In this interview, Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe spoke to The News Chronicle’s Prof Jideofor Adibe, Ekpedeme Umoh and Chiamaka Ohakim, Publisher, Editor and Associate Editor respectively of the online newspaper.
TNC: As Deputy Governor of Abia State, you had running battles with OrjiUzor Kalu, who was the State Governor and your boss then. Attempts were made twice in 2000 to impeach you, and you resigned in 2003, as you were about to face a third impeachment hearing. Today, Senator Orji Kalu has been sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for fraud – which he is appealing. Can you tell us what really happened between you and Senator Orji Uzor Kalu and the whole impeachment saga?
EA: We were sworn in on the 29th of May 1999 and by August of 1999 things had begun to go awry between us and entered what I will call the very first attempt at impeachment in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic for either a Deputy Governors or Governor. The first attempt to impeach me was in August 1999. We went through due process, which was that the House will first write to you and you have to reply within 14 days. After the 14-day period, the House will then take a vote based on your response and if they are not satisfied with your response to the charges, they will write the Chief Judge of the State to constitute an impeachment panel. In my own case after my response in writing to the House, the House took a vote and I was exonerated of the charges. And because I was exonerated, that meant that the process ended there and we moved on.
The second attempt at impeachment happened in inmid 2000. There were a few twists… The first twist was in the process of impeachment- the constitution says that when you have given notice of impeachment, the House is supposed to give you 14 days to respond. Now the House did not give me 14 days to respond. After six days, the House voted to write to the Chief Judge of the State to constitute an impeachment panel to try me. I refused to appear before the panel because I had now gone to court to challenge the House on two grounds- first on due process and second on fair hearing. The judge at the lower level declined to hear my case claiming that he didn’t have the jurisdiction to try the case. I appealed against the judgment. The Appeal Court, however, held that the lower court was right and that the court ought not to delve into what was going on in the House of Assembly. That judgment had profound implications for the rest of the polity. After the judgment, they now went to the House – this was in November 2000. The House voted and I escaped impeachment narrowly like Bill Clinton – by just one vote. That marked the end of the second attempt at my impeachment. We tried to patch things up and move on.
But one of the implications of that judgment of the Court of Appeal that “the judiciary should not descend into the murky waters of politics”(AbaribeVsAbia State House of Assembly), was that there was now a rash of impeachment of Governors without due process being followed. They went ahead and impeached Peter Obi in Anambra State, Rasheed Ladoja of Oyo State and Joshua Dariye of Plateau State. In fact, following that judgment, you can say that Nuhu Ribadu (Chairman of EFCC at that time) ran riot and got the EFCC involved in impeaching Governors without following due process. That is why we need to be really careful when the lord justices deliver judgments because their judgments can have profound implications for the polity.
I have one regret from that entire court saga – and that was not challenging the judgment of the Appeal Court at the Supreme Court – for the sake of our jurisprudence. I had actually wanted to do so but the elders prevailed on me, telling me that since I had won at the floor of the House, pursuing the case further was unnecessary. However, when Ladoja was impeached by the Oyo State House of Assembly by less than the number of lawmakers required by the Constitution, he went to the Supreme Court, which reversed the impeachment on the ground that due process was not followed. The Supreme Court essentially held that the court is not supposed to interfere in the decision of the House of Assembly, but only in so far as they follow due process.
The third impeachment attempt was in 2003 around February. They wrote tome and gave me the statutory 14 days to reply. By this time, they had suspended me and I was frozen out of the party so I felt that there was no point continuing with them. I decided to resign on March 7, 2003 and used a DHL to courier my letter of resignation to the State House of Assembly. I decamped to another party and challenged Governor Orji Kalu in the election- which I lost.
One of the unfortunate things that happened, however, was that the young man who innocently received my DHL mail and signed for it was sacked. It was unnecessary to sack somebody doing his job innocently.
TNC: What is really behind all this? If you think about it, you ran a joint ticket in May and by August you are already talking about impeachment. What’s the ground for that fallout?
EA: Well, I guess that the stories will come out in my forthcoming book. Our issues started even before we were sworn into office. You will recall that after the election there were about three months wait before the swearing-in. During this intervening period, all manner of things happened which will come out in my forthcoming book. One possible explanation for the way that the powers that be behaved at that time were that it was our first experiment in the civilian rule after a prolonged period of military dictatorship.
Most of the people who emerged as governors never had any experience in democratic governance. And so all they did was to copy the military people who were leaving. Second, most of the people who came in as governors were also seen as those who were promoted by the military. That’s why Orji Uzor was always boasting that he’s one of Babangida’s boys. So if you now look at that, that means that if somebody sees himself as a copy of a military person, that person is likely to revel in the military ethos of ‘obey before the complaint’, or ‘obey the last order’. But a democracy functions differently: I can bring my own opinion, and you can bring yours so there will be a clash of ideas. One of the unfortunate legacies of the military is sycophancy to whoever is in power. And the military tends to view sycophancy not as the negative thing that it is, but rather as a demonstration of loyalty. And so if you question the ideas of anyone with a military mindset, it will be misconstrued as disloyalty.
TNC: What is your relationship with Senator Orji Kalu today?
EA: My relationship with him is fine. Don’t forget that our quarrels took place at the beginning of the decade, nearly 20 years ago. I walked away in 2003 and started doing other things and in 2007I became a senator. I was here when he came as a senator. I outrank him in terms of position, but in terms of any other thing, we are colleagues. We have a good relationship.
TNC: What do you think of Senator Orji Kalu’s prolonged trial for corruption and his eventual conviction?
EA: Well, I think that the Nigerian judiciary, working with the National Assembly, had in 2005, passed the Administration of Criminal Justice Act. This was among other things meant to reduce the time spent on criminal trials. I think it is not anybody’s fault that his trial lasted so long, it is how the law was. In other words, the law as it was at that time is that if you appeal against anything, the substantive trial has to wait until the appeal is exhausted. And so many people saw it as a loophole and exploited it. Generally, two things impact on the efficiency of our judges: One is that there are too many cases they have to handle. The second is that most of the state courts and even federal courts have not gotten to the point of using technology to shorten the trial time and speed up the reporting and documentation processes which will relieve the pressure on judges. The judges still write in long-hands. The Nigerian legal process is therefore very cumbersome. So every judge is thoroughly overworked and you can’t expand the judicial divisions easily, because every judge has to have a court. Some judges in the state have to share courtrooms.
TNC: You are an economist. What are your thoughts on the recently passed Finance Bill that increased the VAT from 5% to 7.5%? A major highlight of the bill is that it provides a compliance threshold – so only companies with an annual turnover of N25m or more are expected to comply. The government hopes to increase its revenue inflows by the move. However, critics argue the move will increase the financial burden on Nigerians. Others say the increase is premature as the government has been unable to point to specific projects that have been executed with previously collected tax. How Do you see these?
EA: My party’s position has always been that you don’t inflict more punishment on people who are already suffering under a very dire economic situation. Let’s put it this way: the government in raising the VAT tried to mitigate it in some way, by saying that well, if you are dealing with basic staple food you don’t pay VAT – but if what you’re dealing with is a luxury good then you pay VAT. The assumption is that luxury goods are bought by those who can afford them.
But let me also say that the government itself is in a very tight situation and tries to find ways to fund its projects. It, for instance, takes loans from the public in the form of bonds. They are also borrowing from multilateral agencies and from the Chinese. Now the government spends some 40% or more of its revenue on debt servicing. So they felt a need to generate more funds by raising the tax. But in so doing they forgot the other side of taxation principle: if you raise the tax, it also reduces the number of people you can tax because some people have a financial threshold. If the VAT increase on some goods pushes them beyond their financial threshold, they will stop buying the affected goods – except if the demand for such goods is inelastic. The majority of people in every country are rational spenders, so you will expect that the higher the cost of a good, the less they will demand it. This means that you can raise taxes without actually getting more money because fewer people will now buy the goods. So the government is in a catch 22 situation.
TNC: In October 2007, when Ralph Uwazuruike, leader of the banned secessionist Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), was on trial for treason, you and six other South-east senators protested at the Federal High Court in Lagos to demand his release. Again when Nnamdi Kanu, leader of IPOB was to be released from detention on bail, you alongside other leaders like Senator Ekweremadu rallied to perfect his near impossible bail conditions. Tell us a bit more about your engagements in all these! Do you have any regrets? Do you think being Kanu’ssurety has impacted you in terms of being perceived as a member of IPOB?
SEA: First, in the 6th senate Ralph Uwazuruike and MASSOB were arrested and detained. We – the south-east caucus – at that time the caucus chairman was late Senator Chukwumerije, decided to go and see late President Yar’adua. When we saw him, we made essentially the same case which we made at the time that Nnamdi Kanu was also arrested. And the case we made was fairly simple: those talking about Biafra are essentially crying out because of certain policies of the federal government which gave the impression that the Igbo is being treated unfairly in this country. We argued that the best way to deal with such agitators was not to round them up, lock them up and then throw away the key. We argued that such an approach would exacerbate rather than reduce the tension. We recommended negotiation and discussion with the agitators on their grouses and what they thought should be the solution.
And so, late President Yar’adua, a great man, told us that this was a matter that he would have to take up with his then-Attorney General and that it would be up to the Attorney-general to decide because constitutionally it is the AG that decides whether to continue or discontinue with a case. We engaged with his AG and ultimately they decided that they should grant bail to Uwazuruike. But they needed us as the Senators to stand as sureties and guarantors. There was no monetary condition attached. Led by the late Senator Chukwumerije, we signed their bail and they were released. And since then, you’ll see that though MASSOB has continued with its agitation, there has been no trouble with them.
For the Nnamdi Kanu saga – there’s a whole lot you can say about it. But when you look at the basics and the fundamentals, it remains the same.
When Nnamdi Kanu was arrested, we also organized as the South East Senators, to meet with the current president – Muhammadu Buhari – and at this time, by the grace of God, I was the Chairman of the South-East Caucus. And we told the president and made reference to what happened in the Yar’adua era. He told us that the matter was in court and so he was constrained from acting on it in any way. We, of course, came back and continued with informal consultations. Ultimately bail was granted, but the bail was not granted as happened with Ralph Uwazuruike underYar’adua: it came with a humongous figure of N100m surety for each detained person and there were three of them. We had to rally around and did the needful and Nnamdi Kanu came out.
Now regarding my arrest, I think Nnamdi Kanu in the eyes of the authorities and even of the court, had broken his bail conditions. The military attacked his house and he escaped. The government came back to us to say that we are the sureties and we should produce him. I was his surety, yes… And so we showed up in court and pleaded with the court. At that point the federal government had gone ahead to declare IPOB a terrorist organization and proscribed it, making Nnamdi Kanuessentially a terrorist, which we felt was an overkill.
But when we got to court, the government said we should produce those that we took on bail and we argued that we were not privy to the decision of the Army to try to attack Nnamdi Kanu and arrest him. And also we were not privy to the decision to declare IPOB a terrorist organization. And so we as private citizens could not be in a position to have the resources to find a terrorist, who probably was trying to escape for his life when his residence was attacked. And following the principle that says that the last person seen with somebody is the person you should ask questions about that person, we asked the court to demand from the military the whereabouts of Nnamdi Kanu. And so the case was adjourned ‘sine die’.
Later, the Judge rescinded the bail granted to Nnamdi Kanu and gave the police the mandate to arrest him wherever he is found. The court also asked us to now produce the N100 million bond in cash and deposit with the court. Usually, you produce such in the property. We felt that that was an amendment to the bail conditions so we also went to court on appeal to test the fact that the Judge shouldn’t be free to unilaterally amend bail conditions. And so, the position today is that the case was adjourned Sine Die pending the appeal that we had lodged.
TNC: On June 22, 2018, you were arrested by the Department of State Security Services at your barbershop located at Transcorp Hilton Hotel Abuja for your alleged links with Nnamdi Kanu’s one of his sureties. You were reportedly taken to your house for a search and later taken to the DSS detention in Abuja before being released on bail in June 2018. Can you tell us about the case? Have the charges against you been dropped?
EA: Regarding the arrest by the DSS, when they arrested me, ostensibly they said they came to search for IPOB materials in my residence. And of course, we know it’s not correct. We know that there was a pattern then of illegal behaviour by the DSS. They had gone to the house of some judges, in the middle of the night and arrested them and leveled all manner of charges against them. They tried to arrest the then-Senate President and Deputy President of the Senate – and took them to court for forgery. They also tried to besiege the National Assembly to ensure that the then senate president didn’t come to sit. So I think my arrest was part of a pattern of intimidation of those that they felt were against the government.
TNC: Now let us talk about the South-east and the claims of marginalization. Some believe the internal contradictions in the Igbo society make such marginalization possible. The argument is that because the Igbo’s did not pass through the feudal stage of development, their attitude to authority is markedly different from the North and South-west where there is a sort of obsequious attitude to authority. Critics argue that while the Igbo republicanism can be helpful in individual pursuits, it makes it difficult to mobilize them around a particular leadership. It is believed that in politics, especially in our type of society such will be a terrible disadvantage because it means you do not have the equivalent of Buhari (for the North) and Tinubu (for the South-west). What is your take on this?
EA: Let me start from the point at which you also started – that is our different politics – a point that the late Gani Fawehinmi described as the ‘Kabiyesi Syndrome’. This is a situation where you defer to any authority figure to such an extent that you can’t even question anything he does. Actually, the Igbo system extols collective decision making. The Igbo egalitarianism is actually more suited to a democratic system than the other systems. So what is going on today is that whoever emerges as an authority figure in other systems is seen as a Kabiyesi whose word is the law and who can do no wrong… The Igbo man doesn’t kneel down for anybody except his chi but the man who comes from elsewhere because of his tradition, he can kneel down before authority figures. If you want to know more about the Igbo worldview, I will recommend two books by Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease.
If the kabiyesi syndrome appears to be beneficial to other systems, it is only because of the aberration of our democracy.
There is also a false assumption that if the Igbo had one leader to rally around, things would be better for them. The truth is that largely because we have always had this trajectory of egalitarianism, what you have in Igbolandis a collection of leaders – not one single leader. A key challenge in Igboland today, is that the system of our politics has also made recruitment of leadership to also be aberrant, because leadership recruitment is no longer based on competence and character, unlike in the olden times. Leadership recruitment today is based on loyalty and other things that don’t bring out the best in us. And so, the competent and well-educated person, who of course does not suffer fools gladly, cannot fit in.
The core difference between the north and the east is not the fact of the man in the north being more politically conscious – it is the fact of religion. Islam as a religion encompasses your life, your politics, your government, and everything. Christianity as a religion does not encompass all that. The man in the north can then be told that Person A protects your religion and thus protects your life. But the man in the south who is a Christian but maybe a Roman Catholic automatically loses interest if the leader in question is Anglican for instance.
TNC: You were a lecturer at the Edo State University from 1982 till 1985. What are your assessments of the challenges of higher education in Nigeria?
EA – I finished school and I joined Ambrose Ali University and I taught economics for a while. I taught the most basic introductory courses. After that, I went into corporate practice.
In academics, there is something called curriculum development. The essence of curriculum development is that as society changes, as information expands, then it also behooves on the managers of the academic world to also go in the same direction. Of course, at the time that I was teaching, computers hadn’t come. But today, a few decades down the line, even the market woman knows how to use her phone to make a calculation. At the time we were in the education system, there couldn’t have been anything like computer studies, data management, data mining, etc. Where we are academically today, we have to be able to modify what we teach people, to live in the 21st century, but of course, traditions are very difficult to break. And we need to move with the times. What ought to be done in Nigeria is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If the wheel has already been invented, we can leapfrog from the very old and archaic system and move somebody into the 21st century. However, this move will create disorientation, as many people do not have the skills to manage the 21st-century model of teaching.
TNC: Let’s talk a bit about the Supreme Court decision that declared Hope Uzodinma (who came a distant fourth) as the winner of the Imo Governorship elections. The PDP has been very critical of the Supreme Court decision. However, the same party has hailed the Supreme Court for upholding the elections of the PDP Governors of Sokoto and Bauchi States. What do you think about these judgments and the PDP’s apparently contradictory stances on the Supreme Court?
EA: The assumption of the law is that you follow precedents – something in law called Stare Decisis – which means that this decision made by the Supreme Court must then be followed by it in the future, and the lower courts must also follow it. What we find strange in the Supreme Court decision is that a decision which they have always followed was overturned. And it was not overturned on the basis that a very novel argument was made, which would have taken the jurisprudence into an area that would have enriched our judicial system. Nothing new was said, that was why we felt that the court might have been misdirected.
What is that precedent? It has to do first of all with the Evidence Act. And in the Evidence Act, and in every decided case that we have had to date, with regard to election cases, it always says that every document you bring to court, you must tie it to whatever you want to prove. So for instance, if you bring a result sheet to court, to tie it to proof, you have to bring the maker of that result. And so there were results from a so-called number of polling units – there’s no problem with that – but who brought it?INEC said that it didn’t produce the document, in order to now tie it; you have to ask the person who brought it to say how he got it. The court asked the police officer that brought the result, first, were you sent by the police to bring the document, he said no. Who did you get the document from; he said he got it from the administrative officer. Did the administrative officer make this document? The police officer answered no and said the administrative officer got the document from the policemen in the field. Did you bring any policeman from the field, he said no. That means, first thing in Evidence Act, is that it is hearsay because you’re like a third party.
Two, you have to also tie it by using the electoral officers who signed the document. And the electoral officers are supposed to be INEC officials. But INEC as an organization says this result we don’t know about it because these officials never returned these results back to us. INEC never certified this result. So, if the Supreme Court on the basis of what has happened with this turns around and says we will still accept this, then you know that there is, as Obasanjo will say, some K leg there. That is why we as a party felt that we had to protest this. Not for the individuals involved, neither Hope nor Ihedioha, but for the integrity of the court.
The danger today is this, if I go into an election and INEC shows up and conducts the election, I can go behind and print my own set of electoral materials, write my own results and when we get to the Supreme court, my lawyer will now say, “my Lords at the point at which this same matter came to you, in Hope UzodinmavsIhedioa you ruled to accept the results. If they don’t follow that precedent, that is where the conundrum will come. So it is a very major dagger blow to our electoral jurisprudence. And so what we are doing as a party, is not just to talk about our party, it’s also to talk about this country.
When we went for the rally, I made a very simple statement, I said: “We are asking the Supreme Court to review their judgment, not for anything, but because sometimes you can make a mistake. If the figures as we have now seen and it has been universally demonstrated, just don’t fit, you must review your judgment – the figures just don’t fit. We have a court that has given judgment, but with over voting loaded into the judgment. And every court has always said that when there is over-voting, you nullify an election”. The Supreme Court should review the case, because of the implications.
TNC: You have been in the public domain since the onset of this Fourth Republic. Apart from being a Deputy Governor, you have been in the Senate since 2007. Is retirement or moving to higher political calling on the cards? What principles do you think have helped to ensure your longevity in Abia State politics?
EA: Let me put it this way, politicians don’t retire, they change gear. In institutions, such as the parliament, the longer you stay the better you become. But then, as they say, nobody knows tomorrow. Everything is in the hands of fate and the hands of God. I just want to continue to serve my people in whatever capacity they ask me to.
The belief has always been that anybody who has some integrity can never be a good politician here because you will always be compromised in certain ways. I’ve been in this since 1999. I have always said my mind. I’ve of course suffered setbacks, but that has not stopped my career. I also feel that one can still have the 3 Cs (Competence, Character, and Capability) and still be a politician.