Soronnadi Njoku is an Owerri based lawyer and former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Imo State. He was also a former lawmaker, who represented Ngor Okpala North state constituency in the State House of Assembly. In this interview with COLLINS OSUJI, he spoke on judiciary, EndSARS protest, parliamentary independence, restructuring of Nigeria, reform of security apparatus, among others.
The National Assembly is currently embarking on constitution amendment. What kind of amendment are you looking at especially as it concerns the judicial system and its development?
Anybody who has taken time to study our constitution will agree that the structures of this government need to be altered. Nigeria’s federalism is only in name. In fact and in practice, we operate a unitary system of government. I recently read a judgment of the Supreme Court delivered by Justice Pats Acholonu. In the judgment, he lamented that a dispute about the headship of a village could drag on to the Supreme Court. So it is an aberration in my opinion that an issue arising from a bye-law passed by a local government could drag to the supreme court of Nigeria. It doesn’t happen anywhere else. For example, the State Houses of Assemblies have the legislative competence to make laws on issues within their own component of the legislative list. But those issues on which the State Assembly legislate will still find their way to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Where then lies the federal system? A classical definition of federalism is the structure of government where power is shared between the federal and subordinate parts so that each is supreme in its own area. Meaning that for matters within the competence of the state legislature, they should proceed to the state court and terminate at that level. But that is not the case in Nigeria. They end up at the Supreme Court.
Secondly, imagine a situation where the local government legislates, for instance, on bicycle license or local markets but the federal police enforces those laws. Can you imagine that kind of federalism, where it takes the federal police to enforce laws made by the local government? It does not make sense as far as I am concerned. It derogates from that federal structure. So, the ideal federal structure is such that the matters that are within the local government system terminate at the local government level, perhaps, within the exclusive jurisdiction of the customary court of those local governments. State matters should proceed from the state courts and terminate at the state court of appeal but if they must continue, they can now go from the state court of appeal to the federal court of appeal and end at that level. A situation where cases stay up to 10 years in the Supreme Court before being heard do not augur well for the effective administration of justice.
Therefore, there must be some constitution amendments that would reduce the level of cases, the number of cases, the types of cases that go to our Supreme Court. When you do a proper structuring of the judiciary, justice dispensation will be faster because state matters will proceed to the state court and end there. Federal matters will proceed either through the state courts or federal court and end at the Supreme Court. That will then give the supreme court more time to attend to more important constitutional matters.
What other areas should the amendment focus?
Yes, the constitution amendment should be such that primary education will be within the competence of the local government, secondary education within the competence of the state, while the states and federal government both exercise competence for tertiary education. Honestly, I don’t understand why the federal government should run primary and secondary schools. It is an aberration.
Take for instance, the issue of appointment of judges. Even though we are in a federal system, the state government’s are supposed to have their own legislature, executive and judiciary. But it is the federal judiciary that appoints judges for state governments. It is the National Judicial Council (NJC) that appoints judges for states, contrary to the federal principles. Ditto for funding. In fact, I’m aware of a case where the Attorneys General of states filed a suit against the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) at the Supreme Court, where they are now arguing that the federal government ought to be funding capital projects in state judiciaries. And I asked myself; in a proper federal system, will the federal government have that constitutional responsibility of funding capital projects for state judiciaries? The answer will be no. Capital projects just like recurrent expenditure for the state judiciary should fall on the laps of the state government in a properly structured federal system.
And again, the issue of security vis-a vis the police force is also another area we should look at critically. As the Attorney General of Imo State for three years, I was a member of the state security council and the running battle we always had was that even though the governor in theory is supposed to be the chief security officer of the state, yet he lacks the constitutional competence, either to appoint the security chiefs within his state or instruct them or direct them. So, the police should be structured such that issues of security in a state stop at the table of the governor.
Won’t that give the governors too much power?
Somebody has to have that power. Today somebody has that power. Somebody does and that person is not the governor in this state. So what do we lose if the governor also has the power to really effectively run and operate the security system in his state? It gives the governor the power within his state but somebody has the power now in the 36 states and Abuja, which is worse?
So many things have happened after the EndSARS protests. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) froze some accounts of persons suspected to be arrowheads of the protests. What are the legal implications?
Mr. President admitted that peaceful protest is a constitutional issue. It is an extension of the fundamental human rights guaranteed under the constitution. You have the right to peaceful assembly and all that. So if Mr. President had said those who protested were only exercising their constitutional rights, when has it become criminal? It is important for us to appreciate that it was peaceful up to a point. What happened at that point was because the peaceful protest was infiltrated. The violence started after the infiltration. My question would now be, was it the same people who organized the peaceful protest that infiltrated their own protest? The answer is no. The infiltrators must have come outside of them. So being that they are not the infiltrators, can you now hold them responsible for the consequences of that infiltration? To my mind, the answer is no. What we should do is to look for those infiltrators and their sponsors, not the promoters of the peaceful protests. If the protest was peaceful and constitutional, then you cannot proceed against them either in terms of freezing their accounts or in terms of prosecuting them. You should rather investigate the infiltration. Find those who were responsible for that infiltration and punish them for the consequences of the infiltration of an otherwise peaceful protest.
Shortly after the EndSARS protest, the federal government directed states to set up panels to investigate alleged rights violation by the police. What is your assessment of the personalities appointed for this task and what are your expectations from them?
I am deeply and personally disappointed at the lack of response of our people to those panels. I happen to know the chairman of the Imo State Panel quite closely. I have known her in the past 35 years that I have been a lawyer. She was already a Senior Magistrate by the time I was called to the Bar. I appeared before her several times before she became a Chief Registrar and became a Judge. I appeared severally before her. I know her as a judge of impeccable character, a judge who cannot compromise on her judicial principles. Therefore, the choice of Justice Florence Duru Ohaigwe as chairman of the panel in Imo State is super. It cannot be faulted. But no matter how good she is or what good job she can do, unless and until petitions are brought before her, her jurisdiction cannot be activated. It was so disappointing that on the day of her inauguration, there were only two petitions. Meanwhile, everybody agrees that Imo State is just like the rest of the states in South-East, where SARS operatives violated the rights of citizens.
What is your view about perceptions of corruption in the Judiciary?
When you talk of corruption in the judiciary, everybody thinks of the judge. But guess what, I can swear that there are certain judges who have never taken one kobo to deviate from doing justice according to law; who have never been influenced by material or other considerations. Judges who have been loyal and faithful to their oath to do right without fear or favour, affection or ill-will. But I cannot swear that in the judiciary, especially in the registry that there is no corruption. Corruption is endemic there. If you want to file a process, you will have to part with something for your process to be able to move. If for instance, the court does not sit and you want to get a favourable date, you have to do something. If you filed your processes and want them to be served to the other party, you have to “see” the bailiff. If you have to execute judgment, you have to “see” the Sheriffs. Those are happening and they are happening everyday in every segment of our judicial system. So, corruption in the judiciary is not equal to corruption by judges. And attention seems to be focused on the judges, whereas it would be best to look at the registry. The registry can frustrate you. They can prevent your matter from being heard. It is either they forgot the file or the key to the file room or the hearing notice was not served for one reason or the other. Those to my mind are most corrupting influences that delay and pollute the course of justice than what people think is corruption in the sector.
On insurgency and insecurity in the country, what are your thoughts on how to address the challenges?
The issue of insurgence is so complicated and I think we are not really fighting it well. There was a day I was going to court from my chambers and I saw more than 50 young men carrying the IPOB banner. I asked my junior colleague who was in the same car with me if those young men would have had the time to assemble if they had some work to do? I said to him, these are members of your generation. Would you have left your professional engagement of going to court this morning to go and carry IPOB banner with them? And of course the answered was in the negative. For as long as we are not addressing the issue of youth unemployment and empowerment, our fight against insurgency amounts to mere lip service.
Also, as a former state lawmaker, how do you think parliamentary independence could be achieved particularly in states?
There is only one government, which has three arms. They are the legislature (policy formation), the executive (policy implementation) and the judiciary (policy adjudication). The three arms of government should not be at war with one another. The legislature is not set up to become the main opposition against the executive. There should really be synergy between the legislature that formulates the policy and the executive that implements it. The judiciary that adjudicates on those policies should really have independence. But the problem is that most times, the legislators do not appreciate the fact that they are the first arm of government, which approves the policies of government, especially the financial appropriation. They pass the appropriation bill, which becomes law upon being signed by the governor. Anybody who flouts appropriation law risks impeachment.
So, on the issue of financial independence, which is the greatest challenge for the judiciary, the lawmakers should capture it during the appropriation. If the legislature articulates judiciary’s appropriation needs and put them properly in the budgets and a governor refuses to implement it, all they need to do is to inform the governor that his next budget would not be approved. And then they will strike a balance.
Secondly, the Constitution has already said that any money standing to the credit of the legislature should be transferred to them quarterly. And when I was the Attorney General, there was this suit by Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria, insisting on the implementation of the constitutional provision of financial autonomy for both the judiciary and the legislature. Imo State didn’t oppose that suit and they won.
So, financial autonomy has already been provided. All the legislature needs to do is to convince the governor to bring the budget for all the arms of government together and allow those arms of government to implement them when they are passed. They will inform him that if he refuses, next year’s appropriation would be difficult for him. It does not compromise your position as an arm of government. It rather compliments what the executive will be doing. The problem however, is that the lawmakers sometimes want money, whereas, monies for the constituency projects they are asking for have been captured in the budget. So, giving them money would be contrary to law. The executive can ask the lawmakers to list the projects they want or even nominate the contractors that would execute them, but the executive must execute the projects because they have them in their budget. So in summary, the issue of financial autonomy has already being created by the constitution. All that the legislature needs to do is to insist on having monies meant for their own operation domiciled with them every quarter.
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