Prof. Oserhemen Osunbor, the immediate past governor of Edo State and a former senator, in this interview with ADELEKE ADESANYA, blames the Nigerian judiciary for most of the problems arising from the nation’s electoral experience. The ex-governor, who once fell victim when he was removed from office via the decision of a court, also says that the anti-graft agencies should be encouraged to carry out their functions without hindrance. The professor of law also speaks on ASUU’s opposition to the anti-sexual harassment bill currently before the Senate, among other national issues. Excerpts:
To start with, as a former governor of Edo state, how will you assess Governor Oshiomole’s eight years in office?
It is not appropriate for me assess the performance of my immediate successor, certainly not while he is still in the office. All I can say is that he is doing his best. In the area of road infrastructure, the evidence is there for all to see and assess by all.
In the recent primary conducted by your party, APC, you easily accepted defeat while other aspirants in the party raised the alarm over alleged malpractices during the primary election. Why this?
From the moment I decided to run, I expected one or the other result, which is win or lose. It was easy, therefore, for me to accept the result. Much more importantly, I have won many primary elections before and the aspirants who lost accepted defeat and supported me; for this reason, I saw nothing wrong in also supporting the winner when I lost. Furthermore, in spite of whatever reservation that I entertained, I had to heed the appeal by my party leaders at the national level for us to accept the result in the interest of the party and to collaborate and work with the candidate to ensure the party’s victory at the general election. This exactly is what I have been doing.
If Obaseki wins the election on September 28, what will you advise him to focus efforts on in the state in his first hundred days in office?
My advice is that he should keep his words and honour; the promises he made to the people of Edo state in the course of the campaign. He should move quickly to create employment opportunities as promised, he should continue with provision of good roads, and water supply, especially for communities in Edo Central; employ qualify teachers for our schools and give more attention to Ambrose Ali University in the areas of infrastructure, accreditation of good programmes, and bursary scholarship to Edo State students.
What is your perception about the recent budget padding issue in the House of Representatives?
What has become known as budget padding arises from or is encouraged by the anxiety or pressure to conclude the passage of the budget whenever it drags into the new financial year. In haste to finalise and pass the budget, only the major expenditure heads or line items are usually disclosed at the plenary in chamber. The details are in, in good faith, often left to the appropriation committee to fill in. In the end, some members of the National Assembly, and even the concerned MDAs don’t ever get to see the details of the expenditure heads, even after the budget is passed. This is what gives room to abuse by principal officers or those charged with the responsibility of concluding the final details with the officials from the Executive. The end to this problem will come only when all members are privy to the details itemised in the budget. This is to avoid a situation where a few privileged persons pad the budget with projects defined for their own personal benefits to the detriment of others who are left in the dark. This, of course, presupposes that the budget estimate of the proposal will be presented to the National Assembly by the President early enough; certainly, not later than October in order to avoid last minute rush far into the New Year, when all manner of things can happen and strange items find their ways into the budget. There has to be more transparency in our budgetary process.
A report recently said ICPC and EFCC had listed some former governors to be investigated over alleged misappropriation of funds while in office. As a former governor, do you support this?
The ICPC and EFCC must be encouraged and supported to carry out their functions effectively, no matter who is involved. They must be appropriately funded and staffed to be able to conduct thorough investigations which only can secure conviction.
What is your view about the Niger Delta crisis?
The problems of neglect in the Niger Delta were already identified and documented by the colonial administration before Nigeria’s independence in 1960. The Willinks Commission report of 1968 proffered solutions to what should be done to ameliorate the conditions of the people in that region. Several other similar reports have been produced and submitted to the Federal Government ever since; the last being under the Yar’adua and Jonathan administrations. Regrettably, not much has been done by way of implementation. Happily, President Muhammadu Buhari has taken a bold step by commencing the cleaning of Ogoni land and this gave a hope that this administration will give hope to other aspects of required remediation.
As one of the leaders in Niger Delta region, how do you think this crisis can be addressed?
Government should dialogue with stakeholders to find a lasting solution to the crisis.
Recently, the Senate proposed an amendment to the Electoral Act, what are the areas of the law that critically need amendment?
The Electoral Act is a very dynamic piece of legislation; by that I mean that it has been the practice to try and learn from the mistakes of one election to ensure that it is not repeated in subsequent elections, and to do this, the National Assembly normally revisits the Electoral Act and make amendment to remove imperfections and perceived lapses which they consider inimical to the conduct of free, fair and credible elections. And I believe the move should be encouraged because, while I was in the Senate, it was amended about three times and there is a still room for further amendment. And even much more than Electoral Act, there are parts of the constitution that I will suggest that the National Assembly should look into, and I have made this known at public lectures and in public statements I have issued in the past that I find it very anomalous that winners of elections are declared in the court of law. The Electoral Act and the constitution enable just about three judges to sit down and decide on who they want to declare the winner of an election. Elections are supposed to reflect the will of the electorate; not the will of judges. But disappointedly, the constitution of Nigeria now permits judges to impose their will and decide who should be the governor of a state. That in my view is wrong. Democracy is government by the people, of the people and for the people. Elections are meant to reflect the desire of the electorate, not the desires of judges. So, where the judges think election has not been conducted in compliance with the law, they should order the election to be re-conducted; not to sit on the bench and declare somebody a winner on the ground that it was conducted by corrupt people in INEC. If there are corrupt people in INEC there also corrupt people in the judiciary. So I don’t think it is fair for some people in the Judiciary to just decide that people in INEC didn’t do their work well and then give their own judgment and pronouncement on an election they didn’t conduct. So, this I think is totally wrong and I will like the National Assembly to take a deep look into it and made amendment to the constitution to change this anomaly. They tried to do it before by way of amending the Electoral Act, but the court said it is unconstitutional because the constitution has given the right and power to declare the winner.
Recently, some states in the country were reported to have spent billions of Naira on the emoluments for their former governors while pensioners and workers in such states have yet to be paid salaries for several months. As a former governor, what do you think about this?
Well, the pension rights and benefits of former governors, to the best of my knowledge, are provided by law, enacted by the House of Assembly of the state. The members of the state House of Assembly ought to be sensitive to the plight of the people of their state, the existing and recurrent obligation of the state vis a vis the resources available to the state. The House of Assembly of a state is failing in its responsibilities if it panders to the pleasure of past governors to the detriment of workers and pensioners. Where such law exists, I will advise that they should be revisited by the Houses of Assembly with view to making a downward review of the benefits. They must not overstretch the patience of the people, especially at this very difficult period.
Recently, the global rating of universities around the world was done and no Nigerian university made the list. What do you think might have been responsible for this? And how will you advise that the Nigerian education sector be repositioned to attain global standard?
I regret to say that most public institution in Nigeria, universities inclusive, have degenerated in standard. The principal reason for this is that our value system as a nation has been turned upside down. Standards are bound to fall in a system where grades in examinations are bought and sold. Some lecturers award grades depending on how much the student can pay, several harassment of female students is endemic, some lecturers threaten female students that they will never graduate unless they succumb to their sexual advantage, and somehow they carry out this threat without any means of redress available to the victims. It was shocking to learn that ASUU expresses opposition to the sexual harassment bill now before the Senate, saying that it is uncalled for. If that report is correct, will it surprise anybody that the rating of Nigerian universities have plummeted? The Nigerian Law Reforms Commission, when I was there, produced a draft bill to prohibit and punish offenders for sexual harassment and its scope goes beyond universities. I hope that the commission avails the Senate this bill during its public hearing on the sexual harassment bill currently before it.
As a legal practitioner, do you think the Nigerian judiciary has done enough to help the ongoing fight against corruption in the country?
For many years now, I have used every opportunity to say that the judiciary poses the greatest threat to the survival of our democracy. The level of impunity among some judges is quite simply shameful, shocking and unacceptable. The situation is now so bad that courts in other countries assume jurisdiction over cases that ordinarily should be heard in Nigeria at the proper forum on the ground that the plaintiff will not get justice in Nigerian courts. President Buhari has himself expressed concern that the courts should not frustrate the fight against corruption. The leadership at the National Judicial Council and that of the Nigerian bar must give serious attention to reducing corruption in the country’s judiciary before it self-destructs.