professor Itsejuwa Sagay is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption (PACAC). In this interview with JOHN CHIKEZIE, he speaks on the challenges of the justice system, suspension of the Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission, (EFCC) Ibrahim Magu, legality of virtual proceedings and sundry issues
What do you consider as the greatest challenge facing the nation’s justice system?
I would say that the major challenges are integrity, honesty and lack of commitment to the fight against corruption. And by this integrity, I am referring to some of the lawyers at the bar and judges at the bench who promote and encourage corrupt practices.
What is your impression regarding the independence of the judiciary?
The judiciary has absolute independence and no one is bothering them at all. There is no one controlling the judiciary. But the problem is how they utilise and exercise that independence. Do they exercise that independence for the sake of justice?
And my answer is that they don’t; most of them use it for personal or selfish gains, especially some of them at the Supreme Court level. Therefore, they exercise it only on technicalities that mock justice.
What are your thoughts on the recent approach of the anti-corruption war going on in Nigeria?
I think the anti-corruption war in Nigeria, under the leadership of the EFCC boss, Ibrahim Magu, is going on exceedingly well. In fact, the tragedy of what is happening now is that prior to the incidence of Magu’s detention, we had two of the finest Nigerians heading the two most important anti-corruption agencies.
We have Bolaji Owasanoye, a very brilliant and totally incorruptible person now heading the ICPC (Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission). And we have seen how productive the ICPC has been within the past one year.
And the other person is Magu, who has produced tremendous and exceptional results in the fight against corruption. Magu holds the highest records of recoveries, in terms of looted/stolen funds, in the history of this country. He has also achieved convictions of almost 3,000 persons, including high profile people. He contributed immensely to the stoppage of advanced fee fraud, yahoo (Internet fraud) and also put an end to petroleum (fuel) subsidy fraud.
There are so many other things: including the introduction of BVN (Bank Verification Number) which has helped to eliminate and curtail the multiplicity of bank accounts created by people; and the adoption of a Treasury Single Account (TSA) for all state governments which was implemented by this administration.
Moreover, this government has been phenomenally successful in the fight against corruption, especially when you consider the monies that have been recovered from America and so on. It just keeps rolling in.
The most important part would be to know how these recovered funds are been utilised, but I’ll tell you that It’s been used to cater for the plight of the most deprived Nigerians. For instance, the N5000 given to the poorest families, the quick loans given to medium and small scale businesses, including the trainings for young people’s skill acquisition programmes.
I mean, it’s so phenomenal what this government has done. But, it’s a pity and I feel so sorry for Nigerians because we don’t appreciate what this government has done in the past five years.
Nigerians are so disgruntled and talk nonchalantly and irresponsibly, and sadly, the so called elites, who ought to know better, fall under this category of people.
So, it’s phenomenal what has been achieved and Magu has been the face of that success. Therefore, I would say that the anti-corruption war has been going on extremely well.
How do you see the statement by Femi Odekunle, a professor and member of the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption (PACAC) that Magu is a victim of power play?
You know I can’t really comment on Professor Odekunle’s opinion because PACAC already issued a statement in that regard. In the statement, PACAC made it clear that the opinion of Odekunle was his own personal view on the issue of Magu’s arrest and not the voice of the committee.
This is solely because PACAC will not issue a statement until the Hon. Justice Ayo Salami (a former President of the Court of Appeal) completes his work and issues a report. This is because we have absolute confidence in him (Justice Salami), as a man of outstanding integrity and a well-respected jurist, who would deliver justice in this case. Justice Salami is currently the one handling the presidential investigation panel at the State House.
So this is why we are not in a hurry to express our view. Plus, the implication is that if we express a view now and later contradicted by the outcome of the investigation, then it would be very embarrassing.
But I would like to say that some newspapers have misinterpreted the statement we (PACAC) issued as disassociating ourselves from Odekunle’s opinion. But that is too far. Too far in the sense that we are not disassociating ourselves from him, because nobody knows how we truly feel. The only difference is that we are yet to disclose how we feel because we are waiting for Justice Salami’s report.
So it is wrong to say we are disassociating ourselves, rather we are not making any opinions known at this moment neither are we criticizing Odekunke’s. But we are only saying that the statement he made strictly belongs to him and should not be regarded as PACAC’s statement.
What is your take on alleged lopsidedness in the appointment of headship of the Commission since inception?
You know we Nigerians would always want to see things from a one sided perspective, or almost from the negative point of view. This makes people say bias things that lack objectivity.
Those people who make such assumptions of lopsidedness in the appointment are mainly southerners. But why are they not complaining about ICPC which has always been headed by southerners.
Apart from the first appointment at the ICPC in 2000 which was headed by a former President of the Court of Appeal, Mustapha Adebayo Akanbi, the rest have been occupied by southerners.
So why are we not complaining about that one too. People should be objective. Or is it that they want only southerners to take over both ICPC and EFCC? At least people should be a little more balanced in their reasoning.
What impact do you think the outcome of Magu’s investigation will have on the war against corruption?
The truth is that I don’t really want to talk about the impact it would have if he is acquitted or found liable. But in a general sense, I would say that the whole process or development has been very injurious on the fight against corruption.
This is because the enemies of the anti-corruption struggle are now rejoicing and making sarcastic remarks. You can see them taking a victory lap over an attempt to ensure that even the system, under which we are operating, becomes polluted.
When you go on social media, you find them making derogatory remarks, composing songs and issuing humiliating statements. So it has really been damaging.
This is because it now gives a clear opportunity to those who are hostile to the fight against corruption to now come out boastfully and attack the government’s records in this regard. And they are now beginning to question even the sincerity of the fight against corruption.
Therefore, to that extent, this whole process, what we are going through now, has been damaging to the children of this government in the last five years.
And if it was actually something that could have been avoided, then it would be wonderful.
This is because opportunists are going to abuse the process and would not see it as a government that is objective and ready to do its own in-house cleaning against corruption. But rather, they would see it as a failure of the fight against corruption, as though something affecting one man would now diminish the credible results that have been heaped up in the past five years.
I must say it is still an outstanding result and achievement regardless of what happens to Magu.
Magu, on the other side, should be a very proud man no matter what happens to him in the future, especially for what he has achieved for this country. And this country should be very grateful to him also.
The Senate introduced a bill to create an agency for repentant Boko Haram members. What is your take on his?
Well, it’s a very difficult situation. The reason is because, first we ask ourselves, these people who are heartless murderers, kidnappers and rapists, who have adopted and ruined the lives of innocent young girls and have succeeded in bringing untold grief to families are now being given a safe landing. That is the first impression.
But, on the other side of coin, it raises a question; could an attempt to rehabilitate these people now convince the hardened ones to lay down their arms and end this insurrection? So this is actually the dilemma.
Initially, for me, my instincts were totally against it because I felt so horrified and outraged by what these people have done. But I can understand the reasoning of those who think that by attempting to use this process, of bringing them in and subjecting them to debriefing and indoctrination, in order to permeate the hardcore and persuade them to drop their arms and turn back to join the society, is a good catch. Well, although I see their reasoning, but I am, instinctively, against giving them any form of amnesty.
What do you think ought to be done on rebuilding our health sector, especially regarding the lessons learnt during this COVID-19 pandemic?
Well, I think we have learnt a few lessons at this time and God has been so kind to us. We should really be grateful to God that while we have been hit, it hasn’t been on a scale that overwhelms our existent poor health facility. We have been so lucky in that regard. So this is a sign that God wants to give us a second chance so that we can wake up and revamp everything we have.
We must learn from what has happened and certain measures must be put in place against future pandemics. This is because these pandemics or epidemics are always occurring in Africa more than any other continent, maybe aside China. Ebola was called an African disease.
Therefore, we should have preemptive measures, policies and more stable facilities in place for dealing with any future outbreak.
At least, we now know that we need hospitals that would be a centre of excellence, particularly in the two major states like Lagos, Kano, Enugu and Abuja, and probably, one in every state in Nigeria.
We should have a standard health facility that gives expert attention in handling major heath crises, in order to compete and eliminate the option of travelling to India (abroad) for treatments.
I, personally, have had to travel abroad for treatment and it wasn’t funny. The cost of travelling alone was so expensive, not to mention the treatment itself. But then I realized that the cost of just travelling abroad is more than enough to handle medical bills if I were to be treated in Nigeria.
So it’s a wakeup call and I think we need to have a deliberate development of our health facility and concentrate on the more populated areas; since that’s where we have major problems. But ensure that the rural areas have specific places where people can be rushed to whenever the need arises.
So does this mean you support the push for the controversial “Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020” by lawmakers?
For me, the idea is a good one and the principle is a valid one. The National Assembly really meant that we should be ready and not be taken by surprise. This simply means that there should be a holistic legal framework by giving the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), strong powers in order to be offensive, without seeking support from any other agency, tackling outbreaks.
I think the whole idea of the bill is good. But you see, Nigerians are very suspicious about everything that’s why they argue against it. Nationally, most people assume that once you give absolute power to the Director-General that he would most likely abuse it.
And just like in the health sector, I’ve not seen any leader abuse his powers. Taking a good example at the current head of the NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, who has been such a fantastic person.
I’m so impressed by his level of sound knowledge and commitment to Nigeria. And that should encourage people to agree that if you give a person like that more power and more resources, then he can be more proactive once anything happens. This would even remove unnecessary bills to the National Assembly in terms of seeking approvals for more resources.
Yes, I agree we do not want dictators but we should all try and be less suspicious. And I certainly don’t think that someone in the health/ medical interventions profession would suddenly become a tyrant or an oppressor that we would now be afraid of.
Nigerians are too suspicious and negative of everything.
What is the best approach to tackling the issue or clamour for reopening institutions amidst COVID-19 pandemic?
Well, I’m on the more careful side. I tend to agree with the Minister of Education on the need to hasten slowly. We don’t want to send our children back to school and then they are hastily withdrawn home, feeling sick.
I wouldn’t want us exposing them to the threat and dangers that this virus posits.
So I think if we give it more time, possibly by January next year, when a vaccine might have been created or possibly a cure.
Then everyone would enjoy some level of immunity and we would all go back to our normal activities with confidence. Or even by that time, just thinking arbitrarily, the level of infection would have reduced drastically that we could safely begin to put our heads out of our houses and allow our children go back to school.
So I think we should not be too impatient, especially considering what happened to the United States of America, where most states mainly governed by Republican Governors rushed to open various facilities and institutions. As we talk, I think about 60,000 people were infected in just one day.
Now they are rushing back again implementing restrictions and repeating what they ought to have done previously. Meanwhile, New York that sustained it is going very well.
So, I think we should be very careful because God has been so kind to us, while the rest of the world has been predicting calamity for Africa because we don’t have good health facilities. But instead of looking at themselves and seeking solutions, they would rather be feeling sorry for us in advance.
What is your take on the adoption of virtual proceedings and its effect on our justice system?
I think there is a lot of debate around it and some lawyers are challenging its legality on the grounds that some proceedings must simply take place in the courtroom.
But frankly, though I haven’t checked the law, I think we should see the bright side of these things. We are devising new means which we never had. Despite my old fashioned and noncompliance with all the modern developments, I’m now being taught how to participate in zoom meetings.
These are all good things and we should look at these positive aspects. Even if there is technically no law, we know how to interpret the law and can always extend the law, by interpretation, to include such virtual meetings or court proceedings.
But for me, I believe in stretching the existing provisions to cover new developments. This is because the common law is very flexible and so you look for a basic, solid principle and then you extend it to cover areas that develop subsequently.