Our judiciary has been cowed, says Nzelu
An Abuja-based legal practitioner, Mr. Amobi Nzelu came to national limelight following his meticulous and professional handling of the Apo Six saga. With 40 years’ professional experience, Nzelu prides himself as one of the privileged Nigerians to have enjoyed adequate care as a student. In this interview with BRIDGET CHIEDU ONOCHIE, Nzelu decried the level of intimidation of the judiciary and the insincerity on the part of the nation’s leaders, which has led to the collapse of national structures. He also spoke about the pace of violence that has characterized the present day politics as well as steps towards ensuring quality and accelerated justice delivery in the country.
There are insinuations among some lawyers about the electoral jurisprudence. Their position was based on the outcome of election petition judgments, which they perceived as stumbling blocks against every loser of an election. What is your view on this?
Election petition clearly is generic. It is generally something that is on its own class with special procedures attached to it. In as much as one can drive a 504 car and drive a Mercedes Benz when it gets to the issue of driving a trailer, he goes for a special training to be able to drive it. It is not a vehicle that is in the class of 504 or Mercedes car. So, election petition is so generic in the sense that the procedures are very strict. It becomes an umpteen task for you to climb. However, the procedures are made known to you. All these are clearly spelt out, ‘you do this, you do that.’ So, there is no ambush on the part of the aggrieved party or the petitioner on what he is required to do. Most of the time, the errors are done by lawyers.
You win or lose a case on the table you prepare the briefs. Yes, an aggrieved party should be allowed to ventilate his anger in a court of law to avoid an uprising. Where a man is denied access because of the procedures involved, he may resort to violence and the consequences are better imagined than experienced. But the fact still remains that election is a process and not an event. Starting from the party primaries, screening of certificates by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), then you come back for the election between two main parties – one party and yourself. As I said, it is a process, not an event. I was in an election petitions in 1983, 1991, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and in 2019, where I was not very deep but was around it. It is very tedious and very demanding. So, to say that the procedures that are laid down in election petition jurisprudence does not afford easy access to justice is neither here nor there because all you needed to do are spelt out in the law.
The ground of some of these lawyers is that electoral jurisprudence appeared so complex that no matter how sound and clear the petitioner’s evidence appears, he is not likely to get justice. For instance, all the governorship election petitions brought before the various tribunals, showing cases of various degrees of alleged irregularities were dismissed for inability of the petitioners to prove their cases. How do you see that?
I agree with you that a winner cannot become a loser except in a very extreme situation. But my nephew was involved in an election petition. He lost at the tribunal in Anambra State but the Appeal Court had a different view. The justice said, “You that said you are the winner, you did not tell us how you won the election at the tribunal but the petitioner stated his scores and how he secured his scores. So, the tribunal at the first instance was at fault to have given that judgment. The Justice at the Court of Appeal then declared my nephew winner of the House of Representatives seat in his constituency.
But such privilege was not extended to the governorship candidates. What in your view was the reason all the judgments went the same way?
The law is an axe and in all honesty, we have to reengineer our jurisprudence whereby one will seat up and say, ‘this is wrong’. They have successfully cowed down the judiciary. They successfully cowed down our judiciary to the extent that even if you know the truth, it will be in your stomach and stink. So, what do you want us to do? That was not what we saw in 1980.
So, who do we blame for this development? Judicial officers or the political class?
It amounts to both of them because if I tell you to take and you refuse to take, I will not kill you. But there must be consensus, a meeting point somewhere where these matters are being dealt with beyond your knowledge and my knowledge. That is the reason I normally tell them that what we are seeing now is not what we saw when we started this job.
Considering that the judiciary is perceived as the last hope of the common, what do you think is the state of the common man if he is not sure of obtaining justice in the court of law?
Let me tell you, the three arms of government are inter-dependently dependent on one another. Therefore, none of them should be seen as trying to subvert the other. But when one of the arms goes cap in hand begging for revenue or funds to run its own arm of government, it becomes an issue of ‘if you give me, I give you.’ For instance, judiciary has been meant to be autonomous for a long time, yet, they go to the executive to get money from them. The legislature is supposed to be independent and self-accounting, yet, it goes to the executive to get money. The legislators make laws, they appropriate funds but the money comes from the executive arm of government. So, what you are seeing today is not true democracy. What you are seeing today is something that I don’t know how to define. Is INEC independent? The name is Independent National Electoral Commission but is it truly independent when the executive has to make provisions for it to conduct elections in the country? Then they take the estimate to the National Assembly for approval. So, when giving you the money, they call you and say, “Come, I will give you this money you are asking for but …”
So, how do we get disentangled from these?
It requires will power, someone that is determined to get it right. The laws of this country are very good laws but those to abide by the laws are mischief makers of the law. I have said it before, unbundle the judiciary. There are six geo-political zones in Nigeria, let there be Supreme Court in each of the six-geo-political zones. For instance, Supreme Court of South Eastern States, Supreme Court of South Western States, Supreme Court of North Central States, Supreme Court of South-Southern States and Supreme Court of North Western States, so that justice would be dispensed timely.
Don’t you think that such duplication of courts can make the judiciary more vulnerable and prone to compromise?
It will not be easy. You are de-centralizing it so that your case terminates at the Supreme Court in your geo-political zone. It will help in quicker dispensation of justice. Some 2010 cases are still in the Supreme Court, nobody has heard them while some cases have lasted for over 30 years. It will also guarantee quality justice delivery. It is a matter of lesser job, better articulation and better flavor. Everybody wants to hold on to the position of Chief Justice of Nigeria but many people are dying under you and you don’t want to know.
Also, let there by Court of Appeal for each geo-political zone. By the time I gave advice under the late General Sani Abacha’s regime, I told them that Abuja was fast growing and all they could do to get it right was to unbundle the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs). I advised them to locate three ministries each to Gwagwalada, Buhari and to Kuje while such ministries as finance and defense will remain at the Centre of the city. But all the Ministries are located at the city centre. Now, the traffic jam on the road into Abuja on a working day is so annoying. If they had dismantled the ministries, it would not have been so. Why would all the ministries be at the centre of the city? One thing is for you to understand the problem; another thing is to be determined to solve the problem. What are the problems of Nigeria? One is insincerity. Look at court orders. It is one thing for the judge to make an order, it is another thing for the police to ensure that the order is obeyed by arresting the person. But are they doing that? Toothless bulldogs! The unbundling should also include the police. Let there be separate Inspector Generals for different geo-political zones.
Elections are becoming more violent by the day but perpetrators are hardly brought to justice. How will this development affect the electorate and potential aspirants, and what are the likely impacts on elections into political offices in future?
The late Justice Chukwudifu Oputa once said that what a politician tells you in the morning is correct; the same language in the afternoon is doubtful and the same language in the evening is false. If not for Senator Shehu Sani, did you know that senators were taking N14 million monthly as salary? Nobody knew in this country until Sani exposed them. Today, he is paying the price. So, how would you like to come out if you get N13 to N14 million every 30 days? You will do everything to remain there. That is the issue. Political offices are attractive. I am a lawyer, if I go for an election and I don’t succeed, I go back to my chamber because I have a fall-back position. The majority of these politicians don’t have any fall-back positions in life and that is why there are violence. If I don’t succeed in an election, the next day, you will see me in court, looking for daily bread but for some people, their first profession is politics, second profession, politics and third profession, politics. There is no other thing they can do to get free money than politics. It was Senator Sani that made Nigerians, for the first time, to know what senators are earning and he is paying the price for it. I have enjoyed this country and I have every reason to give back what has been given to me. I went to the University in 1975. That was University of Ife. I paid N144 as my school fees and N200 was the meal ticket for a whole year. If you don’t get scholarship, you will get a Federal Government loan of N500. Out of this, you pay school fees N144, buy your meal ticket N200 for the whole session and if you will have enough balance to buy trouser length material. I passed out of NYSC in 1981 and that same year, I got married because Waziri Ibrahim gave me N50,000. I was 26 years then. As a Nigerian, you are issued visa at London Airport because Nigeria is a member of Common Wealth. So, my question is, who killed Nigeria? Who killed the country?
Nigeria’s problem is very simple to solve if we have the will power to do it. Everybody wants to hold on to his constituency but the moment you make politics less attractive, no one goes there again. The moment you make sitting allowance for lawmakers N2,000, nobody will go there again. They won’t even contest election. But the fact that they are paying them N14 million every month, you will continue to have violence because they don’t have any fall-back positions in life.
If you are to review the judiciary in 2019, what are the things that will quickly come to your mind?
You see, the judiciary has come a long way. That is the only organ of government that survives in the face of any invasion. The military will decree out the existence of the legislature but they will keep the judiciary. It is the only arm that survives every incursion in Nigerian politics. You cannot decree out the judiciary but you can decree out the legislature. They have done very well in the sense that some of them have raised their heads above to say: “This thing should not happen this way or it should not happen that way.” But here, we run a government of blackmail. If for instance, you bought a particular item on credit and they know you bought it on credit, if you want to talk any day, they will tell you, “You bought this thing on credit.” That is what they do but things should not be done that way. The judiciary has stood its ground until they invaded the judiciary. They invaded the houses of some judges in the wee hours of the morning. I think that was the last assault on the judiciary.
In your view, why did the body of lawyers not take drastic action to repel the assault immediately rather than allow it degenerate?
The current President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Paul Usoro (SAN) is facing trial concerning the money allegedly found in his account. How far has the trial gone? You see, the only person that has been very consistent in what he is saying is Femi Falana (SAN). He has been very consistent. But let me tell you one thing, there is a lot of corruption in this country and it requires an extreme measure to cure this cancerous malady called corruption. So, let me take the issue of the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onoghen and Justice Ngwuta Nwali; my only discomfort was the way they brought it to the market place so that even a trader will tell you, “Is it not this lawyer or judge that accepted bribe? They decided to ridicule the judiciary as a whole. They would have dealt with them in-house. But the government said it has been writing about these people. What do you want to do with N30million in a toilet in your house? I know these things are correct. I can tell you that they are correct. You see, when something starts to smell, you send it to the waters but when water starts to smell, where will you send it to? No man has any hope in the judiciary that is stinking. That you see a judge having foreign currency to that level and when you hold him, he said he got it from the sales of palm oil. Which oil? Is it a golden palm oil?
This is a new year. What are your expectations for the judiciary?
Let them be reinvigorated. Let them distance themselves from anything that will bring snare to the legal profession. Let them be upright and look up to God. What God does not give to you, you cannot get it. Anything that God does not give you; you will pay a price for it. It is my prayer that God will give them that conscience so that they will stand up and do justice without fear or rancor no matter whose ox is gauged. Conscience is an open wound, only truth can heal it. It is said that where there is an unrighteous judge, the people suffer. And Nigerians should be able to stand up and unbundle this nation. Unbundle in the sense that so many things on the executive list should go to the Concurrent list. There are so many things on the Executive List that should not be there. They should take out the issue of the police; take out the issue of the judiciary. They should create things that make access to justice easier.
What reforms are you envisaging then?
First is unbundling of the judiciary. Let there be South East Supreme Court, South-South Supreme Court and same thing with other the geo-political zones of the country. With this, your appeal terminates at that Supreme Court in your geo-political zone unless the issue is a federal matter, then you approach the federal Supreme Court. When this is done, it will be easy to access justice.
Once they unbundle these courts and allow states to appoint their judges rather than centralizing the appointment of judges, things will begin to work faster and better. Let us take the issue of police; the devil they are afraid of is not there. They should create state police. Even wages, some states can pay N50,000 monthly but because there is a uniform pattern of payment, they pattern after under the Federal Government. Anambra State can pay N50,000 monthly minimum wage. Rivers State can pay as well. When all these are unbundled, each state will pay what it can afford to pay. We know that some states are very poor; we agree with them but certain things should be unbundled. When an aircraft wants to take off and it is over loaded, you cannot get a good altitude. So also when there is less weight at the centre, the centre becomes less attractive. This money they are spending on campaigns will no longer be there. I pray that God will give President Muhammadu Buhari the willpower to give corruption a knockout.
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