Umeh Kalu (SAN) is the immediate former Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Abia State. In this interview, he told Associate Editor, Sam Egburonu, that Abia State is not moving at full throttle, even as he identified leadership and regrettable attitude of the led, especially the elite, as the major problems retarding the progress of the state. Excerpts
YOU served as the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Abia State for 10 years. How will you describe your experience there? From your experience, how will you describe the politics of Abia?
The truth is that Abia political theatre is dominated by people who call themselves professional politicians; professional politicians in the sense that some of them for the past 30 to 40 years have done nothing else in life apart from moving around the State Government House. From what I discovered, most of them are people who have actually tried their hands in several other areas but found it difficult to eke out a living and so decided to fall back on what they considered to be politics. All they do is just to hang around, doing what they call politicking. If you ask me, I will say quite a good number of these people have no business being in government because they don’t have capacity; they have no idea of what the whole thing is all about; they don’t even appreciate what service is. To me, the whole essence of being around government is to offer service to the people. A whole lot of them are just there for self-aggrandisement. Even in Ohafia, where I come from; I use every opportunity I have to tell both the youths and elders that politics should never be a profession. You must have a means of livelihood. If you are a tailor, set up a tailoring business; if you are interested in politics, it becomes a pastime; if you are a mechanic, set up a workshop first. If you are a lawyer or a medical practitioner, establish an office for practice. So, when they convoke a political meeting, you can attend it and return to your business after the meeting. But regrettably and unfortunately, in Abia State, you don’t see this happening. They just sit around. Some of them in the House of Assembly and some commissioners that served as my colleagues then do not have any other business, apart from what they get from the government. If you reason as such people do, politics then becomes a mere business. It means whatever you do as a government official would be about yourself; what is there for me? In this case; who suffers. I believe it is the state and the people that suffer. So, I see this as the bane of the type of politics I see in Abia. It’s rather unfortunate. It translates from top to bottom.
You joined them as a professional. How did you cope; how did you relate with such people; how did they see you and how did their attitude impact on your work as the Attorney-General?
The good thing that happened to me was that the angle I came in was the professional angle and I didn’t leave it all through. I came in as a lawyer, having been in practice and principally, all the things you do in the Ministry of Justice are the same things lawyers do: documents come to you; you attend court sessions; you sign out files to lawyers; you receive processes from colleagues who are suing government; you go through it and you issue legal opinion, looking at the law and all that. That was of assistance to me because it was my profession. I didn’t leave that office. It was all that I did throughout the period; giving advice, legal opinion to the government and prosecuting persons. So, I didn’t get into mainstream politics in the strict sense of it. I still found myself within my profession because of the office I occupied and I tried as much as I could, during my stay there, to be as professional as I could. I didn’t delve into mainstream politics. Most of their meetings I didn’t attend. In any case, the office of Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice is a very busy one. If you want to succeed in that office, you have to devote more time to it than the option of attending party meetings and gatherings. That is my advice to anybody that wants to occupy the office of Attorney-General to remain professional and concern himself to the demands of that office; otherwise, you may lose track.
But won’t that make you an outsider? It is believed that if an official of government is not available at party meetings all the time, politicians will see him or her as an outsider. As a principal adviser to the governor and the state government on legal issues, if you are considered an outsider, won’t it affect the level of trust politicians will have on you and your advice?
The governor is an individual. For a state chief executive to accept you as the Attorney-General; he must trust you; he must have confidence in you. For the others, talking of the office of the Attorney-General, they also know you are not just a politician in the real sense of it, you are mainly a professional. And I can tell you that if you want to succeed as an Attorney-General, either at a state or at the federal level; it is not a place to play politics in. It does not matter how they see you and as a matter of fact, most of them will hardly see you as a core politician. That is the truth unless you do not want to do the work attached to that office. This is because you swore an oath to dispense justice and to serve without fear or favour. It is therefore a sacred duty. That is the only political appointive office that is mentioned in the constitution. The constitution only said the President or governor will appoint ministers and commissioners respectively but said specifically that the federal government and all the states must have the office of Attorney-General. It goes ahead to outline the duties of that office at the state and federal levels. That will tell you how sacred that office is. That also explains the debate on whether or not this office should be a political office; that is whether they should separate the office of Attorney-General from that of the Commissioner for Justice or Minister of Justice?
When you held that office, opponents of the state government alleged that it did not follow legal or due process. As the AG, how did you manage to carry everybody along?
It goes back to what I told you about the demands of that office. I don’t know if I should be the one saying this, but when I was Attorney-General; if you ask questions around, people will tell you that I was absolutely in control of the advice I gave; I made sure that the advice I gave were in line with what the law says and no governor will ask me to do what is not proper. For example, if somebody commits an offence of say, murder, and he is a party man, and the governor would tell me not to prosecute the man because he is a party member; I won’t take that. From day one, I told them that this is the way to go and all through my tenure, I made sure that I did what was proper. But there are times you may give them advice and they will tell you it is legal advice but that they want political advice. In such circumstances, I always tell them I have done my bit. It does not stop the governor from doing what he wants to do, which may be outside your advice. So these things happen, but as a human being, one is always conscious of the fact that there is life after government. You must also know that you equally owe a duty to the citizen; you are not just Attorney-General to the governor by name, you are Attorney-General to the state and the state meant both the governor and everybody, including the opposition. It is an Attorney-General that does not know the demands of the office that have issues. For example, if a court issues an order; that order must be complied with; you must obey any order given by a court, whether you agree with it or not. The only option you have is to go on appeal. So if the governor or the politicians ask, you tell them that the court’s order has to be obeyed, must be complied with. That is the essence of the rule of law. Yes, as an Attorney-General, you must earn the respect and confidence of the person that appointed you, but it is also your responsibility to tell him the position of the law in all matters. But regrettably, I have seen some instances where an Attorney-General would try to defend breaches to the law, but to me, that is not the proper thing to do. During my time as Attorney-General in Abia, there may be one or two infractions but I was very conscious of my duties; conscious of what the law says I should do; conscious of the fact that I will one day leave that office and I will be accountable to whatever happened during my tenure as the Attorney-General.
You served two governors, Senator T. A. Orji and Dr Okezie Ikpeazu as Attorney-General; how would you rate their understanding of the job of Attorney-General?
It bothers on the occupant of the office; you are the one that will dictate what will happen. From day one, I knew what I wanted to do in Abia State as the Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice. When I was appointed in 2009, I had put in more than 20 years in the bar; I think I was about 21 years or 19 years old at the bar and I practised in Lagos. I saw people who served there as Attorney-General; especially Prof Yemi Osinbajo, and I had a clear vision as to what the demands of that office are. So, when I came in, I took control because you must be assertive in the things you do. And if there are assignments they gave you and you performed: the first, second and third, the confidence builds. So, I am sure Governor T. A. Orji knew me and saw a few things even before he appointed me. Yes, for the six years I worked with Governor T. A. Orji; I had issues, no doubt, especially from people around him but not from him as a person. I gave him reasons why we did things the way we did them. I tried to explain to him; if he had a way round them; that was it. I did the same for Governor Okezie Ikpeazu. For Ikpeazu, apparently, we wouldn’t have been at close quarters, but he was also in T. A. Orji’s government when I was there and I think he appointed me on somebody’s recommendation; having also seen me while I served in that office for six years. When I served in that office under Ikpeazu’s administration, there were also some issues, though not with him as a person. What I am saying is that it is about you as a person; it’s about your carriage; your attitude because that office is a very critical office; that is why I always say that the Attorney-General is the goalkeeper of the state.
That seat is a seat that can collapse a government but because they got to know that I was doing the right thing; I held on to the office for 10 years and left when I thought it was time to leave and move on.
Most Abia indigenes complain that the state is greatly under-developed. They say the governments in the state since 1999 have not done much compared to other states, including neighbouring states like Akwa Ibom, Ebonyi, Imo, Cross River, Anambra and so on, notwithstanding the fact that Abia is an oil producing state and has other great potentials? The feeling therefore is that the state has not been lucky to experience good governance and that as a result, Aba, a major commercial centre east of the Niger has degenerated beyond measure; Umuahia, the state capital, has remained almost as it was before the creation of the state and that there are no significant rural development. As a person who was there for 10 years at that level, can you counter that impression or is it true?
If the truth must be said, Abia can do better than it is doing at the moment. It is a fact today that wherever you see three or more Abians gathered in a place, the points you just made are likely to be the issues to discuss. Yes, I can’t come here to tell you that we have done excellently well, comparing us with neighbouring states and all that. But what I wouldn’t ascribe to is comparing Abia State with states like Akwa Ibom or Rivers because those states are up there in terms of the revenue that accrues to them per month both from the federal allocation and the ones they generate internally by virtue of economic activities in those areas, especially oil and the attendant issues that revolve around it. But I feel sad as an Abia indigene that we are where we are. We can do better. You mentioned Aba. I grew up in Aba. I schooled there. I was at the National High School, Aba, from 1973 to 1978. We have a family house there. My parents lived there up till they both died. So, I knew the situation of Aba then. I have not been there for some time but I still have close family relations and friends who live there and from whom I hear stories to the effect that today, one can hardly assess places like Ngwa road area; Ohanku area, Iheoji, Danfodio axis and so on. It is quite disturbing. If I tell you I am not bothered, I will be kidding. I may not know so much about Umuahia until I got there as the Attorney-General in 2009; I have not lived there. Even at that, I accept that there has not been much improvement in Umuahia since then in terms of infrastructure and expansion of the city and so on. These are disturbing issues I must tell you but then it gets back to the people. Yes, there is the need for the government to have the right vision but the people also have a role to play. You don’t just blame the government alone. But I can tell you that Abians should look back. Governance is like a relay race; from one point to the other and if you are on a long journey, you must be able to look back to note the point at which it started raining; you must look back to determine where the rain started to wet your clothes, as our people would say.
But you limited the analysis to 1999 to date; yes, it is a fact that quite a whole lot of states around us have gone ahead of us. One of our age mates in terms of state creation should be Anambra. Yes, Anambra has gone far ahead of us either because of the leadership they had or the attitude of the people. So, we have to appreciate the fact that things are not moving on well for Abia. Realising a problem is almost solving it. The question is now that we have all come to appreciate that there is a problem; that we are not moving at full throttle, how do we solve this problem? I agree with these facts. But how do we solve the problems? Let us go back to the basics. The people should be prepared to look at the government they have in place and see how they could be of assistance. There is nothing you will do about the government of Okezie Ikpeazu which is there now. It has been re-elected for another four years and so will be there until 2023. But it is not only about now and 2023. It is also about what happens after 2023. If you ask me; I will say we should, as a people, start discussing but I have not seen it happening. The problem with us in Abia is that we have not been engaging our government. Most of our elders; most of our resource persons are looking the other way; everybody appears not to be interested in what is happening in Abia. This kind of attitude is not helpful to anybody. The governor needs help, I must tell you. I was in Abia State Government for 10 years and so I can tell you the actual problems of the government: leadership could be one of them; putting our priorities right could be one of them and the people who should come to assist but are looking the other way is also one of the major problems. That is why I talk about the role of the citizens. It is both ways: the leaders and the led. We have to partner to salvage Abia. I have been thinking about it; I think we do not have to wait for the government to invite us; Abians should come together themselves and say, look, let’s start talking. Let’s get a blueprint for the development and advancement of that state. How do we solve the numerous problems of Abia? How do we prioritise things to benefit all? What do we do about Aba, Umuahia and the other cities and communities? If you leave it for the governor alone, he may not be able to solve the problems. He may be overwhelmed because the problems are so enormous. Some of us who were there know how deep the problems are. The state is ours; we have to engage the people we elected. If they are not performing well, we have to come together as groups; maybe a group of elders, of professionals, etc., and say, what is happening in our state is not good; how do we assist? Anambra State did it; Peter Obi did not just emerge one day. I listened to a recent interview Obi granted, where he was talking about what he met on the ground in Anambra when he came in as governor and how he started raising funds; the schools, the roads that he did, etc., these are critical issues. In Abia, we can go back to the base. No matter what anybody may say about it; I can confirm to you that nobody has more passion for the development of Abia State than the current governor, Okezie Ikpeazu. When he talks to you about his passion and his plans for the state; you will share my views but the problem we have is getting those plans off the ground. That is why I am talking about our people coming together to get a blueprint. I was told for example that many years before Peter Obi started in Anambra; there was a blueprint drawn by some of their professionals who came together; looked at the critical areas and had a write-up. You spoke about Aba; everybody knows that the infrastructure in Aba has decayed horribly, but the state gets about N4billion every month. How far would that go in terms of putting Aba into place? We can look at the areas we think would make an impact and advice the governor. What of the internally generated revenue (IGR) of the state? I am not sure Abia has been able to get N1billion. When I was there, it was between N600million to N700million. Forget about the things they claim; yes, most of them go into private pockets. From what I heard, Aba alone can generate up to N3billion considering the large number of SMEs there. Not to talk about Umuahia; Ohafia and so many other economically viable communities in Abia. So, someone has to come up with a blueprint on how we can generate revenue in Abia. We have a lot of great people in Abia from different professions who can give informed advice. It is therefore horrible to note that these great minds have remained unable to come together to salvage Abia.