bFormer president of Court of Appeal and pioneer chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Commission (ICPC), Justice Mustapha Akanbi (retd), belongs to the late Kwame Nkurumah old school of thought, which underscores his apparent disregard for Nigerian politics and the leadership. In this interview, he bared his mind on a range of national issues, including agitation for Biafra, restructuring, rot in the judiciary, among others.
How do you feel marking your 85th birthday anniversary?
I feel elated, I feel overwhelmed, and I feel humbled. I feel overwhelmed because I never knew the attendance could be so great. The hall was full to capacity. People I least expected were there, including Deputy Chief Iman of Ilorin Emirate, Grand Khadis who had retired from service. All of them willingly came to rejoice with me. I am naturally bound to feel very happy. I never knew I could survive till today having regard to the fact that I have been very ill since 2015. But I thank God who has given me the strength to celebrate today.
Even when I got home, people were still coming to wish me happy birthday. When I came back from hospital, we organized a public lecture on topical issues which we believe can inspire people to greatness and encourage them to do better. We invited an orator, a committed African, a determined individual whom I share common ideology with to come and deliver a speech.
I also asked Professor Obafemi who is a well respected university scholar to come and be the chairman on the occasion. We did all this to raise the consciousness of the ordinary Nigerian for them to know that whatever we are doing, we should leave an enduring legacy for our children and our children’s children. When I celebrated my 80th birthday, my wife was alive. She died in 2013 and I myself took ill in 2015. When I want to die, I prefer to die among the people whom you cannot describe as crooked generation.
Nigeria will mark another independence anniversary in a couple of week’s time. How would you say Nigeria has fared in the last 57 years?
When our founding fathers got independence in 1960, we were delighted. In 1963, we became Republic and things were going well. For me, I believe we started drifting when the military coup of 1966 happened. Before then, there was no stealing in the civil service. We were not thinking of reckless acquisition of money. Once you can feed yourself three times a day, live in a decent room, it was okay. Those of us in the civil service, they gave us accommodation. In Zaria, when I was a student, we were paid well. Is it the same thing now when people don’t get their salaries? In my quarters, I feed no less than 26 old people, including widows and the rest of them. I also train some young boys and girls in different vocations like tailoring to give them means of sustenance. The politicians of yesteryears always thought of the supreme wellbeing of the people. Today, they think only about themselves and their children. Self aggrandisement, greed, avarice, corruption have become the order of the day. I don’t know what the people of Sodom and Gomorrah experienced before God destroyed them. I hope our country will change for the better. We are known as the giant of Africa. We can’t be giant, if we break into pieces. We can’t be giant, if we cannot do something to show that God has been kind to us, He has blessed us.
In modern day Nigeria, everybody is looking for money. People are stealing money, looting treasury. It was not like that in the time past. That was not the legacy people like Nnamadi Azikwe, Obefemi Awolowo, Sadauna of Sokoto, Aminu Kano left for us. But one is amazed by the change in the character of our people and the way things are going. For me who belong to the old generation, I met decent men and women of character and intellect, who led by example rather than precepts.
I am very lucky, I have six children, four of them are lawyers, one is a Prof of law, two are in private practice, one is a magistrate and the other one read English. But it touches me to see the suffering masses because I was brought up in a society where we think of the poor and the underprivileged of the society. During the time we were following Nkrumah about, we were not looking for money. Our vision of life was quite different.
I tell my children that they don’t need to look for a role model anywhere. They should look up to me and they won’t regret. I have no regret in life; I face challenges of life the way they came. Even as a judge when I was not promoted and people working under me were promoted, I didn’t feel aggrieved. I had a father who encouraged me to be honest, and made me realise that learning is better than silver and gold. He always advised me not to do anything that would bring the name Akanbi into disrepute.
How do you see the rising spate of separatist agitations threatening the unity of the country, especially Biafra in the Southeast?
Agitations for separation are stupid statements. What will be the essence of killing people for unity of Nigeria? It doesn’t make sense. Those who saw war will not want to witness another war. I was a prosecutor when the Biafran war broke out. I was on my way to Sokoto from Kano when I was attacked at Guzo. Then I was a young married man. My wife was panting by the time I came back because she had been told that I was attacked. A nation divided against itself, a nation at war can never make progress.
What is even worse now is that when we had the civil war both the Christians and the Muslims in the North carried out the counter coup because they believed the first coup was one sided. But today, even the Christians in the North are divided in terms of relationship with Northern Nigeria.
The division among the people is sad. In the past, we were all very close regardless of ethnic or religion you belong to. Even when we were appointed to go to the Institute of Administration to study, we came from the 12 provinces of the North.
It was when the Northern chaps said all Igbo must quit that all the elders who should be speaking broke their silence. Where will you go that you will not find Igbos? They are in control of the economy of this country. Where do we go from here? Those who have oil are also agitating for ownership of their oil. They don’t even see anything wrong, if people steal, in as much as they are from their area. At one point, Edwin Clark was asking why those of their own who stole money were being challenged. It is a different thing, if you want equity; it is another thing to preach anarchy. Imagine Pat Utomi, who wants to be president of Nigeria and Prof Charles Soludu, who had been governor of Central Bank of Nigeria supporting Biafra.
Part of their argument is that these people have genuine grievances which need to be looked into. Don’t you think so?
Any sensible man knows that it is better to sue for peace than to go for war. If you create a situation of anger and anarchy, eventually we will all lose. If heaven falls, will it fall on one man? It will fall on all of us. For me, I believe in peace, I believe in good governance, I believe that it was by the will of God that we came together as a people.
Then, what is your position about restructuring that people are also clamouring for?
For me, any restructuring that will break Nigeria is no restructuring. Recently, the Southwest said they prefer to go back to regionalism. I know that when we had regional government, honestly, we didn’t have these problems. We didn’t have politicians wanting to amass wealth at all cost. Each region worked hard to generate revenue for self sustenance. The East worked hard under the leadership of Nnamadi Azikwe, the west worked hard under the leadership of Obafemi Awolowo, and the North worked hard under the leadership of Sadauna of Sokoto. Before we had military coup, we appreciated each other.
The intervention of the military was the beginning of our problem. We were not allowed to grow in our own way. If we sit down at a round table conference, we can decide whether we want to go back to the old regional arrangement. For me, I prefer the unity of our people and the oneness of our nation
You left a mark in the judiciary as an incorruptible person. But today, judges are being put on trial for allegation of corruption. How do you feel watching the current scenario?
A corrupt person is not fit to be on the bench. If they want to appoint people, they should scrutinize them very well. When I was the chairman of the ICPC, a few judges were sacked. What has happened is the fact that recently nobody cares. And the only thing we could do is to get the judiciary to sit down and have critical analysis of itself to see how they can restore sanity into the system. NJC in particular must work hard to let the corrupt ones know that they won’t last a day in their courts.
NJC had said at a point in time that some of the judges on trial could resume hearing of cases. What is the propriety or otherwise of such position?
If I am accused of corruption and they say I should go and sit on a case, honestly, I will resign. But that is my personal view. I retired before I reached the retirement age of 70 without blemish because I didn’t see the judiciary as the ultimate in my life. I felt I could still render some services to humanity outside the four walls of the judiciary. It is in this regard that I set up Akanbi Foundation, built a school and established a state-of-the-art-library that compares with any Library owned by an individual. I am funding the school because I went to the best school in Ghana. I want to give back to the society and ensure that I produce some of the best students we can all be proud of. I write for them some of the poems that fired my imagination.
Looking back at your growing up years, what would you recollect to be the most fascinating aspect of your life as a school child?
I am a man of two worlds; I was born in Accra, Ghana, on September 11, 1932 and brought up in Ilorin. By the age of seven, I was taken back to Accra because my father wanted me to have good education. So, he felt if I stayed in Ghana, I would do better. At that time, Ghana was far better than Nigeria economically, educationally or otherwise. So, the combination of what obtains in my formative years is quite different from the average chap here. While there is a lot of religious bigotry here in Nigeria, I move freely with Christians who respect me because of my faith in Islam and I respect them because they are Christians. I cannot but say that the environment in which I grew up influenced me. When I was growing up in Ghana, there was nationalism in Africa. Nkrumah said the independence of Ghana was going to be meaningless unless there was a total liberation of Africa. We were looking at the unity of Africa; we were not parochial in our views. These are the factors that made me. And I am proud to have come that way.
What inspired you to read law?
I stumbled into law. I didn’t want to read law, but my father wanted me to read law or medicine because I did both science and arts. When I came to Nigeria, the only scholarship I could get was law scholarship. Initially, I had prejudice against law. I felt a good Muslim could not be a lawyer. And I never asked my father why he wanted me to read law. But I suspected from what he told me that he was influenced by the lives of the father of the late Rotimi Williams, the father of Fani Kayode whom he saw in Lagos as a lawyer.
He felt that law was a good profession and encouraged me. But I thought I could be a lecturer in the university doing what my son is doing today, a professor of law. In fact, when I qualified as a lawyer, I was a part-time lecturer at the law school in Lagos. I have no regret reading law and that is why my children followed me.