22nd July, 2010
Chief Gabriel Giwa-Amu, a renowned property consultant and human rights activist, speaks about the state of the nation and sundry issues in this interview
You have been in the human rights struggle for long, what is the propelling force that makes you to fight for the rights of the masses?
It will require a very wicked person to see the down-trodden and close his eyes to their suffering. It will require a very mean soul to see other souls perishing out of the wicked activities of their leaders and pretend that those souls do not require help. When I go around and see people in pain, penury, poverty the godly part of me or what I call the righteous part reacts.
Is this righteous part of you responsible for collaborating with others to bail out prisoners?
Of course, that is true. If you go to the prisons and see inmates detained because they couldnâ€™t pay as little as N5,000, N2,000 or N10,000 fine imposed on them by magistrates, you feel pity for them and want to do something. These are people who have no visible means of income and cannot raise N2,000 or N,5000 and they are sentenced to nine months imprisonment with an option of N5,000 fine. People are convicted for stealing chicken and are convicted and sentenced to nine months imprisonment and then you see people who stole N200 million granted bail by the same courts. The humane part of me gets up and reacts.
Where do you get the fund for all these things?
There are some public spirited individuals who partner with us in freeing the prisoners. They include members of the Knights of St. Mulumba, Lekki sub-council. Members of the organisation visited some prisons in Lagos and discovered that about 110 prisoners were awaiting trial, while 30 of them that had already been convicted couldnâ€™t pay their fines. The lowest was N2,500. The knights consulted us and paid the fines for them to be released. We have paid between N300,000 and N400,000 for the release of these inmates and have succeeded in releasing about 53 of them.
What can be done to reduce prison congestion in the country?
Government policies have, to a great extent, led to congestion of the prisons. The best way to reduce this is to allow state governments take responsibility for the maintenance of the prisons. The state government cannot continue to collect the fines and leave the burden of maintenance and payment of salaries of waders to the Federal Government. If for instance the Lagos State government is paying as high as N4 billion for maintenance of prisons and salaries of wardens, government will be more responsive to the problem of prison congestion. If you go to the prisons, you will find many youths arrested for wandering and trivial offences like stealing chickens and goats. The only way to reduce prison congestion is to transfer the maintenance of prisons to state governments.
How do you react to magistrates granting bail to accused persons with outrageous conditions?
It is true that magistrates have the discretion to grant bails but they should exercise this discretion with caution. For instance, what is the sense in giving a bail condition of N250,000 to an accused charged with assault occasioning harm? For Godâ€™s sake, the man was arrested for assault, you are now asking him to deposit about N250,000 into the courtâ€™s registrarâ€™s account before he can be released, where do you want him to get the money? That is when the relations run away and the man is kept in prison. Like the man we released recently, he had been in prison for nine months for assault. If this man was convicted, how many months would he spend in prison. Thank God, we were able to move on his behalf and the court discharged him.
Can you link this to corruption in the judiciary?
Not all judges and magistrates are corrupt. Let us give honour to who honour is due. We have some upright and righteous judges. Some of them are corrupt, but not all. Corruption is not only about receiving bribe, tt is about tilting your pen backwards to be under any manner of undue influence. I know a lot of judges that you canâ€™t bribe with money but can be influenced by other considerations.
Retired Justice Kayode Eso recently called for a probe of judges who presided over election petition tribunals and used their position to amass wealth….?
That is justice Esoâ€™s personal opinion. All I am saying here too is my private opinion. I am now saying that what Justice Eso said is not true. I know Justice Eso knows all the judges guilty of this allegation, but has not come out to say to anybody or to EFCC that this man received so much amount. When we make allegations, we must be able to identify those concerned. Justice Eso is a highly reputed judge, but before you arrive at such conclusions, you must be able to point to one person. I agree with his personal opinion, but officially, he should cause a petition to be written. He has information that we donâ€™t have and should assist in the fight against corruption by identifying the culprits.
Are you absolving judges of corruption?
No. Look, a lot of judges are corrupt, but not all of them and corruption is not only about receiving bribes, it is about tilting backwards under any influence or whatsoever. I know a lot of judges that you cannot bribe with money.
So, how do you view the various judgments delivered by the election petitions tribunals, especially that of Osun State?
I donâ€™t trust most of these judgments. I look forward to a day the tribunals will sit within three months and deliver judgment. I look forward to a day we will have a system where the jury will determine cases. A jury composed of men of integrity in their communities.
What do you think can be done to stem corruption in this country?
In spite of the so-called independence of the judiciary, some judges are still corrupt. I amm surprised that nobody is talking about removing the immunity currently being enjoyed by governors from prosecution. If the immunity is removed, the governors will know that they can be criminally liable while in office. Nobody is talking about amending the constitution to reflect free education, free medical services and access to mortgage. Until those in authority attend to the needs of the people, corruption will continue to stare us in the face.
Recently, some members of the House of Representatives engaged in fisticuffs and tore their clothes. How do you react to this show of shame?
When I saw a clip of what went on in the House on television, I was very happy.
Why wouldnâ€™t I be glad when my enemyâ€™s house is in disarray? When you see people who have conspired to steal the resources of this country and are now at loggerheads, why wouldnâ€™t I be happy? I love the way they are exposing themselves. All these people are unpatriotic. A man was accused of spending N9 billion within a year and was asked to explain how he spend it. He was involved in a car purchase scam and now turned unruly, what kind of a House is that? I am praying that they should fight more to bring down the House. These people are not fighting for the people, they are not defending the people, but only defending their pockets. I cannot pray that the house of my enemy should have peace. May the House of Representatives continue to be in disaray.
So, what should be done?
One would have expected them to rise up against these brigands, but what did we see, people are keeping quiet and going about as if nothing happened. That is why there is so much suffering in the land. The people cannot fight for their rights. If it had been other climes like the Philippines where the people stood up to fight for their rights, there would have been sanity in this country.
Are you satisfied with the preparations for the 2011 elections so far?
I have not seen any preparations, so why should I be satisfied with something I have not seen? In any case, there is no need for any elaborate preparations, I have said it may times that all we need to do is to adopt the open ballot system. There is no need making ballot boxes or printing voterâ€™s card. All we need to do is to get the portraits of all the candidates that have been screened by INEC and let them queue in front of the candidates of their choice, while INEC and the political parties record the queues on video. After this, count the number of people on the queues for all political parties and record the number in a sheet of paper, hand over the result to agents of the political parties and everybody goes home. We spend so much money on nothing. There shouldnâ€™t be any problem conducting the 2011 elections if we adopt Option A4. This will reduce and rancour and corruption in the system.
What is your advice to voters in the coming elections?
Voters should respect their votes and refuse to be bought by politicians. They should also reject bags of rice, money and other items offered by the politicians.
How would you assess the Fashola-led administration in Lagos State?
Fashola is dynamic, progressive and purposeful. He turned Oshodi, once a confused terminus, into a beautiful place and brought down illegal structures, but he should compensate owners of some structures brought down for development purposes. I, however, disagree with his policy of picking destitute on the streets of Lagos and dumping them in the market square in Sokoto, Kano, Jigawa and Katsina states, even Ogun State. That policy is elitist. In every society, you must have the poor. Even in Godâ€™s own country, you have the poor. God also acknowledges the existence of the poor. You donâ€™t just go to the streets and start packing people and dump them somewhere. Government should provide alternative means for those who do not have. Government should provide alternative accommodation for people whose houses were pulled down. Government policies must have humane face. Lastly, LASTMA operatives should be orientated, they should be people friendly and not terror.