NIGERIA: ‘National Conference is in Best Interest of the Nation’

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Justice Okechukwu Okeke, who retired in 2013 from the Federal High Court, is remembered today in the judiciary because of some landmark constitutional cases he resolved. Last week, he spoke with Davidson Iriekpen on a range of national issues. Excerpts:
What have you been doing since your retirement from the bench last year?
I have been involved in various church activities, commercial arbitration and resolution of family disputes when called upon to do so. That makes me shuttle between Lagos, Enugu and Awka. These activities have kept me very busy.
What are your views on the composition of the present day National Judicial Council (NJC)?
The NJC is one of the federal executive bodies established by Section 153 of the 1999 Constitution as altered. Membership of the Council can be found in paragraph 20 of the Third Schedule of the constitution as altered. My personal views on the composition is therefore of no moment. No system is perfect so anyone who is not satisfied with the membership structure is free to seek an amendment. Before the birth of NJC, both the judges and lawyers felt the executive was lording it over the judiciary. We thought that the Council would be fully independent but human nature being what it is; there are lapses here and there.
During the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Katsina Alu and former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Salami’s imbroglio, some people felt that as one of the parties was chairman of the Council, the other party may be unfairly treated.
In some jurisdictions, where there is any allegation against a judge be it the Chief Justice of the country, a judge of the Court of Appeal or any judge for that matter, the president sets up an independent panel which may be headed by a retired judge and two other members, one of whom must be a lawyer who serves as the secretary of the panel to look into such allegations.
The present situation where some lawyers in private practice are members of the NJC is not in the best interest of the judiciary. There have been instances where such members of the NJC who are lawyers, who had axes to grind with some judges will use their position to intimidate judges.
Such intimidation includes drafting petitions for their clients against judges who entered judgments or made orders that they do not agree with instead of going on appeal. Other members of the NJC may not know that such a lawyer has an interest in the said petition.
A truly independent and impartial body is therefore desirable on the issue of discipline of judges.
Is the NJC doing that which it was set up to do because it is alleged that the NJC is becoming too powerful and tyrannical?
People should look at the constitution and make their own decisions, not me.
Would you like to speak on the brush you had with the NJC last year?
I would rather let sleeping dogs lie. I have already made my views known in my valedictory speech and I have nothing further to say on the matter for the time being unless the need arises in future.
What are your views on the current face-off between the NJC and the appointment of the Chief Judge of Rivers State?
The constitution is clear on the process of appointment of Chief Judges. My learned brother, Justice Lambo Akanbi of the Federal High Court gave judgment on that issue which I have not been privileged to read and I learnt that one of the parties, dissatisfied with the judgment has approached the Court of Appeal on the matter. As the matter is subjudice, it is advisable I say nothing on the matter.
What is your take on the welfare of judges, remuneration and accommodation during service and upon retirement?
I remember the day I was sworn in as a judge in December, 1992, Justice Mohammadu Bello, the then Chief Justice of Nigeria (may his soul continue to rest in peace) advised that having been sworn in, we knew the date we would retire. If government quarters would be allocated to us, if we could not build something better than the official accommodation, we should endeavour to build something of that standard so that on retirement, one can maintain the standard he is used to. On remuneration of judges, it is my view that judges like all other public officers should be paid comfortable salaries to enable them discharge their functions effectively.
What do you think about the monetisation policy?
Some of us were against the purchase of legislative quarters by the legislators as that was not the end of the legislature in Nigeria. Personally, I was and am still against the purchase of judicial quarters by judges. Take the Federal High Court for example, if I had purchased my official house in Ikoyi, where will other judges coming in after my retirement stay? It means that the government will be spending billions for the construction of official quarters for judges.
As advised by Justice Bello, every judge must make up his mind where he or she intends to retire to and start early to build their homes as retirement is not sudden. Other public officers and citizens of Nigeria approach banks and mortgage institutions for loans to build their homes, so why can't judicial officers do same?
Not to do so would occasion financial hemorrhage on the treasury for endless construction of houses for legislators, judicial officers and other top government functionaries. Such money should be used to provide good roads, potable water and other essential amenities for the citizenry.
It is being touted that the National Conference is an exercise in futility because it has no legal backing. Can you please tell us the legality or otherwise of the conference?
I think it is a very welcome development. Before the National Conference, the polity was over charged but now people are airing their views. I believe it was Winston Churchill who said it was better to jaw-jaw than to war-war. In ordinary marriage, the man who is giving trouble knows, the woman who is giving trouble knows but if they confront themselves with solid facts, the parties will calm down.
When people talk of no legal backing, you know the National Assembly was not keen on the National Conference.
Under the constitution, they are the ones to present a bill to Mr. President. If we had waited for them, there will be no conference because they feel people are usurping their duties. Do we need the presidential system? Is it too expensive? These are some of the things being discussed at the conference. Local government chairman has a Special Assistant. His Vice has a Special Assistant. In many cases, these assistants are on paper only. There are no physical assistants. It is to enable them pocket the money. Some take their children as drivers and aides.
This National Conference will enable us know our problems, where we are going to. The people of the Niger Delta bear the brunt of oil production. People who make noise against them have not gone to the creeks to see what they suffer. When I was in Bayelsa, I had the privilege to visit the creeks. I remember one of the commanders of the Joint Task Force who after going to the creeks and seeing the squalor, the level of poverty among the people from whose backyard we drill oil, stated that his conscience would not allow him to fire a shot at them. Their water and farmland are terribly polluted.
Citizenship and nationhood are being discussed. Someone lives in a place for 30 years and is still a stranger there. On forms, you still have to state your tribe and state of origin. Children take common entrance examinations, children from a particular section of the country get into Federal Colleges with 30 per cent; another set with 60 per cent cannot be admitted on the grounds that the others come from educationally disadvantaged areas. What are the governors and commissioners of education of those states doing?
That is why some are aggrieved that the president is where he is, because they feel he is from a minority. But he is a citizen and rightly deserves to be there, whether they like it or not. There should be equality and everyone should be able to aspire to the highest office in the land. These are some of the issues. They will tell you that in the United States, they do not speak of zoning but as my people used to say, 'it is the firewood that is in someone's place that is used to cook'.
We know our problems. If we say we have six geographical zones, then each zone knows it will be their turn eventually. But if you are unfair to the others, when you are not in power those people will retaliate. But if some people feel that it is their birthright to rule, then it is most unfair and unacceptable. Everyone has the right to aspire to be governor or president. It is too early to judge what is going on at the conference. The members are seasoned and experienced people and they will come out with their recommendations. Maybe those at the National Assembly will then appreciate the seriousness of the situation and then give legal backing. Or people may say they want a plebiscite and that is the end of the matter. The president took the right decision and the right step in inaugurating the National Conference. It is in the best interest of the country.
You are remembered today in the judiciary because of some landmark cases you resolved. Do you agree with the judgment of Justice Ademola with respect to the 37 PDP lawmakers who have defected? What is the true position?
I support that judgment because you saw what happened in Amaechi’s case where the Supreme Court held that it was the party that was voted for. We do not have provision for independent candidates in the constitution. It is the party that will field their candidates. You cannot dictate to a party who its candidate will be. It is their internal affair. If a party has produced somebody to contest using the party’s logo and flag, the person is there at the behest of the party.
As much as I support the judgment, they have exercised their constitutional right to go on appeal. But in my view, politicians being what they are may use delay tactics to delay the matter. I would plead with the judicial authorities to direct the court of Appeal and Supreme Court to finish the appeals in each of the appellate courts within 3 months so that we know where we stand. Our nascent democracy must not be threatened. It is my prayer that the appeals will be disposed of by December 2014 so that it does not spill over to next year.
The state of insecurity is alarming. What therefore is your view on the causes and how they can be contained?
With regards to the Boko Haram insurgency, unfortunately it has taken a frighteningly new dimension through the Fulani herdsmen. Before, the insurgency was restricted to the North Eastern part of the country. Today, we hear of the bombings in Nyanya and the abduction of over 200 school girls at Chibok. The government should seriously tackle the insurgency head-on; it should no longer be treated with kid’s gloves and security agents should keep their strategies top secret. It should not be for public consumption. Surprise is a vital element in any warfare and its importance cannot be over-emphasised.
It is nauseating to see and hear people who claim to be security experts appear on T.V stating what should be done or even the police authorities informing the public that they are training their personnel on counter-terrorism. Is that not an invitation to the Boko Haram insurgents to infiltrate the Police Force to know their strategy? Their strategy should not be disclosed through the print or electronic media. Such exposure of strategy should be discontinued forthwith.
It is heartening to note that the president has secured the assistance of the United States, the United Kingdom and France to trace and rescue the schoolgirls abducted from Chibok but that is not the end of the matter. The federal government should use these international security operatives to screen all top government officials in Nigeria to fish out and expose members and sponsors of the Boko Haram, kidnapping and other destabilising forces of the government. I treat the current clashes between villagers and the so-called Fulani herdsmen as a result of the infiltration of the Fulani herdsmen by the Boko Haram elements.
Since when have herdsmen started using guns, bows and arrows in guarding their cattle? Before the war and in the 70s and 80s, we had herdsmen and there were no clashes. So government should screen all these herdsmen. Furthermore, urgent steps must be taken to erect concrete barriers along our porous borders to checkmate the hit and run tactics of the Boko Haram insurgents. Also, the governors of these states that are involved should honestly tell us what they have done to check the insurgency.
They claim that their states are under emergency. What we have is partial state of emergency. If there is a total state of emergency, the governors will be removed and the Houses of Assemblies will be in abeyance. As long as they are still there to make laws, what have they done? What are the governors doing with their security votes? The governors use their security votes for only God knows what.
On kidnapping, unemployment and greed, a revolting display of wealth by a few who have questionable access to public funds are the main causes. Before we used to have armed robbery and breaking and entry but now kidnappers seize an unsuspecting person on the highway and demand for millions of naira.
How many armed robbers or thieves made away with millions of naira? Armed robbery is no longer lucrative. You will discover some of these boys are university graduates. When my immediate younger and youngest brothers were kidnapped, the family paid a lot of money.
A young boy gets admission into university, the parents buy an expensive and flashy car, what are their lecturers driving? They graduate from university, they drive expensive cars. Those who graduated five years earlier are not employed and can’t afford such cars.
My advice to Nigerians is that the crass display of wealth should stop. Part of the money spent by the politicians should be used in the creation of jobs. Youths should be gainfully employed and skills acquisition made a priority. I know a young man from my place who graduated as an engineer. He took over his father’s furniture workshop and is doing very well. As a matter of fact, he made some of the items of furniture in my home. This was better than staying on the labour market and he is doing well. Another thing that bothers me is when they talk about destruction of illegal refineries.
Take our engineers to those refineries and let them improve on them. Employment will be created. During the Nigerian/Biafran war, the Biafrans were using drums to refine crude oil at Amandugba and petrol, kerosene, diesel and aviation fuel were available to drive cars and fuel aircraft. No country wants to export technology. The money we spend on turn around maintenance of one refinery will be enough to establish a mini refinery in each of the local governments in the country.
Having served on the bench, do you believe there is corruption?
Black's Law Dictionary, ninth edition defines corruption as 'depravity, perversion or taint, an impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle especially the impairment of a public officer's duty by bribery; the act of doing something with an intent to give someone advantage inconsistent with official duty and the rights of others; a fiduciary or officious use of a station or office to procure some benefit either personally or for someone else contrary to the rights of others'. When we talk of corruption, they usually mean the trial courts but we have had instances in the appellate courts.
What led to the trouble between Justices Katsina Alu and Salami? Was there interference? If the allegations were true, that is corruption. In the appointment of judges, you see those who are qualified but you use other people who have better connection. That is corruption. When you come to elevation from the trial to appellate courts, you hear people say this is my candidate, that is corruption or someone says this person's brother supplied a transformer to my village- that is corruption. So, when people talk of corruption my people say it is the market that someone attends that he knows when the market convenes.
People who make this noise about corruption are people who have been part of it. I am not saying there is no corruption in the judiciary but it is being blown out of proportion. You cannot say because judge A travels abroad for medical check-up, he is corrupt. Maybe he had his investments whilst in legal practice. What is his background; his pedigree? You do not know if his parents or relatives are helping him, you then say he is corrupt. Let us be specific about these things.
And the way we are going about it, we are blowing it out of proportion.
It is an in house issue. If there is a proven case of corruption, the internal mechanism can deal with the matter discreetly but we sensationalise such things “35 judges under probe”. What if at the end of the day, some are cleared; they do not tell people that such judges have been cleared but the judges are left with the stigma of corruption. When a lawyer loses a case, instead of going on appeal, he drafts a petition.
Any petition to the NJC involving a case, in which a counsel appeared for the petitioner, should be signed by the counsel himself so that at the end of the day, if the petition is found to be baseless, the lawyer will be disciplined.
But what you now have is that counsel will draft a petition for his client to sign and he will pretend he knows nothing. But looking closely, you find the hand of Esau and the voice of Jacob. Corruption in any institution including the judiciary is to be condemned but in dealing with it, we should act with caution so that members of the public do not lose confidence in the judiciary. A situation where every judge in Nigeria is viewed as corrupt is unfortunate and should be deprecated in the strongest terms.
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