–Martin Luther King Jr. ‘You don’t need a godfather to become a judge’
You were recently quoted to have called for the confab to be restricted from press. How correct is this?
I never made that remark. I am a civil rights activist, I know my responsibilities. Watch NTA or any of the television channels. What I did was an observation I raised on the floor of the confab. You recall that on Tuesday following our inauguration, some newspapers went to report that delegates were asking for aides. And it is not true. A certain Senator Jibril, a delegate from Jigawa actually asked if he was entitled to his assistants. He made it clear that he had assistants who were not having access to the venue of the conference. I got him clearly, he was not asking for everybody, he was not asking for salaried payment for his PA and assistants. Unfortunately, when the secretary of the confab, Dr Azinge responded to his question, she responded in a manner that painted the delegates in a different manner. And when I was speaking, I asked the chairman. ‘Mr Chairman, sir, please can you advice or appeal to the press to report the proceedings of this conference factually and responsibly’. And two, I drew attention to page six of the newspaper where four photographs of delegates who were sleeping were taken. And it was established that the delegates, who were snapped, were actually medically blind- they have glaucoma.
So it is not for me to gag the press. But if you are covering an event, you must report it factually. My grouse was not with the electronic media but the print media. I never used that word. It was Yinka Odumakin that brought the word ‘gag’. Of course the argument snowballed in the conference. There were speakers who called for the session to be closed to executive session. If you know how the conference works, I didn’t have the opportunity to correct the impression that Odumakin was trying to create after I spoke. But it is the rules that as a pressman, if you are covering an event and you are quoting a speaker, quote him correctly and don’t try to put your own interpretation.
What is your agenda at the confab?
I represent the civil society even though I am from the league of lawyers. We have our own agenda but our agenda is subsumed within the broader civil society agenda.
Our agenda is one, the restructuring of Nigeria; two, good governance; three, we believe as lawyers that Nigerians must be part of the process that will lead to the production of an autochthonous constitution; four, the reform of the administration of justice; five, reform of the police; and importantly the separation of the office of the Attorney General of the Federation and the Minister of Justice. There should be office of the Minister of Justice, who of course must be a lawyer and who is a member of the party in power. But the AGF must be sacrosanct; and be separated from the office of the minister.
These are our agenda and there are a lot of Nigerians who are coming to this conference with so many agenda. We are open to debates and negotiations.
As the President of PILL, will you be pressing for the reform of the chapter two of the constitution to make it justiceable?
We believe that for us to birth the true country that we can call our own, it is important that chapter two of our constitution becomes justiceable. Economic and social rights of our people in particular, and it is important that our constitutional must recognise these rights. More importantly, we believe in the
Abdul Mahmud is a poet and President of the Public Interest Lawyers League (PILL). He is currently a delegate at the ongoing National Conference. In this interview, he says judges should not be subjected to the whims of godfathers. He also speaks on the allegation of ‘gagging’ the press in the ongoing conference, Rivers CJ crisis among others. Excerpts:
new Nigeria, the judiciary must be above board; the judiciary in which the appointment, the recommendation, must recognize that those appointed to be judges don’t need to have a godfather before you are appointed a judge. A judge who is an appointee of a godfather is capable of undermining justice once he becomes judge of the High Court.
Since you have raised the issue of judges, what do you make of the decision of the National Judicial Council (NJC) to suspend newly appointed Rivers Chief Judge?
We agree with the NJC though we empathize with the government of Rivers State. It is part of the lopsided nature of our federation where a federal law determines how a Chief Judge of a state can be appointed. It is part of why we are at the National Conference. This is part of the things we feel we can change going forward, and we are not in the new Nigeria yet. Insofar the constitution provides that the most senior judge of a High court, not the Customary Court of Appeal, should become the Chief Judge of a state, we should respect the spirit and letters of our constitution. Until we get the new Nigeria of our dream, we can insist on states appointing their own Chief Judge without recourse to the constitution at the centre. Insofar we have not gotten there yet, I believe it is childish, infantile for Rivers State government to behave how they are behaving so far.
Don’t you think ‘locus standi’ is one of the impediments to the realization of chapter two of the constitution especially as it is used to dismiss public interest litigations?
I think it depends on how you look at it. The question of locus standi has not been part of our legal and judical jurisprudence for many years, more particularly during the military regime. What you see in some instances is that our courts have done extremely well. We found some instances, where litigants pursue some issues with sufficient interest in the case. But I have always argued, and I have handled some public interest matters before a High Court. All the litigants need is to show that you are a citizen of Nigeria, that you are a tax payer and that the decision that the government takes affects you as a tax payer. The narrow perception of locus standi as we used to have it in the early nineties no longer exists. Now courts are giving liberal interpretations and granting litigants locus to argue their matter where they establish sufficient interest.
It is also important that we cannot open our judiciary to so many busybody interlopers and others. We must protect our courts from numerous cases that tend to weigh down our judicial proceedings.
A lot of people have criticized the ‘excessive powers of state governors’. How do you balance these powers against the backdrop of your agenda for more powers to the states at the confab?
That is also a problem. And that is why I have a divergent position from those who argue for a ‘true federalism’. I was telling my friend and former principal Chief Mike Ozekhome SAN the other day that ‘is there anything like false federalism?’ What we have is that any federation is structured to the constitution of its own society. Our federation is an extra constitutional method because we had a military government in power, and what we did was to re-jig our federation to suit its circumstance as a military dictatorship. But the responsibility of the politician recognizing that power is no longer centred within the Supreme Military Council of the Armed Forces Ruling Council. Power has been devolved to different centres. We should no longer be operating our democratic regime as if we are in a military regime.
As we go into the conference, it is important for us to recognize the local government as a third tier of government. So devolution of power should not just be to the states, but to the local government.