Barrister Monday Ubani, immediate past Second Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) , in this interview with JOY ANIGBOGU spoke about the nation’s insecurity, disrespect to rule of law by government agencies, and the need to run an inclusive administration by President Muhammadu Buhari. He also spoke on his detention by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) among other issues. Excerpts:
You had a bitter experience recently in the custody of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and a lot of Nigerians wondered that if someone of your status could be so treated, what would be the fate of ordinary people. What were your experiences in the hands of EFCC officials?
I thought I was doing Nigeria a favour by trying to bring back a woman who the EFCC was looking for to respond to some allegations against her when she was chairman of Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF). Somebody introduced me to her, saying that she was innocent. She said she wanted to defend herself and needed a very strong lawyer who was close to government to ensure a fair trial. I spoke with her, asked her to come back because she did not have to be abroad and claim to be innocent. I convinced her that she would need to come back and defend herself in court and she listened to me and returned to the country. I submitted her voluntarily to EFCC. She was interviewed, after which she was detained and was in hospital for 14 days, under security guard.
Before she came back, she had multiple surgeries. Within the 14 days, her health was deteriorating. I was under tremendous pressure to get her out on bail, which compelled me to go to court against EFCC, trying to enforce her fundamental human rights. At that point, we got to know that they got court order to detain her for 14 days. It is another case that I would address nationally. It is issue of agencies using the court to extend detention of citizens in EFCC cells. It is something that we would need to tackle, because of possibility of abuse. When we discovered she was being detained under a court order, we had to press for her release. EFCC did not renew the court order, but had to release her. EFCC also refused to release her to reliable sureties that she presented, rather they said that they wanted important citizen like the lawyer who brought her back and that was me.
I was put in a tight corner at that point to secure bail. I brought her back to the country with all her family members. If I had refused to sign the bail papers, she could think that I connived with EFCC to bring her back. I considered it was administrative bail, and I reasoned that once she was charged to court, at that point I would be excused. She was released based on my signature and the second surety came two days to perfect her bail condition, meaning that it was based on my signature that she was released. Any time she had a scheduled appointment, I would travel all the way to Abuja from Lagos to take her to EFCC.
I discovered that EFCC was no more interested in charging her to court. Rather, they were more concerned about her properties. She kept giving them lists of all her movable and immovable properties. It took quite a while.
Sometime in April, I got a call from her lawyer that EFCC were in her house trying to gain entry and I wondered why because she was already on bail. I put a call to the team leader handling the case. He told me he was not aware. But two hours later, he claimed that he knew. It turned out that the alleged offence was different from what she came for. I considered that matter civil because it was already in court. The matter was already in court in Enugu and the people involved left the court and came to EFCC probably because they felt it would do a better job. They were there in her house for over 10 hours and subjected the woman to harrowing experience. They insisted they were going to take the woman to Enugu, dead or alive.
A woman who was just out of detention under a deteriorating health condition, you wanted to take her to Enugu and put her in cell. The woman refused to follow them. She told them she was sick and when it became impossible for them, they left for another arrest, to come back. They left with all the policemen they brought. At that point, the woman slipped out of the house. Till date, the woman has never communicated with me as a surety. I became worried and travelled to Abuja to her home. I asked the children about their mother’s whereabouts and they said they had not seen her since that day. EFCC then said that they were ready to charge her and I told them that they were the ones that had last contact with her.
So are you saying the EFCC’s actions led to her disappearance?
The EFCC’s wrong handling of the matter must have driven the woman back to where she came from. I brought her back and they chased her away and were asking me to produce her. They could have either invited her, asked me to bring her or thirdly allow her to come for her normal schedule visit and arrest her. It was a wrong approach that they used. They came with over 20 operatives, cordoned off her street and subjected everyone on the street to rigorous harassment. They made it look as if they had come to arrest a terrorist or someone who had committed treasonable felony. The way they came was very scary, based on the report I got.
I wrote to Inspector General of Police (IGP), telling him I needed the INTERPOL to trace where the woman was. I mentioned two countries I suspected that she might have gone to and they wrote to the INTERPOL of those two countries. I resorted to the use a comprehensive method which is red alert. It would enable her arrest and repatriation back to the country. I got good news that the woman had been put on a red alert by INTERPOL in France.
It was the good news that I went to EFCC to tell them and I was ordered to be arrested and detained. I did not know why I was detained. I thought it was going to be for about two days and then I would be charged to court. They just kept me there, no interview or anything of sort; in fact, they did not tell me anything. I had to tell my lawyers to sue to enforce my fundamental human rights. The court made an order that if I had committed any offence, I should be charged to court, or released on bail. The order was served, but was not obeyed. NBA spoke openly against it, Eastern Bar Forum (EBA), Igbo lawyers all over the federation, and other respected groups and non-governmental organisation (NGO), human rights organisations (NGOs), individuals with voice, used social media to campaign for my release.
I was finally released and in spite of the fact that Magu was still investigating me, claiming that the woman paid me millions. I did not know the woman when she was in public office. I have become more investigated as a private person than public officers. I have been asked to declare all my assets. They claimed that I had no right to bail her, that NBA should discipline me. But, would putting me in detention make that possible? Is EFCC now NBA that should discipline me by putting me in detention?
What is the NBA doing about this issue of not obeying court orders by government agencies?
They obey the ones that suit them and some of us that are talking are considered enemies of the state. We are interested in getting a country that is working, a country that is normal. If someone has committed any offence, take him to court. Let the court determine the culpability or otherwise of the person. The courts must be allowed to do their job, don’t cow anyone. The Bench and Bar should be allowed their independence as guaranteed by the constitution. Just like the Executive, Legislature, they are all independent, but should work for the purpose of good governance. One arm should not begin to intimidate the others. We must have a government where things are working out properly.
We had to kick off the former government because of some level of impunity in the country. Things were not going on well and we felt that we had to do something. Remember the protest of 2012. It was in January when President Jonathan just woke up and removed fuel subsidy, without adequate education or sensitisation and the people said ‘no’. The elite and lower class rose up against that particular act. We felt that since we have a new government, things must be done properly because they have come to change the old order. We cannot continue to do things that we had condemned. When you do that, they would say you are no longer with them, that you are attacking them. We want to have a country that we can be proud of, a country where things are working properly because there is a standard.
We cannot keep quite in a country where people have sworn to a constitution and they don’t listen when judiciary makes pronouncements. If people do not see the efficacy of the judiciary system, they would begin to take laws into their hands because they don’t have belief in the judiciary system. When anarchy is allowed to be created in the system, the country is in trouble. Our belief and conviction is that we must have a country that is working. It does not mean that when a court makes an order and you obey it that you are weak. We see judgment of court against the police and agencies of government not being respected.
I have a judgment against the Nigerian Police. Up till now, I have not been able to execute it. So many people have judgments against Nigerian Customs and even EFCC and they cannot enforce it because they have put stumbling blocks for you to execute it. How can such a country be respected in the eyes of the world? When we try to do that, we are not undermining the government. We must build a country that is working that our children should be proud of. Presently, the country is working for only a few Nigerians.
What is the implication of the call for the arrest of Chief Ayo Adebanjo for insisting that he would not regard President Buhari as the President-elect until the Supreme Court declares so?
It is a personal opinion of Chief Adebanjo and does not in any way affect the powers of the president of the country. He is functioning as the president and his first tenure has not been annulled by the court. So, he still remains the president. Anyone saying that he should be arrested is just a sycophant. To me, it is a personal opinion, whether he recognises him as a president-elect or not, it is his personal opinion. Whether he recognises him as a president-elect, he has been declared winner by Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). That declaration has been challenged in the court. So, the court would make a declaration, and pending on the time the court makes a pronouncement, he remains the president, he has not been removed. INEC had the power to declare him winner and it has done that. Someone has gone to court to challenge that declaration, which the court allows. Pending the time the court makes a declaration, that person remains the president. If someone said he does not recognise him, it does not in any way affect the efficacy of his power. It is the personal opinion of Baba.
You need to see that man. I think he is his 80s. But, you would think he is in his 50s. I look at him with some level of awe, the kind of human being at his age. He has been a believer of this nation, no matter what. He is a nationalist, highly respected and highly principled man. It is his personal opinion that he doesn’t, nobody should grumble, nobody should arrest him. It could be his level of anger against the law or what he perceived as irregularities, because, he mentioned that there was rigging. So, it was his personal opinion. It should not cause us to lose sleep because under the eyes of the law, the president remains the president of the country until he is removed by the court. What Baba Adebanjo has said is his personal opinion. There was no treasonable offence in that statement. So, I advise that nobody should try and arrest him. They should have some level of tolerance. He is an old man. What if you take him there and something happens to him? There would be so many crises in the country.
What the country requires now is reconciliation. There is so much insecurity, killings all over the place. We should not engage in anything that would engender crisis. We need the cooperation of everyone to tackle some of these common enemies; the issue of Boko Haram, kidnapping, banditry and herdsmen that are trying to eliminate everyone. We must get the security agencies to think outside the box on how to tackle these menace and intelligent gathering too. When government is not doing right, let us criticise it and not destroy it. Nigerians come together and fight their common enemy. How can you see a government agency where 90 percent of them are from one particular ethnic group? Federal Character principle is compromised. There are issues that we need to resolve as a nation and because we don’t have a national ideal, it becomes an issue and we have not been able to sit down and look at this issue critically as a nation. We have not been making progress as a nation. We must sit down and talk as a nation, look at the issue of the federating units. We look at everything religion, culture, and politics holistically. When we do that, we will find out that we will have a country that is healthy.