Current constitutional amendment a distraction – Chris Uche, SAN

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Chris Uche is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN.  But he lives a simple life inspite of the many cases involving politicians who would have lost their electoral victories or those helped regain them. Uche, who is the prosecuting counsel in the famous “Apo Six”, can rightly be described as a scion of law, having come from a family whose parents were lawyers.

His junior brother is a lawyer while his first daughter is also a lawyer and many more lawyers may still be on their way to join the family tradition. In this interview the Abia State-born legal practitioner speaks of his passion with law, how to bail Nigeria out of the present predicament and what President Jonathan needs to do in order to move Nigeria forward and write his name in gold.

He says no constitution amendment or system of government can change the way things are going in Nigeria unless the government musters the political and legal will to tackle corruption. Uche also insists that the setting up of special courts to try corrupt persons will also not make any difference in the fight against graft because as he puts it ‘corruption cannot be divorced

from Nigerian politics’.

Excerpts:

What would you do if you were asked to design a template for the Nigerian Judiciary? And in any case, what is wrong with the judiciary in Nigeria?

Really, if you look at the structure, the framework and the procedure, there is really nothing wrong with the Nigerian legal system. Our legal system on paper is virtually the same with the legal system in the United Kingdom because that is where we received our laws from. But the only thing that is different is the operators just like any other thin in Nigeria.

Like now, we are clamouring for a change of the constitution when our problem is not constitutional. The constitution has nothing to do with what is happening today, it has nothing to do with insecurity, the constitution has nothing to do with lack of water, good roads and nothing to do with absence of all the good things that Nigerians are craving for in order to live decently like other human beings created by God.

It is only the Nigerian factor that is our problem. The current pre-occupation for amendment of the Constitution to me is a distraction to keep Nigerians busy till the next election.

Zeroing in on the judiciary, the framework and its infrastructure are superb. The major problem afflicting the judicial system is the undue delays that arise also as a result of the Nigerian factor.

Please give examples of what you mean?

Look at the Apo Six case, which I am prosecuting. The last time we went to court, the accused persons were not brought from Kuje Prison to the court on the ground that there was fuel scarcity. This type of excuse is laughable and was never envisaged by the Constitution or the Rules of Court. But there was nothing the Judge could do than to adjourn the matter. So we have so many of these things which occasion delays in the administration of justice in this country.

*Chris Uche SAN

My observation about the current template of the judiciary is that the work of

our judges has been made to suffer as a result of handling electoral matters, which are becoming routine by the day. You can now see that the work of the courts is being hampered because of a lot of electoral litigation matters. By law they are supposed to be given preference but that is affecting the trial of regular cases.

So I would suggest that a separate, distinct and specialized court which could be called a Constitutional Court be established to deal with electoral matters-pre-election and post election issues. If this is done, it would help our system because most of the electio tribunalls are constituted on ad-hoc basis.

The judges are pooled from various courts in the country to do the job and for the period of their absence all the cases pending in their courts are suspended or put on hold. When they go back, they may be posted elsewhere or if they are not sent to other places, they are not used for new cases arising from further elections so that the experience they garnered from their previous assignments is not utilised.  And when the matter goes on appeal, the government constitutes new ad-hoc courts to hear them, thereby disrupting the work of the regular Court of Appeal.

These judges cannot really do much because of the sheer volume of work that they are supposed to deal with within a short specified timeframe. It does not help in anyway. This is a fire brigade approach which does not help the system at all. Even this time frame that the constitution has set for the determination of electoral litigations is very

unrealistic. You now begin to wonder whether the whole essence is to discourage aggrieved parties from filing petitions against electoral malpractices. But then if you discourage access to justice through the legal system you are only pushing people to resort to self help and anarchy.

So, that is another area that must be looked into. As much as we are saying that let electoral matters be speedily disposed of, we must also take into consideration certain components of this process that must be properly handled if our aim is to do justice at the end of the day.

Would you say the judiciary has done well?

I would say that the Nigerian judiciary has done well compared to the other arms of government. But then one can say it ought to be so because the operators of the judiciary are better trained for what they are doing. The executive on the other hand, is not trained to rule; the legislature is not trained to be lawmakers.

Secondly members of the judiciary have been there consistently under military or civilian administrations. They are supposed to do better than the other arms of government. We are also very happy at this point in time with the development of the judiciary and our nation to have a woman who is highly regarded by all as an incorruptible head of the judiciary in the country – Justice Aloma Muktar.

We are very confident that she will bring in a lot of innovations and policies that will take the judiciary to the next level. What is most important now in our country, is to restore public confidence in the justice system. So many Nigerians have lost faith in the judiciary given several incidents that have taken place in this country.  We should not allow this country to degenerate to a point where people take the law into their hands.

What do you think about the establishment of a special court to try corrupt persons?

I do not think that will solve the problem because corruption is a menace that requires holistic solution. We cannot solve the problem of corruption without adopting a holistic approach towards its elimination.  It is not a question of just getting a special court to deal with corruption cases that would solve the problem. We would only be dealing with the symptoms and not the causes. Corruption has eaten deeply in the fabric of the nation’s life and it requires corresponding tough measures and political will to uproot it from the

foundation.  If you look at the way corruption is practiced in Nigeria and the way politics is practiced in the country, you will come to the inescapable conclusion that corruption is the oil that lubricates the machinery of politics in Nigeria. It is extremely difficult to separate corruption from politics in Nigeria.

It is difficult to practice politics without corruption in Nigeria. We have to deliberately restructure public office to really be a platform for rendering service to the people. We have to restructure political offices in such a way that the capacity to steal public funds is limited, monitored and scrutinized. And that is why in Nigeria everything is done by quota.

If you are talking about service you should not be talking about quota and national cake. Until we get to that point where the government is not thinking about the next election but about the next project because even though I am not a politician or a security expert it is not difficult to say that what is happening in this country today cannot be divorced from the election of 2015.

But a situation where you use the fight against corruption as a tool for selective punishment and witch-hunting of political opponents or people who have fallen out of favour with the system does not augur well for the country.   It is painful that even as a country we do not know how much crude oil that leaves this country daily, we do not know how much comes into our Consolidated Revenue Fund and how much the nation is getting monthly from all other sources.

What do you make of plea bargain in the Nigerian judicial system?

Plea bargain is a very essential tool for saving government from wasteful prosecution where an accused person can admit liability to a lesser offence and he is punished and that ends the matter. But in Nigeria everything is always abused. In other jurisdiction where things are done properly, it is a veritable tool for quick dispensation of justice but in Nigeria it changes from plea bargain to money bargain.

It now turns to a situation where somebody who has looted billions is simply asked to bring back a little and there is no full disclosure of how much was stolen and there is also no disclosure of other money that would be spent in the course of the plea bargain.

So it is something that is being abused and because it is being introduced not with respect to general cases, but with respect to corruption trial that is why I fear that it will defeat the very essence of the fight against corruption.

Last week, the Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke, said that it would have been diplomatically damaging for Nigeria to have sought to appeal the International Court of Justice judgment on Bakassi. What do you think about that?

You know the problem with Nigeria is that we always adopt a fire brigade approach to everything.  Why should we use ten days to the expiration of ten years to start to talk about the review of this judgment? You must also admit that everything about the Bakassi matter was badly mismanaged by the government from the initial prosecution where the citizens, the native and knowledgeable persons there were not carried along in the process.

Everything about it was mismanaged and it is worrisome that we never talked about review until ten days to the expiration of the deadline.  It is a very sad aspect of our life because no nation, repeat, no nation, in international law or in history ever cedes part of its territory to another nation.

So, what was done in Bakassi – even though there have been several accounts of how the place was handled by the British and the Germans and between Nigeria and Cameroun and how it was used to settle the Civil war commitments and all that – the truth remains that everything about it is sad.

We would have, as a government, considered the plight of the indigenes who are Nigerians, to do whatever was necessary to hold on to that territory until it becomes very impossible to do so. I think we did not manage it well and I think what the government did through the Attorney General was a face-saving device.

If it was going to be diplomatically damaging (quoting Adoke’s words) why did it take them only a day to the expiration of the deadline to realise that?  At the time Mr. President set up the committee to look into the possibility of appealing the judgment, didn’t they think it would be diplomatically damaging? Why was it only a day to the expiration of the deadline that they suddenly realized that it would be diplomatically damaging to file an appeal?

That takes me to the issue of governance in Nigeria. There seem to be a wide gulf between governance and government in Nigeria. What we have is government; we don’t have any semblance of governance in Nigeria because the government we have does not ever seem to have the interest of the people governed at heart.

Now some days ago, we read that a government in this Federal Capital Territory, where the residents are lamenting that there is no accommodation, where people are dying daily in search of accommodation, demolished no fewer than 500 units of houses already completed by a private company who got the finances from the bank. Why did the government not even confiscate the houses and give to people, rather than demolishing them? It is not as if the houses blocked any express road or services lines.

Maybe, I think the time has come for us to reconsider the way the Minister of the FCT is appointed. I think the time has come for us to have an elected Mayor in the FCT. Let us have somebody who is elected by the residents of FCT.   The second thing is that there should be a House of Assembly in the FCT where things like this would come to the floor of the House and then they will be able to get whoever is the Mayor to pay his attention to matters of this nature.

This will also take care of desire of the people that such headship of the FCT but should rotate so that every Nigerian has a sense of belonging in the FCT. Let it be elective and rotatory among the various sections of Nigeria.

From what you have seen and known about Nigeria, what is the best form of government for this country?

I don’t think the disenchantment of people or the problems we have had as a country are attributable to the form of government in operation. I don’t think it is because we have a presidential system of government that we cannot have employment, water, electricity, good roads, and functional educational and health facilities and so on.

It is not because we run a presidential system. If we return to the old Parliamentary system, these same problems would still be staring us in the face because we are Nigerians who have refused to do things the way things are done elsewhere. So I don’t think it is question of changing the system of government. It is a question of refining what we have to be able to do right what has not been done well for several years.

I would say that the proliferation of states has made some them economically unviable. I don’t see anything wrong with the zonal system we have. If we can re-enforce the zonal system, have a stronger form of economic and political integration, and elevate these zones to regional status, that may help us in a way so that states or region as they may be called would not be depending on monthly on statutory allocations from the Federal Government.

In other words the Constitution amendment is not even necessary?

To me, it is not necessary. That is not fundamental. That is not the cause of our problem.  I don’t support constitution amendment at all. I see it as a distraction and something to keep us busy between now and 2015.  We have no problem with the constitution the way it is.  What we have problem with is the manner in which it is operated.

Given all the issues you have raised what would you advise Mr. President to do in order to move Nigeria forward?

I would tell him all these things we have discussed in this interview.

One thing we must recognise though is that governance is not about an individual. We cannot lay on the feet of President Jonathan the blames for all we are suffering now. Understandably, most of these problems did not begin with him. But then, he is our figure head and the buck stops on his table. So he has to think passionately about transforming this country.

This is a very unique opportunity he has to do something about changing things between now and 2015. Let him not allow those around him to keep him busy thinking about the next election and the opposition. Let him think of how to make sure that we have good roads and steady electricity, good educational and health facilities.

These are the areas he should concentrate on. If he can change these areas he can say at the end of his tenure that he indeed had a transformation agenda that served the people of Nigeria well and history will judge him well.

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