Aribisala at Unilag

What we have is a government attempt to decimate the opposition and create a de facto one-party state under the guise of fighting against corruption.

I was invited to a Roundtable on Corruption by the Law Faculty of the University of Lagos, only to discover that some “Buharideens” had highjacked the occasion and were inclined to use it as a platform to promote the onslaught of “democratic dictatorship” in Nigeria.

The topic was on corruption in Nigeria, but the mast-head in the hall was more specific. It read: “Winning the War against Corruption”. This was easily seized on by government agents to imply that Buhari was well on the way to dealing a mortal blow to corruption in Nigeria.

War against liberty

The composition of the invited discussants was biased. Most of those on the panel with me were dyed-in-the-wool government apologists. The Chairman was Professor Itse Sagay, currently the Chairman of Buhari’s Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption. As it turned out, he was not prepared to entertain any meaningful discussion about corruption in Nigeria. His agenda was to showcase ostensible government achievements in the anti-corruption campaign and to proclaim new promissory notes grandiloquently for public consumption.

Also there was Oby Ezekwesili of #BringBackOurGirls fame. She used to pitch her tent with the PDP. But now that the APC is in power, she has been romancing the new government. It was even speculated at one time that Buhari would reward her with a ministerial portfolio. Not surprising, she is no longer as strident in demanding government rescue of the kidnapped Chibok girls as she had been under Jonathan.

The kingpin of the government apologists on the panel was Femi Falani, a lawyer and human rights activist. He was chosen to give the keynote address. Falana had been heavily touted as Buhari’s attorney general. In fact, on the eve of the ministerial appointments, a list was widely publicised in the press that had his name penciled in for the post. But someone apparently put an eraser to it. Nevertheless, in order to remain in the good books of the government, Falana seems to have jettisoned his earlier dedication to the defence of human rights.

Guilty without trial

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Falana did not attend the roundtable. However, he wrote a speech which he sent someone to deliver on his behalf. This speech was nothing short of alarming. It told me definitively that I was in the wrong place and would have to take a stand before making a quick getaway. Falana, human rights lawyer extraordinaire, was sent to test the waters for extreme policy prescriptions apparently in government pipelines hankering back to the discredited days of Buhari’s infamous military dictatorship of 1984/85.

It seems the government and its allies are looking for ways and means to circumvent the criminal justice system so that the current media trial of opposition politicians can be easily translated into automatic jail-terms. The courts have rightly been a firewall against this. Therefore, Falana proposed the establishment of Special Courts, separate and distinct from the tried and tested ones; to dispense quick and summary justice against whoever the government decides to prosecute in its anti-corruption campaign.

According to Falana, those accused of corruption by the government should be presumed guilty without trial. The onus would then be on them to prove their innocence. This would overturn the principle, long-supported by legal luminaries like Falana himself, that an accused must be presumed guilty until proven innocent. Falana also insisted it should be made impossible for anyone accused of corruption to be bailed. In short, once you are accused, you would be presumed guilty and would rot in jail at the pleasure of the government.

Thus, Falana became an appointed mouthpiece of an authoritarian government tired of democratic niceties. He echoed President Buhari’s complaint that the judiciary is the principal impediment to the government’s anti-corruption campaign. Therefore, Falana tabled proposals for sidestepping the judiciary, so that the government would go after its enemies without hindrance or restraints.

I sat and watched with incredulity as Oby Ezekwezili who, like me, was only invited as a discussant, hugged the floor for over 40 minutes, extolling the virtues of the government’s anti-corruption agenda without any word of caution about the proposals emanating from Falana. On the contrary, Ezekwesili was concerned that those accused were not yet in jail. To this, the Chairman reassured her, in a side-discussion on the podium, that the jails would soon start filling up before the end of the year.

University of Lagos students listened to these speeches in silence. The speakers conveniently read this as approval; after all “we are all against corruption.” It is presumed that while the Buhari government has been a monumental failure in its ten months in office, its one claim to fame or plaudits is its anti-corruption campaign. Therefore, in the context of blackouts and fuel queues, the government would have us fill our tanks and light our homes with bombastic anti-corruption rhetoric.

Alarm bells

It was in this context that I had to make my ten-minute contribution. I knew I would, once again, have to go out on a limb. I knew I could not subscribe to the agenda of my fellow-panelists. I had absolutely no idea how I would be received. Indeed, I wondered why, given the agenda, I had been invited at all. Nevertheless, I could not but be true to my conscience.

I had a certain advantage over my fellow panelists. I am not an employee of the Buhari government and I am definitely not looking for a job from this or any government. Indeed, I am the last Nigerian President Buhari would appoint to anything, either in advisory or substantive capacity. Therefore, I was free to exercise fully my freedom of speech under the Nigerian Constitution.

I was also acutely aware that my freedom was being threatened before my very eyes. If Falana’s proposal were to become law, I could easily be arrested on spurious allegations of corruption and would be presumed guilty until proven innocent. I could then be thrown into jail and locked up. These champions of speedy justice would become silent, as the government might ensure conveniently that it takes me no less than three years in jail to prove my innocence.

It was also not lost on me that if Falana’s proposal of “guilty until proven innocent” had been the norm, President Buhari himself would have been jailed when $2.8 billion of government money went missing under his watch as Commissioner for Petroleum in the 1980s. How soon they forget! At the time, Vera Ifudu, an NTA reporter, revealed to Nigerians that Senate Leader, Olusola Saraki, told her in an interview that the missing money was moved from the NNPC’s Midland Bank account to a private account.

It is amazing that, in spite of our nasty experience at the hands of General Buhari and his kangaroo courts in 1984, a civil rights lawyer would propose today that similar kangaroo courts should again be established under the same Buhari in the bogus name of democratic justice. But I guess we deserve that in Nigeria for being foolish as to elect as president under a democratic dispensation the very man who truncated our earlier experiment with democracy through a military coup.

Deja Vu

In Buhari’s first coming, the Femi Falanas were few and far between to whitewash his authoritarianism. The special courts of that era, now being proposed under a different disguise, were military tribunals established to try civilians instead of regular courts of law, in clear violation of internationally accepted legal norms. Buhari created a secret police (NSO) under the infamous Lawal Rafindadi to harass and imprison Nigerians without trial. It is this same injustice that Falana was hired to re-table.

It is unconscionable that a so-called human rights activist would be used to champion this revanchist authoritarianism. As a military dictator, Buhari ran so rough-shod over our judicial system that the Nigerian Bar Association proscribed Nigerian lawyers from appearing in any of his kangaroo courts.

Buhari sent both corrupt and non-corrupt politicians to jail, sometimes for up to 300 years. He tried octogenarian Michael Ajasin before his military tribunal. When he was discharged and acquitted; he tried him again. When he was discharged and acquitted again, he tried him a third time. When he was discharged and acquitted yet again, Buhari nevertheless continued to keep him in detention and refused to release him.

A judge claimed Buhari pressured him to jail Fela Anikulapo Kuti for failing to declare the foreign exchange he had legitimately procured for the up-keep of his band on a foreign trip; while the same Buhari sent his aide-de-camp to Murtala Muhammed airport in Lagos to facilitate the smuggling into the country of 53 suitcases by the Emir of Gwandu during the currency-change exercise.

Therefore, the onus fell on me at the Roundtable to warn our student audience that it would be madness to entertain proposals that seek to bring back Buhari’s sharp practices of the past under another guise. It is necessary to point out that, as Nigerians were deceived through vain promises promptly jettisoned after the election, so are government agents trying to deceive us again today. There is actually no real war against corruption going on today. There is not even a fight against corruption, how much more a war. What we have is a government attempt to decimate the opposition and create a de facto one-party state under the guise of fighting against corruption.

Enraged “Buharideens”

Once I started making these points, the students started cheering. It became apparent that they were not fooled by the government’s praise-singers and were glad that I was there to expose their duplicity. Before I proceed to elaborate on why I insist there is no real fight against corruption in Nigeria today, let me point out at this juncture the reaction of my fellow-panelists.

I only spoke for ten minutes, but the chairman, Itse Sagay, became enraged. He not only abused me, he also abused UNILAG students. He called them all “ignorant” for applauding my positions. He shouted: “We are here on a very serious business. And students, don’t behave like American electorates who are ignorant. The appreciation of unserious people shows ignorance.”

“How can someone come here and say there’s no war against corruption and there is clapping? This is a very serious discussion and I want us to be serious about it. If you are anti-government, please go and campaign against government and let your party win in 2019. This is not a venue for PDP campaign. We are here on serious business. Let’s maintain that seriousness.”

#BringBackOurGirls icon, Oby Ezekwesili, also asked for the mike a second time to contribute to this berating of UNILAG students for applauding my presentation. She said, among other things: “I wasn’t surprised that some of you were clapping. The reason you were clapping is that you are a page in your own level of corruption. There are many whose exam malpractice is the basis upon which ‎they have come to school. So when you are talking about the need to wage a war against corruption, they are completely disconnected from it. There is a complete dissonance from it.” (TO BE CONTINUED).

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