Justice Mustapha Akanbi
Retired Justice Mustapha Akanbi, former President, Appeal Court and a past chairman, Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, will be 80 on 11 September 2012. Akanbi seizes the opportunity of his birthday interview to comment on corruption in the polity. Of course, he proffers solution
How do you feel at 80?
It has been quite good for me in every respect – family life, professional life, everything. I am fulfilled in everything that I have done in life. I am looking forward to rejoicing with my family and friends and all my admirers who in one way or the other have touched my life and whose life I have also touched.
How memorable was your childhood?
I attended various schools both in Ghana and Nigeria. For primary education, I went to the Accra Land School. I then attended the African College, also in Ghana. I can still recall some figures that were my school mates then. From African College, I know of only one who is still alive; his name is Larbi. I was in Ghana last year in December and I met him. He was so excited he felt like swallowing me because he didn’t believe that we could still meet again. We discussed the old days. I also met Dr. Alhassan Mohammed, who was one time Deputy Governor of the Central Bank in Ghana.
Back in Nigeria, I attended the Kaduna Trade Centre and my mates there included the late S.K. Dagogo Jack, who was Chairman of the then FEDECO, and Mustapha Umara who was Secretary to the Interim Government of Ernest Shonekan. Later, I headed to the Institute of Administration, Zaria to read Law. Out of the 12 of us in class then, 10 have died, leaving only myself and Justice Mohammed Uwais, former Chief Justice of Nigeria. So, by and large, God has been kind to me to have spared my life to reach 80 years. That is why I have decided to mark the 80th birthday to appreciate what God has done for me and to rededicate myself to the service of God and service of the people.
What was your parents’ influence on you?
The influence of my parents, particularly my father, on me was tremendous. It was around 1939 that I was taken to Ghana by my father, while my mother stayed back in Ilorin to take care of my paternal grandmother. Of course, my father had other wives. My father had been responsible largely for what I am today because although by English standard, he was not literate, he placed so much emphasis on good education, and he would always come and check in school whether I was attending school or not. I remember one day I did not go to school; instead I went to the beach. I did not know my father had gone to the school to check whether I was in the school or not. When I came home, after greeting him, he said I should take my food in the kitchen. When I entered, he locked the door after me and gave me the beating of my life. From that day, I never missed school throughout.
One of the reasons why he laid emphasis on school was that my father had stayed in Lagos for years and admired the likes of Chief Rotimi Williams and Fani-Kayode who were lawyers. Notwithstanding the fact that my father was a trader, he would go to a court and watch proceedings there. He admired how big lawyers deferred to magistrates and judges of younger age. That was why he insisted that I should be a judge. He sacrificed a lot. I was always one of the first students to pay their fees and buy their books. He was always advising me on what life was all about. And he was strong on discipline and order. Wherever I was playing, once it was 6p.m, I must be at home. If I wasn’t, he would not spare the rod. I must always dress his bed, clean the room and do everything as it ought to be done.
How did you acquire Islamic education?
I attended Islamic school in Accra, Ghana. As soon we leave the mosque after morning prayer, we would go to Arabic school where I was taught reading of the Quran by Alhaji Dikko, popularly known as Alhaji Atebise of Agbaji, Ile Adara of Ilorin. But if that malam attempted to stop me from going to Middle School, my father would say I should bring the Quran home and he would teach me the Quran because he believed I should combine the two. I also went on to do Bible Knowledge. In my Cambridge School Certificate exams, I had a credit in Christian Religious Studies as I did in Arabic. At night, we would go to one Alhaji Abdulsalam Olorunoje to learn the Arabic translation. Today I can read the Quran very well, I can recite 20 passages from the Quran or the Hadith as the case may be and have been able to set up an Arabic school myself and an English school to go pari-pasu.
What influenced your career choice?
I will put it this way: I had no choice, I stumbled into law. I wanted to be a scholar, a lecturer in any higher institution. That was my ambition. But my father had a different view as he wanted me to read law or medicine. I was averse to reading medicine because in my narrow conception of medicine, I thought of surgery as the only thing. But I can’t use knife to slaughter even a fowl, so the “bloody” nature of medicine made me abhor that study. Law, I didn’t want because of the notion that lawyers are trained to call what is black white and vice-versa. And so if I read law, I thought I might not find favour with God, so I didn’t want to read law.
Having been discouraged from going to Cairo by my father to study French, Latin or Arabic, I decided to go back to my root, Nigeria, where I applied and I was taken for a course as an Assistant Executive Officer. I don’t want to say I topped the class, but that was the impression I received from one Baba Olajide, an Egba man based in Kaduna. It was he who called and advised me, like my father did, to apply for law in view of my outstanding result. And law appeared to be the only course for which I could get scholarship. I applied for scholarship and I was called for interview. I did well in the interview and I had to go and read law. That was how I came into the law profession. As I said, I stumbled into it. It was not that it was my choice, but as it has turned out, I have made the best from the profession.
Some people would have remained lawyers for life. What made you decide to go for the bench?
Again, it was not my decision. I served in government as a state counsel and rose to the position of Senior State Counsel in the Ministry of Justice in the then Benue-Plateau State. When I was first working in Ilorin, I was loved by the man who headed the chamber, Morgan Ogboli, who was the Solicitor-General when the states were created and said he needed someone who was competent and efficient. So he deployed me from Ilorin, where ordinarily I should be the number two man, to Jos. I didn’t like it, but my dad asked me to go. When I got to Jos, I began to really see the problems and happenings in Nigeria. Coming from a Ghana background, I wasn’t initially alert to them. But in Jos, I saw there was a lot of tribalism in Nigeria, a lot of discrimination, a lot of ethnic problems, a lot of religious discrimination. That was not the type of environment in which I was brought up; I know I cannot lie and I had a cosmopolitan attitude to life. In the end, I had to resign.
I was the first person from the North to resign from the service of the Ministry of Justice to go into private practice. I decided to go to Kano where I also worked as a state counsel to set up a practice. Within five years or so, I had made my mark in Kano. Abdullahi Ibrahim, former Attorney-General of Nigeria, later joined me in forming a partnership. Lawyer Sadiq who was a one-time Speaker of the House in Kwara State also requested that I set him up in Kwara here, so I had another branch here. With Abdullahi, we also opened up an office in Kaduna State. The top plan was to set up the practice in Lagos when all of a sudden I got a telephone call from Justice Arthur Wheeler who was the judge in Kano. Wheeler invited me to his chambers to inform me that he got a telephone call from Nigel Reed, then Chief Justice of Northern Nigeria, about the newly-established Federal Revenue Court, now known as the Federal High Court. He told me that he wanted to appoint new judges and he wanted me to be one of them. I told Justice Wheeler that I had set up a practice, was doing well and it would be terrible if I had to leave. Wheeler was disappointed because he thought I would jump at the offer. As I was getting to the gate, he called me and said, ‘Mustapha, if I were you, I would accept the appointment.’ So I said he should give me some time to think over it. When I got home, I told my father who advised me to accept the appointment. That was how I accepted the appointment and became a member of the bench.
Could you be specific on the lawyers or judges you admire?
When I was in Kaduna, we had a judge, one Justice Ahmed Idris Pakistana, who came with a reputation that he was a constitutional lawyer but I was not impressed by his performance. But we had a lawyer then in Kaduna, R.O. Ghaji, who unfortunately ended up terribly in a murder case. Ghaji, by every available standard, was a first class lawyer and I appeared continuously against him when I was the state counsel in Kaduna. I admired his brilliance and he also respected me. He was quick-witted and if you are not brilliant, he can have the edge over you. Then of course, Chief Rotimi Williams was undoubtedly a great lawyer by every standard. Others included Babatunde Craig, Michael Afolayan, David Mejibi, Bello, Justice Wheeler, Fred Ianlewes and Khaild Hasssan.
What were the challenges you faced as a lawyer and then as a judge?
As a lawyer, when I decided to go to Kano to set up practice, I learnt that there was one Pakistani called Hanwan Hussein who wanted to sell his chambers to a willing buyer because he wanted to leave Nigeria. Since I was not comfortable staying any longer in Plateau, I wanted to leave, as I told you, because of the settler problem. On getting the information, I went to Kano and after bargaining with him, I paid the sum of £400 with the understanding that he would give me some retainership which would see me through. By the time I wanted to resign in Jos, Gomwalk advised me not to resign but I had made up my mind to leave. Unfortunately, like Gomwalk observed, when I got to Kano, the man did not leave again and I had already resigned my appointment in Jos. So I was embarrassed and in a dilemma but I insisted that there was no going back, so I sent my wife to Kano while I stayed back in Jos to collect the one month outstanding salary after which I would join my wife and children. It was a terrible period but I surmounted the challenges at the end of the day.
As a judge, I suffered a lot of transfers – more than most of my colleagues did. Immediately I was appointed, I served in Lagos for about a month, after which I was posted to Port Harcourt. I was in charge of the whole eastern states. In the midst of that, I was asked to go and do a probe in Ife. When I finished that, I was posted to Kano again. From Kano, I was appointed to the Court of Appeal and posted to Enugu. From Enugu to Ibadan, from Ibadan to Jos, Jos to Ibadan. This had been costly to all my children’s education. Each of them suffered at least, a year’s set-back. But I want to thank God they have been able to make it. Then, being the head of court, you can have problems. When you don’t allow people to steal or do something wrong, they accuse you of a lot of things.
Did you face any corruption allegation as a judge?
I didn’t, in the sense that as you make your bed, so you lie on it. I don’t make friends. I stay more or less in my house and you can’t come to me there to discuss a case. Still, it will be wrong for me to say that nobody ever attempted that. I knew a lady who was a relation who came to me when I was in the Court of Appeal in Ibadan to accuse me that the husband of a senior sister had been convicted and I was in the panel which was compromised. I asked her if I had taken money from her, what of the other members of the panel? I knew her father to be an Imam, so I quoted the Quran for her, “If your sister sent you, if I do what you want, if I die, can you save me from God’s punishment?” They won’t come once you do that to one or two people; the news will go round that the man will not accept that kind of thing. So I never had that temptation of corruption.
I am a contented, comfortable man. I don’t have problems. At a time, one of my children had to go to St. Anthony’s because at that time I could not afford to send him to a boarding school and I would and will not go and beg anybody for unreasonable favours. Today, that boy is a lawyer; he was heading the chambers of Wale Babalakin in Abuja until recently when he set up his own chamber. If they say somebody is corrupt, it is generally the way he behaves, because if you lay your door open for corruption, people will come to you. We know them; we know the judges who are corrupt.
What is your take on corruption in the judiciary and how do you think it can be banished?
Up till today, I am still fighting corruption. I am organising programmes against corruption because I am committed to it. I know that if we don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill us if we continue the way we are going. The war against corruption has to be a total war. We have to follow the examples of the likes of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, or follow the example of Hong Kong. Kuan Yew made sure that the man who headed his corruption battle was learned and committed to fighting corruption. Yew’s whole life is devoted to it; he gave the man every encouragement and dealt with people who were corrupt decisively. In Hong Kong, when the police tried to be corrupt, the whole people marched against the police.
There must be the political will, the will to fight corruption to the root, and not these cosmetic things we are doing here. That is the only way to reduce corruption to a tolerable level. The parties must make the fight against corruption part of their manifestoes and they must be ready to fight it to a standstill. Not the rubbish we do here. Let me cite a case. They said a former governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion was corrupt, he was taken to the court. This is somebody who should be sent to jail, then they brought this question of plea bargaining, which is not in our law. The man who is regulating, what is the guarantee that he will not be corrupt? So the law, the operators of the law, the government, the administrators, the obas, the obis, the emirs, all of them should be involved in the fight against corruption. Mr. President alone cannot do it.
Whoever will be appointed as head of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission must be a man who is prepared to deny himself, must be a man whose character is above board, he must be able to sell integrity, preach integrity, drink integrity, whether in the EFCC or ICPC. All the other crimes are the by-products of corruption – kidnapping, robbery, stealing, smuggling, what have you. It is corruption if you want to smuggle goods through the border; if you succeed in bribing the custom officers, you will smuggle. Look at the number of people who are being killed and yet till today we don’t know the killers. Even the Boko Haram thing is all part of the corruption problem. So corruption should be first and foremost our concern to clean up Nigeria. If we are able to clean up corruption, we will do well. We can’t produce a nation of saints but we can produce the nation of honest individuals who can be a pride to the country.
The Salami matter remains unresolved. What is your advice on this matter to the President?
I don’t know whether the President needs my advice. He has a minister called Mohammed Adoke and so many advisers around him. Let them advise him. I have had the chance of sitting on that panel at the NJC under the chairmanship of Justice Bola Babalakin to decide whether Salami was guilty of any wrongdoing. In the chain, we had Justice Wali, Justice Egwu, Justice Ayoola and myself and we exonerated Salami that he had not done anything for which he can be chastised. Well, we left the scene and were no more members of the NJC. A new body was set up chaired by a Customary court judge. It is ironical. Then that body said Salami is guilty, while the Chief Justice of Nigeria that we accused, that we indicted, they said was not guilty. Then they set up a review panel, steps that are contrary to what obtains in the NJC. The CJN set up a review panel and appointed one Justice Auta who came up with a different issue. Even the Nigerian Bar Association went into the whole affair and declared Salami has not done any wrong.
After they appointed Justice Dahiru Musdapher as CJN, we thought he was going to resolve the matter finally. He set up a law reform committee of 29, and I happened to be one of them who came out with a report exonerating Salami. Musdapher promised he would make sure Salami is exonerated. Also during his tenure, the number two person, Aloma Mukhtar, headed another team set up by the NJC which also cleared Salami. Yet, government has not seen it fit to restore Salami to his position. What advice can I give contrary to what these categories of learned men have given? My disposition towards it now is that the Salami matter is in the court of the people of Nigeria. I don’t have any advice to give Mr. President. He has not appointed me as an adviser. The gratuitous advice which we gave on the platform of the NJC has been rejected, so it will be like just pouring water into a basket; it will not hold.
What is the implication of Mr. President not yielding to the advice of the NJC?
Justice Lewis, after a conference, was interviewed by the press and he said that after the report of Justice Aloma, now Chief Justice of Nigeria, there was no need for the NJC to have written to the President on Salami’s reinstatement. All they had to do was to have called Salami to go back to his post because there is no provision which empowers the President to suspend the judge. He has no power to dismiss. The NJC which recommended suspension has now changed its mind. As I said, it is not for me to talk of any repercussion, it is now a matter for the nation to speak, it is now a matter for the NJC to do what is right.
What is your view on the recommendations of retired CJN Musdapher that more judges should be appointed to the Supreme Court to speed up the trial process?
If he said so, he knows where the shoe pinches more than I do. I have not been in the Supreme Court. But what I know is that it is not so much the number of judges appointed but the quality of judges that are appointed – how hardworking and committed they are to the administration of justice. If they are many and are good, so be it. If they are few and are good, Nigerians will know. I know that the Supreme Court judges have been working hard but I think they should be able to assess the volume of work they have against the number of cases they do in a year. If on balance, they feel they need more judges, of course, their President is at liberty to add more.
Do you think a Special Court should be set up to try corruption cases?
I don’t think a special court is necessary and I also know that the current CJN has said so when she was interviewed for her appointment. The practice when I was there was that we designated judges in various courts throughout the country and assigned to them corruption cases. If that system is followed to the letter, corruption cases will go on very well because if you assign corruption cases to low courts, they will argue that these courts are not superior courts of repute, then an action will be filed in the High Court and they will condemn that court that it is not a court of record, it is an inferior court and it will be upheld. So you go back to square one. I used to have a diary where I listed names of designated judges. In Benin, I asked the chief judge to give me two judges; in Ilorin, two judges and so on. I vet them to find out whether they themselves were above corruption.
Most Nigerian judges still take court records manually as against the automated court system practised in the western world. How relevant do you think this old process is?
It is very good if we stop writing laws in long hand because it can be both strenuous and time consuming. But I have been to the United States and seen where proceedings were being taken in long hand. But as soon as they finished, it was given to us. There was no electricity failure, the officers were competent, they are well trained. If we also can achieve that level, it will be better. But my fear is that in Nigeria, even as you are reading your records at home, your light will be off, workers will go on strike, there will be no petrol and diesel to seek alternatives.
What yardstick do you think should be used in appointing state’s High Court judges: seniority or merit?
Where all things are equal, if all of them have the ability, if their productivity is reasonable, then of course, seniority will be. Whenever I wanted to appoint judges, I always asked them to recommend, let’s say, two or three judges in order of seniority. But where the senior man is to be superseded, we must know the reason for it, because a lot of people lobby, a lot of people use their connections to get under promotions. For the man who has lobbied, they will say he is brilliant, he is so, so and so. That is what they call merit.
I will give you a classic example. When I was to appoint a judge to the Court of Appeal – I can mention his name, Justice Tabai, from Yenagoa, Bayelsa State – the CJ recommended two people who were junior to him for appointment. Luckily, he happened to meet a Justice of the Court of Appeal who came to me to inform that Tabai was quite good yet the CJ did not recommend him, rather he recommended two of his juniors. So when Tabai came to me, I asked him: “Are you senior to them?” He said yes. “Do you have any bad record? Anything like query?” He said no. He said he believed the CJ just wanted to sidetrack him, so I picked my phone and called the CJ. I said: “My Lord, I saw your recommendation, you have sent me two names but there is a chap called Tabai. You know I have worked in Port-Harcourt myself when you were part of that division. Why did you recognise the juniors and you blocked Tabai?” He said Tabai was on course when we were making the exercise. And then I asked him: “Does that disqualify him? OK, if that is the only reason, can you send a report on it to me?” When it came, I looked at his records and at the records of the others. I dropped the two and I appointed Tabai. Tabai is retiring this year in the Supreme Court.
The point I am trying to make is that yes, merit can have a place but whoever is being promoted or appointed on merit must be seen to stand high and above the others who are senior to him – in terms of his integrity, the quality of his judgment, his ability and determination to work hard. You have to look at them to balance the equities, but where the equities are equal, the senior should have the place.
What were your hopes when you were accepting the ICPC job? In the end, would you say those hopes were misplaced?
When I was given the appointment, I first said no to Mr. President. I had my fears. I had served government for many years. But then the President told me it was a call to duty and service to the nation, so I accepted it. I said on that day that by accepting this job, I put my life on the line, I was prepared to die, if need be. But thank God, I didn’t die. Regrettably, my security detail was shot and killed when he was coming to collect me here in Ilorin, I felt bad because it could have been me. We worked hard, we toiled day and night but I want to say that we did not achieve much considering the background issues that before we came on board, the only high profile case that was sent to the Supreme Court on corruption was the case of Chief Odofin Bello, the Commissioner of Police, who was convicted by the High Court but was later discharged and acquitted by the Supreme Court
Still, in our time, we got many people arrested. They were taken to court, but whether they were discharged and acquitted or not, the fact remains that if a man like S.M Afolabi, Nwodo, Wabara and all these people can be taken to court, if the momentum had been upheld, there would have been no problem. That was at even a time when our funding was not what it should be. For me, when I was there, I believe I had the satisfaction that I acted in accordance with what I said on the day I was elected as chairman.
The former EFCC chairman, Farida Waziri, once accused the judiciary of being a bottleneck in the fight against corruption by delaying the trial and conviction of suspects. What is your view about this?
When it comes to the judiciary, it is my constituency and I don’t want to run that institution down. But there is the need for those in authority to look at the judges they have now. There was a case we arrested a gentleman and took the person to court. After we sought leave of the High Court to prosecute the gentleman – I don’t want to mention his name – we were granted leave and he was asked to be locked up so that later the matter would be taken up. When the matter came to court the following day, the gentleman applied for bail. Curiously, the same judge who granted leave for us to prosecute him, instead of deciding the application for bail, he just discharged and acquitted him when there was no application for discharge and acquittal. Was that judge acting in ignorance? Or had he an ulterior motive? Or did he claim ignorance of the law on application for bail? Instead of deciding it, he unilaterally discharged and acquitted the person. We appealed, the appeal was allowed and the gentleman was rearrested before I left the office. I don’t know what happened after that.
Number two, that judge who discharged and acquitted him should have been dealt with because on ordinary bail, even first year lawyers know that in bail application, you don’t discharge and acquit people when you have not held evidences. If you have not held evidences even if there is delay in prosecution of cases, what you do is to strike out the case so that he could be re-arrested. But to discharge and acquit when there is no evidence, I have never heard it.
Another judge also, when the case went before him, the accused who were to be arrested took a motion to the judge that he should make an order that they should not arrest them; in other words, they clamped an injunction on us. I was asked to appear in court. When I went there, I said I will argue my case myself, not ICPC. I wore a black cap, prepared for battle. The judge ran away from the case but she made an order that we should not arrest. There are a plethora of authorities which say that the police cannot be stopped from investigating cases. The ICPC has the same power as the police, so, ipso facto they could not make such an order; I choose not to think that the Judge is ignorant of those authorities.
Would you agree that the EFCC and ICPC should be merged?
When two people are operating and you say they are not doing well, when you merge them, will they do better? If the police were doing well in the investigation of crime or corruption, would there be need for ICPC in the first place or EFCC? I don’t think it is wise to merge them; what is important is strengthening the bodies – fund them adequately and get the right type of people to man them.
Since leaving the ICPC job, how has life been with you and what have you actually been involved in?
What I have been involved in is what you are inside now: you come to me, you ask me questions about the state of the nation, about the problems of the nation, on how we can move Nigeria forward. I don’t hesitate to discuss openly with you, I have friends who told me that I should stop granting press conference, I said, well, I appreciate the advice but for as long as I live, anything that will help Nigeria, I will continue to do.
Secondly, I am running an NGO, I organise lectures, symposiums, debates and MAF–Mustapha Akanbi Foundation. Then I have a charity organisation, my Islamic foundation. In my house now, there is a boy staying there, he was knocked down by a vehicle, the parents are dead, he has nobody to help him. We paid the hospital bills when he was discharged, we are keeping him until he gets better to go back home and Alhamdullilahi, we have people who have been supporting us in their own little way. I am also running a school, I have a nursery primary school, and I also have a junior secondary school. This year, we will start the senior secondary school. All these we make sure that we just put into them the little that God has given us.
Creation of new states as well as establishment of state police are current topical issues in the country. What is your take on them?
You see, apart from the fact that we will not have the wherewithal and finances, people are complaining about salary and all those things. The more states you have, the more problems you have. But if we say through state creation we are developing, if I may ask: are we really developing? I sit here now, I want to see any Kwara man as my brother, any Nigerian as my brother. I used to tell my children that I am a Nigerian father and I mean it and I can stand and count the number of people who God has used me to help.
On state police, it is not something that can be done in a rush, a careful study must be made because once you hand over such power to the governors, you may find yourself in deep waters; because at the end of the day, it can be misused, just at it happened during the time of the Native Authority Police. Do we want a Nigeria that is divided or a country that has the unity and oneness of its people as its focus? Though I’m not an advocate of a unitary system of government, my advice is that we must look into it objectively, study our people, study our situation before we come to conclusion and it is not something which they can do by legislation. What government should do is to call a referendum, where people will speak out their mind openly on this and other sundry issues.
Finally Sir, what will you like to be remembered for and what advice do you have for the upcoming generation?
I want to be remembered for the service I gave to my God and my nation, the service I gave to humanity and I pray that for whatever is left of my life, I should continue to serve God and humanity. And they should remember me, that there was a man called Mustapha Akanbi who served God and humanity and may God accept me into his glory. I am an optimist, let Nigerians not lose hope but let every one of us do what will please God to achieve whatever we want to achieve without destroying this country. We should give service; we should do everything to make sure that this blessed country of ours is great, because God has given us everything to make it great. So continue to strive in good deeds, which is my prayer for all of you.