Mallam Yusuf Olaolu Ali, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), in this interview with Paschal Njoku and Toyin Adebayo, in Abuja, speaks on issues relating to on-going cleansing of the Judiciary and other sundry issues. Excerpts:
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Miriam Aloma Mukhtar recently raised alarm that the public’s confidence in the judiciary is nose-diving due to pockets of corrupt and unethical conducts of some judicial officers.
What are your views about this and on the ongoing probe of some Judges by the National Judicial Council owing to corruption allegations?
You cannot divorce a public institution from the environment which it operates. So, it really comes as a surprise to any Nigerian that the CJN said what she said. One must say and I have said this often that under our extant constitutional arrangement, the Nigerian judiciary is the only arm out of the three arms of government that has a self cleansing mechanism, that is, through the instrumentality of the National Judicial Council. There is no equivalent body in the Executive or Legislative arm. I think all well meaning Nigerians would join hands with the Chief Justice of Nigeria in her efforts to clean judges table. Of course, as we do all that, we must be careful to ensure that the tenets of rule of law and other safeguards for the protection of the rights of those who are under the probe searchlight and even for the protection of the institution itself are kept in view. We should not do it because the public is asking for blood.
It must be based on verifiable and justifiable, proved allegations against the individual, remembering that the individual against whom complaints and allegations are made and investigations are being undertaken will have no other things to do in life if they are unceremoniously removed. This is because once you are a judicial officer and you are retired, you cannot go to court and be appearing as a lawyer anymore. So, I think we should balance this various interests and I think the CJN is moving in the right direction by her single mindedness to restore public confidence in the judicial sector of our national life.
From your own perception,
what do you think are responsible for the spate of corruption that has permeated the country’s judiciary?
I would not agree that corruption has permeated the country’s judiciary; they are pockets of allegations. Like I said earlier, the Nigerian judiciary cannot operate outside of the system in which it operates. It is undoubted today that Nigeria is at the lower bottom rung of corruption index worldwide. You can not expect an angelic institution in a devil infested environment.
Some of these perceptions are mere perceptions because you discover that out of every 50 allegations of corruption made against the bench, may be, only one gets proved. The attitude of Nigerians of being bad losers is part of the problem. Anybody who loses a case in court believes something must have gone wrong. So, this attitude of Nigerians not wanting to accept that when two people go for a contest, one will win and one will lose is the problem. It is evident in the political landscape of this country.
I want to assure you that why it is true that we have a few bad eggs in the judiciary as acknowledged by the CJN, but to the relief of all of us, the judiciary is doing a yeoman’s job to even get rid of the few bad eggs. If only the other arms of government will also do the same thing about their own members; the Executive and the Legislature should also try to get rid of bad eggs among them, and by so doing, Nigeria will be a better a place. We cannot cast the entire load on the judiciary alone; let every arm of government do its bit. If the people make allegations that the Judiciary is this and that, let them come forward with proofs and verifiable facts; if you say you have given money to somebody, how much did you give,
when did you give it, for what purpose, who was your witness?
Nigerians always find it very shy coming forward to lend their voices and bring evidence on some of these allegations. This is why we must be very careful because most of these allegations are made against Judges who cannot speak in public to refute some of these allegations against them. So, I think we cannot afford to destroy the totality of the judiciary institution because some people lost cases; most Nigerians are bad losers. This is evident in sports; Nigeria is probably one of the few countries in the world, where after the conclusion of World Cup series, other countries will start preparing for the next four years, Nigeria will not start preparation until three months to the end of the four years and still expect to win, when they lose, they feel bad. So, the point I am making is that why it could be true that we have a few cases but the cases are just too few compared to the number of people who are on the bench in Nigeria, to now put a brush of corruption on everybody. I do not think it will be fair.
Most people in the country know that the level of corruption of the executive and legislature is wide, and that the outside world is saying Nigeria is a corrupt country is not the fault of the Judiciary. People who come into the country to do business do not have personal interaction with the judiciary but people in government especially those in the executive arm. While we are acknowledging that everything may not be hundred percent alright in the judiciary, I do not think it is as bad as people may want us to believe. Especially,
if you look at the data, how many Judges have ever been found liable of corruption in the last 10 years
How many Judges compared to the number of members of legislature and executive that are charged to courts for corruption?
A cross section of Nigerians believes there is falling standard of legal practice in the country, what do you think is the cause?
When you are talking about standards, you have to look at it from the base.
What is the standard of educat on in our public primary and public secondary schools, then the universities?
The people who pass through this system are the ones who end up as end products of the Nigerian Law School, who then become lawyers; that is paramount. Then our craze for material acquisition, most professionals are interested in making money and this also is not assisting us. Then there is not enough mentoring. If you want to do well in a profession, you must have some period of tutelage. You must be mentored, standards must be set and you must appreciate those standards. All these are part of the problem and then the individuals of course.
What you want to achieve in life is going to be the basis of what you want to do. So, many people are just interested in the success story of many lawyers and not in what they went through. And then of course, you have to invest time, energy and resources in legal practice. Hard work has no substitute if you want to be a very successful person in any profession for that matter. So, the falling standard is a combination of so many factors and I believe we all have roles to play. Those of us God has elevated, let us try to mentor others and set standards not only in terms of legal practice alone but in terms of the observance of the ethics of the profession. We must maintain standards and I think we should address some of these issues because they are some of the clogs in the wheels of progress of our standard of practice. Nigeria has first class brains in all sectors of our national life, but the deployment of those talents to negative things is the problem. If we deploy those talents to positive things, this country will be a world beater.
As a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, what in your own estimation are the major challenges bedevilling the judiciary in the country?
Good! Number one, you cannot use stone-age methods in a jet age and expect to get the same result. For the Nigerian judiciary to be able to perform optimally, it must have the necessary modern tools, functional courtrooms, benefit of information technology, automation of proceedings, conducive environment where Judges live and then their pay package must be such that it will be commensurate with the level of labour they put in. Until the aberration of military rule in Nigeria, just like in England, the Chief Justice of Nigeria was the highest paid public servant in the First Republic. That’s what happens in England, because the society must appreciate the kind of work the judiciary does because they determine the health of the nation in terms of power of life and death over individuals, which is one power ordinarily exercised only by God.
Then, how our economy and development moves are all interwoven with the judiciary. I have said this before and am going to say it here again, especially for the highest court of the land; there must be no Federal character any more. Let us bring the very best we can get because we are talking about the highest court in Nigeria; while we must observe equity, there cannot be equality anywhere. There can only be equity. In the highest court, we must have the best materials we can afford in the highest court of the land. So, we must not see judicial appointments as a promotional issue. Once I am in point ‘A’ I will still move to point ‘B’. We must professionalize appointments of our Judges and Justices. It is not every person who is a High Court Judge that will be a good material for the Court of Appeal and not every person who sits in the Court of Appeal will be a good material for the Supreme Court.
Also, it is not every Chief Magistrate or Chief Registrar who will be a good High Court Judge. So, we must do away with this promotional system which has almost become traditionalised. Again, we should stop paying lip service to the rule of law and I have often advised political office holders to whom I am close, that it is better to have a fearless, incorruptible, and un influence able judiciary in their state. For example, if you are a state governor, rather than to have a judiciary you think are your own men, people who are amenable, it’s better to have people who are unbendable in the course of justice on the bench in your state as a governor.
When you have a judiciary you cannot influence, it means that when you leave office, nobody can influence them against you. But when you have people who are amenable, people who can be manipulated, once you are no more in office, it means that others can also manipulate them against you. So, if there is one institution that should be insulated from politics, it is the judiciary. If I were a Governor and I have not attempted to manipulate the judiciary in any way, when I leave nobody will be able to influence them against me.
So, we must stop paying lip service to the rule of law and part of mrule of law is to allow the judiciary do its work. The political gladiators should allow the judiciary have peace because most of these corruption allegations come about from political cases almost invariably now. I had an encounter with a highly placed Nigerian years ago and we were discussing and the topic shifted to issue of corruption and judiciary and my answer to him which I think is still very relevant today was: if you and I have a court matter and I do not try to influence the judge and you do not try to influence him either, if the judge wants to make a mistake, it will be a mistake of the head and not of the heart. But because you are a highly placed person, you want to throw your influence around; you try to reach the judge etc. Of course, not everybody has the same quality or character to resist such moves. It is quite necessary that Nigerians must change their attitude if we want a judiciary that is upright, all of us must remain upright.
So, it is a multifaceted thing and the judiciary will do well if we provide materials for the job, welfare etc and insisting on the rule of law and morality of the society.
This issue of granting financial autonomy of the judiciary has continued to generate reactions in the country;
how would you react to this sir?
My opinion on this is very simple; what qualifies the executive to be able to keep money than the judiciary or the legislature? When you place these three arms of government on a parallel line, you find out that the judiciary is the most qualified set of Nigerians. The judiciary is the only place where before you become a High Court Judge, you must have become a lawyer of not less than 10 years before you get appointed. Remember, when you get to the university, you graduate with LLB, and then you go to the Law School to have BL which is equivalent to Masters Degree. In essence, the average person who is on the Nigerian High Court bench is somebody who had equivalent of Masters in Law, and who has had it in not less than 10 years before getting appointed. Whereas to become President of Nigeria or go to the National Assembly, all you need to show is evidence of attendance in a secondary school. That is what the constitution says; it does not even say you must pass school certificate.
So, if people like that are in the executive and they can keep resources, who said the judiciary will not be better placed, with the level of qualification and quality of personnel that they have?
So, the judiciary should be self financing in order to guarantee its freedom. Once the fund is appropriated, the head of court should be given the money and modalities put in place on how the fund will be disbursed.
Hence, it is high time the judiciary become self accounting in all its affairs financially.
The recent election of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum has continued to cause ripples and disaffection among governors in the country;
what does this portend for the country’s democracy ahead of the build up to the 2015 general election?
I think we Nigerians are shameless people. If 35 adults could have an election and they could not agree that there was an election tookn place and that votes were counted, then it is unfortunate. For those who are supposed to be custodians of democracy because they are the greatest beneficiaries of democracy today. The Governors, President, Vice President, deputy Governors and National and State Assembly members are the greatest beneficiaries of democracy in Nigeria. It speaks volumes about our inability to rise above pettiness. They play politics even with our lives. So, I think it signifies bad omen that a non constitutional body, none statutory body like the NGF is heating up the polity. It is an arrangement like a club and 35 people went in; now look at their argument: oh, I was endorsed by 19 people before the election. For God sake, people should stop thinking we are all fools.
When has it become a fact that endorsement translates to voting and that you get elected?
I mean, it is so childish, very childish with respect. The matter is not assisted by the President, as the presidency casts its lot in favour of the minority. It is not right with respect. It is like a puppet show, you know there are puppets and puppeteers. It is very sad. Quite honestly, I think every serious Nigerian feels let down by the performance of the governors.
President Goodluck Jonathan recently imposed a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states without sacking the Governors;
what is your take on this sir?
What we heard behind the scene was that the President wanted to dissolve everybody but there were pressures for him not to do so. If truly the President did it all by himself or he was pressurized not to dissolve the political heads, then we have to commend all those behind that one. But then, there is nothing in the constitution that says once there is state of emergency; you must dissolve the democratic structure. There is nothing of such; otherwise the same constitution says if Nigeria is at war, the President must go; that is the meaning if we must carry these issues to a logical conclusion. There is six months timeline created by the constitution for state of emergency but it is just because there was an aberration during the time of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. When Obasanjo declared state of emergency that was the time people should have challenged him because it was not constitutional.
Otherwise if Nigeria is at war and they declare a state of emergency, it means the President will also leave. Why should that be the case for the state and even local government? The constitution is very mprotective of the right of the electorate to elect leaders of their choices, that is why some of us uphold that governors don’t have right to dissolve the local government.
What is good for the goose is good for the gander, Governors that dissolve the local government is against the rules of the constitution, and so if the President will not go because there is emergency rule declared in Nigeria, why should the Governors go?
In any event, this emergency rule is as a result of the security challenges and who is the chief security officer of Nigeria? Is it not the President?
Is it not part of his mandate that is being troubled? States are just part of the country, so if am responsible for the totality of this table and there is a problem in some part of the table, who is to be held responsible? It is the President and not the Governors.
If you are punishing the Governors for what they have no control over because they don’t control the Army, Air force, Police etc, they don’t even control Civil Defence, and how can you then hold them responsible because there was crisis in their states