This is an interview with the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Federation, Abubakar Malami SAN with selected Journalists in Kano, including Solacebase Correspondent, Mustapha Mustapha
Q: We will start by discussing the success of this Ministry as very pivotal to attaining democratic goals.
A: I will start by enlightening the people about the functions of the Ministry of Justice. It is a ministry that is recognized by the constitution of the country. Part of its functions is to proffer legal advice to the government and its agencies on matters of need. It also stands for the government in courts. It is in charge of giving the government legal directions in its dealings or providing a strong legal ground for them and others.
All we are going to say will not be more than what the law says. If you want to talk about the successes of the Ministry as it relates to administration, you need to classify them. You have to view it from the roles it had played on the development of democracy. You will also view it from the angle of security, what it has achieved and what contribution it has given. It also had to be viewed from its contributions in the fight against bribery and corruption. Likewise, it can be viewed from the angle of its contributions to economic development of Nigeria and peaceful coexistence, the roles it has played.
Talking from the angle of democratic development, as you all know, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has come with some initiatives of reforming the constitution of Nigeria for the progress of democracy in the country.
As you all know there is a particular law in which there were a lot of complaints from especially the youth who say they have been excluded from governance due to law that limits the age of those to contest for some political positions. This ministry has given a major contribution in ensuring that the youths have also been given a chance. It is as a result of this that a new law was made, ‘not too young to run’. It is with the effort and collaboration of the Ministry that the law was made.
More so, there is the issue of the quick dispensation of Justice as after the elections. As I speak to you now, there are still cases before the court concerning the past elections that have not been dispensed with. I am referring to cases that have been there for ten years now. Some of those cases have to do with the crises on whether the candidate is qualified or not. Therefore the need to enhance this democratic process cannot be overemphasized. What I am trying to say here is that, a person that wins a case today in court after ten years of trial has nothing to benefit from it. This makes the need for quick dispensation of Justice very necessary so that if you win a case it will be useful to you. That is why we have initiated this reform that will bring a time limit within which the judgment will be made.
As a result of this, the Court of Appeal has dispensed judgment on about 8000 political cases within a short period of time. But in the past, it was not possible.
As I am trying to show you the roles we play in democratic development, there were a lot of problems that came up in which the Ministry of Justice along with concerned government sectors devise ways and reform the laws to suit the situation.
Talking about the role we are playing in the fight against bribery and corruption there was the need to run a government based on transparency and accountability. Prior to the coming of this government, there were over a thousand government accounts running for which there was no transparency as regards spending. The government came up with the idea of running a government based on transparency. A lot of reforms were initiated based on what the ministry of Justice had designed like the Single Treasury Account for the government which has a linked network. This has resolved the issue of looting due to the way transactions are tracked.
Initiatives that allow public access to the budget were also put in place.
On the international level, the government also initiated plans of working hand-in-hand with the international community. There are about one hundred countries that came with the idea of Open Government Partnership, the federal government also became a member. This has opened up an opportunity for discussion as to finding ways of doing things with transparency. So we have all these in place.
More so, on the issue of bribery and corruption, several laws were made to ensure prosecution of those found guilty. It is also based on total prosecution and conviction as against when you use to have cases lasting ten years without conviction simply because some interest parties don’t want the cases to move forward. The Administration of Criminal Justice was introduced to curb this. It provides for major cases to be heard swiftly. This has helped in the quick dispensation of Justice. As you can see there are cases that have been on for ten years now that have recently been tackled and concluded and some former governors even convicted and imprisoned.
Still on the fight against bribery and corruption, the Muhammadu Buhari administration has succeeded in retrieving stolen public monies from the hands of individuals. What it had inherited and enhanced retrieving of the funds by about 1,360 percent. This is something that has never happened in the history of Nigeria. One interesting thing is that very little money was invested in retrieving the huge funds.
Q: The oppositions are accusing the government that those found guilty of corrupt practices are from the government itself, how do you react to this?
A: Our eyes should serve as measures for us. The most recent case that was concluded involved a member of the APC who won election under the APC at the Senate. So if you view this on the grounds of political party, it becomes evident that there is no favoritism whatsoever.
An APC member found guilty of corruption will not escape it talk less of the opposition. The question here is that, whether you are in APC or PDP or a soldier or a policeman or a legal practitioner, are you guilty of the accusations or not? The issue here is that you are accused and there are signs that you have committed crimes, whether you belong to APC or PDP or you are a civilian or a military personnel you will face the law. What I am saying here is that the Muhammadu Buhari government is serious about the fight against bribery and corruption consideration to where you belong or which political idea you are inclined to does not matter. For as long as you are found guilty wherever you belong you will face the law.
Q: How much has so far been retrieved of the stolen funds and where are the funds?
A: It’s not true that people are not aware of this. Is just that the people are lazy in following track of the activities especially with the level of transparency available. I gave you the example that one of the new initiatives of the government is the making of the budget public. You can get access to that through the various available media. If you go through you will find out that in the budget, some of the sources of funding the budget include stolen funds that are going to be retrieved. What is happening is that the Nigerian government does not have the right to spend a dime that has not been budgeted for and the budget must be scrutinized by the National Assembly and assented to by the President. What I a trying to make you understand is that monies retrieved by the government from its inception are infused into the budget for the purpose of implementing development projects.
From 2017 to 2018, monies have been retrieved from Switzerland to the tune of $322 million. The government initiated that it would use the funds in assisting the less privileged in the country for which the N-power was introduced. It is through this that less privileged Nigerians especially the unemployed graduates are assisted. They are being supported on a monthly basis in order to reduce hardship for them.
There was also the school feeding program, trader money program to support small scale traders. That is how part of that retrieved sum was utilized. I don’t need to say it because everyone is aware that the N-Power is having beneficiaries from all over the country and so have all the mentioned programs. This has absolved the Muhammadu Buhari government of claims that monies retrieved are diverted.
On your question as to how much has been retrieved of the stolen funds, it is not an easy question to answer. This is because there are several federal government agencies involved in the process. If you look at the $323 million stolen money I mentioned that has been retrieved from Switzerland, it is the Ministry of Justice that has single-handedly retrieved the sum. Apart from this there are stolen monies that have been retrieved from the side of the federal government. If you go to other sectors, like the EFCC, it retrieves monies from home and abroad receipt of some of which are delayed pending the conclusion of court cases.
If you go to ICPC, they too are doing a similar thing, the police are also doing the same thing and so are the Customs Service. Also if you go to the NDLEA you will get the same. Prior to this time, there was no available system that can say this is the total amount retrieved by those government agencies. This being a problem that has shown face, we have enacted a law called the Proceeds of Crime Bill which is now before the National Assembly which will provide for the establishment of an agency that will regulate such retrieved funds. This will help provide good access to information on the funds’ retrieved funds in general. At the moment I cannot give you an exact detail of how much-stolen funds have been retrieved because there is not available platform for that.
Q: What can you say about accusations against the government for disregarding court orders?
A: There is a difference between accusations and facts. If you talk about accusations, they are not established in legal basis. What you are supposed to know is whether what the government has done is legal or not. Any order that comes from the court and you see the federal government delaying its implementation, the government has legal stance for that delay in implementation. For example, you have a house in which you are living and another person takes you to court claiming that the house belongs to him and not you. Then the court says its not your house it is his. Will, you immediately park out and give him the house or you will exploit other legal means of retrieving your house? The next thing you do on receiving the court order is to appeal and seek the court to allow you to stay until the case is concluded. Will anyone accuse you of not obeying the court when you take that stance? No, because the same law that says the house is not yours is the same law that provides for you to challenge the judgment to the next legal level.
Any order issued by the court is not for immediate implementation until all the possible legal channels have been exploited. In the Nigerian system, it is the Supreme Court that is the last and final resort. If a court issues an order to you, you have the legal right to seek the court to change it or to allow you to appeal or even appeal and seek the court to restrain from implementing the judgment.
The Nigerian constitution has given the right to challenge any court order and you have the right to appeal and others. For as long as you follow these processes you cannot be accused of disobedience to the court.
In the case involving Sheikh Zakzaky, Dasuki and Sowore, none of them has reached the Supreme court, they are either at the level of federal or state high court or the Appeal court. For as long as the case has not gotten to the Supreme Court which gives the last and final judgment, you are still entitled to that right of challenging the court’s orders on them. In a situation where you have the legal right to challenge the judgments, there is no way you can be accused of disobedience to the judiciary.
Q: What is your ministry doing about the problem of kidnapping for ransom.
A: Talking about the issue of security, I have to explain to you where we are coming from so that you will understand where we are heading to. In the past, there was the issue of IPOB which made effort of a standoff with the Nigeria Nigerian government. This standoff is similar to the one in the North-Eastern part of the country which founded the Boko Haram crises. On this the Ministry of Justice has gone to court to ban the group and its activities. Presently the group and it’d activities do not exist. The issue is that had the group not been banned and allowed to continue it’s standoff, imagining the amount spent in battling Boko Haram there will certainly be a problem if that legal stance was not taken. What I am trying to say here is that any issue that has to do with security, the Ministry of Justice looks at the possible legal solution of resolving it. What I am trying to show you is that the problem concerning the issue of kidnapping, the government is taking all available steps to curb the menace. Security steps were taken along roads like the Kaduna-Abuja Highways for which the problem has now been tackled. Based on this the Ministry of Justice is trying to see what can be done from the legal point of view to assist what the government is doing to curb the menace. In no length of time we are going to come up with laws that will resolve the security concerns.
Q: Still on the issue of fighting corruption, you have mentioned members of the ruling APC involved in corrupt practices that have been prosecuted, what would you say about those that are known to be guilty of corrupt acts that were absolved because they joined the party or declared allegiance to the government?
A: Firstly, what you need to understand is that, not quite long ago, a member of the ruling APC, who was a former governor and also a serving Senator has been brought before the court of law and convicted. Presently he is in prison. More so, prior to this there are others that have faced similar punishment that are also members of the APC. So, if there is any form of selectivity in prosecuting those found guilty of corruption, a former governor, a serving senator and a leading member of the APC would have rightly benefited from that.
Therefore, his being a former governor, a serving senator and a leading member of the APC from a zone in the country where the party is not strong and yet convicted of corruption charges shows that the accusation of selectivity in the fight against corruption is baseless. What I am trying to say is that, belonging to the same political party does not in any way affect the execution of the agenda of the Buhari led administration as regards the fight against corruption.
Q: What about the accusation of appointing past governors as ministers whereas it was clear that they are accused of corruption?
A: What you are supposed to understand is that accusations, no matter how vivid has to be ascertained. Being an accused person does not deprive you of your human right even in the Islamic Sharia. For example if one is seen coming out of an unlawful place, it is not possible for him to be prosecuted of committing an unlawful act without investigation and confirmation. Now, being under investigation does not deprive you of your rights as a citizen.
So, for example if you are accusing me in my position as a former governor that there is no way to prove that I am not involved in acts of corruption when I was governor does not deny me of my constitutional rights to be appointed as minister if I am seen to be qualified. The fact that some people are accusing me of acts of corruption does not deprive me of my right to be appointed to any office to serve the country.
One is presumed innocent until he is proven guilty. For as long as one has not been proven guilty, the accusations against such a person cannot serve as reason for one’s rights to be violated. All of us as human beings can be accused of anything by those who have proved or those who don’t but until it is proven, it remains mere accusation and cannot be established unless through the legal process.
Therefore, according to the law, the accusation of corruption does not stop you from being appointed to a public office. But if such accusation is strong that you have to face the court of law, your being a minister does not stop you from being prosecuted in a court of law. Just like the accusations against a serving senator has not stopped him from facing prosecution and convicted. More so, the accusations against him did not deprive him of contesting for the position of senator.
Q: There are media reports that you have mentioned that there are 22 governors that are being investigated of corruption, are there arrangements to get them to face justice soon?
A: It is an issue of investigation. When the investigation is through and they are found to be guilty of the corruption charges, they will be taken before the court of law. What I want you to understand is that this government is not bothered about who you are or what you are. Whether you are a governor, a former president, a former military man or a former judge, whosoever you are, once there is enough evidence against you, you are going to face prosecution before a court of law.
Q: What about the issue of prisons congestion and speedy judgment as a way of resolving the problem?
A: As I have earlier mentioned, whenever we identify a problem we review it intelligently to determine the best ways to resolve it. When the Buhari administration came in, over 90 percent of those in prisons are people accused of crimes and not those convicted of committing crimes. They are awaiting trial. There was the need to resolve the problem.
President Muhammadu Buhari then formed a committee under the FCT High court judge to review the situation and bring out solutions. The committee went round all the prisons and as a result of what they did, about 3,500 persons were freed. This has reduced the level of congestion in the correctional centers. There also arose the need to institute a working system that will deal with the situation. That led to the signing into law the correctional service act. This is a law that intends to change the concept of imprisonment as punishment to imprisonment for the correction of the individual. The law also empowers the prison workers to reject an addition of one person beyond the stipulated figure it is constructed to accommodate. If prison is built to accommodate 1000 persons they have the right to reject 1001 for instance. Prior to this new law, they had no right to reject any person brought to them for detention. The law now empowers them to accept or reject any time a person is brought to be detained depending on whether there is space or not. This means that the problem of congestion has been resolved as they have the right to reject or accept those brought in to be detained.
More so, under this act, apart from this right given to the staff, in the past you would see a person taken for detention in a terrible condition, either because he was a victim of mob action accusing him of stealing, or has been battered by the police, the staff had no right to refuse to accept him or question why his situation was bad. But with the coming of the new act they have been empowered to refuse to accept him if there is no genuine reason given for his condition. More so, the system abhors harsh terms in the system. A system has been founded under which the inmates are made to acquire entrepreneurial skills in the prisons.
So, what I am trying to say here is that firstly, the President has formed a committee to look into the problem of prison congestion. Secondly, a newly reformed act has been put in place in which punishment has been changed to the correction of character. The forth is that new measures have been put in place that empower the officials to determine what to be done and when it should be done.
Q: What would you say on a judgment in England by P&ID against Nigeria over oil and gas contracts?
A: This particular case you are talking about was prior to the coming of this government into power. The government then had signed an agreement between the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation NNPC and a company called the P&ID that is registered in a place close to Britain called Virgin Island. The agreement was that the NNPC was to supply this company with gas for industrial use. The agreement was that this industry would be established in Cross Rivers state. The surprising thing about this agreement is that Exon Mobil and Adax, all of which are oil companies, are in charge of the wells that will supply the gas to the said industry.
Unfortunately, these companies were not included in the agreement and they were not aware of it. It was like saying Mr. A will give you N100 whereas Mr. A is not even aware of the agreement. Definitely there is a question mark in this. The oil companies to supply the required gas to the industry are not included in the agreement. More so, such agreements have a way they are supposed to be done as far as the government is concerned.
Such agreements have to be taken to the Ministry Justice, to the office of the Attorney General to scrutinize the deal and assure that it will not cause any damage to Nigeria as a nation and to institute protective regulations. But surprisingly, this deal never went through that process. Also there is the Directorate for Petroleum Resources DPR which has the responsibility to look into issues that have to do with oil and gas in general. They are to ensure that you have the right papers, the demand you are putting forth is genuine and to also approve it for you. But the directorate was not consulted on the deal as well which is detrimental to national interest.
Also, due to the huge amount of money to be spent in the deal, it has to also be presented before the Federal Executive Council to confirm or reject the deal. All these processes were not followed in that agreement. They just went ahead and signed an agreement between NNPC and that company. The company has not brought any funds, the company did not bring any materials in fact it did not even come to look for the land where the industry is to be erected in Cross Rivers State. It has not committed a dime to the deal but went to court in England to seek judgment that Nigeria should pay over nine billion dollars. Everything about this deal that took place before the coming of this government. With the coming of this government after the judgment claiming that Nigeria will pay the money, it became necessary for us to institute an appeal on the said judgment. As I have explained earlier, if you have instituted an appeal on a case, you cannot be accused of being disrespectful of the law. The Nigerian government did not take the step of going to appeal the case before the coming of this government. Hence, what has become incumbent on the Nigerian government is to make the payment since it had not challenged the court’s judgment. It was in this situation that we came to inherit this crisis. We on our stand, disagree with the judgment. But the problem is that we arrived at a point whereby the given time for the appeal had elapsed. There are two things here. You cannot go to appeal without seeking the consent of the court. The court’s consent is also not given in situation whereby you have deliberately refused to take advantage of the period within which to appeal. Despite this, we went ahead to take action to challenge that judgment. We went to court to seek the court to extend the time for us because there is suspicion of collaboration in the case. It is a case of bribery and corruption. The court gave us the chance to go for appeal and also sorted the court to delay its judgment pending the final judgment. Presently, the President has ordered a full investigation into the matter and to determine why the procedures of the deal and agreement were violated. Why the office of the AGF, the DPR and the FEC were not aware of the deal. Also why did the past government refused to appeal the case further after the judgment? The investigation has revealed that there was connivance, bribery and corruption as well as indiscipline among the officers involved. Presently we have taken steps towards invalidating the agreement and keeping aside the court judgment and also those that are suspected of complicity, will be arrested to face the wrath of the law. In fact, there are those who have already been convicted by the court.
Q: On the release of Sambo Dasuki and Omoyele Sowore, it is said that they were released due to pressure from America after being held in detention despite the fact that they were released on bail by the Courts, what would you say about this?
A: On the issue of foreign interference in governance, right from the beginning, there are some countries that meddle into other countries’ affairs on issues of law and order, they serve as policemen of the world and you can not say they will not interfere. But the question here is that if you take the case of Dasuki for example, who has been in detention for about four years or more while the investigation was on-going. During the period, all those countries and organizations that appoint themselves to be shouting about, interfering and even attacking the government, have these things they have been doing influence the government or not? If you can be making fruitless noise for four years that has not influenced the government’s actions in any way, then to declare that it is the noise-making that has led to the government’s action does not arise.
What I am trying to say is that the court had issued the order for their bail and we have appealed the case based on the conditional right we have, the time they were in detention, investigations continued and we reached a point where we came to the conclusion that they can not be of any harm to the investigation that will prove them guilty or not guilty, at that point, we were left with the choice of either continuing to keep them in detention while the case lasts to the Supreme Court or show mercy to them and accept the court order for their bail. Therefore there is a big influential situation as far as government is concerned, it is that of mercy to them. We have reached a climax in the investigation whereby there is no more room for any fear that the process of investigation will be interfered with, which we can present before the court as evidence to prove them guilty. So, even if they are released they will not be able to interfere with the investigation.
Q: In your position as the minister of justice and AGF, what have you achieved that you can proudly show as beneficial to the progress of the country.
A: One important issue that I can say I have played a role that is beneficial to the progress of this country, is that if you look at the laws in general that are binding and supporting democracy in the country that have to do with security and economic development, like in the economic sectors, those laws that have deprived the federal government from getting funds, for which there was connivance in the process of making them suit certain interests when being implemented. For example, if you look at the laws relating to offshore petroleum resources where it is stated that the share of the federal government from the money generated from sales of the resources shall be reviewed any time the price of a barrel of crude reaches $20. For over 20 years now the law has not been made reference to whereas the rate of the barrel of crude had at a certain times even gone up to $100. If that law was referred to, the Federal government would have made about $62 billion in the said 20 years period. But due to carelessness, the federal government had lost more than $62 billion. I have ensured that the law was reviewed in such a manner that what the federal government benefits from those funds it had lost during the said period.
More so, as regards laws that have to do with revenue, like the Value Added Tax, VAT, Petroleum Income Tax, PIT, we have reviewed then in such a way that the government can generate enough funds to be able to implement gigantic projects for the people.
Q: Lastly, can you shed more light on the statement that made to the effect that, it is the Kaduna state government that has the power to release the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky. Secondly, when will the Appeal Court start working in Kano?
A: On your first question about Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky, the example that will make you understand the system of the law in Nigeria. If you commit a crime against the laws of the state, and you are taken before the court of the state, this is an issue that is in the hands of the governor, Chief Judge of the state and other relevant agencies at the state level. If you commit a crime against the laws of the federation, as in the case with Sowore who was taken to the court regarding laws that have to do with the Federal government or Sambo Dasuki on crimes that violate the federal laws. Presently, as we speak to you now, Sheikh Zakzaky is facing prosecution in state court that has to do with state laws. Therefore, the issue of bail, standing before the court and mercy where the need arises and judgment where the need arises are all under the state government and not the federal government.
On your second question as to the creation of the federal appeal court in Kano. It is a matter under the federal ministry of Justice which has the responsibility to plan and execute. The role of the federal government is only to assist in it.
Q: My final question is what do you plan to achieve in this ministry.
A: To ensure that the law is functioning accordingly. Where it is said do you do where it is said don’t do you don’t do for as long as it is based on what the law says. I traveled to Rwanda recently where I spent four days. Since I went there I have not seen a single person riding a motorcycle without a helmet. I know of a time when an attempt was made to enforce the use of the helmet in Nigeria but it was not effective. I am trying to show you how law and order has deteriorated in Nigeria. I traveled to Gambia where I saw the electric fuse of a payment defaulter was removed and placed on his electric meter. He could not pick it and place it back due to obedience to law and order. But in Nigeria, it is the wire that is disconnected from the source and he gets a ladder to fix it back illegally. I am trying to show you the level of indiscipline in Nigeria and how law and order is disregarded. I want us to have a nation in which Nigerians will be disciplined, the people should be obedient to law and order for peace and harmony to reign.