There Is Only One Festus Keyamo!
Say what you will about Festus Keyamo (SAN) but the man does not back down. Brilliant, funny, energetic and passionate he is not a man to do things by halves; it’s all the way or no way with the Honorable Minister of State for Labor and Employment. Born January 21st 1970 to a humble Jehovah’s Witness household he received his primary and secondary education in Delta state before proceeding to Ambrose Alli University Ekpoma in Edo State where he bagged his law degree and was later called to bar in 1993.
He truly needs no introduction as his work within the human rights activism space very early defined a great portion of his career, however for those who may not know he is a Nigerian lawyer, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, critic and columnist who is now currently serving as Minister of State for Labour and Employment.
In this exclusive interview with the DOWNTOWN trio of Austyn Ogannah, Publisher & Editor-In-Chief, Latasha Ngwube, Editor and Kehinde Fagbule, intern, we toughed out this conversation on where his allegiances truly lie, the failings and successes of his Ministry, his stance on activism as practiced by youths today as well as his early days before fame and success found him.
Keyamo opens the conversation with a remark that immediately dispels the mood of joviality and is quickly replaced with all seriousness:
“Whatever is being said about me outside are some of the things I’d like to confront squarely. The kind of question you’re asking relate to how people see me now, how they perceive me, and the fact that they think that I may have deviated from my original calling”.
I’m glad we are opening on this note Honorable Minister because with all due respect, the word being used on the street is “sell-out”. A lot of people feel like you have sold out. What is your response to that?
I’ll ask you in return, “what is a sell-out?”. Who was I politically betrothed to? Who did I pledge allegiance to?
I think the people felt like your allegiance was to the people as a human rights lawyer…
So you cannot serve the people in government? What is the ultimate platform to deliver service to people in the world? It is the government, that’s power. I’m not serving a military regime, neither am I serving a regime that shot its way into power. I’m serving a government that was democratically elected to serve. So if 20 people gather somewhere and criticise me for joining a government that they perceive is a bad government, are those 20 people more intelligent or powerful than the 15 million Nigerians who voted for the president twice?
I guess that speaks to the subject of being a sell-out; for now…
I’ll continue. The problem we face with a lot of people is that they are myopic to the extent that they think that their views are superior to the views of the majority. The ultimate test of people’s power and what the people want or think is the ballot paper, unfortunately, it is not Twitter or Facebook. Social media platforms allow the minority to have their say and that is good for democracy. However, when you want to hear the voice of the majority, the medium isn’t social media as there’s a body called the Independent National Electoral Commission(INEC) that is constitutionally empowered to aggregate the majority opinion. That is the body we all go to; and when that body declares that somebody has the majority of YES in his favour, there is no other body that can say otherwise. You can hate the process, sit down in your house, cross your legs, chew chewing gum and press your phone from morning till evening, it will not answer the question that there are constitutionally approved institutions that are allowed to sort out the process of who has the majority of yes in his favour and that is the INEC, court of appeal and the supreme court. We have gone through all of these processes and these processes told us that the majority of Nigerians are in our favour. Unfortunately, if one professor with all the learnings in the world is together with 30 illiterates in the same room, in democracy, they defeat the professor. That’s how democracy works. Democracy is not a government for the literates alone; it is a government of the people, for the people and by the people. Therefore, I cannot sit down here because of my high learning and exposure and my position as a Senior Advocate to say “Oh well, I’m superior to the 15 million Nigerians who voted for the president and who were happy with me that I campaigned for the president,” and the president made me a minister thereafter.
I’m prepared to sell-out against the minority and be with the majority because I’m serving a government popularly elected. That’s the end of the point I’m making; I’m with the majority as of today as I’ve always been. If the minority feel I’ve sold out, it is better to sell out against them than against the majority who are the average Nigerian people. One more addition to this, I also wasn’t sitting docile in my house and a government came into power and they wanted to silence me and invited me to government. That is the picture in the head of many folks as they push the “They have silenced Keyamo” narrative. That is very false. I was part of an opposition movement to an order. I joined the APC at its formation; so people should give me that credit. I was not a longerthroat who saw a juicy government and latched onto it. I was part of a gruelling campaign against a system and order that I could’ve easily joined. Nobody ever thought a ruling party could lose: a ruling party had never lost since 1960. I took the hard way into government. I didn’t sell-out, I took the hard road. The person whom I campaigned against (former President Goodluck Jonathan) is my kinsman. He’s South-South like me. All his supporters were my friends and colleagues back in my primary school days. Don’t forget all the separatist movements, the Niger Delta and the likes, supported Jonathan. I wouldn’t mention names but those I represented in court, the militants, they’re all my brothers, yet I parted ways with them. I saw an idiotic post recently that someone said I tried to get access to Jonathan and I was just laughing; I didn’t bother to respond. What did I need access to Jonathan for? If I needed it, I’d have gotten it; everyone around him were my friends. So for me to have abandoned the easy way and teamed up with the opposition and chosen the hard way, people didn’t acknowledge that. The sell-out they talk about really is that they want me to support the PDP. They think the PDP is a southern party. It is of vogue these days for the Southern vocals to be in the PDP. If I were in the PDP today, this accusation of sell-out wouldn’t be there, I can assure you.
So why did you join the APC?
Would you deny me that right? Would you deny me the fundamental right to join a political party of my choice? Let me tell you this and I’ll say it for the hundredth time and I know posterity will record what I’m saying now; in the next hundred years, they would play it back: Buhari will be the last of the Mohicans that we’re going to get in government. Forget all the media hype and nonsense, you will know, 10, 20 years after he leaves power that we have lost a president who aggregates most of the things we struggle for. If I did not support Buhari, that is when I would have been a sell-out. Why? The person who trained me and brought me up by hand; who everyone sees as one of the best as well as the definition of what is right and wrong today in the country, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, supported Buhari till he died and told everyone who cared to listen that Buhari was the only person he could vote for.
Do you think that if Chief Gani Fawehinmi were still alive, he would have turned his back on Buhari?
You are talking of what would have happened. I am talking about what happened.
There are a lot of people who supported Buhari years back and have now turned their backs on him…
Those are people who wanted something out of the government and they did not get and we have proved this over and over again. You don’t know the nature of Nigerians; I will tell you. Most of those elites who turned their backs against him are people who aimed to benefit from the government and saw that it wasn’t business as usual. As for the people on the streets, I mentioned earlier, we tested it at the polls again in 2019 when everyone thought Buhari was finished; they voted for him again. The voting conversation can only be had by those three bodies I had mentioned (INEC, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court), not you and me. The human beings who voted and we saw on the TV, are they goats? Are they from Cameroon?
It seems like the violation of human rights is getting worse by the day in the country. You have clashed with activists who have accused you of turning a blind eye to cases of human rights violations especially in the wake of the #endSARS protests; a sharp contrast from when you used to take up human rights cases pro-bono as an activist lawyer…
My position on the #endSARS protest is clear. It’s all over the internet. Google it, when I came out to say Nigerians have the right to protest peacefully. I was the only person sitting in government in the cabinet, and the only minister, that came out to say the youths have the right to peaceful protest. What else do they want from me?
They want you to take up the mantle as you used to.
How do I take it up? First off, I am no longer the Keyamo of old as you have to resign from the chambers as soon as you get appointed minister in Nigeria. So I could no longer use that platform. Secondly, let me ask you, what is the purpose of shouting on the streets as an activist?
To create awareness…
Exactly! To get the authorities to hear you. Now, I am in government with access to the highest decision making body in the country weekly. I’m part of the Federal Executive Council right now. They hear my voice every week…what you read about my #endSARS opinion is a snippet of more things I said within the cabinet to government and that is the highest form of fighting for the people you can think of. Would it not be stupid on my part that I have the ears of everyone who could make a decision and I still come out on the streets and be shouting at them to hear me? That is what they call playing to the gallery. It would be idiotic for me to do that. People on the streets always like people playing to the gallery. I am not for that, I am too old for all of that. I’m in government now and what people want me to do is antagonise my boss openly. People who label me sell-out are the sell-outs. They are myopic and, I apologize to use the word, idiotic. They don’t know the definition of a sell-out. I’m selling out against nobody. If at all they should be extremely happy that someone who has walked the streets with them, fought on the streets with them, fought in and out of court with them, is in government right now; because what they are even complaining about perceived or not, could’ve been worse.
Now back to endSARS. Do you know those who advice the government? No government in the history of Nigeria has responded to the demands of protesters as instantly as this government did. This indomie generation doesn’t know what it meant to be part of Ali Must Go or the Anti-SAR protests. Within three days, the government said “Alright, we’ve heard you, we will disband SARS;” a government mercenary, a crime-fighting unit of the police force, the government responded immediately.
What about the shootout in Lekki?
There was no shootout. Did you not hear the US government report? Can you give me the name of a family member? People cannot die without the family members reacting. You are probably part of those who were swept away by the hoopla. Did you hear about the people sponsored to hype these issues? The issues are coming out now all over the press, I hope you are seeing as they unfold. What they’re saying about who stole money and who didn’t; money that they pumped into that protest at the time.
I just want to let you know that what you call human rights violations at times, from your point of view, is one of the softest approaches the government has ever taken to dealing with the citizens of this country. As I speak with you today, those who evaded Capitol Hill are on the wanted list. The government knows them but left them because they wanted peace. Anybody that provides a platform for anything to fester without knowing how to control that platform, will take responsibilities for any consequence that comes out of what you have provided. Then you provide a platform for people to come out of their homes and you cannot control them or have a body to call them to order? You can’t ignore the havoc they wrecked on this country and the public institutions burnt. I’ve just decided to keep quiet all this while. At my age, my level of learning and constitutional law, who will come and stand in front of me in this country and argue or tell me what I know about constitutional law? There are all kinds of ignorance going on on social media but we kept quiet. If we wanted to go by the full extent of the law, blocking public roads and hindering people from movement alone is a criminal offence. The protest went on for days and no teargas was used; could you do that before in this country? Yet people still call the president a dictator. Who advised the government to keep quiet? They will know years later. For two to three weeks consistently, a major access road to a major part of Lagos was not accessible and you tell me that the government did not have the right to clear the road for those who want to go about their businesses to go about it. The lie that people have told this generation is that misbehaviour is absolute and is in the advancement of human rights. They’ve not told them the limitations of human rights. If you stop other people’s right to movement, you’ve impeded their fundamental human rights.
Would you say you have effected more change as a human rights lawyer or as a politician?
Some things I used 10 years to advocate for as a human rights lawyer, I have achieved under 10 mins; that is the whole essence.
Things like what?
You know we are sworn as ministers, for now, not to divulge certain things when we’re in office. This is a constitutional provision. All you need to do is take collective responsibility when the cabinet takes a decision, you defend it. There are suggestions I’ve made in council that the government has approved. Those are suggestions that have improved people that I would never have in 10 years been able to pass to government, but it takes less than 5mins to achieve that when you are in power to achieve that and that is the beauty of people who are social activists seeking power to easily effect all they have been clamouring for. Every single social activist in this country has sought power, so I’m asking “Where is Keyamo different here?” Many of them did not succeed and maybe that’s the bitterness. Even the most vocal ones now who are abusing us are under PDP so it’s not like they’re going to form a Human Rights party; they sought for the tickets of PDP and lost. What is Keyamo’s offence? Because I won.
Your time as the Minister of Labour and Employment has been plagued with a lot of strikes. What do you have to say to that?
People think that it is the labour ministry that is at fault when there is a strike. That is incorrect. We are conciliators. When teachers are on strike, that is the fault of the Ministry of Education. When health workers are on strike, that is the fault of the Ministry of Health. When judicial workers are on strike, that is the fault of the Ministry of Justice. We are not involved at all. The Ministry of Labour is only established to come in and bring parties to the table and discuss. For me who is a trained international arbitrator from the UK, I bring all that wealth of experience into government for free. So I don’t have to learn on the job to help the government work on some of these issues. Even though there is a high turnout of strikes, you can see that the resolutions are also going on, they’re calling it off, they are going back. That is success on our part. The high volume of strikes isn’t our fault as the Ministry of Labour as we’re not the ones breaching contracts. Our job is quick resolutions to these strikes and we’re doing a good job at that.
Can we talk about the 774,000 jobs? Did you really give out wheelbarrows and cutlasses?
That is false. This is one of the challenges we face and I will call them out on Arise TV, anchored by PDP, people who lost out on the elections. Also, people would look at them as public commentators but people who we kicked out of power, they now give them a platform every day to pose as public commentators. People mustn’t see them as fair and objective commentators. Those people should be there to ask questions and not make their comments. I saw them on Arise TV saying that Keyamo is giving out cutlasses and that was our empowerment. This is despite the explanation I gave on social media stating that we’re not empowering people with cutlasses; those are our properties. We’re not giving them that to empower them to go and work, we’re taking it back from them. We’re only maintaining public infrastructures with that equipment and we’re paying them separately. Moreover, there were videos of me circulating showing that we also bought some high tech equipment: engine grass cuter. I just want to show you how wicked that people can go to this age to disparage you in government. What we did was that first of all we wanted to save government money; it is a 3-month job. We couldn’t spend all that money buying pieces of equipment that are too expensive and later people would still criticise me as minister to say we did all that and bought high tech equipment for a 3-month job and then still need time to train them on how to use the machines; these are traditional village people who still don’t know how to use these machines whether we like it or not. The jobs are not for graduates, they’re for local poor people who are still using manual tools and so we bought some manual tools for them, we also bought some high tech equipment and I will show them to you so you see how the press conveniently ignored that and refused to use those pictures where I was also using those high tech machines. If you cut grass (which we did with a mower and not a cutlass as reported in the media) in a location that is not vehicle accessible, what machine do you use to transport them to the easily accessible road? Even for the most educated, it is the wheelbarrow.
Is it true that you think social media should be regulated?
First of all, free speech must be guaranteed. As a lawyer who has practised constitutional law for many years, I cannot in any way curtail free speech. However, and listen very carefully, if you tell deliberate lies that you cannot defend, be prepared to pay for it. If you deliberately spread the falsehood that can lead to conflagration or tear the country apart, don’t come and cry free speech once you’re arrested, I will not defend you. When you say social media regulation, it is too blank, so I’m filling the blank spaces to be clear as to what exactly I want to be done. You have to know the content and the context of that regulation; and I have just limited it to two things:, spreading deliberate falsehood to cause conflagration and hate speech. Hate speech isn’t abuses against the government, I allow that. Abuse me from morning till evening, I am a public officer, that is not hate to me. As a public officer, you must be ready to receive all kinds of jabs from the public for what you are doing. Now, what can you not say against the public officer? For example, you can’t say you caught me at the airport trying to smuggle a million dollars when I wasn’t even at the airport. To which I asked you to retract it and offer a public apology but you refused because you want to stand on your story or you want to draw me out and blackmail me; that is what I will not take as a public officer. That is a deliberate lie. The hate speech we’re talking about like the aforementioned are not abuses against a public officer like “He’s mad, he’s stupid, get out!” How many will you fight against every day? People express their emotions like that. However, hate speech in a clear definition is for example to say that Yorubas must attack the Igbos. In other parts of the world, hate speech is usually seen within the racial contexts, black and white. In our context here, it is one tribe against the other. So if America takes it seriously that hate speech (turning whites against blacks and blacks against whites) is a criminal offence,, why can’t we take it here as a crime? Here, you know what we do? We take it as a right to defend ourselves that we are first of all ethnic warlords here. People support it here and give their platforms for people to say such things and heat the politics. You will not see CNN or BBC give up their platforms for people to come and quote white supremacy, they will shut them down because they know that at that point they’re inciting and planting a seed of discord in society. For so many years they have tried to downplay those people who are white supremacists or people promoting one race over another because, all they do is give their platforms to people who promote equality of race. However, in this part of the world, somebody is calling every day “Yorubas this, Fulanis that” and they give them free airtime. That is hate speech and we should not encourage that in our clime.
…but I think that’s a different thing from regulating social media.
No, regulating is that you must make laws to stop those kinds of things; that is the regulation we are talking about. People are saying that no law should be made at all. Recently, the British proposed a law to regulate theirs. “UK unveils law to fine social media firms which fail to remove online abuses.” I posted that on my social media and didn’t even comment on it; Nigerians bashed me still. These are online abuses in the form of cyberbullying. That is a more developed country. There’s a popular blogger I sued and because of my friendship with the bloggers, we refused to publish the judgement. We were able to prove that as a blogger, you have a right to also review comments before you approve them as there’s a provision to review the comments but they left theirs open to attract readership and traffic and it was in the comments section that they made disparaging comments against this person that came to brief us to take them to court. For them, traffic is more important than the image of our client. We got a heavy judgement and it would have been a lesson for all the other bloggers in the country but we decided for some reasons because of my friendship to keep it away from the public. That’s why I say we must teach this indomie generation that rights are not absolute.
Why do you keep calling them indomie generation?
It’s just a word that people use to describe the much younger generation beacause the noodles take about 2 minutes to be done, it’s not cooked deeply. They are too surface-based and I say this with all respect. I saw this recently, a guy who had a million followers on Twitter and he thrives off of abusing people on Twitter. This person now made a snide comment to say “Who is Gani after all?” I nearly deactivated my account that day. He then replied to a comment saying “How can you compare Gani to me? Who was Gani?” In other words, for him, the only yardstick and barometer to test activism are your followers on Twitter and what you do on the app. The first question they ask you is “How many followers do you have?” If Gani was alive, he would be well over 20 million followers today. When I saw that I couldn’t deal. It is indomie because they have not sat down to know where we are coming from as a nation. I want to take you back a bit to educate ourselves. Look at the average supporters of #endSARS; they’re under 30s. Those in their 50s never supported #endSARS because they know where we were coming from before SARS was established. There was a time armed robbers would write to neighbourhoods that they were coming to so and so street at so and so time. Apart from the mindless nonsense that these SARS people are doing at times, shooting innocent people like the police do in America- which they still do it everywhere, once someone holds a gun, there will be excesses, after #endSARS, it continued so it won’t stop, it’s just to bring them to book and that’s what we’re saying. However, before then Lagos was peaceful for over 10 years. From the time Akpoyinbo became CP, to when #endSARS became a thing, there were no cases of robbery in Lagos again. Now the resurgence is coming up. It was at the peak of this kind of insecurity that the crime-fighting machine called SARS was established at that time because the regular police could no longer confront armed robbers.
When you were in your 20s, you were considered to be a radical, a pain in the ass of the government at the time. Is there nothing about this generation now that you admire at all? Can you not draw any line between how they feel now and how you felt back then when you felt like we were not being heard as a people?
The advantage we had that time was that we listened to our icons. Don’t forget that all the movements we had were guided by Wole Soyinka, Gani Fawehinmi, Ransom-Kuti and so on. We were all under their tutelage because it was either CDHR, CLO, Jakon, etc. All of these groups were guided strictly by these top icons at that time so they could bring us under control and say “This is how we ought to do things” and that is why none of those protests at all of those times degenerated the way #endSARS did. What happened? Don’t forget Gani and co were invited to the Villa to negotiate and tell them what to do when the protest grounded the whole country then. Afterwards, they gave their conditions: form an interim government, go back to democracy and all that. Remember at that point during the #endSARS protest, the government said “We’re ready for dialogue, bring your leaders forward, tell us your demands” so they could then monitor the implementation of those demands. That’s why I said you cannot start a process without having the capacity to control that process to a logical conclusion. However, because of the evolution and the way they went about it, nobody could come out. They were even threatening the lives of everyone who dared to come out to say they were representing the youths, so even the well meaning ones ran away. Some musicians who were looking to represent the youths had to run away because they were being threatened.That is anarchy. If you don’t have anybody to speak for you then it wasn’t well thought out as all wars end on the table. In other words, if you don’t want it to end on the table then what you want is a regime change. At a point, it was the regime change they wanted because they were not willing to talk even after the demands were met. They demanded they wanted panels; panels were formed immediately. They wanted SARS disbanded, SARS was disbanded immediately; and they continued to pour out on the streets.
People were frustrated…
Yes, but in our own time, we could channel those frustrations because we had very experienced activists leading us all.
Do you not believe that a protest can start as one thing but morph into something else which is the general frustration beyond endSARS. So endSARS was the catalyst, but there were so many other issues that were on the table.
So after meeting 5 demands, they now changed it to 7. After 7, we saw 20 demands which included demands like “Disband the national assembly, cut down salaries of public officers, etc” and you think that could be done overnight? At that point, it became political. Those demands were political. At a point #endBuhari trended for 3 days. We now said the only way to do that is to form a political party. If you want to end Buhari, go and form a political party as we did (and removed PDP) and campaign against the sitting government. To come out and say “End Buhari” is treasonable. Anything you see that time, take am.
Let’s talk about unemployment amongst the employable, the educated. There are millions of young people on the streets.
The unemployment situation is very bad and we make no excuses for it. We should improve on that. It’s 33 percent now and that is atrocious. Even for those who are employed, most of them are underpaid and in the world of work, those who are underpaid are also seen as unemployed and the ratio is high. COVID has complicated issues. We must deal with our issues not to harp on the fact so much that even the most reliable countries in the world are facing challenges now. Some people were even using Ghana as a yardstick to judge Nigeria but they’re about to pour out on the streets in Ghana now. They’re doing their own #endSARS there called #FixGhana and they’ve rolled out tanks everywhere. Ghana did not allow it degenerate to that point as they rolled out tanks before they came out. Here, however, we allowed it for people to be dancing and eating as they blocked the roads and we refused to roll out any tank, not even in Lekki.
Unemployment is bad, so now what are we doing about it? We’ve sat down and looked at it. We think the way out of the unemployment situation is not to create regular jobs in organisations both in the public and private sector to give out letters of employment, that is the kind of employment that many people think about. We think that the way out is to skill up the population and to make the environment conducive for small, micro-entrepreneurs to thrive because that is actually the bull work of the economy. If you can do that, then you’d have created so many jobs and taken so many people off the streets. Selfemployment is still the key to progress in life. If you can create a situation where you can employ yourself and then even employ one or two more hands to help you.
Not only the ministry of Labour now, but it is also the agencies under us. Agencies like the National Directory of Employment and all that. We still have the Ministry of Trade and Investment, Trade and Industry, they have SMEDAN, and more agencies. If you look at their yearly budget, a lot of skill acquisition programmes have gone up in the last few years; we deliberately promoted them to train people and skill them up. The only problem and downside we have are that if we train them and give them starter packs, they go on to sell the starter packs. These are challenges we still face as a government. You train someone in sewing for 3 months, we do crash programmes like that under the NDE and SMEDAN and we also give the persons sewing machines and all that, the next thing the person takes the sewing machine back into the market and sells the sewing machine for 50,000 Naira, then comes back to say “I still have nothing to do” whilst waiting for free cash or free employment when it’s clear the person doesn’t want to work. However, those who have started and taken advantage of the programmes, have made some progress and we have testimonies on the streets. The problem we have in Nigeria is that the output is far more than the opportunities that are being created, this is why the unemployment rate is going up. It is not that opportunities are not being created but over the years, the number of people we’re churning out, graduating institutions for instance (not only universities, but polytechnics too and even at vocational institutions for people learning a skill) are far more than the opportunities the society is creating. This is a pandemic that we must address and I’ve told you as the president said in the next 10 years we will like to lift a hundred million people out of poverty. All policies of government now are geared towards that. Any memo that comes to the council, the first thing that we ask alongside the president is “How many jobs are coming out of this memo?” before we approve it. If you’re not creating jobs for Nigerians, we will turn down the memo. So that’s what we’re trying to do as a government and we can only do our best for the next government to take off from there but we will put all those policies and framework in place for us to make progress in that regard.
Let’s talk about Eedris Abdulkareem.
No, I don’t want to talk about that. He’s not worth my time. Next question?
I’m not trying to denigrate anybody when I say he’s not worth my time but once people know that some of these things you read and see against the government have ulterior motives behind them, it’s enough and we can move on to the next question. That is why it’s not worth talking about. No matter how you criticise, analyse and say “Festus why did you do this?” you must refer to the fact that something happened. Once you know, that is enough for us.
The Niger Delta is a very important region of the country in the sense that more than 85% of the resources come from that region. However, there’s an agitation that come 2023 elections, the next president should come from the South-South or South East region of the country. You talk to the influential people in the party and in the government, where is their head and mind at?
No decision has been made in that regard. I’m a proper party man now, I’ve learnt the ropes of how to play party politics, so I’ll be a proper party man to wait for the ultimate decision of the party. There are divergent views within the party and at the right time, the right organs of the party will come together and make a decision and all of us would be bound by those decisions. If you don’t want to be bound by them, you opt out of the party; it’s your freedom to do that. However, I know at the end of the day that the party will take a reasonable decision that will lead us to victory. Mark my words today: we’re going to win the presidency in 2023; I’m definite about that. This is because this issue you’re talking about is plaguing the major parties so it’s not only an APC problem. The only thing is that we are the ones in power. The major opposition parties, also have the question of the zoning too and all that plaguing them.
If you ask for my personal opinion, I don’t know why I’m talking too much in this regard but I’ll just go outside the box a bit to say this for posterity; ultimately for this country, one of the things that will bring peace to the country if we don’t want to oppose devolution of powers, we want powers to the centre. If we want to keep concentrating powers at the centre then we must adopt rotation of presidency. This idea came up in the 1995 Abacha conference. It has come up in all the conferences and we’ve left it hanging. Ultimately, we may have to come to that. If we keep running away from these issues regarding the devolution of powers through federalism, someday we may have to just sit down and talk about rotational presidency. If it’s too difficult and cumbersome to talk about devolution of power; because that’s the problem, people are saying that the restructuring devolution of powers may be too complex in terms of the content of what should be considered and what should not be considered, that’s the problem we’re facing. How much does the north concede to the south and vice versa? Now if that cannot be done, the easiest thing to do is to adopt a rotational presidency within the 6 geopolitical zones. Once that is done, it will bring down the entire tension because what is causing the tension in the country is the lack of access to power and the cry of marginalisation by certain sections of this country. Along with that, we should do a single-term presidency. Hardly any president sits down before he begins to think of a second term and that hampers government, and that applies to governors too. The single term should be 5 years in my opinion but 6 years maximum. To add to that, the only term you can allow for two terms is the legislature. Let the legislative elections come in mid-term as they have in America. So when you have a single term for the presidency, you can do 4 years for the Senate and House of Representatives, if you want to do a single house, fine, do a single house but then don’t allow them to spend more than two terms; let me tell you why this is important. The older generations are so empowered now because of years of accumulation of wealth, some of them ill-gotten. They are not allowing young people to breathe. These young people coming up, need to get into government, they need to know how government works. We also need their vibrancy in government. Part of the frustration is that they are not allowing them into the system. Many of them are fighting the system not because they hate the system but because they also want to get into the system. There’s no young person that doesn’t want to get into the system. That’s why some of them come to us and say “I want to work with you body and soul”, I said “wait na, you’ll get in”; failure to get in they go and sing-song. So when we say two terms and you phase out people like that, it is easier for the bottom to rise. How can a senator be blocking one seat in one senatorial District for four to five terms? And they’re still there. Go and see them sitting down there. Bringing no dividends to the youths of their area, giving them peanuts. We must do this so that we can allow the bottom to float. We just have the top-heavy blocking everybody, frustrating the young ones from going out, it is not right. When the younger ones see most of their contemporaries get into positions because you have limited the terms of those who were there, they will be encouraged, to say if this guy can do it, I can do it too; they will be drawn more into politics. Now many of them are even seeing their contemporaries come in and frustrated out. Look at some of those young people who contested for positions even within the big parties, they didn’t give them tickets and that is so frustrating. We need to get all these older people out of power. I’ve been telling friends I will just do my bit and get back to my practice, to leave more people to come in.
I was going to ask you; do you see yourself getting out of politics and going back to law or are you going to remain a politician for as long as you can?
My first love is the law. Don’t forget that I worked my way up to become a senior advocate of Nigeria and like they say in Warri, that’s not beans! I breathe law, I talk law, my life is the law. Law got me into this position, I wasn’t a hustler on the streets. I practised law to the point I was appointed minister and that’s what brought me the fame and eventual appointment.
So you will not seek elected office?
Any day it ends, either by effluxion of time or by circumstances, I will go back to my practice. I’m not ruling out anything as it is today but I’m also not anxious or desperate for anything. I have a thriving practice that is still working up till now, my offices, my lawyers with the staff, everybody is working, I have a pension for life and that’s why many of us will not be desperate. In contrast, 95 percent of those in government today have nowhere to go back to. I saw some people who finished office with the president during the first term. For the 3 months before the president re-announced his cabinets, they were redundant. They were at home just hoping their names appear. I have seen people who left office in 2019, they’re begging for money now; no fallback plan. This is what brings about desperation and corruption as they want to grab as much as they can before they leave office.
I just appeal to those who are critics outside. They should realise that some of us are different in government.
In this part of the interview, we will talk about you, your growing up, where your activism came from and everything that made Festus Keyamo today?
I grew up right in the eyes of the nation. From my 20s, everyone saw me up. I was tracked all the way and it is the cause of some of these bashings *laughs*.
They nurtured you…
Nobody nurtured me *laughs*
To rephrase, they rooted for you?
They should also know now that even within government, I will be their voice. I will fight for them.
If my father had looked at a crystal ball, he would never have seen where I am today. Especially the activism and this character of steel and stones as I was a very quiet child growing up, so it was a total departure from my childhood and how I grew up. My father looked at me one day and asked “Festus, where did you come from?” Because there was no day they called my father to the school to come and settle me fighting on the field, he was never called or summoned by the school to get reports of me causing a fight or problems, from my Akara school (the equivalent of Kindergarten nowadays) up until the university and law school. I was only intellectually restless. I will always be the one to raise hands in class to question every sentence just to clarify what the teacher was saying, to the annoyance of my classmates. I did this up to my university days, that was my character, I couldn’t change it and my classmates eventually came around to accept it. I remember I was in primary school one day and I questioned my teacher so much and she was like “You know what, you will teach this class,” she then handed me the chalk and set down angry. I had no idea she was angry as I took the chalk and began writing on the board *laughs*. She laughed and ordered me back to my seat. I thought she meant it; I was intellectually restless growing up. I was also very religious. I was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and a very strict household. I wasn’t going out as much and the only places I was going to was school and preaching from door to door. I was also preaching to large congregations and that is why perhaps my public advocacy followed me to law because as at the age of 6 or 7, they would carry me on top of a podium to talk to large congregations. That was the kind of upbringing that I had. It was both quiet and extremely religious. However, inside of me began to burn because I had read so much. I had too many things in my head and I wanted to explode. I read too much about politics and law even before I was admitted to read law. I was going to the library to just read law books and I was extremely argumentative and that was why my career guidance counsellor, principal and father, basically everybody even the eldest in the church said I would be a waste if I did not read law. I wanted to read architecture. I love architecture even till now, I built all my houses myself. I love building. My first love is architecture, and of course, my second love is law but everybody guided me to read law because they saw something I did not see and I didn’t know that my future was with law. The moment I decided to read law, my heart and soul was law. During my first year in the university, the first gathering of law students association where you typically have final year students, I came out and started, as they would say in Warri, voking (read as advocating or provoking). That was when the whole faculty took note of me, a young starry-eyed 18-year-old. Before the end of my first year, my story had spread across the entire faculty and beyond. A hothead had just entered the Law faculty. For the first time in the history of the school, a year-two student represented the school at the mood trial competitions, an inter-school mock court competition typically for final year law students; We went ahead to win the trophy. In my final year, I then led them to a national mood trial competition involving 18 faculties of law. It was an annual end-of-the-year competition put together by Teslim Elias to test law students and how they’re ready to face the world. We met LASU in the quarterfinals and we met Unilag in the semifinals and it was held at the University of Lagos where they had the crowd behind them as an advantage; we defeated them. It was after that victory, the late Akinola Aguda called out our lecturers and questioned them if they had brought a practising lawyer to the competition as a mercenary *laughs*. They requested to see my records; I was just 22-years-old. We then met Jos in the finals and defeated them and I took the trophy home. I was also named the best single advocate of Nigerian law students as a whole. That was how I left Ekpomma to law school where I did my court attachment with Chief Gani Fawehinmi. Before then, by virtue of all of my activities, I had met him and we were in contact but when I got to the chambers, they were all happy to receive me, and some other students too of course. Now because of my short stint at his chambers for my court attachment, Chief left a standing instruction that I should come back as a youth corper if I could get to serve in Lagos. He just liked me instantly at sight. I would then be posted to Imo state but our camp was in Ogwu in Enugu state. It was right there in the camp that a miracle happened in my life. Somebody came from nowhere, a small girl, approached me and we got introduced, she knew me from school but I didn’t know her. She then asked why I wasn’t in Lagos camp. I had zero connection and no godfather; I knew no one in Nigeria at the time. She would then hand me a note because some guys were coming to camp from Abuja the next day. It is a typical process for supervisors from Abuja to go round each camp to monitor activities and give a few concessions or sanction a few redeployments for pregnant women and people living with health conditions that meant they had to go back home for their service year. The next day came and the supervisors from Abuja were around. The hall was crowded and I couldn’t get in, so I lurked around the louvres and I was eventually able to pass that note to someone to help me pass over to the guys from Abuja. The person responded in affirmative and told me to check the list the day after that. The next day, I checked the list. Over a hundred of us applied for the redeployment and only two of us was approved; a pregnant woman and I. Till today I’ve not laid eyes on that girl that handed me the note. It was so surreal, she was an angel sent to me then. I will write this in a memo someday. I was redeployed to Lagos. My friends till today thought I betrayed them because many of us were trying to hustle our way back to Lagos. They thought it was something I did. In fact, one of them labelled me a sell-out at the time because we were so close-knit *laughs*. This is my first time sharing this experience, it was pure grace. Ecclesiastes 9 verse 11, you know I’m a preacher of the word. It says it is not the swift that wins the race but the mighty in battle. I’m not the most vocal in Nigeria neither am I the most passionate activist; a lot of people have died on the journey of activism and here I am today, able to transmit easily into government and be able to use my experience in government; only a few people achieved that feat. It’s been grace.
That was how I found myself back in Lagos. I nearly cried. I wasn’t asked to bring an affidavit to support my claim to redeploy or any other document for that matter. All I rendered was that note and everything was cleared. The next day I packed my bag en route to Lagos; I had only two pairs of trousers, one or two shirts and a shoe that was heaven-bound. I had nowhere to stay after I returned to Lagos because Law school had finished. So I went to stay at Iyana Sachi after Okokomaiko on the way to Agbara. There were seven of us in a room, we were hanging our clothes on nails. In the morning we’d all vanish into nothingness and came back at night to sleep. That was how I started life in Lagos with no father or mother there with me at the time and obviously no godfather. Shortly after that, I took the bar exam and the results came out, we were to be called to the bar. I finished with flying colours again, a second class. The day I got called to the bar, I went from where I was staying at Iyana Sachi. I couldn’t afford anything, the gown, wig, suit or shoes. I had nobody to buy them for me, I borrowed everything I wore that day. When I got to VI, because it was just one law school at the time, people were eating, dancing and celebrating with family, I did not have a single person who came for me. My parents didn’t have money to transport themselves from Warri down to Lagos; I was left on my own. Till today as I speak to you, I don’t have a photograph of my call-to-bar as I could not afford to take one. People were making merry and I was very quiet. I told my God that day when my name was called and I took a bow, I told Him that was all I asked for, the certificate; and with that, the nation would hear me. I felt success and greatness burning inside of me. As I left the hall that day, I started returning everything I had borrowed. I was waiting for my first salary to start buying those things I needed. So the first stipend I got as my NYSC allowance, I bought a coat. You know how a coat is different from a suit. I was a hard determined boy. That is why many people who say unkind things about me or criticise me don’t know where I’m coming from. If they know, they would free me because my focus and determination as to where I’m going cannot be distracted by nonsense. I am controlled by my own vision and determination. I’m not living my life for anyone. When I decided to become an activist, nobody called me to become an activist. Where I would then take my activism to and where I would practice it is my choice.
I was outside government and we fought into government. I wasn’t an opportunist who was just trying to enter the government, no! We fought the opposition in. Then when we came in now, they said “No, we expect Keyamo to come out again.” and collaborate with those that we fought. They expect me to team up with the people we threw out and keep fighting from outside. That would be a curse.
So are you tired of fighting?
I am not tired of fighting. It is to retune your strategy to say now that I have been able to, with my comrades and contemporaries, get into government, I must nurture the baby I built. I can’t abandon that baby no matter how defective or deformed the baby is. You can’t carry a pregnancy to term and abandon it and start looking for a fresh baby simply because it is deformed. That’s utopia. To say you’re looking for the best baby; there is no perfect government, you bring another one and the problems will persist, so you better stick with the one you gave birth to and support it to succeed. Shout on yourselves inside, tell yourselves you are not doing right. In the cabinet, close the door and butt heads to find the best possible solutions for the Nigerian people; but that’s your baby, you gave birth to it.
I was always the people’s Keyamo but now it is even more. Who has ever thought of the poorest of people in every single geopolitical zone in the country to give them stipends? Me, minister of Labour, I’m executing that now. I had to be in government to execute that. We are spending 46.5 Billion Naira in total. That’s money we’re pumping into the economy at the grassroots level for three months. We’ve started paying two months ago. That’s 774,000 poor persons getting 60,000 in three months at 20,000 monthly. Where would I have seen that amount of money as an activist?
How do you determine who is poor?
You cannot get it 100 percent. I will accept the criticism that you cannot get a 100 percent accuracy because the number is too large and you cannot micromanage at every level. So what we did was to form committees, which some people fought me for but I’m not going to mention names. The best I could do was make the committees multi-sectorial. For every local government area, I asked them to task churches, mosques, human rights organisations, NGO bodies, NURTW to identify the poorest people within their communities. I asked them to choose their people themselves as they know the ones amongst them that are in dire need of the help. That’s the best I could do as a human being. It’s such a large program and there could be favouritism, it’s not possible to micromanage it at that level. However, if we could get it right to a large extent then it’s a success. Don’t forget that in the past when we had programs like this, it wasn’t multi-sectorial, it was purely for the party. It was only exclusive to PDP members. Even with this program, people were looking to hijack it to make it only available to APC members and I fought it to ensure that it is for every Nigerian regardless of the political party they represent. That is the essence of having me in government.
As a final word, what do you have to say to people who believe that they have carried and buoyed you up to where you are now?
I buoyed myself up with the help of God. When I was in detention, I didn’t see anyone at my detention door. I grew beards in different detention, beards under Abacha and Obasanjo, nobody looked after me. I was dropped in an underground cell, I didn’t see another human being for months. My mother was alive crying daily. Then you see people come from that trajectory and that’s why I smile whenever they talk. I have such a tough skin now the comments just bounce off of it. My attitude has always been to forgive them because they’re ignorant. After all, at the end of the day, the records are there. They should know that there’s a benefit to always having a voice in government. To Nigerians now generally, they should know that those people posing as heroes in the guise of speaking up for them are not in fact heroes. Most of them are after their self interest and we’ve proved that recently by giving out various exposé and receipts of people they thought were their heroes. They are not fighting for anyone as they also want to be in government, they want to be in the system. However, it is always better to have those you have always believed in, in the system and be sure that they’re always speaking out for you. You can be rest assured that Keyamo will never deviate from the path I’ve chosen for myself. Being in government is not a bad thing. All over the world, being in government is the ultimate aim of every activist to have the reins of government. I will give you an example of that: all the separatist groups in the world are fighting for power. The ANC transmitted to a political party. The end result of Mandela’s struggles was that he became president. The IRA formed themselves into a political movement. In the Palestines too led by Yasarafat they also had to seek for power. The whole of Ojukwu’s struggles ended up in his coming back to seek power. The whole of Fela’s struggle ended up in forming Movement of the People and they contested for presidency. Why am I different? The only difference is that most of these people lost and I won with my party.
Are you still a practising Jehovah’s Witness?
No, I’m not but my parents and all my siblings still are. My father is a regular pioneer, the entire household still is. I left because some of the things I wanted to do perhaps did not fit into their doctrinal injunctions. For example, once you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, you can’t take part in the politics of a country. They are prohibited to play part and I wanted to contribute. I couldn’t be kept in that box. Sometimes I wish I could go back. All my family members are still preachers of the word till today.