‘Ju­di­ciary has un­der­taken in­ter­nal cleans­ing more than other two arms of gov­ern­ment’

The Guardian (Nigeria) - - LAW INTERVIEW -

The Ju­di­ciary has wit­nessed some re­forms in the last one year. These are aimed at restor­ing pub­lic con­fi­dence and fa­cil­i­tat­ing jus­tice dis­pen­sa­tion. In an in­ter­view with Brid­get Chiedu Onochie, Se­bas­tine Hon (SAN), held that the ju­di­ciary has taken self-ex­am­i­na­tion and in­ter­nal cleans­ing more than the two other arms of gov­ern­ment. He also scored the ex­ec­u­tive low in the ar­eas of re­spect for court or­ders and obe­di­ence of the rule of law. What is your as­sess­ment of the ju­di­ciary in re­cent times in view of per­ceived re­forms and dis­ci­plin­ing of erring ju­di­cial of­fi­cers and lawyers?

THE Nige­rian Ju­di­ciary has al­ways done at least, marginally well; and I have ex­pressed this view­point in var­i­ous in­ter­views and at var­i­ous fora. I can con­fi­dently say that in spite of the pub­lic per­cep­tion about the ju­di­ciary, this arm of gov­ern­ment has al­ways been the last hope of the com­mon man in Nige­ria and even of the pow­er­ful. It is the cus­to­dian of the rule of law, con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism, due process and the rule against im­punity. His­tor­i­cally, we must ap­pre­ci­ate that even dur­ing re­pres­sive mil­i­tary regimes, the Nige­rian ju­di­ciary stood up in de­fence of the rule of law. I re­mem­ber that in 1970, con­trary to the hawk­ish eye of the then mil­i­tary junta, the Supreme Court of Nige­ria pro­pounded the doc­trine of ne­ces­sity – whereby it held that the then mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment was not a le­git­i­mate gov­ern­ment but was a gov­ern­ment of ne­ces­sity. That was in the case of Lakanmi vs. At­tor­ney-gen­eral of West­ern Re­gion (1970). This an­gered that mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment to pro­mul­gate De­cree No. 28 of 1970 – which an­nulled the de­ci­sion of the Supreme Court and pro­claimed in un­mis­taken terms, the supremacy and le­git­i­macy of the mil­i­tary coup de tat.

Sim­i­larly, in 1994, the Gen­eral Abacha-led gov­ern­ment, re­ly­ing on ex­ist­ing De­cree No. 8 of 1994; and act­ing in ter­rorem, sealed up the premises of The Guardian News­pa­pers; and when the un­law­ful clo­sure was chal­lenged in court, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment raised ouster of ju­ris­dic­tion. The Supreme Court did not buckle. Hold­ing its head high, the full court of the Supreme Court held that ouster of ju­ris­dic­tion was not ap­pli­ca­ble to the facts of the case. It ac­cord­ingly or­dered the re­open­ing of the premises. This was in the case of At­tor­ney-gen­eral of the Fed­er­a­tion vs.

Guardian News­pa­pers (1999).

Hav­ing laid that brief foun­da­tion, I must say that the ju­di­ciary, far more than the two other arms of gov­ern­ment, has been un­der­tak­ing in­ter­nal self-ex­am­i­na­tion and cleans­ing. The num­ber of ju­di­cial of­fi­cers pun­ished quadru­ples the num­ber of ex­ec­u­tive mem­bers and leg­is­la­tors pun­ished for cor­rup­tion and abuse of of­fice. Check your records. Yet, the ju­di­ciary is al­ways the whip­ping and weep­ing boy in the eyes of the pub­lic. Go­ing for­ward, I must say that the re­forms in­tro­duced by some of the im­me­di­ate-past Chief Jus­tices have had a tran­quil­iz­ing ef­fect on jus­tice ad­min­is­tra­tion. Let me start with Jus­tice Kutigi, the re­spected Ju­rist who just died. He was the gen­tle but very or­ga­nized type; one who di­rected that things must be done or­derly. Ditto Jus­tice Katsina-alu of blessed mem­ory too. He was one CJN who upped the wel­fare of ju­di­cial of­fi­cers to un­prece­dented lev­els, all in an at­tempt to stop the eyes of Judges and Jus­tices from ‘rov­ing.’ Jus­tice Aloma Muhk­tar was of course, no non­sense. Re­mark­ably too, Jus­tice Mah­mud Mo­hammed was in­cor­rupt­ible and no non­sense too. He was the per­son that in­tro­duced re­stric­tions tar­geted at per­sons walk­ing freely into the Cham­bers of Supreme Court Jus­tices. Even as Se­nior Ad­vo­cates of Nige­ria, we were to be on ap­point­ment be­fore we could see the Jus­tices in Cham­bers. I also re­mem­ber that a son to Jus­tice Mo­hammed came to me and re­quested that be­cause of my pro­fi­ciency in writ­ing books, I should do a book for his fa­ther – form of a bi­og­ra­phy. To­gether, we booked an ap­point­ment and went to see Jus­tice Mo­hammed in the of­fice; but the old man po­litely told us he had placed an em­bargo on sit­ting Jus­tices launch­ing books. He said he would not break the reg­u­la­tion he him­self had put in place. The re­forms in­tro­duced by Jus­tice Wal­ter Onnoghen are also un­prece­dented. I re­mem­ber that one of his daugh­ters, a lawyer, wrote a book and in­vited peo­ple to the launch and even paid for the venue. But Jus­tice Onnoghen stopped it - that it can­not take place dur­ing his ten­ure as a Jus­tice of the Supreme Court. He is also the per­son that has set up a spe­cial task force of Jus­tices to han­dle and con­clude all po­lit­i­cal ap­peals be­fore the 2019 elec­tion. He has also in­tro­duced a sys­tem whereby all dor­mant ap­peals are raked up suo motu by the Supreme Court and sum­mar­ily dis­missed, thereby de­con­gest­ing the cause list. He has also in­tro­duced the fil­ing and ser­vice of court pro­cesses on­line. I can go on and on. In terms of dis­ci­pline of erring ju­di­cial of­fi­cers, I again re­peat that the ju­di­ciary is un­equaled in terms of in­ter­nal self-cleans­ing. Some of the pun­ish­ments, in my re­spect­ful opin­ion, are too weighty; but I know that the NJC wants al­ways to send a sig­nal to the few bad eggs in the ju­di­ciary. So, I will give the ju­di­ciary a pass mark so far. Mem­bers of the le­gal pro­fes­sion, in­clud­ing Se­nior Ad­vo­cates of Nige­ria, have also not been spared. Be­fore now, some peo­ple saw the rank of SAN as a li­cence to mis­be­have. To­day, re­al­ity has dawned on ev­ery SAN that it’s no more busi­ness as usual. No one would, af­ter en­joy­ing the perks and priv­i­leges of SAN, want to lose or be stripped of them. On the lighter and pro­fes­sional side of it too, no rea­son­able per­son would want to en­gage a lazy lawyer who would lose out in the lit­i­ga­tion tus­sle flim­sily. These are re­al­i­ties star­ing all of us in the face like bright sun­rays. Even the men­tally blind are see­ing all of these; hence any­body who al­lows him­self to be caught pants down should blame only him­self. In my lan­guage, we call this “tar taver”, mean­ing lit­er­ally that noth­ing in this world is easy.

There has been se­ri­ous clam­our for timely dis­pen­sa­tion of jus­tice. Have you seen that hap­pen­ing? If not, what do you think are the mil­i­tat­ing fac­tors?

From my an­swer to the first ques­tion, it can be gleaned that the ju­di­ciary as an arm of gov­ern­ment has started tak­ing pos­i­tive steps in en­sur­ing quick and ef­fi­cient ad­min­is­tra­tion of jus­tice. A sit­u­a­tion whereby dor­mant ap­peals, filed and de­lib­er­ately kept in the docket of the Supreme Court are be­ing raked up and dis­missed in Cham­bers is very salu­tary. Also, the front­load­ing ad­vanced pro­ce­dure now ap­pli­ca­ble to al­most all the states of the fed­er­a­tion, the FCT, Abuja and in pro­ceed­ings be­fore the Fed­eral High Court, has helped in no small mea­sure in the quick dis­pen­sa­tion of jus­tice in civil causes and mat­ters.

Suc­ces­sive Chief Jus­tices of Nige­ria, Pres­i­dent of the Court of Ap­peal, Jus­tice Bulka­chuwa, suc­ces­sive Chief Judges of the Fed­eral High Court, the FCT High Court and the var­i­ous State High Courts have also en­acted fast-track mini-leg­is­la­tion, pur­suant to pow­ers vested in them by the 1999 Con­sti­tu­tion, all aimed at quick dis­pen­sa­tion of jus­tice. These are highly com­mend­able ef­forts, I must say with all sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity.

But in­crease in pop­u­la­tion, ad­vance­ment in tech­nol­ogy and busi­ness, greed and cov­etous­ness, have more than added to the lit­i­ga­tion list of courts of law in Nige­ria. Thou­sands of mat­ters are filed ev­ery­day in the var­i­ous courts; but there is no com­men­su­rate in­crease in the num­ber of ju­di­cial of­fi­cers and even court sup­port staff. Then lawyers also come with their de­lay tac­tics and other un­savoury dila­tory al­chemies. There are also in­sti­tu­tional is­sues. First, I have been shout­ing hoarse that there is ev­ery need to cre­ate Re­gional or State Supreme Courts and Courts of Ap­peal. In the US, which oper­ates a Fed­eral and Pres­i­den­tial sys­tem of Gov­ern­ment like ours, there are Supreme Courts even at the State level. In ad­di­tion, there are Re­gional Courts of Ap­peal, hence we have “1st Cir­cuits, 2nd Cir­cuit”, etc, which are the equiv­a­lent of the var­i­ous Di­vi­sions of the Court of Ap­peal in Nige­ria. Is­sues bor­der­ing

The num­ber of ju­di­cial of­fi­cers pun­ished quadru­ples the num­ber of ex­ec­u­tive mem­bers and leg­is­la­tors pun­ished for cor­rup­tion and abuse of of­fice. Check your records!

Be­fore now, some peo­ple saw the rank of SAN as a li­cense to mis­be­have. To­day, re­al­ity has downed on ev­ery SAN that it is no more busi­ness as usual

on cus­tom­ary law, land lit­i­ga­tion and other petty mat­ters end up in the Supreme Courts of the var­i­ous States and don’t ever reach the US Supreme Court. In short, that court has fi­nal say only on mat­ters of con­sti­tu­tional law, mat­ters bor­der­ing on fed­eral laws or mixed fed­eral and provin­cial laws, etc.

Re­cently, I de­liv­ered a pa­per at the Re­gional Con­fer­ence of the Chris­tian Lawyers Fed­er­a­tion of Nige­ria (CLASFON), which held in Port Har­court; and I strongly ad­vo­cated that the front­load­ing pro­ce­dure should also be adopted in crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings to re­duce pre­cious lit­i­ga­tion time to the barest min­i­mum and also, to re­lax the phys­i­cal stress on judges who record ver­ba­tim ev­ery­thing said in court. I hereby strongly ad­vo­cate that mea­sure.

Fi­nally, lawyers cause enor­mous de­lay. The sys­tem should find a way of ame­lio­rat­ing and even frontally ad­dress­ing this. I think I have to sa­lute the Supreme Court, which wastes no time in award­ing costs to be paid per­son­ally by lawyers in­volved in the un­pro­fes­sional be­hav­iour of ei­ther caus­ing un­nec­es­sary de­lay or of fil­ing friv­o­lous ap­peals on mat­ters that have been set­tled and have be­come as ob­vi­ous as the sun.

Stake­hold­ers have been wor­ried about the de­clin­ing stan­dard of ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing le­gal ed­u­ca­tion. As SAN and au­thor of law books, are you com­fort­able with the sit­u­a­tion?

How can I be? How would any sen­si­ble per­son be? At this level, I am not just a fa­ther; I am also a leader in this cher­ished pro­fes­sion. I at­tended a mis­sion­ary school, where moral­ity based on Chris­tian teach­ings and laws were mixed with sec­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion. We grew up un­der strict parental and ed­u­ca­tional dis­ci­pline. As a Chris­tian, I have done all a fa­ther could do to men­tor my chil­dren along those lines; and I would say God has been very faith­ful in keep­ing them in that mould. In those days, we learnt our mother tongues first be­fore English; but to­day, it is the other way round. We never had ac­cess to cell phones; and those of us from hum­ble back­grounds never had ac­cess to tele­vi­sion. To­day, our chil­dren get these ex­po­sures at very in­no­cent and ten­der ages and be­come vi­o­lated in their prime. In those days, a par­ent would com­mend a teacher for dis­ci­plin­ing his child very well; but to­day, par­ents launch ver­bal and even phys­i­cal as­sault on teach­ers for ven­tur­ing to cor­rect their chil­dren. To­day, you walk into an av­er­age pub­lic place like the air­port and you will see both mother and daugh­ter in hot mini-skirts, proudly gal­li­vant­ing up and down for all to see.

I make bold to state that the force­ful con­fis­ca­tion of mis­sion­ary schools by the var­i­ous lev­els of gov­ern­ment in Nige­ria laid the ini­tial un­for­tu­nate foun­da­tion for what we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing to­day. Af­ter tak­ing over the schools, the gov­ern­ments messed them up by in­suf­fi­ciently fund­ing them and bas­tar­dis­ing the moral con­tent of the cur­ricu­lum. Af­ter mess­ing up such schools, the same pub­lic ser­vants and teach­ers be­gan and con­tinue till date to es­tab­lish their own pri­vate schools, cor­ner bril­liant pupils and stu­dents thereto and run their show as they want. Un­for­tu­nately, most of those kids in the pri­vate schools are chil­dren of the rich and the mid­dle class; hence the im­moral con­ducts of their par­ents are in­fused into the sys­tem, thereby com­plet­ing the cir­cle of vi­cious hope­less­ness. We now have a sit­u­a­tion whereby the pub­lic schools are grounded; and the so-called pri­vate schools that are sup­posed to come to the res­cue are grossly lack­ing in sound foun­da­tional and op­er­a­tional struc­tures.

I am there­fore deeply pained that some of our grad­u­ates can­not com­mu­ni­cate prop­erly in the English lan­guage. Many young lawyers are as guilty as mem­bers of other pro­fes­sions. Our young­sters like good things of life but are not pre­pared to work for them. I would coun­sel our young­sters to “chal­lenge your chal­lenge; don’t al­low your chal­lenge to chal­lenge you.” Above all, put God first in all that you do. Do you be­lieve that I re­ject mouth-wa­ter­ing briefs, be­cause of my Chris­tian faith? Yet, I am not hun­gry. These have been my age­long prin­ci­ples; and I must say I am very happy with my­self. To the gov­ern­ment, please re­turn all the con­fis­cated mis­sion­ary schools to the mis­sions, not only with pub­lic apol­ogy but with com­pen­sa­tion. To par­ents, re­turn to the nat­u­ral, godly way of do­ing things; don’t be de­ceived by the so called good things of this tran­sient world.

How would you rate the Ex­ec­u­tive in the area of obe­di­ence to court or­ders and the rule of law?

Abysmally very low! Why is Col. Da­suki still in prison in spite of the var­i­ous court or­ders that he be re­leased? Why is the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment not keen on pros­e­cut­ing him? Why is El-za­kzaki, the leader of the Shi­ites still in de­ten­tion with­out trial? What con­crete ac­tion has the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment taken to stem the fast slide into an­ar­chy oc­ca­sioned mostly by the at­tacks on sleep­ing com­mu­ni­ties by Fu­lani herds­men? What of the in­va­sion of the Na­tional As­sem­bly by the DSS op­er­a­tives? The an­swers you will sup­ply to the above and many more will tell you whether or not this Gov­ern­ment has ob­tained a pass mark in the area of the rule of law.

Cases of rights vi­o­la­tion, sex­ual as­saults and rape in­crease daily. Is it that there is a la­cuna in law that pre­vents due pun­ish­ment for per­pe­tra­tors?

Far from that! The laws are al­ways there to pro­tect the weak and the vul­ner­a­ble; but the po­lit­i­cal will to fight these hy­dra-headed vices is lack­ing most at times. Is­sues bor­der­ing on vi­o­la­tion of hu­man rights are even gov­ern­ment-based. Sex­ual as­saults owe their ori­gin to a lot of so­ci­o­log­i­cal and eco­nomic fac­tors. Due to crush­ing poverty for in­stance, be­lea­guered par­ents and guardians send their chil­dren and wards to adults liv­ing in the cities or to those who are well-to-do. Even though some of these adults are trusted by the par­ents or guardians of those chil­dren, I want to be cat­e­gor­i­cal that many of these adults liv­ing in bet­ter con­di­tions are brig­ands and so­cial per­verts to the knowl­edge of those par­ents. Yet, poverty pushes them to take those risks. This is the re­al­ity of our so­ci­ety.

As I ex­plained above too, mod­ern-day par­ents ex­pose their chil­dren to sex­u­al­ity and pornog­ra­phy willy-nilly, and at very ten­der ages. The fe­male ones es­pe­cially are shown and even ac­tively tu­tored that wear­ing skimpy dresses is very usual and ac­cept­able. Now, men of this world who are liv­ing in the flesh are at­tracted by what they see; hence the rise in cases of rape and vi­o­la­tion of chil­dren. Be­fore I for­get, I wish to con­demn in un­mis­taken terms all men who abuse the trust vested in them by their com­pa­tri­ots, who en­trust their chil­dren in their care. I shout shame unto them. The re­cent case of the death of a lit­tle girl in Benue State is most un­for­tu­nate. Jus­tice should take its course in all such cases. The full weight of the law should be brought to bear on the per­pe­tra­tors.

Young robes com­plain of poor treat­ment by the se­nior ones. What are the im­pli­ca­tions of these griev­ances on their per­for­mance and the pro­fes­sion in gen­eral?

My an­swer is two-edged. First, the ju­niors must learn to grow grad­u­ally. The prob­lem is that most young lawyers are not ready to work dili­gently to the top. Life is a jour­ney; and ev­ery­one has their crosses to carry. No two sit­u­a­tions are ex­actly the same, hence even if some se­nior lawyers made it shortly af­ter grad­u­a­tion, the same can­not be for ev­ery­one. Also, there are no stan­dard ways of treat­ing ju­nior lawyers; it all de­pends on each se­nior’s ca­pac­ity, idea about life and so­cio-cul­tural up­bring­ing. And that takes me to the se­niors and the man­ner they treat their ju­niors. We have had some ex­pe­ri­ences in this re­gard that are very ter­ri­ble and con­demnable by all right thinkers. We were for in­stance, bom­barded on the so­cial me­dia with the video of po­lice of­fi­cers phys­i­cally as­sault­ing a ju­nior lawyer at the in­stance of a se­nior lawyer, sim­ply be­cause the ju­nior had come to de­mand his earned wages. Some ju­nior lawyers face even worse sit­u­a­tions.

But as I said, some ju­niors too are in­grates. I per­son­ally have the ex­pe­ri­ence of buy­ing cars for some ju­niors, con­tribut­ing stu­pen­dously to other as­pects of their lives but they hardly greet me to­day. What can you say of that type of con­duct? Do you now see why I said I have a two-edged an­swer?

The forcible con­fis­ca­tion of mis­sion­ary schools by the var­i­ous lev­els of gov­ern­ment in Nige­ria laid the ini­tial un­for­tu­nate foun­da­tion for what we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing to­day. Af­ter tak­ing over the schools, the gov­ern­ments messed them up by in­suf­fi­ciently fund­ing them and bas­tar­dis­ing the moral con­tent of the cur­ricu­lum.

The prob­lem is that most young lawyers are not ready to work dili­gently to the top. Life is a jour­ney and ev­ery­one has his or her cross to carry.



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