Lawyer and rights activist, Mr. Onyekachi Ubani has noted that the Abia State government’s penchant for clamping down on critics suggests that it has something to hide which it doesn’t want critics to expose.
Ubani, former second vice president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) who spoke to OBINNA EZUGWU, pointed out that that it is only when a government has little to show that it resorts to harassing critics instead of presenting its own side of stories to the people.
The Lagos based lawyer also bared his mind on the Nigerian government’s response to Coronavirus pandemic among other things.
Abia has been in the news, one of the reasons being the detention of Aba based lawyer and critic of the Governor Okezie Ikpeazu govt, Emperor Ogbonna. Isn’t the government taking his matter too far?
Yes, it’s unfortunate. If the Abia State government feels that the lawyer (Ogbonna) has committed a crime, the thing to do is to charge him to court and let the court be allowed to listen to the evidence they have against him. And if he is found guilty, the court will pronounce him guilty. But I’m particularly averse to illegal detention without trial. That is clearly a violation of the provisions of the constitution. Anyone who is accused of committing any crime under our laws is presumed to be innocent. You don’t just go and dump somebody in detention. I remember that this matter came up before the court for his bail. And as they perfected his bail, he was rearrested by the DSS (Department of State Service) and up till now he has not been charged. That is not prosecution; that is persecution and it’s clearly not in consonance with our democratic norms. We are under a democracy. But that is a totalitarian type of governance, where government is now showing clearly that it doesn’t like any criticism and it wants to crush every opposition or every free expression. You don’t do that under democracy. As long as our constitution is still in place, if at any point in time you feel that someone has committed a crime, take him to court, let him be given his own day to be heard by court which will make a pronouncement. But using illegal detention to punish an individual who has not been convicted by the court, I think is the most absurd act by any government or authority.
Could the clamp down on critics be as a result of the government not being confident in what it has achieved?
You can’t rule that out. If governments become very cynical about criticisms, sometimes it’s because they have something to hide which they don’t want anyone to point out. If you are doing well and somebody is criticising you, what you do is to present different facts in order to convince the people that this is what you have done. But when you become terribly averse to criticism, it then means that there is nothing you have to present and that’s why you don’t want other people to express themselves. I think it’s because they have nothing to present, that’s why they are now trying to clamp down on any opposition and all that. But that’s not the way to go. I have called one or two people in the government to say, this is not the way you people should go. If you feel that the man has committed a crime, take him to court, let him be allowed to be heard by the court. But using this blackmail and intimidation is not in the interest of the government of the day.
There was this controversial letter said to have been written by Abia governor to the Police Service Commission protesting the redeployment of former state CP, Ene Okon. Isn’t it surprising?
I am aware of the letter, and I’m also aware that they have not denied it. The letter emanated from them. But the point is, why would they be interested in the posting of a police commissioner? Because there has been allegations against that commissioner and that letter shows that maybe they were working in tandem. They have been using the man to clamp down on anybody that speaks against them. So, if the man has been criticised, why would he (Ikpeazu) be interested in him being retained, contrary to the wishes of the authorities that posted him there in the first place? It was an embarrassment. It didn’t speak well of the government.
To other matters. What do you make of our government’s response to COVID-19 pandemic?
I’ve not been impressed, especially when the government asked people to stay at home and they didn’t provide anything. But we hear about billions and billions of naira being spent, both at the local government, state and federal levels. But nobody that I know, whether in the village or in Lagos or anywhere, has actually said he received anything from the government. We only see people on air and in the social media. When they started, they showed where they were sharing cash, but all of a sudden they said they can’t give account of the names of the people they have shared money to because they want to protect their privacy and all that. At the end of this pandemic, you will hear the kind of trillions of naira that these people will claim to have spent, but nobody felt it; nobody’s life was impacted. And now, what they did was to ask people to go about their businesses; that their lives are no longer in the hands of the government, which means that they have failed to do what they are supposed to do, and the only way to heed the cry of people who have been crying about being locked up without food is to say ‘OK, we are releasing you, but your life is now in your own hands.’
It is a failure on the part of the government. I’m not impressed at all. And the issue of putting structures in place, even when they opened up the economies some of the states, the first day, you could see the pandemonium; the total confusion, because there was no proper arrangement. I’m not impressed at all. When I look at what other nations suffering the same thing we are suffering, what they have done in terms of making arrangements for their citizens and all that, and I look at my own country; what the government has done for the people, we are not there at all.
Now that the space has been opened up for people to move around, considering the level of our healthcare system, are you not worried about possible catastrophe?
I’m alarmed. We know what is happening in other countries that have all the basic infrastructure. I mean, they are all crying. Their infrastructure cannot withstand this pandemic. Then consider a country like ours that has nothing at all on the ground. So, if this thing breaks the way we have seen in other countries, it then means that we are in a very big problem. The country doesn’t have the basic infrastructure, there is no structure medical wise, in terms of health facilities to contain this big health crisis. You can see that some states have nothing at all, not even isolation centres. There are some states like Kogi that has none, so if anything happens by way of massive outbreak, they don’t have any isolation centre that can take up to 1000 at a time. There is no state today that has up to 2000 or 3000 bed spaces. I’m not sure if Lagos even has, and that’s a state that has up to 25million to 30million Nigerians. So, if there is any massive outbreak, where are the facilities? Yes, I’m worried and I think I will also use this opportunity to appeal to Nigerians, for us to be a bit sensitive and know that our lives are clearly in our hands. We don’t have any government that would protect us. We have to protect ourselves by being conscious and maintaining social distancing, not being in a hurry to mix up, and observing the hygienic procedures given by experts, such as washing of hands and ensuring that you don’t get too close to people. These are some of the things I would advice Nigerians to observe to avoid this community infection that all of us are scared of.
But the problem appears to be that a good number of people don’t actually believe there is Coronavirus. They think it’s some kind of hoax…?
Sometimes these things stem from the lack of transparency on the part of government. They see this thing playing out as a joke because the authorities keep on giving us figures of those that have been infected, but we are not seeing them the way we see them in other nations. We watch CNN, we see journalists go into all these hospitals and show these people. And when people are being discharged, they show evidence of those being discharged. But here, we operate everything in absolute secrecy. When you do that, people tend not to believe because government has always been lying to the people. The government of Nigeria lies to the people all the time, and the people have often found out that government officials are liars. So, even when you are serious in what you are saying, they will tend not to believe you because all along, you have been a liar; you have been lying to them. There is nothing you said that turned out to be true. So, you if you ask them to go left, they would prefer to go right, knowing that there is more danger in the left you are asking them to go. These things have become a part and parcel of us over time. It’s not as if we just woke up one day and started disbelieving our government. It’s a culture, it’s something that has metamorphosed over time. That’s why this issue of Coronavirus is still regarded by some as not being true. One, because we are not seeing those who are sick and we are not seeing those being discharged. We are only being given statistics everyday. Some of these people now tend to believe it’s all a lie. But Coronavirus is real and is a huge public health challenge that all of us should take serious. Nobody should in any way, play with this. But like I said, people tend to doubt because over time, government officials have been proven to be classic liars. But I will advice Nigerians to accept that the virus is real and is a very dangerous disease. We need to be very cautious.
As part of efforts to contain the virus, some governors in the North are deporting Almajiri children to their states of origin. Isn’t that a breach of the constitution?
Almost all the governors have abused the constitution in every respect. And under this pandemic, they have done all manner of illegalities. They have breached the constitution, they have violated the rights of citizens and people have tended to say, OK, because of the situation in which we are in, let’s allow that. But virtually all of them have done that. Now, the issue of the Almajiri is a very big socioeconomic problem in Nigeria. Over time, people have made suggestions that the Northerners should rise up and deal with the issue and make sure that their children are sent to modern educational institutions for learning, because we are in the modern times. However, because of the apparent advantage they enjoy from having these people remain the way they are, they didn’t mind, until this pandemic broke out. And why they are doing this now is to serve themselves because even the lives of the elite are threatened. It’s not because they love the people. They are not doing it out of the desire to do what is right. They are doing it for their own safety, because they know that if this thing becomes a community infection, they are not safe; no one is safe. Even this issue of isolation centres and locking people down, if this virus was affecting only poor people just like Lassa Fever and other diseases that have killed so many people such as malaria, they would have cared little. But because with this virus, nobody would go abroad and take their treatments, that’s why you see all these activities and pronouncements being made by the federal government and every state government. It is because the rich are affected and there is no place for them abroad. There is no place for them to run and take treatment. So, that’s why you see all these desperate measures that are being taken, including the deportation of Almajiri. But I hear that some of the Almajiri were caught in the East. So, what are they going to do in the East? Because I heard that some were intercepted at Abia border. They said they were taking the Almajiri to where they are from, so, why they now taking them elsewhere? That is is an issue. But what is important now is that they should make sure that we don’t have Almajiris anymore after this pandemic. We can’t continue to have children thrown into the streets to beg for food. And then, you are using them to do all manner of things. These people are human beings. They should be properly educated and own families and contribute to the development of Nigeria rather than being a problem. I hope they are genuine. Let them solve this problem of Almajiri once and for all, using this opportunity. I hope they will not allow them back to the streets anymore when the pandemic ends. If they allow them back, it means that these guys are wicked and evil