Interview With A Legal Practitioner And Chieftain Of The All Progressive Congress (APC)

Dec 2, 2023 - 16:04
Dec 2, 2023 - 16:11
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Interview  With A Legal Practitioner  And Chieftain  Of The All Progressive  Congress (APC)

As the Tinubu led administration settles in after a lengthy legal tussle challenging his victory at the polls, a legal practitioner and chieftain of All Progressives Congress, APC.Chief Barr Utum Eteng takes a critical look at the daunting challenges inherited by the new administration while attempting to chart a way forward in tackling the basic needs of Nigerians.

It is an insightful interaction between The Beagle News and the APC stalwart.

Don't miss this exciting read, from an insider's perspective

My name is Chief (Barr.) Utum Eteng, a private legal practitioner from Ugep, Yakurr Kingdom. I am a member and stakeholder of APC. I am based in Calabar.

Have you held any political office?

At the national level, I was appointed a member of the HIPADEC Commission in Nigeria. It was a four year appointment, but we only did a year and some months, after the dissolution of all Boards by President Bola Tinubu. That is the nearest I have come to political position since my graduation in 1985. Apart from that, I was also an  inducted member of the APC Convention Committee in the legal subcommittee headed by Abubakar Mallami. I was also in the Ken Nnamani Commission and Electoral Review Panel set up in October 4, 199 ? by President Muhammadu Buhari.

What do you have to say about Tinubu's government in the last five months now?

Well, I think there is a movement pointing to a positive direction. Ministers have been appointed, some boards have been constituted and the man at the helm of affairs is taking his time. In my view, he is doing that because he wants to cleanse the system. Some people may think that he is slow, but in my mind, having related with some people at the federal level, I believe that it is the right approach. Five months out of four years is almost like not having begun the tenure. So we should be patient with him, commend him for the little he has done and pray for more to come.

Can you specifically point out areas he has done well and those he hasn't?

You can see, the area of fuel subsidy, I think he has done well, even though prices are escalating and people are shouting. Yes, it has to be so, after all, when Obasanjo introduced mobile telephones to the country, a SIM card was sold for over 40 thousand 

naira. But today, a SIM card is as cheap as 200 naira. Now we are buying fuel at very high cost, but it would normalize in due course. Work has begun to get the refineries in shape. I will tell the President to be determined to do these refineries. Because some of these businessmen have their own refineries and would feel not comfortable when the refineries are put on stream and prices reduced for the common man to benefit. President Tinubu must shut his eyes and ensure that he moves in the direction of the masses. The Ministers are moving around the states trying to find out what is needed. I think it's a good direction.

Which area would you like the president to pay more attention to?

Yes, road construction is key to the economic recovery of the nation. With good roads, farmers would be encouraged to transport their products to the main markets. And if there are surplus, they can be exported and our foreign earnings would be boosted. Where our roads are in bad shape, agricultural produce cannot be brought to the city centres,they rot away in the farm. So the matter of road construction, if given priority, would be key. For instance, if you drive from Calabar to Ugep, you would pity your car. You would be very unhappy with yourself. You would ask, ' for how long would they finish this job? Was the contract to SERMATEC given without a tenure for completion? It's terrible. It's a Federal Road. People should speak out.

Recently, the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the presidential election. The Labour Party and PDP accused the Court of trying to stand on the head of the constitution by stamping illegalities, what is your take on that?

Well, I am a very senior legal practitioner in Nigeria. I have over 30 years post call experience. I will be guided by what I say because right from the elementary stage, we are taught that the definition of law is simply the law. The Supreme Court has said this is a law and it has given us a precedence. There can be nothing other than that. As an experienced lawyer, a client claps his hands when you win his case. He turns back and call you all 

manner of names when you loose a case. Peter Obi and Atiku are no longer new to me. A judge is right when he gives a judgment in your favour. There are too many issues on this matter.
The important thing is whatever the Supreme Court has pronounced is the state of our law as at now. It is a precedence for the lower courts to follow. We cannot judge the court on the pages of newspapers.

Could you say that some of the issues like forgery were properly addressed by the supreme court?

Yes. Let me tell you, it is certain in law that "he who alleges must prove." Forgery is a criminal offence. And if it is traced in a matter like an election petition, it must be proved beyond reasonable doubts. Again, when you talk about forgery, people should understand that there must be an owner of the document that has been forged. There must be an existing document to compare with the forged document. One cannot claim forgery without bringing an authentic document to back up his claim. So when you use the newspapers to talk about forgery, the law does not recognize it.

The Supreme Court has the latitude of choosing which one of those documents is authentic. To me, the court was correct. It is not because I'm a member of the APC. Political parties would come and go, but the law remains  with the people, so I am on the side of the law.

What is your advice to Obi and Atiku?

They have fought gallantly and lost gallantly. The Supreme Court is the Apex Court, the last in the land. They cannot go to anywhere else. I think they have won in some areas and lost in some. At least, people would still have respect for them because what they did, as far as I am concern, they were not really wrong. They were trying to help in the development of the law. We clap for them to have created new dimensions of law which would remain a precedence for the Nigerian legal system. It is an achievement. 

Nigerians are raising eyebrows over President Tinubu's appointments, describing them as lopsided and southwest based. What do you make of it?

Well, from your question, there was already an existing precedence set by former president Buhari. So if the opinion from members of the public say Tinubu is going that way, I would say he is not wrong. A precedence had been set. The heavens should not fall now. But it is important to say that it is too early to judge Mr President now. There is a school of thought that says 'you start from the known to the unknown.' There is really nothing wrong with his appointments. Just that people are just fond of criticizing. For me, we should encourage him to do more. And in a very subtle manner, he should consider all facets of the system and carry them along.

You mentioned that you were a member of the Ken Nnamani Electoral Review Committee, are there recommendations from your committee that are in today's Electoral Act?

There are, especially in areas about concluding pretrial matters before going to pre-election matters and a few others. When that committee was set up by President Buhari, it was intended to review electoral matters both constitutionally and in line with the electoral act. The draft electoral act that was done and submitted by the committee would have solved so many problems. But what we should not forget is that no matter how good a draft or proposed bill is, when it gets to the legislature, it changes to a different thing entirely. The problem we have in Nigeria, with due respect, is that the legislators do more of protecting themselves than what the common man would benefit. I think we should try to drum it very hard that the legislature must do people-oriented laws, not laws that are protective for them alone. Right until this moment, it is uncertain what the salaries of legislators are. And nobody has come openly to say that. It is very unfortunate. 

Are there areas you feel should be looked into in the present Electoral Act?

For now, it is a little too early. I think to a very large extent, we have done well. One has to work on all that has been said, aggregate and form a conclusive opinion.

Are you saying there is improvement in handling Electoral matters?

There is a lot of improvement. You know, before now, there were no BVAS machines. But we now have them. We are at the experimental stage. I pray it does not become the Nigerian system, where you experiment without even the know how, and turn around, see another method, then start experimenting with it again. We should look at all the mistakes made with the view to correcting them. There is no perfection in life. Only God is perfect.

So you advise INEC to use Imo, Kogi elections to look into the Electoral process?

INEC has the two remaining cases to form a matter of test. Reference of what the Tribunal and Courts of Appeal have said, are all test cases. They should be used appropriately. INEC should look at those guidelines objectively as an independent umpire. 

Let's come down to Cross River State, which you are a Chieftain and critical Stakeholder. What is your assessment of the State Government?

Well, frankly, I am a founding member of the APC, we laboured from 2015 without a Counselor.  Today, we have a Governor, National Assembly members, majority State Assembly seats, etc. APC as a party has done well. The state government is trying its best to build a new creation. There would be issues trying to balance all interests. It is a matter of time, these interests would be balanced. I'm a critical Stakeholder of the APC, but up till now, nothing has touched me. But that is not to say nothing will touch me eventually. I appeal for patience for the government to take off properly. Though I am not an insider of government, but I am privileged to have complete information about the government of the day. Cross River State is blessed to have someone like Governor Bassey Otu. We ought to pray for him, because of what he inherited. I am not speaking for him, nor the APC. I am 

speaking based on my own observation. He inherited a government that was almost at the point of drowning. So it would take sometime for him to get things back in shape and for the people to know how to aggregate his achievements. We are trying. He is trying. It is a new beginning. Five months out of four years may be too early to judge, but honestly, there are some mistakes, albeit not deliberate, but made in good faith. We should be bold to speak out, so that the man at the helm of Affairs would correct himself. 

Concerns have been raised over Otu's appointments, with stakeholders saying they  are 'back to south' based, with the SEMA DG replacement with a southerner making it more worrisome. What's your reaction, please?

My reaction is a clear appeal as a critical Stakeholder to the people to be patient. If you wait, you would see it all, but if you don't, you see just half. Let's wait and see. Those appointments, to a large extent are made to demonstrate what they say "Charity begins at home." I appeal for a balance. The north had their good time. With due respect, the people in the north should be the last to speak on this matter. Because what we saw is worst than what is going on. We should know that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Let us be patient and watch the direction of Prince Bassey Otu. If he gives all positions to the south, the government itself would come to a standstill because people from the north and central would be needed tomorrow. I think it is just too early. 
My recent return to the State greeted me with a lot of delegations raising concerns about the situation. And I said no. Everything is not in the south. SSG is not from the south, the two Ministers from Cross River are also not from the south, and a few others. Perhaps, the Governor is trying to balance, but please, let him not over balance (laughs).

So if you see the Governor today what will you tell him?

Well, the Governor is a man who listens. I will tell him these are the criticisms. He should look at them to see if they are genuine or not, so that he can retrace his steps to give the people good governance. Because, he who fights and runs away, learns to fight another 

day. Four years is a flying period. Mistakes should be corrected so that the APC would have same support and goodwill in  next elections.

Recently, the Appeal Court has been delivering judgments with regards to Cross River, APC has won some and lost some, with the case in  point being the Cross River North and Central .What is your view?

I am from the central part of the State. I knew APC had been a stronghold here. I knew the APC would win the senatorial election in the Central. If the courts are to base their findings on what was brought from the field, the entire evidence in the field supports APC. The Senator had a smooth sail. If the Appeal Court based its findings on facts, first from the Tribunal, it's difficult to refuse facts. It is good that Eteng Williams, Alex Egbona and a host of others won. It is a boom period for the APC. Having all won, they should settle down and look at Cross River State, not their pockets and families alone. They must not learn from the style of the previous administrations. We appeal to them not to be so myopic. 
For former Governor Ben Ayade's lost, it is never a minus for the APC. It is the people speaking the truth. The problem we have in our State is that we lack people who speak the truth. Truth is what everyone wants, but only few can speak the truth. I knew before the election was conducted that Ayade would not make it. I sent him a chat on January 16, 2023, doubting if he will win the election. I gave him reasons why he would not win. I recalled he lost. The gang up against him was serious. It was well coordinated. People went there with a mindset to work against Ayade. Why that should be so, only God knows. There were also external forces who worked against his election. As a Cross Rivererian, what I thought was the reason why Ayade could not win was because he drummed the Senate and Presidential ambition out of proportion. It is not bad to have an ambition. But he allowed it to be drummed against him. Again, on the final judgement, I was in Lagos, I saw how Cross Rivererians were jubilating about the defeat of my own APC member and former Governor. They were very happy, thumbing each other up. Why it was so is left for history. Anyone who occupies an elective office should not see it as the end. My advice to others is that they must take a learning curve from the experiences in all these cases. We must continue to speak the truth. 

Thank you.