By Omoniyi Salaudeen
Dr Tunji Abayomi is a renowned constitutional lawyer and chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
In this interview, he examined the race for the presidential ticket of his party and concluded that Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu is unbeatable.
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Making a quick reference to the recent judgment of the Federal High Court, Abuja, in respect of the defection of Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State of APC, what exactly is the position of the constitution on carpet-crossing?
It is only applicable to the National Assembly members. Defection is not forbidden for the executive, it is only for legislators. The constitution says so categorically. But I think what the judge was saying is that elections are for political parties. And once you leave that political party, you leave the election that elected you. That is the summary of the court’s decision. That is a novel thought, a new decision, a new thinking. The only way to uphold or knock it out is for the Supreme Court to look into it and then take a position.
But some of your learned colleagues have also canvassed the view that political party cannot claim ownership of the votes because some non-partisan individuals also voted to elect that person…?
(Cuts in) The court is not saying that the electors are political party members, but those electors voted for the political party. If you look at the elections, the names of candidates never appeared on the ballot papers. What is on the ballot paper is the name of political parties. And when you vote, you vote for that political party. The thinking is that the person elected by the electors is the political party because that is the person you vote for. Like I said, it is a new thinking that will require the input of the higher courts.
The ruling All Progressives Congress has been enmeshed in crisis. As at today, there is still confusion as to whether or not the national convention slated for March 26 will hold. Do you think the president, who is the leader of the party, feels concerned enough about the crisis?
I don’t think he feels concerned enough or active enough in resolving the internal crisis in the party. But I think ultimately it will be resolved. I believe before the convention day, the party would have settled down to clear the path for a useful convention.
And who is going to organize that convention because there are two personalities laying claims to the leadership of the party now?
That will be resolved by the president because each of them traces his authority to the president. And that is why I said in my recent interview that the president needs to be up and doing, courageous enough, strong enough to lead the party.
He is courageous to lead but he is not leading the party?
Courageous enough to lead the party will require taking decisions because the buck stops on his table. So, if you say he is not leading the party, you are correct. He should wake up to lead the party.
Perhaps, there is a bigger problem looming ahead of the party in terms of organizing a rancor-free presidential primary. In fact, some people are already waiting for an imminent implosion after the primary. Is there any modality in place to ensure that the exercise will be free, fair and credible?
I think it is likely to be because we had no less crisis in 2015. You will recall that the congress was in Lagos and there were lots of issues before the congress. But at the end of it all, a candidate emerged. I believe we will resolve the problem. There is always crisis in political parties. Is it not in PDP?
You are talking of two different scenarios. In 2015, you were still struggling to take over power from the ruling party. But now, your party is sitting at the seat of power. Isn’t that a different ballgame?
The point is that there are different situations and there will be different solutions. The fact that political candidate must emerge. I don’t think APC is going to die soon despite its internal crisis.
Has the question of zoning been finally settled in APC?
I believe so from the release I have seen so far. I believe zoning is largely settled. But there are, of course, still issues in terms of micro-zoning in the various regions. There is also the issue of contest for positions, which is going to come up during the congress. All of these are normal in politics, but desire for political office is too overwhelming.
If you are talking of micro-zoning, which of the zones in the South do you in your opinion think is fair to have the presidential slot?
My thinking is that presidential ticket will come to the Southwest because it is a question of constituency that can provide the largest votes for the party to win. If you zone the presidency to the East, where do you get the votes? It has already been demonstrated. It was the combination of Southwest and the North that elected President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. In a sense, it will now be the reverse. Buhari needed Southwest to become president, now somebody from the Southwest will link to the North constituency of the APC in order to get elected. It is a straight forward thing. Of course, anybody can run for the race. For example, if you take somebody in Port Harcourt, he may not even win in Port Harcourt. It is that realization that compelled Buhari to link up with Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu in order to become president.
So, to that extent, you are expecting a reciprocal gesture?
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It is likely. Is there anybody that is running now? Is he not the only one that is running? Do you see any other candidate? We are not talking of local election here.
It’s like you feign ignorance of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to take a shot at the presidency. Isn’t it?
Has he told you he is running? Presidential election is less than nine months. Are people running him or they are running for him?
His posters are already out, you know…?
(Cuts in) Even posters of those who are not running are out. Is poster of Emefiele not out? Is he running? When you are talking of running for an election, you talk of serious business. Do you think anybody who is going to unseat Asiwaju Tinubu can be a Lilliput?
Some people are expecting a dog fight if eventually VP decides to throw his hat into the ring?
There will be no dog fight. If today the Vice President comes out, I can tell you, people will just say, okay, no problem. But even from the standpoint of anthological thinking, should he run? A lot of people have been asking that question.
But there is no morality in politics?
We are not saying that politics is played on morality, but it is played on decency and dynamics of relationship, it is played on appreciation or lack of it. People will ask, the Vice President is part of this government, what has the government done? Is he strong enough, tall enough to run the race?
I guess you used the word ‘tall enough’ in just its literal sense?
(Laughter) Asiwaju is not tall too, but he is called the Lion of Bourdillion. What is the name of the vice president?
As a pro-chancellor of the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba, Ondo State, you are also a critical stakeholder in the university system. What are your thoughts about the rot in the Nigerian university system?
The rot is both structural and material. It is structural in the sense that it is wrong to centralise education as it is done in Nigeria. The entire education system is controlled by centralized federal system. We have a labour union that controls everything; negotiates with Federal Government without the inputs of states that own most of the universities, agrees without the input of other universities that are expected to be bound by such agreement. We have a financing system like TETFUND that just does what it likes. Although the funds come from the states, decision-making does not come from the states. So, we have a very problematic structure. Therefore, there is need for decentralization of processes and system. That again is tied to material problem. One of the problems in this country is that the material commitment to education is very low. The sad thing is that the government has not come to the realization that education is essential to make a nation wealthy. It is for this realization that the western world commits so much to education. It is for the same reason that a country like China commits so much to education. In our own case, we commit very little to education. Just like Chief Afe Babalola recently said when he called me, one of the most difficult tasks is to run a university without money. And most of the universities in Nigeria are in that perilous state. To sustain the university system a lot needs to be done. We are simply nowhere in terms of the development of education.
The National University Commission (NUC) has continued to issue certificates for private universities, while the conventional universities are going down. Is this not a deliberate attempt to kill the government institutions to allow private ones to thrive?
I don’t think that is a correct assessment of the situation. The desire for university education in our country is huge and the capacity of the government-owned universities to meet the demand is extremely low. Even the few they have, they cannot finance them. The question now is: what do we do to meet the need for university education? The NUC has the statistics. Maybe one out of every five qualified candidates gets to the university. The only way is to issue certificate to private universities to boost admission capacity.
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASSU) has always claimed the desire to save the collapse of the university system as one of the reasons for embarking on strike, whereas, in reality, their incessant strikes have done irreparable damage to the system. How would you situate these two scenarios?
ASSU will not accept that it is destroying the system. When you have a situation where you commit N360 billion to control in the Northeastern part of the country and you commit N30 billion to education nationally, you naturally can avoid the kind of situation we find ourselves. It all boils down to the problem of centralization. For example, we want to run our university in Ondo State in a peculiar way, but we are disentitled from doing that because of the labour law that controls our universities from Abuja. These are structural fundamental problems that need to be dealt with. We need to decentralize our education system.
What is the way out of the present logjam?
First of all, you need to go back to the constitution. Why should ASUU control all the universities in Nigeria? A state university should be run according to its capacities. That way, there will be competition. That is not the situation in our country. Why should I be made to pay the same salary scale that Lagos pays as Zamfara pays, for example, under ASUU? A lot of things are not working in Nigeria because of the structure of our federal system.
Taking a critical stock of what this administration has done in the last six years, what new innovation would you say the current Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, has introduced into the system?
It all depends on how much you value education. So, you cannot expect anything different from the disposition of the person you put there.