Mr. Monday Onyekachi Ubani is Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). In this interview with AKEEM NAFIU, he speaks on how Nigeria’s judiciary has fared since independence, 1963 Constitution, restructuring and sundry issues.
What is your appraisal of the nation’s judiciary since independence especially as the country attained 57 yesterday?
I think that the judiciary in Nigeria has witnessed some level of progress in terms of quality of judgement and have equally assumed some measure of independence regarding financial autonomy in some states and in particular, at the federal level. Although, the progress has been a bit slow but I would not say we have not made any progress.
Sadly, we are still battling with delays in our justice system and prolonged trials. Most of them were systemic in nature. They are something we can correct but it seems we are not doing so.
A major factor that leads to these delays is allowing every matter from the lowest court in every part of the country to go to the Supreme Court. I think we can resolve this logjam by creating courts of final jurisdiction at every region of the country. We all know that securing a hearing date for civil matters at the apex court may take up to six years or more.
So, why would such a thing happen? The implications of these delays could also be felt in the area of foreign investment in the country as investors who are not sure of prompt handling of commercial cases by courts may be scared away.
So, I think we need to look at our system once again and probably create final courts at regional level. Only very important constitutional issues should go to the Supreme Court, while other less important matters should end at the regional Court of Appeal within the states in each region.
This will surely help in expediting actions on cases being handled by the court. We also need to look at some administrative lapses in the nation’s judiciary. The issue of service must be looked into. When a lawyer initiates a case, it is usually problematic to get the process served.
Even when the processes were served, another issue is that of the proof of evidence. Assignment of cases to a judge is another problem. Even when that is done, to get a date for the hearing of the matter poses another threat. The worst scenario occurs in the criminal justice sector.
Sometimes when the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP) has given advice on a matter, the prosecution usually encounters problems in filing those cases in court. To prefer a charge against the defendant then becomes an issue.
Does that mean we have a weak judiciary especially with the delay picture you have just painted?
We cannot outrightly say we are having a weak judiciary but there are factors militating against the progress of the judiciary in this country. There is the issue of finance as well as the human factor. Besides, the issue of deficiency within the system also poses a challenge.
Basic infrastructures are also lacking. So, it’s a combination of many factors that are militating against the development of the judiciary. Nigeria judiciary is facing a lot of internal hardship owing to external influences that make it difficult to realize an efficient system. So, there are issues, but we can tackle them.
However, despite all the teething problems, the judiciary has tried as much as possible to work within those outlined hardships to deliver justice that is worthy of commendation. But, it is not yet uhuru. We can do better than what we are doing presently.
If you look at what the nation’s judiciary did during the military era, it even fared better. The likes of Justices Oputa, Eso, Muhammed Bello and others at that time did wonderfully well.
They were up and doing and alive to their responsibilities. They knew the powers of the judiciary and what it can do to help in making the society a better place for us to live.
If the judiciary was stronger in the military era and wobbled today, where do you think we got it wrong?
We got it wrong when people who have no interests and are not supposed to be judges were made judges. It’s either through the influence of one chief, senator or a governor.
Most of the time, these people succeeded in bringing square pegs in round holes. So, when we have people that are not supposed to be in the judiciary, presiding over its affairs, it’s a big problem.
This is because they will not realize the importance of the third arm of government and we begin to see some level of compromise here and there.
However, there are some reforms now in the mode of appointment.
They are trying to make it more transparent and competent in order to make the best choices. Besides, we have also discovered that there are issues with some of these judges and they are trying to put things in proper perspective. I believe that as long as we continue to correct ourselves, in the end, the output will be beneficial to everyone.
Call for Nigeria’s restructuring is deafening, what role would you wish for the judiciary?
All the arms of government have one role or the other to play in the area of restructuring the country. The judiciary interprets the law and if the law is correctly interpreted by the judiciary, it will help in restructuring the country.
There was a decision reached by the Supreme Court concerning fiscal planning between Lagos state and the Federal Government. There was also the issue of tourism about who collects what in the country.
These decisions by the apex court set the right precedent and records as to the intention of the lawmakers.
So, one way or the other, we cannot rule out the importance of the judiciary in this issue of restructuring the country because it will interpret the laws when they are enacted. If the judiciary gives a wrong interpretation, it will lead to a wrong conclusion but if otherwise, it would go a long way in fixing some of the issues.
Amidst criticisms of the 1999 Constitution, there are suggestions that the country should re-adopt the 1963 Constitution. What is your take on this?
There are some good features in the 1963 Constitution which we can copy.
Remember that the regions then had their own Constitution and courts. This led to competition between the regions which ultimately led to unprecedented developments.
The regions were doing so well. The Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), University of Nigeria (UNN) and the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) were all products of the 1963 Constitution.
So, if we really want a country that is functional and clearly in tandem with the federal principles, we should take a look again at the provisions of the 1963 Constitution. There are so many good things that we can adopt from it.
Just like we have the 2014 National Conference. There were some things that were discussed in the report of the conference that can help us effect some changes that people were clamouring for. Some of the suggestions in the report can help in reducing the agitations in the country.
President Muhammadu Buhari has referred all questions about restructuring of the country to the National Assembly. Are you in support of this move?
There is no way you can talk about the restructuring of the country and the executive will stay aloof. They have to make an input.
Talking about restructuring, everything is not constitutional and legal. There are administrative things that can be done. That is why people are blaming former President Goodluck Jonathan for not acting on the report of the last national conference before leaving office.
Part of the report should have been sent to the National Assembly for legislation. Besides, there are other parts that are constitutional that could lead to an amendment of the Constitution.
The former president did not act as expected and it’s quite unfortunate. So, to answer your question, it would be wrong for the executive to say that agitations about restructuring can only be addressed by the National Assembly.
That is why I am even happy that a committee has been set up by the executive to look into the issue of restructuring. There is no way the executive can say it has no role to play on the issue. All arms of government have one role or the other to play on the agitations for restructuring. It was even the executive that did make the promise of restructuring to Nigerians during campaigns.
There are concerns about the choice of Justice Ayo Salami heading the committee set up by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, to monitor trial of looters, owing to the circumstances surrounding his exit from the Bench. Do you think there should be any cause for concern?
The committee is only saddled with the responsibility of monitoring these cases at the various courts where they will be heard, to be sure that proper things are being done. My problem is whether those people will even have time because these people are very busy.
Are they going to be remunerated? I don’t even know. About the concerns over Justice Salami, I think they are misplaced. Remember that the National Judicial Council (NJC) recommended that he should be reinstated but the then president refused to heed the directive.
So, we know the issues were political. Even, the NJC that supposed to discipline a judge cleared him on the grounds that no misconduct could be traced to him. It is the same NJC that has now recommended him to lead the committee.
I see Justice Salami as someone of impeccable character. It’s only that some people want to rubbish him and soil his name. But I tell you this, as long as one is righteous in this world, there is no way such an individual will be neglected by God. At the end, he will be vindicated.
02 Oct, 2017