A maverick lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Mike Ahamba, speaks with Deborah Onyofufeke on the ongoing strike action by public university lecturers under the aegis of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), saying the union cannot be proscribed and that the Federal Government is wrong for refusing to pay the backlog of salaries despite industrial action.
The ASUU strike was again, unfortunately, postponed indefinitely and it has infuriated some people who demanded that the union be proscribed. Can Federal Government constitutionally ban ASUU?
No! That would be infringing on their freedom of association. As we all know, the disagreement between the Federal Government and ASUU now is because the Federal Government has insisted on not paying ASUU the backlog of salaries for the duration of the strike period saying the no work no pay policy stands and ASUU wouldn’t accept that because they, in turn, argued that they will do the backlog of the academic work for the duration of the strike. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has taken the side of ASUU, saying they have every right to their salaries which should be paid.
Do you agree with NLC?
Yes. You see, our people here sometimes do not know the difference between a military regime and a civilian regime. The military regime does not rule with a constitution so whatever they say, is the constitution. When they do certain things, the civilians think they can copy, it’s not true. Going on strike is legitimate, so long as you started it legitimately, there are conditions present for going on strike and I think ASUU complied and they went on strike, so you cannot, when someone has gone on strike based on the law of the land, you want to punish him for going on strike, I don’t think it will work. In my honest opinion, the government is wrong.
If you say the FG is wrong and it is ASUU’s right to demand their salaries, can ASUU go-ahead to sue the FG for refusing to pay them for the duration of the time that they were on strike?
Yes, they can because they have a case. It is legitimate. As I told you, a strike is legitimate in a civilian regime. It is allowed in the Labour law. So long as you follow the procedure for calling a strike. If they follow the procedure in calling this strike, a settlement can come in. You cannot put them in jeopardy, for doing what they have the right under our laws to do. That is why those who advise the government should be careful not to misdirect the government. Most of the people they go to for advice don’t know anything about what they are talking about. You see, so this is it, if they go to court, they will succeed but the first thing, let them restore the normalcy of academic work and they will talk about the legality of this issue because our children are suffering, the education in the country is suffering and these people don’t care. They don’t care about it because all their children are in London and America. It’s not right. As far as I am concerned, they entitled to pay during the strike period
Recently, the National Industrial Court in Abuja ordered that there should be an increment in the judges’ salaries and allowances. Considering the rot in the judiciary, do you think an increment will address the setback?
I don’t think so. But then, I am not saying that they are not entitled to an increment. I believe that the issue is something that we negotiated in the appropriate body in the government, the commission that looks into these things, that’s where the issue lies. They should take a lawyer who can go there and speak for them and they fight it out there but to stay in one place and order, that judges should have a particular increment, the state government doesn’t all have equal money so how do you tell the governments to give you equal money, now, if you ask them to do that, where will they get the money? Take, for example, the Lagos state government, the IMO state government, or the Abia state government won’t have the same source of revenue, Rivers, Bayelsa, and so forth, they have more money than all those who don’t have, so, if you stay here and order an increment, without a negotiating point to know how it should be done, it will collapse. It will collapse. So, I can’t say if the judge was wrong or right because I don’t know what was placed before her. I believe that government can now fully detain to another level, to test out whether it was an illegal order. They can go to the court of appeal and test it out but I can’t say if the judge was wrong or right because I am not a Court of Appeal but the issues can be argued if it is wrong or right, it can be argued.
Lately, Nigeria has been faced with dire insecurity challenges, and people have come up with the opinion of a well-funded state/community police system is the answer that can tackle this. Where every state has its police to secure its territory and protect the people against external and internal crimes/attacks. This system of police, is it constitutionally right for it to be adopted?
Thank you for this question. You see before this crisis of insecurity, the issue had come up and I have always argued against state police, the reason being that it has been there before and we know what happened. I still remember the photograph of J.F Kalka of Benue state when I was in secondary school. I saw him being dragged through the streets of Koke, in the newspaper with his hand handcuffed behind him. He was arrested by the local police. As you know, my father was a politician. I know that some independent candidates were arrested by the local police and dragged to the customary court for criminal matters just to stop them from contesting the election. Something happened that led to the prescription of the state police. Before we restore, we must go and sit down, consider those things and see whether they are capable of happening again now because if they happen now, they will be more deadly. After all, the state police will not have Ak-47. So, why is the security reverse, we must find a way that will not create another problem. Look at what his bah is doing in Kano, discriminating religiously and I have argued, against it, this is wrong. There’s no provision for state police in the constitution and what we have to do is to get into the national assembly and argue the issue in our amendment bill or something like that. Even, as I have always adjudicated, let’s sit down and reconsider our constitution. This thing can be argued, they will look at the pros and cons of it. There are people in a country once there is a problem, and who stay in one place and suggest something. They think it’s easy, they don’t know that by doing that, they are creating a more dangerous situation in the country to which they have no solution. That is it. It is not creating state police that will make the federal police to be conscious of their responsibility. You can’t get people to do their job in the country but if they decide to do state police, I am not against it but I’m saying we should go back and know why we proscribed it in the first place because remembered that the 1979 constitution was done by the civilians, not by the military. There was a constituent assembly that did that thing and one of the things they dropped was because of the mistakes they had before and if they think that mistake cannot come again, well and good but I don’t want a situation where there will be war between one state or the other being fought by the police. If it’s happening in one place, it can spread to another place. These are the issues I am fighting about. Let us sit down and discuss the pros and cons and not talk about it in the newspaper. That is what I am talking about. It can create more problems than solved, it’s a possibility but if we discuss it and the consensus is that it is okay for us, we do it. It’s our country.
Can you speak on what you think of the state nation?
First thing is that the government in charge right now has lost control of the country. Security-wise, economy-wise, society-wise, nothing is functioning, education, everything has collapsed. That is the state of the nation. We are in a state of collapse.
Complete collapse and if something is not done quickly, anarchy will take over. This is the truth of the matter. Let’s say it. The government is not in control of any part of this country anymore. Today in Nigeria, people can just go out kill people, put their heads on the road and go away. What type of a nation is that? It’s not right. This government as far as I am concerned has failed even though the head of state is my friend, I have to say it. The government has failed. Truly, Nigerians are pained because they feel like this government has failed them and they are all looking forward to 2023 when this government will hand over to another. This is also the reason why many Nigerians, especially the youth, are campaigning for Peter Obi, because they see him as the slightly new order, as compared to the other two strong contestants from the popular political parties.
Who, in your opinion, has what it takes to take Nigeria out of the rot it is in now?
I will give you a side example of it now. Have you heard of a man called Pelle? A footballer. The Brazilian footballer once described the German team which was then called the German machine as Ken robots. So, if you have one very good man and you surround him with incompetent people or people who are opportunists, he may not be as competent as he’s supposed to be because he is not a dictator. He has to depend on the opinion of people that’s why I tell people considering those who will go to the National Assembly is more important to me than those who will be governor or president because these people control these executives but if you allow incompetent people to go, into the place, they may go there to collude and take their bits. Now, if you are voting in people who will not play ball with them in that situation, crisis camp, impeachment camp, and all those their camp. I am a politician, I have a party, so, I don’t want to come here and tell you who my candidate is but you know my party has a candidate. I try to be straightforward in everything. My party has chosen a candidate, that’s the person I work for if he’s not good enough for Nigerians. That’s not my business