Prof Epiphany Azinge, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and the 5th Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and member of the Commonwealth Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal, is one of Nigeria’s most celebrated legal luminaries and scholars.
By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor
Apart from his extensive academic and legal work, Azinge is engaged in community development and philanthropic work. To actualise his love for charity, he is promoting a project known as the Epiphany Azinge FOUNDATION and slated for inauguration on November 13.
In this interview, the scholar, with about 63 books and journals to his credit, speaks on burning national issues and the rationale behind the Foundation.
What is the Epiphany Azinge Foundation all about?
The Foundation stands for many things and the aim is to give back to the society. It is multi-faceted. Indeed, it is everything but political. With a well-heeled board of incorporated trustees, the Foundation’s objectives range from the promotion of academic values/educational advancement, to the establishment of a citadel of higher learning for teaching, research and promotion of knowledge. It is also part of the mandate of the Foundation to promote patriotism and nationalism, cultivate and inculcate the altruistic passion of volunteerism, vigorously pursue the promotion of work ethics in the public sector, groom young people for leadership and art of government and identify, support and promote excellent innovative minds who are trailblazers in their areas of influence.
A cardinal thrust of the Foundation is its focus on education. In this regard, education of the indigent child ranks in priority. Consequently, EAF Scholarship Board is instituted to handle the issues of scholarship.
The Foundation will be inaugurated on the 13th of November 2017 and the highlight of the ceremony will be a public lecture/award with the theme, “Nigeria In Search of a Detribalised Race”, to be delivered by MOST REV MATTHEW HASSAN KUKUH, the Bishop of Sokoto Catholic Diocese. Other discussants include H.E, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, Senator Grace Bent, Prof Anwalu Yadudu, H.E, Mr Peter Obi, H.E, Mr Donald Duke, H.E, Mr Tunde Fashola ,SAN, H.E, RT HON Aminu Tambuwal, CFR and Mr Femi Falana, SAN. Awards will be given to Nigerians adjudged by the Board of Trustees to be detribalised Nigerians. There will also be book presentations and cultural entertainment to promote national integration.
It is our considered view that the Foundation can set the agenda and chart a roadmap for national unity by vigorously interrogating the issue of tribalism in our polity.
Despite the many administrations in Nigeria, it appears as if no Nigerian government has ever taken the provisions of Chapter 2 of the 1999 Constitution on FUNDAMENTAL OBJECTIVES AND DIRECTIVE PRINCIPLES OF STATE POLICY seriously to the point of invoking it to make things work better for the citizens. Can this be an omission?
Well, that, to me, is the most shocking development in our polity. Over and above all other agitations in the front burner of national discourse, there should have been the need to make Chapter 2 of the Constitution justiciable. Why this has not crossed the mind of well-informed Nigerians rooting for agitations beats my imagination.
I have always been a student of justiciability of Chapter 2 of the Constitution. In my co-edited book, “JUSTICIABILITY AND CONSTITUTIONALISM: AN ECONOMIC ANAYSIS OF LAW, opinions were proffered on the need to vitalise immediately Chapter 2 of the Constitution. Apart from Economic, Social, Educational, Environmental and Foreign Policy objectives, I have once posited that Chapter 2 of the Constitution is the best manifesto for our political parties. Section 14(2) (a) states clearly that sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria……”. The people are the basis of government and they confer legitimacy and authority on the Constitution. If that is the case, is it too much to give the people education, housing, medicare, transportation and food? This, to me, is more critical than “restructuring,” “devolution of power”, “separatist agitations” “fiscal federalism,” etc. Emphasis is on the people and the people should be the primary responsibility of government.
The ultimate responsibility, however, lies with the National Assembly. Item 60 (a) of the Exclusive Legislative List in the Second Schedule of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) enjoins the National Assembly, through the instrumentality of law, to make provisions for the establishment and regulation of authorities for the federation or any part thereof “to promote and enforce the observance of the fundamental objectives and directive principles contained in this Constitution”.
To me, this is the most fundamental duty facing the National Assembly and the country at this point in time.
As an intellectual, who has done a lot of work on Nigeria’s political economy and jurisprudence, do you think there is anything wrong with the structure of the country to warrant the raging agitation for restructuring?
I recall that in my early school days (both primary and secondary), Nigeria was described as a conglomeration of scattered states with people of different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Is there any wonder when people of such diverse backgrounds and orientation threaten thunder and brimstone from time to time? There are aspects of our national existence we have tried to address comprehensively and judicial reforms will easily top the list. On political economy, the discovery of oil took our breath away and we have still not fully recovered. The inquiry, rather than focusing on management or mismanagement, has shifted to “who misappropriated what?” and “who is supposed to control what”. So, in the main, the agitation for restructuring is not far removed from the whole notion of fiscal federalism and devolution of power. Whilst I subscribe to the view that people should have the right to agitate over issues, I am fully convinced that a fairly or reasonably satisfied people (within the framework of Chapter 2 of the Constitution), may not easily yield to agitation for whatever reason.
Again, this is where the test of leadership is at its peak. Our nation needs a leadership that can reconcile our competing interests and manage our people in a way that gives sense of belonging to the diverse people and engender a feeling of acceptability, equality and mutual trust among the various groups of people. Once the ethnic nationalities feel accommodated in the scheme of things and religious differences sufficiently played down, Nigeria truly will be on its way to greatness.
Do you think there is need for restructuring? In what ways should that be done to ensure Nigeria’s progress, peace and stability?
My answer above is tangentially connected to this question. I am also happy that you have linked your question to progress, peace and stability of Nigeria. The fundamental question, to me, is, what can bring about peace and progress to our country at this point in time? My answer is unmistakeably restructuring. It does appear that this is what the people of Nigeria want at this point in time and this is what can bring about peace. In that sense, I wholeheartedly endorse the need for restructuring.
As regards the way it should be done, I am not a fan of regionalism. The whole essence of regionalism is completely eroded in our political lexicon. It will be difficult for Akwa Ibom, Cross Rivers, Rivers and Bayelsa states to return to Eastern Region. The Middle Belt will not want to become part and parcel of Northern Nigeria again. Besides, the fears of the minorities, as captured in the WILINKS Report, were well catered for by creation of states and a call for a return to regionalism is to throw away the baby with the bath water. That will certainly not sell.
What appears more viable is the retention of states with the prospects of constitutionalising the geopolitical zones. We can start with the six-zone structure and aggregate states as appropriate. The hierarchy of authority can be worked out with the states retaining substantial autonomy while ceding some to the next level which is the geopolitical zone. This will be on the understanding that the Federal Government will yield substantial power to the states and the geopolitical zones. Areas of harmony between the states and geopolitical authority will include judicial system, political integration, economic coordination and other administrative collaboration touching on Police, Prison, Public Holidays, Road Networks, Electricity Distribution, External Borrowing, Pensions and Gratuities (except for federal staff), Railways, Stamp Duties and Trade and Commerce. These items on the exclusive legislative list can now be devolved to states and coordinated by the hierarchy in the geopolitical zone.
The President recently asked those agitating for restructuring to direct their demand to the National and State Assemblies. Do you think the exercise is the prerogative of the legislature?
Procedurally, Mr President is perfectly correct. But that is as far as it goes. When the composition of the National Assembly is part of the issue in contention as far as restructuring is concerned, politically, the National Assembly may not be the best platform to expect justice and fair play.
To a large extent, the people must have a say in the issue of restructuring. This can best be expressed through a referendum. As earlier pointed out, sovereignty belongs to the people and they are best positioned to determine the nature of government they want and the type of Constitution they prefer to operate. The National Assembly will always be available to give its seal of authority but it ought not to be a wholesale prerogative of the National Assembly.
But you are aware that the Nigerian Constitution does not make provision for referendum for any group to talk about self-determination or secession as is the case in some countries.
Yes, constitutionally, there is provision for referendum for the purposes of creation of state and recall of members of National and State assemblies. But the Constitution is silent on the issue of referendum on secession. Perhaps, rightly so because it is antithetical to provide for indivisibility and indissolubility of a nation and at the same time prescribe referendum as procedure for secession. To have this inserted as a clause in the Constitution will require comprehensive constitutional amendment that will reconcile the contradictions that may occur if provision is made for secession. In the absence of constitutional amendment, it is totally unconstitutional to use referendum for the purpose of initiating the process of secession.
Do we need another constitutional conference to address Nigeria’s future or do we revisit the report of previous conferences to move ahead?
The ink on the 2014 National Conference has not yet dried up. So, why do we need another conference? There were misgivings about the convocation of the 2014 Conference but it did not water down the recommendations. I have been privileged to read the report of the conference and I consider it incisive, far reaching and progressive. I recommend it to all and sundry.
Many Nigerian complain that reward for political office holders or perks of office for politically exposed persons are rather too high in Nigeria, thereby promoting undue struggle for public office. Is this a problem for Nigeria?
Yes, we hear that the perks and remuneration are high, but we are never confronted with the statistics and data.
But a nation that cannot say, with certainty, the salary and wages of an arm of government is certainly a nation in the dark ages. No matter what it is, the people of Nigeria are entitled to know. I, however, do not support the idea of crucifying members of the National Assembly for what they earn. The political terrain in Nigeria is demanding and no one with empty treasury can survive in that terrain.
But the struggle for public office is not necessarily predicated on the desire to benefit from reward or perks of office. There are certainly more benefits over and above the rewards. Whether this is a problem for Nigeria is a totally different proposition. A time will surely come when the issue of money in public office will no longer be in vogue and service to your people will become the yardstick for assessing quality representation and legacy.
The judiciary has come under attack for alleged corruption within its ranks. Some judges were picked up in the night last October and some cash and guns recovered from their homes in a move never seen in the history of Nigeria. Was this approach necessary in tackling corruption in their tier of government?
Nigeria is widely acclaimed to have one of the best judiciary in the whole world. No doubt, there are bad eggs among any group of people but that is not sufficient to brand the Nigerian judiciary as corrupt or paint them with black tar all over.
Contrary to expectation the NJC seems to have made more progress checkmating and disciplining the judges than have been made in prosecution of judicial officers alleged to be corrupt. Credit must be given to the incumbent Chief Justice of Nigeria for all judicial reforms recently introduced.
What do you make of the current fight against corruption in Nigeria? In other words, is the war succeeding or failing to achieve the desired results?
Highly commendable. We may not have gotten to where we should be. That does not stop us from applauding anyone with the courage of conviction to embark on such a mission.
I believe it is too early in the day to produce a score card. The psychological warfare is far more important than arrests and convictions. Increasingly mind-sets are changing and people have started questioning sources of wealth of others.
Many well-placed Nigerians suggest to me that checking rising corruption is more crucial to Nigerian’s survival and greatness than dissipating energy on restructuring, which they say amounts to an academic exercise. What do you say to that school of thought?
With respect, I take it as an insult to the collective intelligence of those clamouring for restructuring to refer to their efforts as mere academic exercise. That is disrespectful and most insensitive. However, it is crucial to state that both restructuring and checking corruption are critical for the survival of our nation.
One is not more important than the other. Indeed, it can be said that restructuring may be useful in comprehensively addressing the rising wave of corruption in Nigeria.
What do you think is wrong with Nigeria?
Nothing. A nation with our landmass, arable land, clement weather, largest congregation of blacks in one country, geographical location and abundant natural resources is certainly a blessed country.
As a people, however (as distinct from the country), there are so many things wrong with Nigerians. We have not progressed as much as we ought to after 57 years. We have battled a long period of military interregnum, endured a devastating civil war, mismanaged our rich oil wealth, unleashed primordial sentiments on our 70% uneducated citizens, squandered our collective patrimony through corruption and abuse of office, created religious and ethnic conflicts as diversionary tactics. Nigeria has not been blessed with leaders that are committed to leading the nation in our journey to greatness. But is there hope for Nigeria. The answer is yes. I am supremely optimistic that Nigeria is destined for greatness and it is only a matter of time that our dear country will commence its journey to national rebirth and renaissance.
It will certainly not be business as usual in the years ahead. Nigerians are increasingly aware of their rights and responsibilities.
They are ready and prepared to take their destiny in their own hands in order to check the drift in the system.