Former President Goodluck Jonathan has stated that no Nigerian became a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience for criticising him or his administration.
Jonathan made the remark during his keynote speech, which was delivered weekend at the annual Merit Awards Dinner of the Nigerian Lawyers Association of the United States.
The former president, who urged the U.S.-based lawyers to help preserve democratic institutions, also said diversity was an advantage only when all interest groups in the society feel safe and secure in their day-to-day activities.
At the event, which held in New York, a former Anambra State governor, Mr. Peter Obi, who introduced Jonathan, said: “Nobody in Nigeria has made more sacrifices for democracy and unity in Nigeria like former President Jonathan.”
Jonathan was also honoured for his efforts to promote democracy by the City of New York, which issued a proclamation honouring him as a democratic icon.
During his speech, Jonathan urged Nigerian politicians to build unity and harmony in the country by their language and conduct.
He said that was why he ensured there was both freedom of speech and freedom after the speech and equally ensured that under his watch “not a single Nigerian was sent to prison because of anything he or she wrote or said about me or about the administration that I headed”.
The former president used the occasion to thank Nigerians living in the U.S. for their contributions to the development of Nigeria.
“When I met President Obama after our 2011 general election, he commended the contributions of Nigerian professionals in different sectors in the United States of America.
“Back home, I know of your contributions to the economy of our country. Diaspora remittance is a major source of foreign exchange and the United States houses the largest Nigerian Diaspora population,” Jonathan said.
He recognised Nigerian lawyers in the U.S. as one of the pillars of America’s legal system with many of them rising to the top of their chosen field and making Nigeria proud in the process.
“I salute Judge Bunmi O. Awoniyi who was appointed to the bench in California in 2012, thus becoming the first Nigerian to be so honoured in the Golden State.
“I also recognise Judge Jude Nkama, who became the first African to be appointed a judge in the over two centuries old bar and bench of the State of New Jersey.
“As a body, you are an asset to Nigeria and I want you to walk tall knowing that your exploits add value to the motherland of which you are worthy ambassadors here in the United States.
“Through you I see a brighter future for Nigeria. No nation can achieve greatness without the inputs of her learned people and that is why if there is any crop of professionals who has made Nigeria proud over the years, both at the continental and global levels, it will be you all.
“Your steadfastness, contributions to jurisprudence and patriotism have been pivotal to our development. I wouldn’t want to bore you with so much references, but we could recollect the glorious age of our own Teslim Elias at The Hague, Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Gani Fawehimi and the Williams family.
“You will recall that Justice Udo Udoma, a Nigerian, was the first African Chief Justice of Uganda. I am quite pleased to know that the Nigerian Lawyers’ Association in the United States has such a robust annual programme,” he said.
Jonathan, in his speech, also dwelt extensively on the merits of diversity and spoke on the efforts by his administration to ensure that there was equal representation in appointments and in the allocation of projects.
Meanwhile, the presidency has advised the media and other Nigerians to stop linking President Muhammadu Buhari to the legal travails of some recently arrested judges in the country.
The president’s media aide, Malam Garba Shehu said Buhari would be the last person to authorise anybody to induce a judge to pervert the course of justice.
Shehu recalled that despite his personal familiarity with some court judges, the president had never used that familiarity to seek favours from them in 2003, 2007 and 2011 when he was challenging the fairness of the presidential election results, from the lowest to the highest courts in the land during the periods in question.
Shehu also explained that as a politician, Buhari had never suggested to his lawyers to approach any judge for assistance to win his cases.
He said the president lives by this principle and has never deviated from it.
On the fate of the judges facing corruption allegations, the presidential aide said the president would not tell the courts how to do their jobs and that anybody accused of corruption remained innocent until his guilt is established.
He explained that the purpose of the law was to punish the guilty and acquit the innocent, noting that the law projects the rights of everyone.
Shehu said the president does not have any powers to force any court to convict an innocent person, arguing that in a democratic society this would not happen without resistance by the people.