TML Interview Series (Vol. 5): “I Would Encourage Activists To Come Into Government”- Obono Obla

Chief Okoi Ofem Obono-Obla is a man of many parts- legal practitioner, traditional head, social and political crusader, human rights activist, to mention a few. He holds a number of positions in the present administration such as the Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution; Member, National Prosecution Coordinating Committee; Member, Constitutional and Electoral Reform Committee; Secretary, Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee; and Non-Executive Commissioner (South-South) of the Nigeria Communications Commission. He is also the Obol Kepon and village head of Letankpankom, in Ijiman town, Ugep of Cross River State. He has been an ardent voice of the opposition in Yakurr and Cross River State, calling past and present governments to be accountable.

He has in his kitty many success stories of his many rigorous law suits against governments, most of which have been in his favour, believing that the court is always the final arbiter.

Chief Okoi Obono-Obla is an alumnus of Mary Knoll College Ogoja, and the University of Jos, where he bagged a degree in Law and qualified to practice as a lawyer at the Nigeria Law School, Lagos. Chief Okoi Obono-Obla has held a number of public offices before in both Cross River State and at the Federal level. In Cross River State, he had resigned from an appointment based on his integrity and ardent belief in good governance and accountability, which went contrary to the stand and practices of the government at the time.

He spoke to The Metro Lawyer on a number of issues and as usual it is a no holds barred unedited interview. It is a must read.

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As the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution and also a Member of the Prosecution Coordinating Committee, What successes have you recorded since the anti-corruption war started?

We have recorded a number of successes. When the President broadcast to the nation he told Nigerians about the huge amount of money recovered from those who looted the economy. The money is running into trillions both in local and international currencies. So that is a success in itself. I have always said anti corruption is not only about sending people to prison, but it is also about blocking the loopholes and leakages in the system, that gave people easy access to government funds. We introduced the Treasury Single Account, TSA. Before now, we never knew how many accounts the ministries and government parastatals were running in the various commercial banks in the country, but with TSA now, we do and nobody can access those accounts indiscriminately because the accounts are with the Central Bank. That to me is another success that this government has recorded in the anti corruption fight.

As we speak, a lot more recoveries are being made running into billions of naira. Apart from money, we also have lots of properties that the suspects have voluntarily surrendered to government. An Air Force General was recently indicted and he admitted to having about fifteen properties of which he said he is ready to surrender ten of them. There are others like that who are also willing to surrender their ill gotten properties. They do this in order to have a soft landing because nobody wants to go to prison. So we are encouraging that.

So when they voluntarily surrender these money and properties, are they automatically free from prosecution? Would the charges against them be dropped?

No we will not drop the charges against them. The fact that you made returns does not mean that charges against you will be dropped. You will still face the law.

What have been the challenges?

It is really not easy to get money back that has been taken to other jurisdictions. Before the Nigerian government can get the money back they have to spend money also; in engaging lawyers and professionals who are skilled in those kind of recoveries. Most especially because the laws in those countries like banking laws, etc. are different from our laws. Another challenge is that some of the countries were our money is taken to, are countries which we do not have legal treaties with. So our government will be compelled to start discussions with such countries, leading to signing treaties with the countries in order to start the process of repatriating these monies. That was what the President did when he went to the UAE sometime ago, and the agreements reached there helped us to get access to the loot corruptly taken to Dubai and other UAE states. So these processes are expensive, excruciating, time consuming and challenging.

Sometimes, to get the money, there are conditions attached to it. Recently, we had an agreement with Switzerland where we had to prove that the money we recovered from that country will be used judiciously. We had to nominate the World Bank to oversee the process of using the money for social infrastructure, agriculture, etc, just to satisfy the condition to recover our looted money.

You’ve always been known to be an activist, a champion of the downtrodden and oppressed in the society, earning you the popular nickname “Okoi Advocate” among your peers. Do we still expect you to continue to advocate for the people now that you hold Executive position in government?

I cannot be an activist in government. One cannot be too outspoken in government in order not to get the government into trouble. As an Adviser to the President, anything I say can easily be said to come straight from the president’s lips. For instance, I had a small word battle with Senator Florence Ita Giwa, in my personal capacity and a number of people wrongly attributed it to be the opinion of government. It is a whole different ball game on this side. But I think my activism background has helped me a lot in the kind of work I am doing in government. I am a lot more proactive in my job and I take a lot of initiative. This is a trait you will not easily find in some civil servants.

So would you encourage or advise activists to aim for public office?

Oh yes! They have to. Activists are social critics. We want justice, transparency, accountability, and respect of human rights, the rule of law, and a country where everybody is entitled to social and economic justice. So if the activists are fighting for justice, they have to come into government to see that that is achieved. That is the main reason why I came into government after being an activist for so many years. I would encourage activists to come into government with their zeal and enthusiasm to help the government bring about the change that we all have been clamouring for. Activists are very intelligent and proactive and will be an asset to any government. Nigeria’s politics has been dominated by what I call “careerist politicians”. I do not consider myself a politician but a professional in politics. A professional in politics or a technocrat behaves differently; we come with a lot of integrity, which we would not want to soil, as we would have to return to our profession after the stint in politics. So I would encourage our professionals to come into politics so that they do not leave the government in the hands of thugs, who will mess up the whole system.

The President accused the Judiciary of posing a cog in the wheel in the fight against corruption. What do you make of this being your primary constituency and what is your advice?

We are actually facing a lot of challenges from the judiciary. The Nigerian society has suffered a lot of dislocations and this has greatly affected the Judiciary because the Judiciary does not operate in a vacuum. If you have a rotten system, you will not expect to have Judges who will be as clean as a whistle. The challenges we have in the Judiciary are not attributable to Judges alone but also to lawyers, senior lawyers, Learned Silks whose behaviour and attitudes have rubbished the justice system and impacted the Judges negatively. If you have a good Bar you will have a good Bench too. I’m not indicting all but some who are supposed to be exemplary are not acting as such. They cause delays in criminal matters, intimidate young judges and influence them negatively. For instance, there has not been a single conviction for all the corruption cases we have filed since last year because the lawyers are determined that those cases should not come to an end. They come up with all sorts of legal maneuvers and in such cases, the Judges should also take the blame. For instance, if you look at section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act which says there shall be no stay of proceedings if you are appealing against an Interlocutory Ruling, you can pursue it to the Court of Appeal and even to the Supreme Court, but you cannot use that Interlocutory Ruling or appeal to cause a delay in the hearing of a matter. But despite that clear provision in section 306, you still find Lawyers trying to wriggle their way around it by bringing applications for stay. Sometimes, some of the Judges are not firm to stop them from taking advantage of the system. It is to that extent the President made those insinuations and I agree with him. Corruption is not all about collecting money. If you are a Judge and you are not knowledgeable about the law and you are not firm, and you allow senior Lawyers to come and take advantage of you, then you are a corrupt Judge.

My advice is that our Judges should be forthright, our Judges should be courageous, and they should be firm and not indulge Lawyers, especially the senior ones. Their jobs as Judges is very prestigious and I used to say they are next to God because of the finality of their ruling, except there is an appeal. So they should be decisive in their judgments and not allow Lawyers to take advantage of them. This also boils down to their mode of appointment. I think we should have the process of appointment of Judges revised or changed so that we will appoint Judges that will not exhibit these cowardly and timid tendencies that we see in some Judges.

There has been accusations and counter accusations concerning alleged criminal activities, popularly called “Budget Padding” within the leadership of the National Assembly, a cross section of Nigerians are calling for the intervention of the Executive to probe and prosecute. What is your office doing?

Well, we are prosecutors here and not investigators. So for now anybody who has a complaint about a crime must first go to the Police, the EFCC or the ICPC. If a prima facie case is established against them after their investigation, then our work will be to charge them to court and we will do that. For now, any comment I will make on that issue will be premature because no report has been sent to us by the ICPC, EFCC or the Police. But if they do, we will surely prosecute. The essence of the Criminal Law process is deterrence so if legislators are convicted, then the so-called budget padding will stop. We are waiting for the outcome of the investigations with keen interest.

As one of the very vocal activists from Cross River State, we know that you spoke against the Super Highway proposed by the Governor Ben Ayade administration, siting environmental concerns, ecosystem disruption etc, Yet that was one of the very first projects that President Buhari identified with and you were on his entourage for the ground breaking ceremony. What is your present take on the project now that nothing seems to be happening in that regard, amid rumours of illegal logging on site?

 Yes when the president went to Cross River State on the 26th of October 2015, I was on his entourage. The impression given before the President travelled to the state was that all the issues concerning that project had been dealt with; that the concerns had been addressed. What were these concerns? That the road will cut through a national heritage known as the Cross River State National Park. We have about seven national parks in Nigeria and those parks are essentially to preserve the natural ecology of the areas and also help in the Eco-balance of that environment. Ecologists and environmentalist will tell you the great role that those national parks play. That particular one is close to the boundary between Nigeria and Cameroon so it is helping Nigeria’s ecosystem as well as Cameroon’s. The impression was that the Cross River State government had done the Environmental Impact Assessment Survey. There is a law that states that if you want to carry out any activity, industrial or otherwise that will impact on an environment then investigations have to be done and a report made that shows that the project will not be adverse to that environment. The impression given to the President was that all that had been done before the President went ground breaking of that project. He invited me along and I went with him. The project is laudable because it will open up the country from the south right up to the northern part of the country. We are not saying that the road should not pass through that place but they have not done the Environmental Impact Assessment Survey and that is why the international community and local environmentalists are crying for those issues to be addressed.

The Federal Government has through the Federal Ministry of Environment asked the Cross River State government to address these issues but they have failed to do so. There are insinuations that that project is just initiated to carry out logging in that area for export, otherwise I have not seen any difficulty with the CRS government addressing those concerns.

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There has been insinuations in some quarters that foreign Lawyers have been imported into the country to help prosecute high profile cases especially of money laundering. Can you clear the air about these? Is it true? 

Foreign Lawyers? Not to my knowledge. There is the National Prosecution Coordinating Committee of which I am a member. That committee was set up to compliment the work of the Department of Public Prosecutions of the Federation (DPPF), which is an arm of the Federal Ministry of Justice and to the best of my knowledge, no foreigner is in that committee. The committee prosecutes high profile cases comprising terrorism, corruption, economic and financial crimes, etc. Moreover, in Nigerian law before a foreigner can practice law here, he must be called to the Nigerian Bar or he must have a warrant issued by the Attorney General of the Federation. To the best of my knowledge, there is no foreign lawyer practicing in Nigeria who has not met those conditions. It is not allowed. Remember that even the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo then wanted to bring a lawyer from the UK when he was being tried for treason about 50 years ago but the Supreme Court disallowed it on the same ground.

The social media has recently been agog with news that you have been sacked as SSA to the President on Prosecutions following your most recent appointment and that you have fallen out with the Attorney General of the Federation. Is this true?

It is laughable and a mere fabrication. Here I am still in my office. You know I have been an activist and advocate for transparency, accountability and fought against corruption for so many years. I have stepped on a lot of toes and those people will find any opportunity to fabricate stories about me. You can testify that you met me here in my office at the Federal Ministry of Justice as Adviser to the President on Prosecution.

You know out of ignorance and a misconception by them, they saw my new appointment as Non-Executive Commissioner, at the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, representing the South-South which of-course is a part time job, as an end of this other appointment. The President was not mistaken when he gave me that appointment in NCC because it is a part-time job; I am not an Executive Commissioner.

As for the AGF, we go back a long way; I ran his law firm in Abuja as managing associates from 2012 to 2015. We were also colleagues in the National Executive Committee of the defunct Congress for Progressives Change where I was the pioneer National Legal Adviser. He took over from me as the National Legal Adviser of that party in January 2011 and I became the Deputy National Secretary of the CPC. We have also worked closely together in the CPC Merger Committee that negotiated the formation of the APC. We have come a long way and we have a good inter personal relationship, so the allegation is spurious and a figment of imagination of detractors.

You have been in the forefront of selling the government’s policy thrusts in your outings in the mainstream and social media, what can you say to the poor Nigerians out there who are groaning under the hardships they are facing in this administration?

The country was seriously run down before we took over. Without sounding sycophantic, and do not think it is because I am working with him, but I think the President has really tried in managing the economy, considering the mess we met here.

Venezuela which is a smaller country than ours, was one of the largest exporters of crude oil and far richer than Nigeria. Right now, in Venezuela people are so hungry, they are looting shops in broad daylight. The country is completely crumbled but here we are. Civil servants, who are employees of the government are still collecting their salaries; government is meeting her obligations in so many areas, it might not be all at the moment. People are not looting shops, like elsewhere or like in Brazil, where citizens are robbing tourists in broad day light, in the streets. The President has put in place measures to diversify the economy, which was not diversified before now since oil was discovered. Between 2008 and 2015, the money that this country earned from oil revenue is more than what this country earned from 1914 to 2007; where is that money? It was looted without impunity. As I am talking to you, my state capital, Calabar is in a lockdown. You cannot go to Aba in Abia State or Uyo in Akwa Ibom comfortably. People now spend about seven hours traveling from Calabar to Ugep, my community, a distance of 96 kilometers which hitherto took roughly one hour or a little more. For 16 years that road was not done and it would not be right to blame the present government that has been in office for just about a year for these things. This hardship is understandable because we refused to do the proper thing at the time and we are suffering the consequences now.

In any case, the President Buhari government is working very hard towards finding solutions to the economic challenges which many Nigerians are facing. When this government says the country was looted and left bare, people misconstrue it and read political meanings to it. Look at the media and see the figures reported to have been looted by single individuals, some found in banks both within and abroad, some recovered from private homes and some returned, mind-boggling amounts!

This administration is taking diversification very seriously by going into agriculture, solid minerals among others. These will start yielding benefit at least from next year, so for now we have to endure. This is the price we have to pay for being irresponsible and reckless, because if we had called the previous government to order, this would not have been our lot. Apart from oil, we do not have any other serious exports, with all the vast arable land abound in the country. We import everything, even up to toothpicks in to Nigeria and these things strain our foreign reserves.

We have to pay this price that was also paid by the rich countries of today to get to where they are now, like Japan and Europe after the Second World War, or Singapore, Malaysia.

So let us go through this in order to get to the desired place in the next one or two years, because this government is responsible and accountable.

My advice again is that people should go into farming. I have told a number of young graduates who are not professionals or creative people that they should go into farming, mining and so on. The problem is that they always want the easy way out. Most people are waiting for government jobs; they want to live in the cities and enjoy oil money, but the oil money is no more!

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You did mention the Katsina Ala-Ogoja-Ikom-Calabar, Calabar-Odukpani-Uyo roads that had not been repaired in 16 years, but we had legislators who are even in government today who were not proactive in fighting for those roads to be done. What do you have to say about that?

I carried out some investigations concerning that road and I can tell you that the contracts for those roads were awarded in 2014 and the contractors collected funds from the government but nothing was done. We have not been asking questions but we turn around to blame everything on government. We as responsible citizens should always try and ensure that people and government do the right thing and that our leaders should be held accountable for their stewardship. We have not been doing so in times past and we are suffering the consequences now.

From my investigations I realized that contracts were awarded for various roads in Cross River State and contractors collected billions of naira without doing anything. I used the provision of Freedom of Information to request the contract documents for that road at the Federal Ministry of Works and I was obliged with all the documents to prove this.

I have lodged a complaint with the EFCC on these issues though I have not got a response from them yet. If all Nigerians are this proactive, I don’t think things would have been this bad.

There have been a lot of calls by the government for the general public to report corrupt practices, what plans does the government have to protect the whistle blowers?

Good question. We had a case here about an Activist Lawyer from Akwa Ibom State, who petitioned the former Governor of the state but surprisingly, the former EFCC Chairman, Mr. Ibrahim Lamorde turned him into a suspect. He was arrested and charged to court. When we came into office, the Activist through his Lawyers wrote a petition to the Attorney General of the Federation challenging his arrest. The AGF had to invoke his powers under section 173 of the Constitution, which says he can withdraw any matter filed against anybody in any court of law in Nigeria in respect of an offence created by an Act of the National Assembly. So he invoked his powers and withdrew the charge. We are working in the law that will give protection to whistleblowers. It is part of the institutional reforms that we are carrying out in the justice sector. That law should protect and even compensate whistle blowers.

As a Non-Executive Commissioner at the NCC, what will do your agenda be in respect of consumer rights, subscriber protection etc?

 I have been an Activist Lawyer, as you well know. In 2010, I engaged the NCC because I discovered that the service providers were providing very poor services. I subscribed to an Internet based platform on one of the networks and I spent almost N100, 000 without getting any value for my money. I now wrote to the NCC as a regulator of these networks and was told to give them three weeks in which to call me to resolve the issue. I waited for three months without being contacted so I took NCC to court. I won the case when the judgement was given in November last year. That is just to show you my engagement with NCC. So with this new appointment I will ensure that they live up to the commissioned mandate as a regulator of the networks, that they adhere to the protection of Nigerians from poor services, as I have been a victim of such.

Do you subscribe to the reduction of the fine that was earlier imposed by the NCC on MTN, seeing that the country needs all the money it can get at this time?

There was a case filed by MTN against the AGF and NCC and while the case was going on, they reached out to us that the matter should be settled out of court. They withdrew the matter from court and I think there is nothing wrong with that at all. That means they have accepted liability, so the matter was withdrawn and negotiations were made. In negotiations, there is always a give and take. It was better the amount was reduced in order for them to pay speedily than to embark on a long drawn out case in court, that could take twenty years from the High court to the Supreme Court. I am saying this from personal experience and I know a lot of Lawyers can testify to that.

In fact that is one of the reforms we are working on in the justice sector to ensure that cases are dealt with expeditiously because that is one of the reasons why investors are afraid to come into the country. If investors come in with their money and for any reason they get entangled in a commercial dispute, and the matter goes to court, they could have their money tied down for ten to fifteen years. We do not want that in this administration.

What is your opinion of the recently concluded Nigerian Bar Association elections, its e-voting process, the protests by participants and lawyers, and the Gadzama camp that has challenged the outcome?

Well maybe if we make our elections more credible, transparent, free and fair, we will not have people being displeased about our elections. There were a lot of loopholes in the e-voting process and I think that may be because it is the first time they are embarking on such. I couldn’t vote! My wife, who is also a lawyer, could not vote. I have my practicing license and my stamp and seal; my bar practicing fees are up to date so also my Unity Bar fees. The same with my wife but we could not find our names on the list for accreditation. I hear so many lawyers had the same issue. If we want to use e-voting, I think the system must be perfected to some extent before being deployed, so I think Gadzama could have a point for contesting that election.

You are Senior Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution, Federal Ministry of Justice; Secretary of the Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee; Member National Prosecution Coordinating Committee; Member Constitutional and Electoral Reform Committee; and very recently non executive commissioner (South-South) of the Nigerian Communications Commission; how do you juggle all these very tasking responsibilities and still find time for family and relaxation?

I have been a practicing lawyer for 26 years. I am used to working hard. I am also a very hyperactive person. I read a lot, I dabble a little on social media in my spare time and I play a lot with my kids, which relaxes me.

At this level, however, I have aides who help in a lot of ways. Most of what I do is supervisory and managerial. As you know, lawyers are very hard working and industrious, we multi-task a lot too. So I take all my responsibilities in stride and try as much as possible to discharge them to the best of my ability.

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