Social commentator, human rights activist and famous lawyer, Festus Keyamo (SAN), in this no-holds-barred interview with LANRE ODUKOYA spoke about the journey to becoming a SAN, why he stuck to the guns against his kinsman, former President Goodluck Jonathan, to birth a new government, and virtues that molded him into greatness.
The awarding of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) seemed to arrive not at a time you expected and we noticed you went to the UK to become a Fellow of International Arbitration while waiting to be pronounced a SAN. Were you so dampened that you had to seek more honour abroad?
Well, I’d say yes and no. At a time I decided go to the UK to get my fellowship, I’d always wanted to do it. So, I wanted to be a Fellow of International Arbitration and it’s very much related to law and it gives you more international scope.
On a lighter note, that means when practice is dull here in Nigeria, I can go elsewhere and make a few bucks to buy garri for my family. I decided long ago that I was going to be a Fellow of International Arbitration in the UK, there’s also a Nigerian version of it but I decided that I wanted mine in the UK. But at a point when my SAN(ship) was a bit delayed, I saw it as an opportunity to make progress in that area.
At some point in life, you just want to make progress; you don’t want to be where you are. And the practice was at a point getting too monotonous and I wanted to just add a few feathers to my cap.
So, that was the decision I took at that time. Maybe the fact that they delayed the SAN(ship) made me quickly go and do it. But I’d have done it eventually whether I become a SAN early or not. Luckily enough, both of them came almost a year apart and at the end of the day it was double blessings for me.
Did you feel any sense of disappointment when you were finally pronounced a SAN given that you’d waited for it so long?
Did you receive it with the same enthusiasm you would have shown it if it had come six or five years earlier? I just took it as God’s appointed time. You won’t believe me, I wasn’t sad, too happy or frustrated. I just told myself this is God’s appointed time and I took it in my stride.
At a point you may want to reflect and say, look, why didn’t it come on time? But then you’d look at other situations where there are people who are also extremely capable and qualified to get it but have still not got it.
So, it’s a matter of counting one’s blessings. Don’t be angry, don’t be sad, don’t be too happy, just accept it that it’s God’s appointed time and just move on with it. Accept it that you would not be the first, you would not be the last and accept it that God just said this is your year and take it.
Did the delay cost you anything valuable?
I don’t think it cost me anything but in any case you would never know what it would have brought you whether it was blessing in disguise or whether it was a drawback because we’re not clairvoyant and we’re not also God. If I’d gotten it earlier, would I have got into trouble? If I’d got it earlier, would I have been bigger than I am? You would never know. Look, if you know how my mind works, you won’t even try to delve into this area of whether I’m happy or I feel frustrated. I am somebody who counts his blessings.
The first blessing I count is that I’m alive. Today, I reflect back and know of my schoolmates who died in primary school, I know those who died in secondary school, I know a classmate of mine who died a week before we wrote our final examination in Ekpoma. I remember him vividly and I also remember my friends who we graduated together; some have made it big in various areas and others have come short in certain areas- it’s like mixed fate for all of us because some of them have passed on too since we graduated.
So, when you reflect on all of this, you’d just say, ‘what right do I have to complain?’ Everyone’s got his own appointed time and just accept it that there wouldn’t have been anything different if it comes before or after.
There’s no parameter to employ to calculate what you should have done because God didn’t just have you in that schedule. He may not have you in His schedule in 2014, 2015, 2016 but your name appears in God’s schedule in 2017.
It’s just that. During the reign of former President Goodluck Jonathan, your name was all over the newspapers for things you felt the government was not doing right, but less if not nothing has been heard from you yet about where the current government is erring. So many would think is it because of the board appointment you got with the
NDIC or because you’re a lawyer with the EFCC?
I have no such of engagement with the government of the day. No kind of engagement at all. Even the names that were announced recently came to me as a surprise. I sat in my house, practicing my law, I didn’t lobby for anything and I don’t have any sense of entitlement at all. So, even as I speak with you, they just announced it we’ve not got letters and nothing has taken off. So, I’m just who I am.
Let me also be a bit presumptuous, I’m very comfortable because that’s the natural response to this kind of question. I’ve reached the height of my profession and I don’t need patronage from the government to survive.
What I have in my profession is pension for life. I said pension for life because it guarantees that I practice and earn money till the day I drop dead. That is what I have in my profession. It’s not an appointment that I must retire from at 65 or 75.
The older you get the better it is for you especially if you’re a very active and practicing lawyer, let alone when you’re a senior advocate. So, really, I will be most stupid to be sycophantic to anybody. Whatever I do is for the best of my country propelled by my sense of history, my sense of balance, what we have and what we may get if we turn the other way and perhaps, maybe because of some insiders knowledge as to what’s going on in this country.
This is because most of the things you see on social media are completely different from the realities on the ground and I’m sure you know that even as a journalist. You know the news behind the news. Unfortunately, the masses of our country; most of the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram activists don’t know the news behind the news.
They see things from the surface and comment. Some of us are c l o s e to you people and we have the privilege to know the news behind the news most times. Having said that, it will be wrong for anyone to think that because I prosecute for the EFCC, I refuse to comment on the wrongs of this government. How long do you think I’ve been prosecuting for the EFCC? Of course you know it’s been long.
It was in the height of my prosecution for the EFCC under former President Jonathan that I opposed him. So, if you want to look for somebody with courage, that was the height of courage. When I knew he could win again? For me it wasn’t for the perks of my practice, as far as I’m concerned I’m just assisting that body because I would earn more money if I don’t prosecute for the EFCC. That’s because I would defend those accused of corruption and I would have more money to pay lawyers.
At times with apologies, I say this without intent to offend the antigraft agency as hard working as they areat times we go on for four years without receiving one kobo from them. We merely do these things out of passion.
The stipend they give to encourage us once in a while is just to cover our transport and it’s been a long time now they did that. I don’t have to reveal how many years ago I received a single bank alert from the commission.
It’s passion that drives us. I was discussing with one of the key prosecutors yesterday and he mentioned the same thing, a senior advocate like me. Bringing our status, experience and everything to help a vital part of government which is the anti-corruption crusade is something we should be commended for.
And so, don’t forget too that Jonathan is my kinsman from the South-south, he was pitched against a northerner who I had absolutely no relationship with, Gen. Buhari, at that time. Everybody around Jonathan is my friend or classmate, so I could easily have walked into that government and picked anything I wanted.
Let me even mention names to you; Gov. Dickson of Bayelsa State is my classmate, he was one of t h e closest to Jonathan. Dickson and I are very close, he’s even my ‘call-mate’. One who is not even close to Jonathan, Dogara, the speaker was also my classmate and ‘call-mate’, of course, you know Asari Dokubo is my brother and my friend. I brought him out of prison and you know how close he was to Jonathan. You know Kingsley Kuku and how close he was to Jonathan.
These are all my childhood friends, peers, brothers from the Southsouth who I have all the affiliation to. Everybody around Jonathan was my people. Even before Oronto Douglas passed on, we came from the same Human Rights circle. I knew nobody around Gen. Buhari, not one person.
But I did what was the best for my country because I saw what was going. I told myself and my conscience that this was wrong. I didn’t want the Dasuki money; I knew that money was going around then for people to campaign for them. In Buhari’s case we were spending our own money.
Do you sell your conscience to someone who is not giving you money or someone who gives you money? For 16 years, you saw how we complained about the PDP and their ways- many of us were loud about it. Then immediately after we were able to pull off that revolution in 2015, then some of us who were leaders of that cause will turn around and in two years and switch sides to the same people we fought? No way! What we can do is constructive criticism which we have done and not to call for change from what we established. It’s too early to call for change. I’m not ashamed and I’m confident to say that we cannot in two and half years call for the change of what we fought for many years to achieve.
From your constituency, the justice system, the appointment of the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN), has been received with much criticism and he has not scored well from his outings to earn people’s confidence.
How does this make you feel? There are people in the present team who have done well and there are those who haven’t done well. That doesn’t generally bring down the entire government. It means that you need to change some members of your team like some parts of your vehicle. Even though the vehicle is moving, there is perhaps a reason for change of some parts in order for the vehicle to perform better.
Now, while this may be the perception of some people, some people might argue that he has done well too. I’ve had cause to criticise him openly too especially on the ‘Mainagate’. He’s my close friend and my brother but when it comes to the governance of this country some of us must speak out. And I spoke out and said, look, in certain areas you got it wrong my brother. You shouldn’t have been anxious enough to recall Maina.
There are other areas he might have done well too, people have where they misstep. We’ve heard of AGFs who were involved in other ‘gates’. Some of them are on the run now, they’ve declared them wanted.
You have fought many battles and come out either unscathed or with not so known scars. Which would you consider the most difficult?
It may not even be the ones that attract public attention and you won’t believe it. The ones that attract public attention are even the simplest. Some of the cases of very private persons that gave us sleepless nights and we fight those battles so much and pull through, we really heave a big sigh of relief here in this office. Because of clients’ confidentiality I may not go through the details of some of these cases.
Not so much has changed in your look in years despite the workload and mental stress, what’s the secret of your good look?
It’s hunger. Try and be hungry and you won’t grow pot-belly. On a serious note, it’s discipline. I rest a lot. I don’t do night parties, I don’t club. Those have never been my lifestyle. I was brought up as a very disciplined young man. I was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness preaching from house to house and we had to go to bed early.
I was raised in a very disciplined environment and that discipline is still in me till now. Even in my late 40s, if I’m outside and it gets too late, I’d rush back home to my bed without anyone flogging me to do it. When I left my father’s house and went to the university, it was what propelled me. I sleep well, nothing disturbs my mind. Let the world be shouting Keyamo, I would just switch off my light and off I go in my sleep.
You’ve shared inspiring stories of your rise from bottom to the top. What presently excites you after you’ve conquered the war against poverty?
When I see young men today who want their apparels to make them, they want to shine in what they wear and the kind of cars they drive at the beginning of their lives, I just pity them. It’s a wrong way to start life, build your person, your character, passion for what you like first and every other thing will fall in place. Don’t put the cart before the horse- sadly, this is what we find happening around today. I didn’t drive a car six years after I was called to the bar.
I drove my old Mercedes Benz car which they called ‘Smoking Joe’ about seven years after. I bought it third hand. That was part of the setting with which I started life. My father and my mother had never attended any of my ceremonies in my life until my conferment as SAN when I had to fly them like a king and queen to Abuja to attend.
They didn’t attend my matriculation because they weren’t buoyant enough to come, they were not buoyant enough to attend my convocation and they couldn’t attend my call to bar ceremony because there was no money. I’m proud to say all this now because at the end of the day, the story is sweet. I don’t look back with regret.
My conferment was the first event they attended- guess what, that is even the sweetest one for them to attend. Of what benefit would it have been for them to attend my matriculation and I don’t graduate? Of what benefit will it be for them to attend my matriculation and spend so much money and I can’t be called to the bar?
Of what benefit would it have been for them to attend my call to bar and make so much noise and cook all kinds of rice and I make nothing out of my career? No benefits. The real icing on the cake was what they came for and God designed it that way. That was why I flew them like king and queen and I was proud to do that.
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