interviewBy Turaki A. Hassan
Barrister Ali Ahmad (Ph.D) (PDP, Kwara) is the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Justice. He spoke on the Anti-Terrorism Amendment Bill 2012 and what necessitated the alteration of the law that was barely one year old.
What are the major amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Law?
The bill, as passed in the conference committee of both the House and the Senate, of which I am member, introduced some far-reaching amendments to the current law. They are very elaborate. It insists on the exercise of those civil rights of citizens and anybody who is reasonably suspected to have committed, or in the process of committing or planning the commission of acts suspected to be terrorism, can be apprehended without a warrant of arrest and detained for 48 hours without even having access to his lawyers. This is an advance power given to intelligence officers, not ordinary police officers. They can have powers to evade your civil and personal liberty in order to protect the entire citizens.
Human right activists expressed concerns that this law seems to supersede the constitution because of the wide ranging powers. Is that true?
I don't think so. As I said, an intelligence officer can arrest without a warrant. It just widens the powers of the arresting officer. The constitution permits arrest without warrant in some limited cases. We hope they will use it properly to fight terrorism. In America you will see that before the law was passed there was a lot of debate. Here the Director of SSS can break into your communication, your phone. Perhaps, people are not aware of it. The powers are very wide and people who are interested in personal liberties of citizens should be concerned. But government is working in unison. We, in the legislature, are doing our part. After some years we could revisit the law.
But the law was just enacted in 2011 and within the span of just one year here come amendments. What was wrong with that initial Act?
It was believed that we needed to reflect the global practice in tracking down terrorism worldwide. Terrorism is a global phenomenon. You cannot isolate Nigeria. And we have a peculiar problem in Nigeria and every sensible person should shudder about the wide-ranging powers given to the law enforcement agencies, knowing how they misuse such powers. But let us give them a chance. This law was passed a year ago. Let them implement this law. We hope that they will not misuse it.
But people are saying that one year was not enough to test the Act, bearing in mind that even the first Act was at a point rejected in the Sixth Assembly because it was considered "foreign."
We misplaced our searchlight. When you have very wide powers, you have to be very cautious because a misuse of powers is a betrayal of trust. We deliberated very well on it. We looked at international best practices. The extant law had some lacuna because there was no coordinating agency or authority. That is a big gap. Now, we have the national coordinating body as the head. We have the National Security Adviser, the Attorney General of the Federation, who is saddled with effective implementation of the law. That is the national coordinating body, which hitherto was not there. If you arrest a terrorist in Bayelsa, perhaps, the Attorney General of Bayelsa may be doing something the Federal Attorney General didn't know. Now, once it is terrorism there is a central pool so that somebody somewhere knows every act of terrorism going on in Nigeria.
What were the differences between the Senate and House versions? Have you been able to harmonize them?
Once we come back, that will be the first on the agenda.
We had conference, for example. The House's version provides for a life imprisonment penalty for anybody convicted for terrorism, while the Senate version provided for life death sentence and the conference committee adopted the House version. Then the issue of the coordinating body is the bone of contention, which the Senate has an issue with. When we come back it will be resolved and sent to Mr. President.
It appears to me that you are under some kind of pressure to quickly pass this bill. Where is this pressure coming from?
We are under pressure to pass so many bills because time is not on our side.
But who is pressurising you on this particular bill?
I am not aware of any pressure. Nobody has come to me.
The bill was not the only bill that was given accelerated passage - just like in the courts we have accelerated cases. Even the budget was treated like that. And given the situation that we are in, where security agencies put their lives on the line, we should do what is legislatively required of us to protect them. That is where I am coming from.