By PATIENCE AKPURU (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chief Richard Akinjide (SAN) was among the lawyers that went to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to defend the Bakassi Peninsula for Nigeria; a case which the nation lost more than 10 years ago. When Nigeria failed to appeal the matter last October, many Nigerians now consider the case dead and buried. However, Akinjide who insists that Bakassi is part of Nigeria claims that the federal government knows what to do to rekindle the matter. Another matter has continued to haunt him more than 30 years after; it is the supreme court judgment he procured as the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice for former President Shehu Shagari in which the court ruled that 12 /1/2 was the two-third of 19 states. Considered a controversial ruling by many Nigerians, Akinjide still insists; “I do not accept that it is a controversial ruling. Ten judges heard that case; three of them in the first court. Unanimously, they held that Shagari was the right president.”
You entered parliament as a young man? What was the experience like?
It was great. I entered parliament two times. I was elected twice; the first time I was in parliament for a number of years. Later, I became federal minister of education. The second time I entered parliament, I became the Attorney-General of the federation. So I was in the parliamentary system of government and later I was also in the presidential system of government. I was in parliament before independence and I was in the parliament at the time of independence. It was great and it is a moment in our history which will not repeat itself because it is something that cannot happen again.
At the time of the nation’s independence, what were your expectations as a young Nigerian in that leadership capacity?
I had great expectations of Nigeria. I thought that we would be like Europe, America, Canada or Australia. That was what I thought.
Now, how do you feel about it?
By now, I thought we would have achieved more than we have achieved, but I am still hopeful. The present president is doing extremely well amidst a lot of problems and difficulties. I believe we will get there. Nigeria will be one of the greatest, if not the greatest in the whole of Africa.
But the insecurity caused by insurgents across the country keeps questioning the oneness of Nigeria.
Nigeria is a very great nation.
We are going through some problems and we are achieving a lot. America went through a lot. America had its own civil war. Britain had its own problems. They had problem of General Cromwell from 1649 to 1660. French had their own; the French revolution. China had their own problems. So whatever happens in Africa or in Nigeria now, it is nothing unique. It is something that has happened in other countries. We are just going through a phase.
Don’t you think that Nigeria can learn from other nations’ experiences?
I believe we are learning. We will get over all our problems and we will be great.
You have always insisted that Nigeria does not need a sovereign national conference. Have you changed your mind?
I have not. You see, I don’t say that there should be no conference. By all means, let us have a conference. What I mean is that there should be no sovereign national conference. Sovereign national conference means that the conference will be the government of the country.
That is the difference. But the conference will not be the government of the country because we have parliaments-the senate and House of Representatives; and we have the presidency. At the state level, we have the governors, the state Houses of Assembly, and then the local government councils.
So we have a structure already there. I accept that there is need to make things better in so many ways; just like America has got so many amendments to their constitution. Britain too has been doing that. So we should do as others have done. Let us improve on what we have, but to make it sovereign is not proper because that sovereign will be the government of the day.
You served under a parliamentary system of government. Do you subscribe to the call for a return to the parliamentary system? People say the presidential system of government is too expensive for Nigeria?
I agree that what we are doing now is more expensive, but I don’t agree that we should return to the parliamentary system. I was in the parliamentary system and I know how it worked. In a parliamentary system, the cabinet is just a committee of the parliament and the government can fall anytime.
It is not so with the presidential system of government. The president is elected by the whole country, but in a parliamentary system, the prime minister is just elected by his constituency. That’s not good for us with regards to what we are going through. Presidential system is far better.
You mentioned America’s constitution amendments, but America has only a few amendments to its constitution. Do you think that we need to keep amending our constitution virtually every year?
We should amend it as necessary. The Americans amended their own. The British, the French they all amended their constitutions, but it all depends on their needs. We should also amend our constitution based on our needs.
What is your view on the call for the creation of more states?
State creation is something that you cannot stop. America started with 13 states, they now have over 50 states. We started with three regions, we later had four regions, and later on, we had 12 states and then 30 and now we have 36 states. So, if and when necessary, we should create more states. But they should not be made on sentiments; it should be based on our needs and the reality of the circumstances.
In that case, do you think the South-East deserves additional state?
Oh, why not? I don’t have any objection if the easterners should be given additional state. For instance, we require one or two more states in Oyo.
Why should that be?
It is because Ibadan is the only provincial structure that has not been made into a state. And Ibadan deserves its own state.
Do you think that the provincial status alone confers on Ibadan a state status?
That is not enough; It should depend on its economic resources, population and then the aspirations and yearnings of the people. And we have all the ingredients in Ibadan to qualify for a state.
Those who argue against the creation of more states believe that the existing states are not viable; that they just distribute the money they get from the federal allocation every month and that is it. How do you feel about this?
In some areas, they may not be viable, but in some other areas, they are very viable. The governors should be very careful with public funds. Many of the governors are just feeding fat on public fund.
Some of these states don’t generate any fund on their own. So as a result, they can’t even pay salaries without taking a trip to Abuja.
Well, that should be corrected. They should collect the appropriate revenue as necessary.
You were part of the team that went to the world court to defend the Bakassi peninsula case for Nigeria. October came and has gone, and it is generally believed that Nigeria has lost out entirely on that case. Do you think Nigeria still has any options left?
That should be left to the federal government. The federal government knows what to do; and I am sure that they will do the right thing.
What is your advice for the Bakassi people?
There is no doubt that that place is part of Nigeria. I have no doubt about that because I have been there. They are Nigerians; it is part of Nigerian land. There is no point saying that it is part of Cameroun. So I support their aspirations; I support their yearnings.
Don’t forget that the matter went to the International Court of Justice; and that is where the problem started. The people of that area are part of Cross River state. They even install the king in Calabar. In fact, one of them has been the king of Calabar before. So there is no doubt that they are Nigerians. When the case was on, I was there. I saw them and there is no question of their being part of Nigeria. They are Nigerians and they want to remain Nigerians.
As the Attorney-General under former President Shehu Shagari’s government, you procured a Supreme Court ruling that said that 12 and half was the two-third of 19 states. It was a very controversial ruling. After all these years, do you feel any regrets?
I do not accept that it is a controversial ruling. Ten judges cleared that case; three of them in the first court. Unanimously, they held that Shagari was the right president. The matter went on appeal to the Supreme Court where seven judges sat; and six out of seven said that Shagari was the winner of that election. So out of the 10 judges, nine ruled in favour of Shagari while only one judge ruled against him.
But the people felt differently.
Well, the matter did not go for a plebiscite; the matter went to court. And the court delivered a judgment which is in the law reports and nine out of 10 judges said Shagari was the right president. As far as I am concerned, that is the law of the land.
So you feel no qualms about it?
At all, I feel very pleasant about it.