‘Buhari Needs a Strong Economic Team, Not Emergency Powers’

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Chinelo Bob-Osamor

That Nigeria’s economy is in recession is no longer news. But whether President Buhari needs emergency powers to fix the troublesome state of affairs has been in debate since the Presidency expressed its intention to approach the National Assembly to seek emergency powers to tackle the economy.

In a chat with May Agbamuche-Mbu, Jude Igbanoi and Tobi Soniyi, Mrs. Chinelo Bob-Osamor suggests ways through which the nation can get out of its present economic doldrums. The season journalist, TV personality, lawyer and rights activist who turns 50 next week expressed her views on sundry other issues, including her passion for philanthropy.

Currently, President Buhari is seeking emergency powers to pursue his economic stimulus plan for the economy. The objectives of the action-plan on the economy, include shoring up the value of the Naira, creation of more jobs, boosting of foreign reserves, reviving the manufacturing sector and improving power. Some of the powers include Virement of Budgetary Allocation to projects that are urgent, Amendment of certain laws such as the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) Act. These powers seem to be a usurpation of the powers of the National Assembly. In your opinion does the Government need these emergency powers?

I think that all the powers, except the virement of budgetary allocation, are already within the competence of the president as Executive President. They are all matters that properly formulated and articulated economic policies, backed by a strong fiscal framework can achieve. It is noteworthy that an emergency power to enable the government engage in virement of budgetary allocation is a violation of extant legislation prohibiting virement. Such powers will put the President above the law. What the President needs is a strong, focused and driven economic team with emphasis on monetary regulation, job creation and diversification of the economy and not emergency powers.

The new President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. A.B. Mahmoud SAN has just assumed office on the wave of his campaign for a “Brave New Bar”, a call to arms for Nigerian Lawyers to reinvent the profession positively and proactively. What are your expectations of the new administration of the NBA?

These are indeed trying times for the legal profession. The Bar and the Bench have never had it so bad. The Bench has been plagued by allegations of corruption which is exacerbated by conflicting judgments from courts of co-ordinate jurisdiction on the same subject matter. It seems that “black market” injunctions have become pervasive.

There is no doubt that Nigerian bench is made up of courageous, competent and incorrigible judicial officers (a few bad apples notwithstanding).I suspect the bench has been infiltrated by politics and there is urgent need for the heads of the various courts to take active steps to ensure that justice is not only done but is seen to be done

The Bar is not without blemish in this matter, indeed all originating processes and interim applications are initiated by members of the Bar. That is where I expect the Nigerian Bar Association President to actualize the mantra of a “Brave New Bar.” He should re-invigorate the disciplinary committee of the Bar to ensure that as many legal practitioners as lead judicial officers into the temptation of granting “black market” injunctions are brought to book by the disciplinary committee of the Bar.

Similarly, a brave New Bar should be one that champions the cause of obedience to court orders. As a Union, the Bar can decide to withhold its services from those who disobey court orders.

On Monday 24th June 2013 in Edo State, after six years of observing a United Nations Resolution 62/149 on the Moratorium on the use of the Death Penalty, four men were hanged to death in compliance with a court imposed Death Sentence. With that, Nigeria’s relatively brief moratorium on the death penalty ended and we have seen the re-introduced Capital Punishment since then. Although you have been a strong proponent for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, many have argued that the Death Penalty is a necessary deterrent to the perpetration of heinous crimes or crimes that threaten the security of the state. How do you reconcile these very pressing needs, the protection of the state against the life of an individual convicted of heinous or threatening crimes?

Up till recently I could be described as a Pro-life Activist/Lawyer. I was completely against death penalty. In my article on the PETER NEMI v THE STATE, I not only supported the argument that condemned criminal’s human rights should not be compromised on account of his sentence but I questioned the rationale behind death sentence in its entirety. You know all the argument of its not being a deterrent; the possibility of taking the life of an innocent person amongst others.

However, recent happenings globally have really affected my position. An example is the rise and spread of terrorism worldwide. A suicide bomber who obviously has rejected his right to life embarks on a mission to kill as many innocent people as possible. For him it is a case of the more the merrier. It is unlikely such a person can be reformed by incarceration. I think the state should assist convicted terrorists achieve death which is their goal. Death penalty will ensure that they do not take others as casualties with them.

After so many years of lobbying, the Violence Against Persons Bill was eventually passed into law only last year. But there appear to be many challenges in its implementation already. It has not been tested in our courts with any great consideration, despite the growing incidence of domestic violence. What should be the approach to addressing this issue?

Indeed violence against persons has been on the increase. Unlawful killings on mere allegation of blasphemy or suspicion of having committed an offence (Lynching) and general religious intolerance have all conspired to upstage domestic violence which seems to be the main target of the Violence against Persons Act. The law is timely and welcome. The law seeks to address clearly identifiable violent conducts. However, the implementation by law enforcement agents and the interpretation by the law courts will eventually expose the lapses in the law while crystallizing the positive aspects of the law, by way of decided cases. We should be patient and allow this piece of legislation to be tested in the courts thereafter the legislature will have the opportunity to make amendments where necessary to bring the law in conformity with the needs of the society.

Nigeria has still not passed the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) into national law, in spite of the fact that we have long since signed the convention’s protocol and accession treaty. Does this explain the current difficulties faced in the protection of Women’s rights in Nigeria?

The convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is a laudable piece of legislation that has very noble intentions. Before CEDAW, our laws contain Copious provisions that guarantee and protect the rights of women, primarily as human beings and particularly as women. It seems to me that the Challenge is not just in the domestication of CEDAW but in the practical implementation of the provisions in our extant laws that guarantee protection of human and women rights. For example there is no written law that prohibits women from standing surety for bail but in practice it is not done despite the clear provision of the Administration of Justice Law that guarantees that right to women. More should be done in the implementation of the provisions in our extant laws even as we await the domestication of CEDAW.

Statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has revealed that out of the 67,000 prisoners held in the various Nigerian prisons, Awaiting Trial Persons make up to 72 percent of that total population. Furthermore there has been a significant increase in the incidents of jail break in the country. In your opinion how can government and other stakeholders improve Prisons Administration?

The challenges facing our detention facilities are multi-faceted. First of all, the detention facilities Nationwide were built to accommodate less than 20% of their present occupants (inmates). Consequently, they are overcrowded and the warders are overworked. It is only logical that a prison facility that is overstretched is prone to bursting occasionally at the seams. The administration of criminal justice system grinds slowly but surely. Trials are slow and protracted, when they commence at all. This has led to a backlog of persons awaiting trial. They currently outnumber the convicts whom the prisons were built for in the first place.

We need to build bigger and better equipped prisons that will achieve the reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners envisaged by the law.

Also, suspects should not be arrested at random without proper investigation. The law enforcement agents should be ready to go to court soon after an arrest of a suspect. This will in no small way will reduce the number of persons awaiting trial.

Lastly all the laws that militate against speedy trials of suspected persons must either be repealed or amended. The administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 has made giant strides in this respect, for instance it has put a limit to the number of adjournments that is allowed in one case and restrained interlocutory applications.

There have been allegations that anti-corruption agencies under this present administration are not respecting human rights in the fight against corruption by detaining suspects for long periods clearly prohibited in national laws and ignoring court orders. Do you share this view?

There is no doubt that the fight against Corruption is a battle for the very soul of the nation and I commend the government for its political will in this direction. In prosecuting that war however, the government must endeavor to do so within the ambits of the law. Due process must be adhered to strictly.

The Constitution presumes every accused person innocent until proven otherwise by a court of Competent jurisdiction. Consequently media trials are in bad taste and a violation of the presumption of innocence. Similarly charging suspects to court and denying them bail because investigation is ongoing is a violation of their right to personal liberty. While the denial of adequate time and facilities to a suspect to prepare for their defence, caused by a denial of bail, is a violation of the Constitutional safeguard in that regard.

Despite the fact that some states have passed the Child Rights Act into state law, children are still being abused and denied their basic rights to dignity and healthcare. How should this administration be looking to improve on the welfare of children? What steps need to be taken to make this a reality?

There is no dearth of laws in Nigeria. We have multiplicity of laws addressing several and same issues at the same time. Before the Child rights Act, The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons Act (NAPTIP) made adequate provisions against Child labour, and related offences, ditto for other legislations, the challenge has always been enforcement. The government should embark on massive re-orientation for our law enforcement agencies. They need to be taught the importance of these laws, the traumatic and psychological effect of these offences on children and the long term effect on the larger society. In many parts of Nigeria, violence against children is merely seen as corporal punishment which is for their own good. Just as victims of rape are often perceived as having brought it upon themselves. This mindset has to change and that’s why we need re-orientation.

Closely related to the rights of children in Nigeria are the challenges faced by the girl child in Nigeria. For instance we have little to no statistical information of the rates of sexual abuse, and the same is true for the investigation and prosecution of offences that fall under this area. How can we change the attitude of law enforcement agencies to the prosecution of sexual offences?

Sexual offences are usually victimless crimes because the victim, faced with stigmatization and the odium associated with the offence, is usually unwilling to prosecute or be a witness in the prosecution of the alleged offender. Beyond the re-orientation of our law enforcement agents, government need to amend the laws to allow the victims of rape and other sexual offences to testify in camera .We also need an express provision that sexual offences cannot be plea-bargained.

The human rights community seems to have accepted the non-justiciability of socio-economic rights such as the rights to shelter, health and to engage in economic activity. How then do we hold the Government accountable to the Directive Principles of State Policy as enshrined in Chapter II of the Constitution and ensure that government takes these rights seriously?

Chapter II of the 1999 Constitution adequately provides for fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy. These are ideal goals and objectives that any well-meaning government should take seriously. This is what is fondly referred to as social and economic rights. By their nature economic and social rights are nebulous. How do you guarantee the right to work in an economy in recession, the right to adequate health services in a country with dilapidated health facilities, the right to education in a country that can barely admit 30 percent of qualified candidates. They will remain non-justiciable for a long time. However this does not absolve government of its duty to create enabling environment for economic and social rights to be achievable and subsequently justiciable.

In spite of the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act which requires public institutions to make information available to the public especially through the concept of proactive disclosure. It now appears that nearly all public institutions are in breach of this law. The consequence is a lack of transparency in governance and an environment where impunity thrives. How can we change this attitude and create a more open one in compliance with the FOI Act?

I find it strange that after the vigorous agitation that led to the enactment of freedom of Information Act, the media and others who want information from government are waiting for the law to implement itself. It is human activities that breathe life into laws. Do we expect the government agencies that have so long hoarded information to, all of a sudden invite people to come and get information? We must knock on the doors of government agencies for information and continue to knock until they answer and if need be approach the court to compel them to comply.

The former Minister for Communications Technology Omobola Johnson during the previous administration revealed plans to lower taxes on Telecommunications infrastructure to make it easier and more attractive for Telecommunication operators to invest in long term infrastructure development. The current administration has emphasised at various times the imperative need to make Nigeria a more attractive investment destination by various means. However the 8th National Assembly in the face of this important policy is entertaining a bill which seeks to enforce a nine per cent Communication Service Tax (CST) on charges payable by a user of an Electronic Communication Service including Text Messages, Video Messaging and data usage, all areas capable of generating new economic activity. Considering the devastating effects this will likely have on internet penetration and future investments in the Telecommunications industry, is there any long-term benefit to such a piece of legislation going against the idea of an attractive Nigerian market current economic conditions?

The Telecommunications Sector is one sector of the economy that has been a win win situation for the operators. The operators have been making super-profits and have only been compelled by adverse public opinion to improve service to the end users. The telecommunication companies are all privately owned or owned by a select few who shut out members of the public from participating in investment in telecommunication. It is only recently that MTN started making moves to make a public offer of its shares. I do not think the proposed law will slow down the impetus for diversification and expansion of telecommunication industry in Nigeria.

Much has been reported in recent years of the falling standards of Legal Education in Nigeria and what ought to be done about this. Unfortunately those standards have only seen marginal improvement in the overgeneralised annual Nigerian Law School results. Some writers have even gone so far as to say that the Bar only pays lip service to the gradually deteriorating metrics in the quality of legal services and performance of young/new lawyers in the market. The Nigerian Bar Association has a Legal Education Committee, how can it begin to work with the Council of Legal Education to create the world class legal training that is necessary to change the poor state of Legal Education in Nigeria?

There is a positive correlation between the standard of education in Nigeria generally and legal education in particular. The perceived fall in the standard of legal Education owes its cause to the general decline in the standard of Education.

In Nigeria, any student at the law school would have passed through 6 years in primary school, 6 years in secondary and 4 years in a University to obtain a law degree (L.L.B). The law school programme is for one academic session, hardly long enough to repair whatever damage our defective academic system would have done. I am aware and it is noteworthy that the Nigerian Law School has a new curriculum which is more practice oriented and which seeks to refocus the students. However, after the law school, there is the need for legal practitioners to engage in continued legal education. This is a task that needs to be done if we are to build on the laudable efforts of the Nigerian Law School. It is the Nigerian Law School that has the capacity to provide continued legal Education. The Nigerian Law School already has lecturers, libraries, classrooms and other facilities necessary for continued legal education. Consequently the activities of the legal Education Committee should be under the auspices of the Nigeria Law School as partners in the improvement of the standard of legal practice.

As a student’s union leader and the Vice President of the University of Jos Students’ Union, your boldness and sagacity leading students was well applauded. What is your assessment of students’ unionism today?

Students Unionism has lost its focus in Nigeria. Gone are the days when student unions defined National discourse. They held strong opinions about sovereignty, National Unity, activities of government and government policies. They were not shy to express their opinions strongly on National Issues. The NANS the umbrella body of students’ Union was cohesive and when they sneezed, the government of the day catches cold. Sadly, not anymore, they are now in splinters and their views are politicized and tribalised. They have been infiltrated by politicians who now use them as and when they please. I miss the days of strong, objective, well informed and articulate student unionism.

With a first degree in Political Science before your degree in Law, would you subscribe to the school of thought that a first degree should be a prerequisite for admission to study Law in Nigeria?

Law is a profession and like all professions, you must have burning desire for the profession. It is that motivation that will see you overcome whatever obstacle that stands between you and the attainment of your Call to Bar. In my case I wanted to study law, political science happened; I completed a degree in political science in 1988 from University of Jos. I went ahead to apply for direct entry to study law at the University of Lagos. That year, the government of the day commenced a policy that refused graduates direct entry admission to study law. By that policy only candidates with A’Levels were entitled to direct entry admission to study law. Yours sincerely with a B.sc in Political Science went ahead to sit for A ‘Level exams, got the requisite number of points and was admitted to study law at University of Lagos. I was finally called to Bar in 1996 No thanks to all the ASUU Strikes and consequent closure of Universities.

Aside burning desire, you must have the right aptitude; a sound mind and the right training you must have a sound mind because law is a product of reasoning and reasoning is a product of the mind. You must attend good schools with competent faculties. Attending a university that has one or two visiting professors and mostly junior lecturers can hardly give one adequate training to be a lawyer. Therefore 1st degree without these pre-requites will not necessarily confer an advantage on a graduate over a non-graduate in the study of law.

We live in a society with many inadequacies and many prevalent needs admittedly. However many times too much attention is devoted to these inadequacies and gaps in planning rather than to filling and catering to them according to what we as individuals can contribute to society. You founded the Chike Okagbue Foundation (COF) in the memory of your late father Chike Nwankwo Okagbue presumably to meet some of those needs in your immediate environment. What does the Chike Okagbue Foundation focus on achieving? How is the Foundation managing to meet these needs and lastly how is it bringing these needs to the attention of those responsible for creating a societal framework for proactively catering to them?

The Chike Okagbue Foundation (COF) was set up to honor the memory of my late father, Chike Okagbue. An accomplished businessman, a lover of education who pursued education informally. His library could boast of the works of great philosophers, politicians and historians of our time. His love for education informed our decision to make education the main focus of COF. The Foundation awards scholarship on merit to students who have excelled in Common Entrance Examinations. Ten students are taken annually. The ten students are chosen on merit. They are offered full scholarship through Junior and Senior Secondary School Education. Twenty students have so far graduated under the auspices of the foundation; Ten last year and ten this year. We have currently 50 students in our chosen school. It is our hope that if funds are available, we will take them beyond secondary school in future. Presently the Foundation is mainly funded by me. It is also our hope and expectation that other well-meaning Nigerians will borrow a leaf from our humble effort and touch lives accordingly. Apart from Education, the Foundation also engages in other philanthropic works.

Your TV show Discourse with Chinelo has been running for more than 10 years now focusing on how the activities of government, government agencies, the organised private sector and individuals impact society. How does your platform affect or offer remedies of our prevalent societal ills?

“Healthwise” which started in 2000 was actually the forerunner of “Discourse with Chinelo.” Then it was the only Health talk show in Abuja. Healthwise made so much impact, educating and enlightening viewers on all forms of Health related issues that the Association of Resident doctors gave us an Award in 2003.

Discourse with Chinelo debuted in 2004. It was to enable us discuss issues other than health. So in addition to health related issues we now discuss law, economic and other aspects of daily living. We X-ray the activities of government agencies, ministries among others. The impact has been enormous. Take the Ombudsman for instance, so many did not know that Nigerian Ombudsman the Public Complaints Commission is up and running and that they could handle their complaints free and they get remedies. Ditto for other agencies and parastatals. On a daily basis, we are inundated by comments and inquiries from viewers seeking information. Like our slogan goes it is “public enlightenment at its best.”

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