Mallam Yusuf Olaolu Ali (SAN) is a notable lawyer and prolific legal analyst with post-call experience spanning about three decades. He was conferred with Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1997. In this interview with WALE IGBINTADE, he speaks on the just -concluded general elections and the task before election tribunals, the role of anti-graft agencies, among others. Excerpts.
As one of the observers of the just-concluded 2015 general election, how will you assess the exercise?
Well, let me talk as an electorate and as an observer at the election. I was an observer on the platform of the Nigerian Bar Association appointed by the Independent National Electoral Commission. I voted and I went round so many polling stations in Ilorin on the day of the presidential election. From what I saw, the elections were very credible, orderly, at least devoid of fighting in all the places I visited here and I visited quite a large number of polling stations.
Of course, there were little problems at the beginning; late arrival of the electoral officials, card reader problem, in my own polling station, the card reader did not work immediately but I discovered from my going round that the level of proficiency of the electoral personnel was responsible for the non-functioning of some of those card readers. Some of them didn’t quite get their hold on how to use it. So it may not be the problem with the card reader, maybe it was because of the human element or the inability to operate it. But, by and large, from what I saw here and from the reports our other colleagues who monitored the elections in other places told me, I know the elections were credible which should be the acid test for other elections.
INEC should deploy their men to review how the elections were conducted and for the first time, there were security men, civil defence and police men but, nobody was carrying gun at the polling stations which is very, very instructive and the soldiers who were around were only patrolling, they were visible, you will see them moving round, they didn’t disturb anybody. I hope that is what happened in other places in Nigeria, if that is exactly what is replicated everywhere all over Nigeria then, we have arrived when it comes to the conduct of elections but, I am not sure that was what happened. From my own perception, I think on a general level and what I read later from other international observers, the elections appear to have passed the acid test.
Will this be a pointer that there may be a decline in the number of election petitions?
Yes, what I’ve always been telling people, is that if elections were credible, the number of election petitions will reduce drastically and it happened in 2011 and I think it will also happened now that we are not likely to have many election petitions which for me is good for our democratic development. It also shows that politicians are learning now that you don’t win all the time, you win some, you lose some. That is the way the world is.
What are your expectations from the election petition tribunals set up across the country?
My expectation is the same that I always expect from any court of law, which is dispensing justice according to the law. They should be careful about the way they relate with politicians while sitting in judgment. They should avoid anything that will bring the name of the judiciary into disrepute. I will be happy if we don’t have all the vociferous voices of oh! we gave money to the tribunal! I hope it will not come up this time around, I pray so even if it is not true. It is not good for the image of the judiciary that such allegations are ever made at all. To some of us, we believe that the judiciary is a temple for the gods as it were; it should not be desecrated in any forms.
Those who will be serving in the tribunals should not do anything knowingly or unknowingly that will attract negative things to the image of the judiciary. The judiciary as we have known, is not only the last hope of the common man, it is the last hope of all of us including the high, the low, the mighty and the weak. My expectation is that the tribunals will perform better than the past, they will improve on their performance and that nobody will do anything that has the tendency to desecrate the name of the judiciary.
You were the lead counsel in a suit instituted before a Federal High Court, in Abuja, challenging the eligibility of President Goodluck Jonathan to contest the 2015 election. What informed that action?
Well, a team of lawyers were briefed by concerned Nigerians that we should look at the constitution on whether or not President Jonathan was eligible to contest. After brainstorming for weeks, we came to the irresistible conclusion that he was not eligible and so we filed the case in court. We have argued the case, judgment has been reserved I think sometime this month, we are likely to have the judgment delivered by the court. When the judgment is given, whichever way it goes, lawyers don’t act on their own, if we succeed, so be it, if we don’t, if our clients want any other steps to be taken under the law, we take such steps.
Why was the suit filed?
It was because those Nigerians felt and it was a pan-Nigerian case that involved all the major ethnic groups in this country as parties. The same thing with representations, there were lawyers from the South- West, lawyers from the North, lawyers from the South-South, lawyers from the South-East involved in the matter. It was a Pan-Nigerian matter and those people were convinced after getting legal advice that they should go to court and test the provisions of the constitution vis-à-vis the time President Jonathan has spent in office and his ambition to spend additional four years. Their contention is simple, that look, you have spent about six years, if you contest now and you win then you will spend another four years. As far as they are concerned, their own interpretation is that look, the constitution does not envisaged any individual spending more than eight years in office but, the matter is in court and we can’t start to talk about it now, let’s wait for the judgment.
How will you assess President Goodluck Jonathan’s performance in the last four years of his administration?
I have said this from the beginning. Well, you don’t need a soothsayer to let you know that the economy is in trouble except for those who have access to government fund. I am not sure of any hard working person whose lot has improved economically in the last four years. I am not basing my assessment of economy on the rebasing of economy, my own argument is, how many more people have gotten jobs in the last four years, how many graduates have been employed, how many of the legion of unemployed people have gotten jobs, has the quality of life of the average Nigerian improved because the tendency is, if you start to look at it from your own point of view then, you’re likely to run into trouble. For me, I do not see apart from the micro and macro economies that Okonjo-Iweala and her people are propounding, I’ve not seen the translation of economy boom in the lives of Nigerians.
If the economy is doing very well, it has a flow down on everybody. When you have money, you buy properties, when you buy properties, you engage lawyers for the documents, you engage surveyors. If you buy a piece of land and you want to build you engage architect, you get engineers and you get artisans. Most artisans don’t have work to do because there are no new things going on. Even government that is giving jobs to people, contractors have not been paid otherwise you want to ask the contractors handling Lokoja-Abuja dualisation why is it taking this long to be complete. I was made to understand that contractors on this site are being owed some billions of naira, their certificate of work done has not been paid, those are the issues.
On the issue of corruption and the fight against corruption, I’ve said it several times that there has been no serious war against corruption, none.
Don’t you think it’s due to the inefficiency of the anti-graft agencies namely; the ICPC and EFCC?
It’s Jonathan’s government, the bulk stops on his table. The anti-graft agencies need political will to do their work and I can’t see any political will displayed. Let me give you an example, when Obasanjo was the President, people said oh, the master plan of Abuja has been distorted; he got Nasir el-Rufai as Minister. Very powerful peoples’ buildings were pulled down, el- Rufai on his own couldn’t have done that, he needed the President to back him and that was why the man was able to do it. So, it is the same thing with the anti-corruption agencies and there is no political will to fight corruption.
Go and do investigative journalism and find out how many private jets were in existence in 2011 and how many do you have now and who are the owners and let them tell you the visible means of their livelihood. I made some discreet enquiries in Abuja at the portion where they parked private jets, I was told that on an average of daily basis they parked 50 there and if you go there now they are expanding the apron to accommodate more and who are the owners? What do they do for a living? We are not talking of Lagos that is the issue for me. You can hardly get anything done in any governmental offices without greasing palms. Before, people used to demand bribe under the table, they don’t want people to see them, but now, it’s open. Commercial drivers when they are stopped by policemen you will see them arguing and negotiating what they want to give the policemen. But, that was not the way Nigeria was. So, anti-graft agency yes, do they have the will? I have heard several times when the anti-graft agencies complained that they don’t have money to do their job that is part of the political will that I am talking about. If you really want to fight corruption you will ensure that those agencies are well- funded, they are well- peopled in terms of quality of people working there and ensure that remuneration are very good. So, that there is no temptation for them so that they don’t join what they are supposed to fight.On religious plain, this campaign has exposed the political class. This election divided Nigerians more than it has ever been before along religious, ethnic groups.
Who should be blamed for that?
Unfortunately, our President is the number one culprit. When has it become a fact that if you want to contest an election you must go to every church, every mosque available, this is the first time its happening and I stand to be corrected and I’m old enough to know. I was young in 1964 but I witnessed elections. I have never seen any time when the President will go to churches when it is time for election and then the kind of statements made by people putting one people against the other in Nigeria, it’s not good for us.
And you see the voting pattern, apart from the South-West, North-Central and North-East those were places where the voting pattern was quite even. South- South, South-East then North-West were to your tent oh Israel!. These are issues this new administration must address. We don’t want a Nigeria where people only vote for people because he is from our place. That is not good for us. Anybody who gets elected as the president is the President of Nigeria not the president of South-West or the president of North-West but unfortunately, that was the impression that was given during the last presidential elections.
People would say Nigeria would go to hell if our son did not become the president as if President Jonathan can only be defined by where he comes from. I tell people, the last thing that should define your existence is where you come from. Why? Because it was not by your choice, it’s by accident, nobody voted or elected to come from any particular place, we only find ourselves where we are and that is why the last thing I know about a person in life is where you come from. I don’t ask because it shouldn’t define my relationship with you.
It was not by your choice that you are Yoruba, Hausa or Igbo but that I am a lawyer was my choice. That I grew up and marry was by choice, that I’ve children was by choice but where you come from is totally out of your hand. As a person, when filling a form and you’re asked to put state of origin, I don’t fill them because it’s wrong. I deal with people based on who they are.
What is your take on the standard of legal education?
If you’re talking about the standard of education, it is not legal practice alone; you have to start from the basics. The system is garbage in, garbage out. So, I think the standard of education generally has declined and I believe this is not peculiar to law. It’s something that cuts across all sectors of education in Nigeria. In fact you might say it cuts across all tiers of education: primary schools, secondary schools, universities. But to answer your question precisely, yes, I think the standard of legal education has declined. A Law School takes what the universities produce. Law School does not train its own candidates that gained entrance there, they are trained by these institutions so, we must take a holistic view of the problems. It is undoubted that the standard of education in this country has fallen and that has also imparted on the training of lawyers.