Mike Ahamba. Image: SAN
Chief Mike Ahamba is a maverick lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). He was also a governorship aspirant on the platform of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 2015 general elections. In this interview with COLLINS OSUJI, the legal luminary speaks on several pressing issues, including the controversial local government autonomy bill, border closure as well as the Hate Speech Bill.
Sir, there has been a consistent clamour for local government autonomy. What is your view about the recent passage of a bill seeking to grant local government autonomy as well as empowering INEC to conduct local government elections?
Has INEC done well in the ones it has conducted so far? There is something we do in this country that hurts me. First, we believe that the change of name will change attitude. So, if electricity is not stable, you change the relevant agency’s name from ECN to NEPA and when NEPA fails, you change the name to PHNC. If that fails too, you change it to EDDC. But who has changed the attitude of those operating it under whatever name it is called? What then is the difference in the names? What has happened to the internal organization? I am saying because that I don’t feel we still have a federation because federal institutions should take care of state affairs. We cannot be talking about true federalism and at the same time, operating unitary system. It is because those doing this don’t understand the meaning of federalism. If they do, they shouldn’t have created a federation with one constitution in 1979. We killed true federation in the 1979 Constitution, and that was done by the public. Nobody should accuse the military of that because we had a constituent assembly that passed the law, which brought the local government into federal affairs, contrary to every known definition of what a federation is
Do we consider why our local governments are failing? I have written memo to the National Assembly about it. All we need do is just change one section of the constitution. The section that states that “the constitution created a democratically elected local government” and that “the state assembly has powers to make laws over the structure, management and establishment of local government.” That is the law they are misusing. All we need do is amend that section to say that so long that the law does not include undemocratic provisions like the appointment of sole administrators, interim management committee and all that. If that is proscribed, except where there is an internal crisis in the state, the governor can be given authority to do this. But my concern is that we have taken the local government into the federal structure when every known definition of a federation I have seen puts local affairs under the state government. So, all we need to do is to introduce a new system of the federation. We are free to do that; at least, let us give something new to the world which has three tiers. Every other federation in the world has only two tiers, the national and the state governments.
Now, we have a local government but the worst thing we can do is to tamper with those local governments because people like them. So what do we do? We have to ensure that state governments don’t take over local governments and everything will start to move smoothly.
But I don’t know the level of publicity given to that bill. You said there was a one-day public hearing. How can they hold one-day public hearing towards constitution amendment? In any case, who gave the National Assembly power to amend the constitution? The National Assembly has the power to alter provisions of the constitution. There is nowhere in the constitution where the National Assembly is empowered to amend the constitution. They are only empowered to alter provisions of the constitution. If you give me the power to tamper with just a part of a thing, that doesn’t give me the power to tamper with the whole. You tamper with the whole when you start putting things that can change the structure of the whole. So, since we are sure that what is on now is not satisfying us, when shall we think about a constituent assembly established with the laws of the Federal Government where we can look at all these anomalies and correct them for the peace, order and good government of Nigeria?
What is your take on the closure of Nigerian borders with neighbouring countries by the Federal Government?
The first responsibility of every government is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of citizens. There are certain things that ought to have been done for a long time but are yet to be done, and if you impose them suddenly, they will create traumatic effects on the people. I believe that the closure of Nigerian borders is targeted at rice and a few other products. But such policy will not affect the elite because they can afford the products irrespective of the cost. But others may no longer have enough to give to the poor. Those who used to give rice out to their people may begin to avoid them now because they cannot afford a bag for N35, 000. I have always advocated that we should try to look inwards and fend for ourselves but when you are talking about agricultural produce, it is a thing of years. You cannot plant palm tree today and it begins to yield tomorrow. If you want to base an economy on palm oil, you have to give a time of five years. Talking about rice, you think of about two or three farming seasons to do what you want to do. But what bothers me most in this country is that when we want to solve a problem, we don’t look at the source. Closing the border is a vote of no confidence on our border security. I have not heard that any official in that segment of our society has been reprimanded or even reposted or retired so that a new person can try. You don’t have to close the border completely because you have put the wrong people to be in charge. This is exactly what is happening. If you have an honest immigration, an honest custom and other security agencies there and if Mr. President will also be honest to himself, to know whether they are the right people to be there or not, the first thing would have been to readjust personnel at the borders and see whether a new set of personnel would be able to block the porous borders.
We have been shouting for a long time that our borders, particularly at the northern side, are porous. There are so many illegal immigrants roaming in this country. There was a time even the Federal Government said that those who were killing farmers were immigrants from Libya and other West African countries. So, if that was the case, was anybody put in charge of that place sanctioned? No. So, the people who will now take the punishment are the poor masses. And that is not the objective of governance.
Even though the hate speech bill appears to have suffered a setback, do you subscribe to the bill?
Well, in a democracy, you don’t have unsolicited comments because I have a right to talk foolishly and you have a right to refuse to accept my foolish talk. But what you don’t have a right to do is to stop me from saying my foolish talk. Now, who determines what hate speech is? Is it the one directed from the government to the people or the one directed from the people at a failing official? So, the way it is, it looks like gagging. All they could have done would have been to reinforce the existing laws. If you say anything I don’t like, I sue you. But if you are supposed to stop a particular type of comment like somebody comes up to accuse Mike Ahamba of committing murder when you know I did not commit murder, send it viral on social media and people are shouting about it, if you get that kind of person, he will face some punishment because it is destabilizing the society. But the punishment for such a thing should not be as harsh as it is being done right now. I understand they have removed the death penalty. The way it is being done, it appears it is aimed at self- protectionism. Like EFCC is also self-protectionist. It is obvious that PDP members constitute 90 per cent of EFCC customers. Are we saying that those who moved from PDP to APC committed no offences? These are some of the things I am talking about, the right thing is done the wrong way. I worked for Buhari for eight years and I firmly believed that if there was a way to get Buhari back to power at the federal level, corruption would be substantially reduced. And to be candid, I was allowed to address a group then on behalf of Buhari and I convinced them that they had a duty to support Buhari because all of them agreed with me that the biggest challenge confronting Nigeria was corruption and the candidate likely to address the situation was Buhari. But unfortunately, the way things are done under Buhari is disappointing to me.
What if the bill is to stop a person or group of persons inciting a particular tribe against another through the social media with their hate speech?
I think something should be done to stop that. I have seen false things on the mass media – fake pictures where people are being slaughtered in order to invite people from a part of the country against another. Such deceits should be seen as incitement against society. But when you use the word speech, which one is hateful? How do you define hate? If I speak against you, that doesn’t mean I hate you. I might even be speaking to you when I hate you. Which one is hateful? Is it the one you don’t like or the one the society doesn’t like? Who determines which one is hateful? It is a difficult situation that can only give a particular set of people the opportunity to exploit the other. And in any case, it is unconstitutional. You see, the National Assembly is the biggest democratic institution in Nigeria, even though the judiciary is the most important because it controls both the executive and the legislature. They must know that their power is not large. It is circumscribed to making of laws for peace, order and good government, which laws must be consistent with provisions of the constitution. Any law made by the National Assembly which is not consistent with the provision of the constitution is dead on arrival. So, if you enact a law that makes any individual judge whether I speak well or not, has that not affected my right to freedom of speech under the constitution? If what I say is seditious, the punishment is there. If it is defamatory, the individual defamed has every right to take legal steps. So, why do we want to make a law that will lock up people for making speeches that favour the whole country except one person? As it is now, we are back to where we were in 1962.
I was in secondary school then. In fact, that was in my class three but I was interested in national affairs. I knew when the parliament at that time tried to bring in what they called Preventive Detention Act and people raised their voices against it. Students also went on demonstrations. They were trying to copy Kwame Nkruma of Ghana by creating laws that will make government detain people they suspect are likely to cause trouble.
The argument was that when they said it could be used as it was being used in Ghana, the protagonist of that act said that Alhaji Tarfawa Belewa was a gentleman and would not misuse it. Correct, everybody knew that he was a gentleman but he was a human being who could go to bed in the night and not wake up in the morning. Then another person who may not be a gentleman will take over. When you make law, you don’t consider the fact that the present incumbent may not misuse it, you think about the possibility of subsequent incumbents misusing it because a law is not for one person, it is for ages. I hope Nigerians are listening to the impeachment proceedings in America. That is where civilization works; where they relate their actions to laws made 178 years ago in their constitution. So, the National Assembly should be looking at that rather than take actions that are beyond their powers.
You said you regretted supporting the emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari given the fact that he failed on your expectations. Do you still hold that view?
Well it has continued to be so. I believe that a victim of what is wrong should be the first solution if that person has the opportunity of solving the problem. Unfortunately, Mr. President who suffered greatly from the negative system in the country when I was working with him has allowed the system to continue.
Are you saying that President Buhari has not provided solutions to Nigeria’s problems?
No, he has not. Although he still has time to do something, he is yet to provide any solution.
What is your assessment of Governor Emeka Ihedioha-led administration in Imo State? How would you compare it with that of Rochas Okorocha?
There is no comparison because while one aimed at destruction, the other aimed at rebuilding and it is foolhardy to assess the extent of rebuilding six months of coming to power when the destruction took eight years. It is not possible. But one thing I like about Ihedioha is that his approach is peculiar to him and he is very progressive. You can see him moving objectively. The result is yet to come fully but just like I told former Governor Ikedi Ohakim then, I won’t tell you that you are doing well in six months. I will only tell you that you are likely to do well with the way you are moving. I want to say that with what Ihedioha has done so far, my assessment at this stage is that he is in all probability going to do well because he is moving systematically. First, he has realized that the first thing is to save the human beings over whom you are going to preside. You know that some people call him the alert governor because pensioners stay in their homes, in their villages and receive alerts of payment of their pension on their telephones. No longer come and assemble in one field without protection. Ihedioha also showed that when you assemble elders, you take care of them.
At the time they were doing verification exercise, canopies were provided to protect these old people from the weather. He has shown that there is need to let the people know that the government cares for them and to let those coming behind to know that the state will care for them and the state is appreciative of the services rendered by them. I want to tell you that this will encourage those coming behind to work harder for the state. However, Ihedioha has been a victim of the general ignorance of the people. Most people don’t know that Owerri/Umuahia road, Owerri/Okigwe road, Owerri/Aba road and Owerri/Port-Harcourt road are all federal roads. None is his responsibility directly. So, when I hear people say that Ihedioah has not built these roads, I wonder their level of ignorance. But even though they are federal roads, he started working on them during the rain and most of us advised him to stop because the rains were likely to wash off everything. Now that the rains have stopped, go on these roads now and see how far they have gone. Also, with the Federal Government’s statement that they would not refund money, state governments are now very circumspect in investing too much money on federal roads. But at least, Ihedioha is now doing palliatives. Some roads that were impassable before are now passable. I told some people who took me on this argument to wait till February to see whether you will still have complaints. Ihedioha is not engaged in propaganda-driven leadership in Imo State. He is an action-driven leader of Imo State and I believe that this year when he must have about three or four months of no rain, those who are talking now will find another thing to say.
Just recently, Governor Ihedioha appealed to his opponents to sheathe their swords and join him in rebuilding the state rather than continued litigations. What is your reaction to that?
I have also made that calls on them even on the pages of newspapers. After the judgments, I said: “Look, you people know that Imo State has a peculiar problem. It is in a serious state of disaster. Now that we have gone through two tiers of court, why don’t we as patriotic citizens of this state, let the rest go and come together for us to rebuild the state because if we fail to rebuild, we will all suffer for it. I believe that Ihedioha would have done more but for these distractions. They should reconsider going further to the Supreme Court because speaking as a lawyer, I don’t see what they can achieve there.