Chief Ifedayo Adedipe, SAN, is a Lagos-based legal practitioner. In this interview, he spoke on special courts designated to handle corruption and financial crime cases, causes of delays in court, true federalism, restructuring and related issues. Excerpts
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, has directed all heads of courts in the country to create special courts for the exclusive trial of corruption cases. How far do you think this initiative will help in tackling the issue of delay of cases?
Well, in recent times, there has been public outcry against the judiciary. This was fuelled in part by lack of proper appreciation of how the judiciary itself works. It should be constantly borne in mind that we take our bearing from the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. That Constitution provides that the court established for the purpose of adjudication shall be impartial and independent.
In other words, you do not create the court for a particular set of people. You do not give the impression that some people asked for their own court and you are giving them.
Impartiality of the courts
There has been some disquiet over the way the requests for courts to handle corruption cases have been made. I appreciate the concern of government and the agencies saddled with the investigation and trial of corruption cases.
But, when an impression is given that an agency of government has its own judges, then, we are treading a dangerous path. This is because, in essence, those are courts expected to do their biddings. The independence and impartiality of the courts would appear eroded. So, we have to be careful here. Elsewhere, you have divisions of courts dealing with specific subject matter. If that is what they are thinking about, I have no problem. For instance, at the High Court, we have family, commercial, probate divisions and the like. So, if the courts are called criminal division, I have no problem with that. But, when you create the court for only a particular class of government agency to treat cases they bring, it is quite open to interpretations, as to whether or not when someone is taken there, he will be found guilty willy-nilly. Though that may not be the intention, but we have to be careful here.
Having said that, the directive by the CJN is commendable because these cases need to be heard and determined quickly and expeditiously. If that is the the purpose of the directive, I have no problem with it. In the recent past, whenever any court decides a case and it goes against the mindset of the prosecuting agencies, the comments from those agencies would appear to have been most unfortunate. That is when you will hear comments like the judiciary is not helping us and all sorts of things. But, how do you expect the judiciary to help you when your facts are not sufficient to secure conviction? There is a way the court system works and if you are not satisfied with any verdict, you can go on appeal.
What other things do you think should be done to ensure expeditious hearing of corruption cases apart from creation of special courts ?
Now, when we talk about corruption cases, that is not the only subject matter that troubles us in this country. There are cases of people with genuine and legitimate concerns about their commercial transactions, domestic affairs and other relevant issues that should go to the court. Do we have enough judges? I don’t think so. Do we have enough prosecutors? I don’t think so. Therefore, delays in the courts are not strictly because judges do not want to do their work. This is the 21st Century and judges are still writing in long hands. Have you seen the Federal High Court in Lagos here? The courtrooms are like bedrooms where people are cramped together. No sitting arrangement. Lawyers and litigants are usually on their feet in the courtrooms. There are some elementary administrative processes like settlement of records, motions and things which ought not to be for the judges in the open court if we arrange ourselves properly and are modern in our approach. I believe some of the things that contribute to the delays are found in the way the courts have been set up. Another issue is the volume of cases being handled by judges on a daily basis. When a judge has about 30 cases to handle in a day, he can only do as much as he is able to cope with, particularly, considering the fact that we still go the analogue way. So, to address this issue of delays, I think we need more judges and government should be more committed to funding the judiciary in order to address the infrastructure decays. Government has to make the environment conducive, pay judges well and get them well trained. These will guard against low productivity. The modernization of the judiciary should be a task between the government, in particular, the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN). A committee should be set up to look at how this could be achieved.
There are also concerns about the attitude of some lawyers who file all manner of applications to delay cases. What do you say to this?
Another contributory factor to these delays is the unscrupulous nature of some legal practitioners who engage in filing of unnecessary motions aimed at delaying proceedings. Sadly, judges are blamed for these delays. So, I think the time has come to condemn lawyers who bring frivolous and time-wasting applications to court. I think it is unfortunate for a lawyer who knows he has a bad case to be using the process of appeal to deny the justice of the case. Any lawyer found indulging in act like this should be made to pay the legal cost to the other party subject to the rules of legal practice and High Court. This should not, however, necessarily whittle down the concerned party’s right of appeal as there may be some genuine cases which may need to be heard at the appellate court. So, I agree that lawyers contribute to the delay and anyone who is found to have done so needlessly should be sanctioned.
Many have attributed prison congestion to our faulty federalism. How do you react?
I would have thought each state of the country should have its own prison system. The present arrangement is part of over-concentration of powers at the federal level that we have been complaining about. Look at it this way, we have the Criminal Code for the states and it’s only in recent times that they are talking about federal offences like illegal firearms and the likes. So, if states have legislative powers over some of these crimes, they should have their own prisons. These are part of the issues we should address in the process of amending the Constitution.
How beneficial do you think the process of amending the Constitution will be to the country considering the public outcry that greeted the exercise carried out by the National Assembly?
My concern is that in this country, we always like to go round in circles thinking we are making progress. Legally, by the arrangement, the party to amend the Constitution is the National Assembly. In amending the Constitution, they could do more than the much talked about devolution of powers. But, the people in the National Assembly as at now are politicians who are interested in amasing power and wealth. They may not be operating at the same level with the ordinary man in the street. Perhaps, the day we have any consensus to recognise that we have no other country, that we have resolved to remain a country and that we want the best for this country, then, we will have a set of values.
This set of values will ultimately lead us to an independent and vibrant judiciary, very modern educational system with focus on science and technology among others.
What is your own idea of a restructured Nigeria?
The 1963 Constitution would appear fairly satisfactory. For instance, there is an area that will throw light on why we are where we are. I think the Federal Military Government at that time created 12 states and Kano which is almost of the same size with Lagos in terms of population has 44 local governments while Lagos has only 20. Sadly, this pattern has continued and it is unfortunate that the beneficiaries of the absurd arrangements would not want a change. This is at the heart of our problems. No state wants to lose the advantage that it had unjustifiably cornered. Now, amending the existing Constitution, if we are a serious minded country, why not? We just need to look at the Exclusive legislative list and see how best it can be decongested. Part of this would be on how to correct the anomalies earlier cited with regards to Kano and Lagos states.
Besides, there has to be an increase in the allocation to the federating units while we should also reduce the areas in which the federal government must be in control. If you look at our judiciary, I don’t even know how to describe it. We have the Supreme Court at the apex which deals with wide range of issues when in an ideal situation, it should be dealing with limited number of issues. Largely, cases on marriage, land and chieftaincy matters and so on have no business going to the Supreme Court, they ought to end at the state or regional Court of Appeal. Not every matter should go to the Supreme Court. That is part of the restructuring I would suggest. Furthermore, we also need a people’s police. The current Nigeria Police Force is the police of any government in power. It is not Nigeria police but government police. Under the last dispensation, the commissioner of police in Rivers state was opposed to the governor. Currently, another police commissioner in the state is opposed to the sitting governor, just to please the federal government. You can’t run a country that way and expect peace to reign. So, until we reach a consensus on how to move forward and separate religion from our country, we are not going to make progress. All the advanced countries of the world separate the state from religion and they put the Constitution at the apex of what governs their lives. When you have no respect for the protocol that binds a nation together, you are looking for trouble.. Besides, any government in place that is unwilling to obey court’s judgement is not a friend of the people. Constitution exists to protect the people against the tyranny of government. Government must be subservient to the rule of law.