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‘Injustice is the root cause of insecurity in Nigeria’
Mr Ope Banwo, a lawyer, is also a man of many parts. He is into film production and is also a pastor. In this interview with Yejide Gbenga-Ogundare, he speaks on judiciary corruption, insecurity and other sundry issues. Excerpts.
What is your opinion on the recent House of Representative summons on President Jonathan?
I believe the House of Representative have a constitutional right to invite any Nigerian, particularly elected and government officials to appear before it and answer questions and I think Jonathan will be very wrong not to appear and answer questions on matters affecting all Nigerians. This is a democracy and the house of reps is the representative of the people. By refusing to appear, he was basically saying he will not be responsible to Nigerians. I mean, how can an elected official (even the president) thumb his nose at the representatives of the people?
Sometimes I wonder if our President even understand the constitution or how democracy works. The other time he granted an interview and actually said he does not give a damn about declaration of assets and that it is a matter of principle. Our own president said this while he was still trying to convince Nigerians he is committed to a regime of transformation. It’s amazing really. He has simply confirmed our suspicion that he has absolutely no intention to run a transparent government and that the slogan of a ‘breath of fresh air’ is nothing but a cheap slogan that means nothing to him in practical life.
Even more amazing to me is the fact that nobody is using the ‘I’ word against this President. He has done so many things that he should have been impeached. Violating the law or refusing to follow the constitution is an impeachable offence and someone needs to bell the cat and put this man on the hot heat of impeachment. His last chat with NTA is the worst demonstration of monumental ignorance mixed with a heavy dose of arrogance that I have ever seen in a Nigerian president.
There is a general belief that lawyers are liars, as a pastor, how do you balance the legal practice with your Christian faith?
Well those who say lawyers are liars are ignorant of what a lawyer really does and they are lying by calling lawyers liars. Lawyers do not give evidence in a case. The parties and witnesses do. The lawyer leads witnesses in examination and cross examination and they submit documents given to them by the litigants. So, if any lies are being told in court, it is the litigants telling those lies and not lawyers.
So, how can lawyers be said to be liars then? Lawyers are advocates of the stories of other people. So if lies are being advocated, then you need to hold the person who supplied the story to his lawyer.
So balancing my role as a lawyer with that of a pastor is not a problem at all. As a matter of fact both roles are essentially the same. Pastors advocate the kingdom of heaven while lawyers advocate the case of their clients. I believe stories of my clients and advocate them to the best of my knowledge. I only withdraw if I have evidence they are lying or if they are asking me to prosecute an unjust case.
You have an impressive list of clients including Charly Boy, how do you manage such a controversial brand.?
I don’t manage the Charly boy brand; I just represent him on legal issues. I believe everyone is entitled to justice even if they are controversial. The fact that you don’t like someone or that someone is controversial does not give you liberty to libel them. That’s my association with Charly boy. We are partners in the quest for justice and decorum. I fight injustice wherever I find them, whether the person is popular or not or whether the person is controversial or not. Everyone, rich or poor; popular or unpopular; controversial or boring. That is why I have taken up high profile cases like Gbenga Daniel vs Amosun; Oguta people vs Rochas Okorocha; victims of Dana air crash who lost their property when plane landed on their house. And my case against Virgin Atlantic. I will continue to fight for justice wherever injustice abounds.
How would you rate governance in Nigeria especially in the area of provision of amenities to the masses?
Well, the facts are self evident. The masses in Nigeria do not ask for much from their leaders but the leaders do not care. Why should we still be talking about and begging for electricity or good roads in a country that makes billions of dollars every month from oil? Nigerians have been so bastardized and trained to expect so little from their government that Fashola for instance became a superstar just by clearing Oshodi road! Don’t get me wrong, Fashola is an awesome governor in many areas but it says a lot about how little we expect from our government if we can elevate our governor to cult status because he did something basic that a local government chairman should have been able to do.
What is your take on the issue of insecurity in Nigeria?
I think the political elite are playing games with people lives. Even the president obviously knows some of the sponsors of Boko Haram as evident by his own admission that Boko Haram is even in his government. There is certainly a lot we are not being told. I personally see the hand of Esau and the voice of Jacob in several aspects of the breakdown of insecurity in the land. How did the bombs get here or are they telling us that illiterates built the Boko Haram bombs? If the president says Boko Haram is also in his government, how come he didn’t identity the ones he found? Furthermore, it is also impossible for anybody to have security when there is real poverty and economic oppression. Somebody has said that very soon a time is coming where the poor will have nothing more to eat but the rich. To go to the fundamental root cause of insecurity, we must address the underlying injustice in the land. When a man feels he has no hope, his life becomes meaningless and he will be happy to trade his worthless life on earth for 50 virgins in eternity. Ignorance breeds suicide bombers. A lasting solution to people being manipulated by faceless cabal to bomb others is to educate them and provide basic necessities of life to the youths. Find useful engagement for them and you will take them off the market for the manipulators.
Do you think the judiciary is truly independent in Nigeria?
The constitution gives it independence and whether the judiciary wants to be independent is really up to the judges. I do not subscribe to the fact that the executive does not allow them to be independent.
They can choose to be independent if they want since the supreme constitution grants them that independence. As for individual judges and judgments, I actually rate the judiciary very high in totality despite some obviously suspicious judgments. The fact is that two or three bad judgments should not negate the great work being done my many judges all over the country.
What are the challenges facing administration of criminal justice in Nigeria?
Corruption, executive interference and lack of political will in the population to ensure fairness and justice in the land. Corruption has eaten deep into the consciousness of every nook and corner of the country and those given the authority to administer justice are not exempted. When you send people making N150, 000 a month to go and investigate and prosecute billionaires in dollars in an atmosphere where they are not even sure their honest work will see the light of day, what you will always get is an aborted attempt to deliver criminal justice. The leaders (President most of all) must be seen to be actively against corruption and deliberately rewarding work against corruption for the fight to develop any steam. But when the president of the country is surrounded and seen in public with some of the indicted corrupt people in the nation, it is impossible to have a good administration of justice. When your President says he does not give a damn about declaration of assets, he sends a very strong signal to everyone that nobody in government is really interested in transparency and accountability. Where then does that leave administration of justice? In the gutter of course.
Our populace too has not really shown a strong political will to see administration of justice in Nigeria beyond shouting on Facebook and blogs. Many are only genuinely upset that their brother or kinsman is not the one doing the looting and not simply against looting. Everyone is looking for opportunity to loot the nation and in that environment, administration of justice will continue to be a joke. The prosecutors cannot develop a higher enthusiasm for administration of justice that is higher than that of their bosses. This kind of thing always flows from the head to the toe. Any oversealous prosecutor or investigator in this environment where the leaders are not committed to administration of justice will simply lose his job or lose his life
In spite of all provisions of the law, why is corruption on the rise in Nigeria?
Like I said earlier, people administer the law and the leaders give executive, spiritual and social direction on whether the laws will be enforced or not. When the decision makers don’t give a damn about the law, what can the little guys do. The laws against corruption are there but the laws cannot execute themselves. They need leaders who will ginger up the prosecutors to enforce the law.
How strong are consumer protection rights in Nigerian.?
We really do not have anything close to a real consumer protection right in Nigeria. Most of the agencies given the authority to enforce the rights are either compromised, obscure, incompetent or simply do not care about the so called consumers. For instance, how many consumers know where to go if they eat adulterated food or when their credits are wiped off by thieving telecoms organizations. How many know how or where to file complaints regarding air flight delays or when banks charge them illegal charges on their bank accounts. They only know of lawyers for big deals but what do you do if a bank charges you N100 for cash withdrawal that is not allowed by law? You don’t want to spend N200,000 to a lawyer to fight for N100 wrong charge. So, our consumer protection agencies should step up their public education and activities to protect consumers
What do you think of the calibre of lawyers being turned out of the law school now?
I am an attorney and I can see the huge difference between a law graduate in 1990 and that of 2010. The difference is depressing and the level of polish or education or competence is simply mind boggling. But then, what can you expect from a broken down education system where more than 90% of students fail English and mathematics and where 2,000 students are crammed in one classroom for lectures or where lecturers are busy trying to find alternative sources of income rather than preparing lecture notes. The current lawyers are a product of the education environment that is nothing but a disgrace to a nation with some of the best minds in the world.