How Religion and Tribalism Tie Down Nigeria’s Development

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Onyekachi Ubani, outgoing chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Ikeja Branch, had an exclusive interview with Anayo Ezugwu, Realnews reporter, during which he spoke on some burning national issues including the state of insecurity in Nigeria, Boko Haram insurgency, national conference, corruption and how religion and tribalism influence politics in Nigeria. Excerpts:

Realnews: What motivated you to choose law as a profession?
Ubani: Funny enough, it wasn’t law that was the first course that I choose to study. I choose political science, because I love politics and I love the flamboyance of politicians. So, I chose political science and I was admitted to study political science in 1983 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. When I entered the university, the Shehu Shagari administration was overthrown by the military. Then Muhammadu Buhari came in and there was a high level of unemployment and people were no longer being employed in the civil service. Graduates who were being turned out by the universities were roaming the streets without jobs.

So I said I don’t want a situation whereby once I graduate, I start looking for a job. Secondly, I discovered that the law profession makes you very visible and also the voice of the oppressed. So, I wanted something that would give me the voice to speak on their behalf and that has always been my desire. But because of the issue of cut off point in law faculty, I chose another flamboyant course that I felt I would excel in and that was political science. So, I said why don’t I damn the consequence and go into law, that was how I changed from political science to law. Meanwhile, I had spent two years in the university reading political science. I moved over to law and started from year one again in 1985, instead of graduating in 1987, I graduated in 1989 having lost two years to political science. So that is actually how I studied law and it is also the issue of desire to speak on behalf of the oppressed.

UbaniRealnews: We understand that you are not seeking re-election as the branch chairman, why is it so?
Ubani: Yes, in Nigeria people think that the number of years you spend in office is concomitant to the level of your achievement; that you cannot achieve anything unless you spend so many years in office, no. The most important aspect of public service is for you to know why you want to serve, and what you set out to achieve, and prioritise it. Then, give yourself a timeline that within this time, I should be able to achieve this. Almost everything I set out to do was achieved within one year. The only thing that is outstanding is the issue of the branch secretariat. And why the building was delayed was because of the issue of getting approved plan. It was the issue of approved plan; there was no approved plan before they started the building. So, I have to now start afresh, do a proper drawing, put in for approval, the process of assessment and then amount of money they gave to us to pay was so much that we had to appeal to the governor who then reduced it by 50 percent. It was all that process that delayed the starting of the building. I raised the money I should have used for the building in my first year. I got N18 million within my first year, from different persons for the building alone. I’m not talking about the running of the administration of the branch. Within two years, I bought two buses for the NBA; got a new generator, air conditioned the NBA secretariat and made it to be more visible. We made the library to be functional, equipped it with books, chairs and tables, and employed a librarian.

The greatest thing that I think I did that I’m returning all the glory to God that I achieved in the NBA, is making the bar to be united. I met a divided bar with many factions. When I came, I brought a new one on board and we now record attendance of an average of 500 lawyers every month in our meeting. But it used to be 100 or 150. It’s like a mini conference anytime you come to our monthly conference. The enthusiasm even in our election on May 5, you see the enthusiasm of people that came out to vote. People are interested to know what goes on in the bar. I rekindled the interest of bar activism that it is a professional thing. It is not a tribal or political party thing. I united everyone and made sure that I used everyone I considered useful irrespective of which ever camp you think you belong. I took the bar to another level. I created visibility for NBA, Ikeja. To cap it all, I conducted a free rancour and credible election. People that witnessed it saw it as being very free. There was no manipulation.

Realnews: What you are saying is that you deliberately decided not to go for a second term because you want to set a standard?
Ubani: Firstly, in our by-law there is no provision for a second term.  Secondly, I as a person wouldn’t have it because in my practice within these two years, I wake up every morning and  don’t do anything else except NBA activities; every person wants you to be in one programme or the other and you don’t have time for yourself and even for your family. So, there is no way I would have loved to go for a second term. These two years is the maximum term I can give to the NBA and I have sacrificed it. I came to serve; my brother when you are there to serve and you have delivered; you wouldn’t talk of a second term.

Realnews: We have been following you even on the radio and you are very emphatic about why people should not be tribalistic; you are passionate about it, we want to know why?
Ubani: Yes, two things have kept us down, religion and tribalism. I suffered tribalism even in the NBA. They said I will start Biafran war if I took over. Somebody, sat down and circulated it as a leaflet that if this man is allowed to lead the association, he will start Biafran war in NBA Ikeja, to the extent that I have to reply with: ‘who is afraid of Ubani?’ People almost bought the sentiments; they even went to Mrs Femi Falana to say don’t allow a stranger to occupy the throne. A Nigerian is being called a stranger! Meanwhile, I have been in Ikeja branch all my life. I have been in Ikeja branch since I started practicing more than twenty something years ago. I have been participating and contributing my money for the upkeep of the branch; so, how do I suddenly became a stranger just because I wanted to contest an election? So, it is good to collect my money? The branch made me the chairman of the law week for 2009 and 2010. All of a sudden, I wanted to contest for an election; I started hearing that he is from the East; he should go back to the East. So, this is what is dividing us today. And it is the political elite that are using it against us. When they go and share the money in Abuja, they don’t look at whether you are an Igbo or Hausa man but when they lose out, you hear them shouting because I’m an Hausa or Yoruba man. Then those of us below will now cry more than the grieved and start fighting their war and start killing ourselves. When they will reconcile, we wouldn’t be aware. It is just ignorance. The moment we forget about all those useless sentiments and become mature, the country will move forward.

UbaniRealnews: What kind of reform would you like to see in the judiciary?
Ubani: There are so many things we want in the judiciary. You know that the issue of delay in trial and justice is a bane and we have not made any improvement. The issue of development of infrastructure is still there. Most times you will be in court and the light goes off; there is one particular court a friend mentioned to me that anytime it is raining, the rain will be dripping on the litigants and even the judge or magistrate. These are worst with lower courts; the customary and magistrate courts, and the kind of building you see is not something commendable. So, the issue of basic infrastructure to make the court rooms to be very conducive for proper trial, is basic. If there are no light, good windows for proper ventilation and good lighting system. If there is light, air conditioned environment, put good sitting arrangement where our judges or magistrates would feel very comfortable to preside over a case.

This is a matter that has to do with somebody’s right and liabilities or even with life and death. So, you don’t joke with such an institution that deals with life and death, and that is the judiciary. Even the computerisation of the judiciary is still at the elementary stage, whereas it has gone far in developed economics. You don’t see any judge in developed countries writing anything with longhand; everything is computerised. There are so much improvement and you wonder whether we are in the 15th century because there is no intention to improve. We are not making any efforts; our leaders are so daft that you wonder whether they don’t see all these things aboard and import them in order to change the system under few hours. These things can be done; it is just the political will that is lacking.

Realnews: Is there any hope for the judiciary?
Ubani: There is hope if we are serious as a nation. This thing flows from the top; the day Nigeria gets the president that it deserves, you will see Nigeria working again. Even for that solid eight years the man would be in office, a lot of reforms will be carried out so that whoever that is coming after him will build on what the man has set as a standard. It is for us to get the man and we are getting the right men in some of the states. But we are yet to select that man that will have the political will to lead the people.

Realnews: Do you think the federal government is actually fighting terrorism in Nigeria?
Ubani: No, but it should be very clear to everyone that there are loopholes in the security system. There is inefficiency in this particular fight against the state of insecurity. If we have a problem, what I know intelligent people do to solve a problem is that they provide what they call short term and long term solutions. In the short term, this is what we are going to do and we must do it effectively and then give people respite by way of protection of lives and property because that is the primary responsibility of government. But even at the short term level, there is nothing. They budgeted billions of naira for buying of arms and ammunition, and making sure that the police and other security agents are well-armed for the sake of combating the insecurity. But they are not doing it. Corruption crops up again and the allocation doesn’t get to the roots. That is why people who are bearing the brunt because security agents are not giving the political leadership the correct information because the money budgeted for their operation doesn’t even get to them. There is a problem in their welfare. So, they can’t speak because if they do, they will be fired. Problems are on the ground because things are not happening the way they ought to. Even the short term is not the solution. In the long term solution, what brought about insecurity or how do nations that are developed combat insecurity in their country? Government should identify the causes of insecurity and solve them to forestall future occurrence.

UbaniRealnews: The state of emergency seems not to have yielded results, is there any need for its extension?
Ubani: Well, what I said before was that it is not a solution in the first place. Secondly, the way it was declared showed that it was a holistic state of emergency. You cannot allow a parallel institution to be running in a place you said you have declared a state of emergency.

Realnews: But President Jonathan argued that it’s the best thing to do?
Ubani: Is it working? These guys went and re-strategised. And within that period, there was no noise and killings; he thought he had succeeded but these guys went and re-strategised. Now, they are back in full force. Don’t you see how they bomb Nyanya? And they told President Jonathan that we are with you in Abuja. These guys have what we called cells all over the country. Why wouldn’t they bomb and kill people at will? We don’t even have any measure for stopping them. We don’t have cameras and our mode of intelligent gathering is zero.

Realnews: So, you don’t see any justification for the extension?
Ubani: Yes, because it has become political. The president is in a fix because the 2015 elections are by the corner. So, if he extends it, people will read political meaning into it and if he doesn’t, they will still read political meaning into it. So, he is in a quagmire. If you ask me, I will say the state of emergency has not been effective. So why would you extend something that is not effective?

Realnews: What is your assessment of the ongoing national conference?
Ubani: Are they still talking? I have not heard anything about them again. Well, those guys there cannot come out with any good thing that will change this country. You know why? The outcome of the conference is unknown even to the convener. He didn’t specify that after the discussion the outcome would subjected to a referendum or that he would take it to the national Assembly. He left it inchoate, leaving people who are at the conference in total confusion. And when you raise the pattern of the voting parameter to 70 percent, you now make it practically impossible for people to arrive at a conclusion. He peopled that conference with an extremely large percentage of conservatives. People who don’t want any restructuring of Nigeria; who don’t want Nigeria to improve. They are benefiting from the way Nigeria is structured. So, nothing concrete will come out of that conference. But that conference presents the last opportunity to resolve Nigeria’s intractable problems on a roundtable discussion. Any other resolution would be by bullets.

— May 26, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT

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