Elder statesman and founder of Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti, (ABUAD) Aare Afe Babalola has warned that Nigeria may be heading towards a dangerous end if a sovereign national conference is not urgently convoked to produce a people’s constitution before the 2023 general elections. According to the legal luminary, “People are hungry for a sovereign national conference and they will vote certainly for a constitution that will change the current constitution, not amending it. We need a new and total change in the constitution, representing the people’s constitution, with true federalism, or alternatively, let us return to the 1966 constitution with just few amendments. Without that, we may never have a Nigeria nation. We are getting farther, farther away from being a Nigeria nation now.”
In this insightful interview with the trio of ONUOHA UKEH, FEMI BABAFEMI and PRISCILLA EDIARE in his office at ABUAD, Aare Babalola spoke further on this and provided insights into why he rejected offers to be Attorney General and Minister of Justice by late military Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha and former President Olusegun Obasanjo, among other national issues.
You have been a friend of many that have ruled Nigeria. We know how close you are and what contributions you have made. But we are surprised that you never worked with any officially as a Minister or something higher. We want you to share with us why this is so?
Well, it is correct that I have had interactions with virtually all the presidents that have ruled Nigeria; equally I had interactions with governors and important personalities in business. I have been lucky to work with all these people including foreign investors, Shell, Mobil, Julius Berger and so on. In all, my relationship had been that of a solicitor, generally or I counseled them if they had cases of any type. There was a time I was involved in all the election matters in Nigeria at all levels; Tribunal, High Court, Court of Appeal or Supreme Court. I think the earliest one that I want to recall was the one that involved Shagari. I remember Tai Solarin, one of the most controversial Nigerians that ever lived, once wrote an article in one of the national dailies and alleged that some millions of naira had been deposited in a bank in England and that it was yielding interest for the person who stole the money. Of course people didn’t like the story, the students union of Ibadan university converged in Lagos and wanted to destroy the NNPC building, the president then intervened and told them to go back that he would inquire into the allegation, they set up a committee to look into it, I was invited by the government to be government’s lawyer. Of course, I was very active and successful as a lawyer and in the course of the investigation, I got a subpoena on President Obasanjo, he was not yet there as the president, he just retired as a leader in the military government, came to give evidence and at the end of the day, it was found that there was no money at all, no money was stolen and no money was deposited in the bank. What is interesting in it is that President Obasanjo at that time was unknown to me, I knew him the first time at that place, he was interested in the way I handled the matter and thereafter he wrote a book, “My Command” and he was sued. He then invited me to be his lawyer. You can see how things work. That was how a man against whom I had a case when I wanted to contest a Constituent Assembly at that time, we won but didn’t allow me to go on, the people who were interested in the same position petitioned him, that was how I became his lawyer and handled several cases, including presidential cases against Buhari against him and I won everything and we became friends. Many other presidents invited me for different positions, for example, I remember I was in my house, usually, I go for a break between the hours of 3pm and 6pm and have a short sleep, so my wife came to knock the door at about 6pm that there was a call from Dodan barracks, so I said to her but I told you not to wake me up no matter who called me and she said this is important, the caller is Abacha. I woke up reluctantly, took the telephone, he knew me as a lawyer for soldiers who were put in court-martial, so he asked, did you hear that I have taken over? I answered yes sir. He then said I want you to be my Attorney General and I said yes sir. ‘Now, I want to see you in Dodan barracks tomorrow at 9am.’ So, the next morning before I dressed up about six vehicles had come from Lagos with soldiers, they said they came to pick me up, so I told them I won’t like to go in their vehicle, I would drive my own car, it doesn’t matter whether I am in the front or at the back, they said ok and we went straight to Dodan barracks and I saw Abacha. He said ‘do you know the reason I have called you? I want you to take up the position of Attorney General’ and I said yes sir, let me go and tell my family. I left Dodan barracks, drove back to Ibadan, because as at that time I was driving myself, I didn’t allow any driver to drive me. I got home, I told my people and my mother said ‘you want to be Minister for soldiers?’ I said even myself I didn’t want such a position and that I told him I was going to consult my family and I phoned him, I said sorry sir, my family is objecting to my taking up the position of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, that was how I turned that one down. When Obasanjo participated in the election after the exit of the military, he was told by a number of people because we won the cases at all levels, including Appeal and Supreme Courts, he offered me the same position as the Attorney General of the country, in that case, he invited me to Abuja, for an executive council meeting with executive members, he discussed with me and I told him sorry, I do not want to take the position of Attorney General. So, it is not correct that I have not been having offers but I have always turned them down. The only one I considered was the position of the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos. That was after I turned down the position of Attorney General offered by President Obasanjo, at that time I was the chairman of Transparency International (TI). There were lots of corruption and problems facing the University of Lagos, virtually everything was down. The news was all over, so I was invited whether I would want to be Pro-Chancellor. I liked that because one, it is not a permanent position where you have day-to-day work as a Minister. As a Pro-Chancellor you may not attend a meeting even in a month or so. I saw it as an opportunity to reform education in the country. I hope you know that I never attended any university or college, my education stopped in standard six, but at that time in primary school, we had quality education indeed. It was that quality education that enabled me to study at home for my GCE, B.Sc., Economics, London University, LLB (Honours), London University.
I noticed that the quality of education in this country was dropping day by day. I thought I could be able to reform education and bring back the old glory, I agreed on the condition that I would not collect the salaries or allowances for a Pro-Chancellor and President Obasanjo agreed and I took over and saw with my naked eyes problems affecting public universities. We saw the problem of corruption, we removed the vice-chancellor, and we were able to settle all the different factions and within four years the Nigeria Universities Commission (NUC) voted me as the best Pro-Chancellor in the country, I was awarded twice as a matter of fact and the University was rated number one in the country owing to the number of changes the University witnessed. I was able to bring in my clients: Julius Berger, Shell, Mobil, with several banks and so on to carry out repairs, in fact Julius Berger tarred all the roads in the University of Lagos for free and also put up a new engineering outfit, equipped it for the university, others put up new hostels, postgraduate buildings, it became a beautiful place and I also put up my own building there. Like I said, all the money given to me was voted for scholarships.
When Abacha offered you a ministerial appointment, that was in the heat of a serious crisis in the country then. I was actually hoping to hear you say you turned down the offer probably because of agitations by the Yoruba over the annulment of Abiola’s election; did that at all have any influence on your decision?
Well, like you rightly said there were problems then. I was the lawyer to MKO Abiola. It was because of my victory in the case between him, Ashipa of Oyo and others that led to my becoming the Aare of Yoruba land.
But to me, that was not important, what was important was do I want to serve a military government? Am I such a person that will take orders like a military boy? Like I told you, I grew up in the farm, in the days when there was no electricity, roads were not tarred, the house in which I was born was covered with thatch roofs, there were no windows, only one entry and when we were going to the farm we used mat to cover the entrance, no doors. There was nothing that was important to me than integrity. We were contented as a people at that time; contentment and integrity were greater virtues than money to us. There was a British parliamentarian who travelled across Africa who said I have gone through the length and breath of Africa, I have not seen a single poor man, they are contended people. If we didn’t wear shoes, it didn’t matter to anybody, we slept on the mat, it didn’t matter to us and the man said if you want to conquer these people, you have to let them feel that their own culture is inferior to our own culture, but as long as they are this proud of their culture and system, no matter the number of guns it can never conquer them. So, the first thing the white man did following that important statement was that they told us that our own religion was inferior to their own religion. The Ifa was inferior to the Bible and so on, gradually, they made us to believe that the western culture was better than ours and we became enslaved, that was how we believed that we were inferior to the white man and we began to change our names to the names of the white men and that was how we were subdued. I am very proud of the fact that I was poor, that I can work and conquer poverty, that is the only pride I have in me, I don’t want to be a minister and carry papers for anybody. On the contrary, I want people to carry files for me. Now, when the federal appointment came from former President Obasanjo, all my lawyers were very happy that it was an opportunity for us to make more money, then I said no and the president said if you are not taking it then give us one of your lawyers and I gave him the names of one of my lawyers (Akin Olujimi) as a substitute for me. I do not know how many of you will be offered ministerial appointment that will not take it.
You told us that the only attempt you have ever made in politics was to contest for Constituent Assembly, was it a deliberate policy not to get involved in politics because a lawyer of your standing is required in the House for example to make laws, but we haven’t seen you featured in politics or taken active participation, which year did you contest the position?
This was when President Obasanjo constituted a committee to look into the constitution around 1977. I had established a very solid legal practice in Ibadan and the president wanted people to be chosen on zero party, in other words, not on party system, that is, somebody who is acceptable to his community because of his contributions and character. The Ewi of Ado-Ekiti sent to me, I didn’t ask for it, that government wanted us to choose somebody; one, who is from Ado-Ekiti to represent in the Constituent Assembly, that was how they chose me. They saw me as a man who didn’t belong to any party. He sent four chiefs to me at Ibadan that I should represent them in the Constituent Assembly and I told Kabiyesi that I didn’t want to spend my money on politics unless all of them agree 100 percent and they went back home. They agreed that nobody would contest against me. Even in zero party, it means there were five people who will contest, so, Ewi wanted me to go but there were some people, politicians who were not happy with the selection of a man, like Afe Babalola who had never done politics, then they wrote a letter to Obasanjo and alleged that I had not paid my tax, therefore he should drop me. We opened newspapers; we were at Ado that morning and saw “Afe Babalola disqualified “. This is the mess I do not want in my life, I challenged it because of my name. I went to court against those people, against Obasanjo’s government. Justice Aguda sitting at that time at the High Court in Akure heard the case and I showed that every year before the end of the year, we had an accountant, before he audits, we pay certain amount of money representing our tax pending the time the accountant would finish. If the tax was less we got a return, if not we paid little more and we were given the certificates that were presented before Justice Aguda and he ruled that I had paid my due tax, so I won the case and that judgment was sent to President Obasanjo then. That was to me a blessing in disguise. I never bothered. God didn’t want me to participate in politics, that is why I never tried to participate in politics. I exercise my right, I vote for the party of my choice.
There are issues dominating discussions across the country today; there are fears about water resources bill, as a lawyer I know you have your opinions on that, there are discussions about restructuring, and coming to the issue of 2023, there have been talks between the north and the south on who should have it, zoning or rotation, can you tell us and Nigerians what your thoughts are on these issues?
I wrote a book titled “The elusive search for nation Nigeria.” It was launched and we are going to re-launch it. Here, what I did was to trace the history of the country called Nigeria to date and the problems affecting us. One, the country Nigeria is a country of nations, over two hundred nations. It was in Berlin when the white men saw us as animals, sat down with the geography of Africa and partitioned the country among themselves, each time I remember that I always cry. There was no regard for different nations; for example, Yoruba extend beyond the boundary of Nigeria towards Dahomey, which is now Benin Republic and Togo, you get there you see Yorubas, I have been there myself. As Aare of Yoruba empire, my empire extends beyond Nigeria today. Nigeria was carved out without the knowledge or consent of the inhabitants. After all, 500 years before then, we were capturing our own people and selling them to them to be carried away as slaves to West Indies where their mouths were padlocked so that they won’t taste even sugarcane. I asked myself, is there something wrong with the people in Africa called black people? We have the same blood with the white people but is there something wrong with our blood? After 1884 to date, some things happened for the benefit of Nigerians; people like Awolowo, Zik and others who had to read the way I read thought Nigeria could be changed, they agitated and some of them were imprisoned and eventually the white men through religious belief allowed us to be independent and they drafted a constitution which recognised the diversity in culture, thinking and in the way you do things and agreed on a constitution which was a federal constitution with each region autonomous only at the end of the day some parts retained for the federal government, such as railway line, airport and so on and we saw the far development that took place in Yoruba land, coming first in everything. For example, Awolowo paid 55 percent of the revenue on education knowing the importance of education, people saw themselves as Nigerians then , unfortunately the military came in 1966, jettisoned the constitution and ruled by decrees, when they were going away in 1999 they did not return us to the constitution which they suspended and then they brought their own constitution and presented it as constitution made by Nigerians, that was a lie, even right from the face of it, it was a lie. Actually the constitution they made was done in such a way that it will allow the military to perpetuate themselves in power and that is why you find all the time those who are in the military were coming back in one form or the other, we have never had good government ever since. So, Nigeria is a country with many nations, everybody going its way. Yoruba, which was in front then has become the poorest.
What is the way out?
The only way out is not an amendment to the flawed constitution but a new people’s constitution through a sovereign national conference, the politicians who are in government, in the National Assembly and so who are benefiting from the flawed constitution can never make any good and proper constitution for this country and no amendment can ever do so. In 1965, we had House of Assembly and the Senate, nobody earned salaries then, what they earned was sitting allowances. Look at the House of Assembly, Senate now, hardly will you find 50 people there in a day and they earn salaries, they even talked about pension , so there is no way you can amend the constitution, they will make sure that they remain earning this billions of naira. We are the only country where people earn billions. So, in respect of the constitution, my position is, we should call a sovereign national conference, the meaning of that is that whatever they decide will not be subject to amendments by these people. I have participated in many conferences and at the end of the day what comes out of it, they want to spend another N2 billion for amendment, what are you amending? Look, if you have a house, a bungalow made of mud and you want to amend it and make a three-storey building, what happens? Calamity. This is an analogy of what is happening in the country. There is no way you can amend a constitution and make it a people’s constitution, they will never pass a law which will allow them to take only allowances anymore, to even jettison the number of Houses we have they will never pass that law. People are hungry for a sovereign national conference and they will vote certainly for a constitution that will change the constitution, not amending it. We need a new and total change in the constitution, representing the people’s constitution, with true federalism, or alternatively, let us return to the 1966 constitution with just few amendments. Without that, we may never have a Nigeria nation. We are getting farther, farther away from being a Nigeria nation now.
What about 2023?
I have said it severally in my articles and I am saying it again, we should not have the 2023 election until we have changed the constitution to people’s constitution, until we have sovereign national conference, because the way they are going the same people repeat themselves, they will be there again. We are going to change the voting pattern; these people can’t change the voting pattern. It is a matter for the new constitution, so, my appeal is in the interest of the suffering masses, and we should change the constitution through sovereign national conference, which represents the constitution of the people. If today, the government is interested in what most people and I are saying, they can set up a committee for this and we can complete this before 2023 if we are serious.
How independent is the Nigerian judiciary today?
I have written several articles on that, how DSS invaded the house of a Supreme Court judge at 12 in the night, which was illegal, I wrote a big article on it. First, they have no right to even arrest. DSS is set up mainly to investigate and pass their results to the government; they are not police but then are used by those in power to do what is illegal. If you know that when you give judgment against government and in the night you are going to be arrested, what do you do? That also followed the case of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, look at how he was removed by ordinary tribunal, which has no authority to do so. So many things have happened that sometimes I regret that I ventured into law. I came into this country when more than half of the judges were white men, there were white lawyers, white judges and we practiced together, there was high respect for judges, judges didn’t go to parties where they danced, they were respected as replica of God on earth but today everything has changed. Lawyers were highly respected, there was no lawyer without a car but today lawyers ride on bicycle to court. What is happening in the country, the wretchedness, and poverty also affects lawyers and judges; do you know there are judges who are not paid their allowances for months?
How independent can a man be when he is hungry, when he wants to pay for the school fees of his child? But above all, Nigerian judges are the most poorly paid in the whole world. I remember that I was invited to the bench by the chief judge of western region then and I told him it is my wish to become a judge, because a good lawyer will love to end up being a judge, he would have acquired all the wealth he needed, he doesn’t want to steal anybody’s money, but when a judge cannot pay the school fees of his child, what happens? How many judges can send their child to Afe Babalola University? They are poorly paid, so, the judiciary is not independent as far as I am concerned.