By Jide Ajani
For many, he was the face of judicial activism. While the likes of Alao Aka-Bashorun and Gani Fawehinmi were doing their thing from the Bar, the late Honourable Justice Bobakayode Eso represented the radical, nay progressive wing of the judiciary sparing no nonsense.
Indeed, even in his last days, Eso again let it be known that being away from the Bench did not quench his thirst for uprightness when, in an interview with Sunday Vanguard, his last major interview, he lampooned the idea of plea bargain which was already becoming an open instrument for the celebration of graft.
A father of two with five grand children, Eso, married to Helen Aina Eso, died on Friday morning in London at the age of 87.
Armed with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in law from the Trinity College, London in 1953 and 1956, respectively, Eso began his career in the most progressive of ways and, therefore, when he became a judge, his progressive and intellectual content did not waver.
For a man whose career as a legal mind spanned about four decades with meritorious alacrity, this former Justice of Nigeria’s Supreme Court never sold out.
With what some have described as a caustic tongue, especially when delivering judgments, at 86, Eso did not disappoint when he granted that last interview which became a reference material on the vexed issue of plea bargain.
Sharp-minded, morally upright, Eso is your quintessential legal mind par excellence.
On the many ills confronting the Nigerian nation, the erudite justice lamented the sorry state of the judiciary, expressed angst at the concept of PLEA BARGAIN, felt insulted by the conciliatory approach of the Federal Government on the Boko Haram issue and concluded by saying that if Nigerians wanted to make progress as a nation, true federalism was the way forward. He insisted that the attempt to amend the constitution would end up as a fools’ errand because it would not address the real issues.
When you were still in active service in the judiciary, people applauded you for standing against corruption. But, today, it seems the system has changed and what you hear today is that the judiciary is very corrupt. How do you feel when you hear this knowing your hard stance against corruption?
When I was in the judiciary, I stood up against corruption; and when I left the judiciary, I still stand against corruption.
So till now, I still stand against corruption.
I am not happy to have a corrupt bench. It is a deadly thing.
You see, the judiciary is the only hope of those who do not have money to push their ways around. Judiciary is the yardstick of the situation in the country.
Even investors look at the judiciary of a nation before taking their money to that nation. If an investor believes he cannot get justice in a country, he would not invest.
In any event, it is an honour for anybody to be appointed a judge.
If you are appointed a judge, you should not corrupt that system at all.
It is woe unto anybody to corrupt the course of justice. I do hope that we will find a way to stamp it out.
As an experienced judge, what do you think we can do to get out of a corrupt judicial system?
Well, let me say at this stage that the present Chief Justice of the country has identified the issue of corruption as one of the things he must deal with.
He intends to set up a committee to look into the issue. (He has already done that)
The committee will be meeting very soon. I believe, this week. I happen to be a member of that committee therefore, I cannot talk more about it. I won’t, I won’t say anything that would prejudice the noble attempt of the present honourable Chief Justice of the country.
First of all he wants us to advise him on how to tackle corruption on the bench and to find a way of stamping it out. I’m ready to support him on that.
What is the most interesting case that you ever tried and which one was the most difficult sir?
No case is difficult at all once it is in pursuit of justice.
That is the truth about it.
In justice, one case is as good as the other.
I cannot really think of anyone that gave me a kick after. The only one I can say gave me a kick is the case of Awolowo versus Shagari.
I stood firmly to say that you cannot break up a state to have a unit of that state and that when you have 19 states and you are looking for the two-thirds of that, you cannot really get the two-third of that state.
Please explain what you mean?
It is simple: How do you get the two-thirds of a state? I thought it was silly for anybody to conjecture that. How it gave me a kick was that as soon as I delivered the judgment, which, of course, was in the minority, the constitution was amended.
After the amendment, how did that feel – vindicated, satisfied?
That gave satisfaction.
It is the opinion of the public that it is because the allocation of the judiciary comes from the executive that is the judiciary cannot be completely independent. What is your opinion on this?
The judiciary should not only be independent but it should also be economically independent of the executive. It should not rely on the executive for money to flow through the system. No. it is not good enough. When you have the admixture of the judiciary with the executive, you are only putting the judiciary as an appendage of the executive that cannot be right.
There is this new craze called plea bargain?
This notion of coming out and talking about plea bargain is something else. They bargain with the judge, bargain with the accused person, he returns half of the money, and then they give him some hairy-fairy punishment – go and serve three months in prison and the three months, will, of course, be in the hospital. This is an encouragement for other governors to steal when they come into office. There is no plea bargain in our law.
The importation is wrong.
To me, it is corruption to bring plea bargain into the law of Nigeria.
Look at the issue of Igbinedion in Edo State who was alleged to have stolen billions and billions of naira. They said they had this system of plea bargain.
They asked him to plea bargain, there and then he was fined three million naira which, he picked out of his purse and paid there.
It sent a notion that it had been pre-arranged that it would not be more than three million. Now, after that they started to gloat and shed crocodile tears and said the punishment was not adequate.
Of course, the punishment can never be adequate when they import this issue of plea bargain. But, let us say the issue of plea bargain was not introduced and he was punished as he deserved, others would learn.
Years back, I was saddled with the case of Oba Akran and Ademiluyi – Oba Akran was the Oba in Badagry, and Ademiluyi was the chairman of the biggest corporation in the country, they were alleged to have stolen 500 pounds. They appeared before me and I gave them seven years after I had found them guilty. They wrote to the Supreme Court because there was no court of Appeal then, their appeal was dismissed. That was justice not this way of palliating people, rubbing them with oil in the name of plea bargain.
Plea bargain is actually not our law.
And they come around and say it is done in other countries, Nigeria is not any other country. Nigeria is Nigeria not just any other country. In other countries, it may be right for them to have plea bargain. We never had plea bargain.
It is corruption for anybody who imports plea bargain into our law.
Looking at the damage and backwardness this issue of corruption has brought to this country, would you subscribe to capital punishment for those who plunder the resources of this country like it is done in Asian countries where they kill them?
No, I do not believe in capital punishment. It is better to punish somebody and make the person live to get the pains of that punishment.
For instance, somebody who has stolen billions of naira, let them give him proper punishment and let him forfeit all his property.
Let him live in penury and let him see the difference between his stolen affluence and what actually he should be.
Is our constitution just a book given to us by the military or a book we are just living with?
The 1999 constitution lied about itself when it says we Nigerians. We Nigerians never did it but soldiers and half-baked lawyers among them sat down and wrote the constitution for us. 1999 constitution is not a constitution of this country, we should have a real constitution of this country. When you start to patch the constitution like we are patching now, we can never be there. Why are we shying away from a Constituent Assembly.
Things should not be done half way. Go all the hog.
Boko Haram has caused deaths of thousands of Nigerians. Some people are calling for dialogue with this sect. Even, government is considering amnesty for them. Do you support amnesty programme for this deadly and violent sect?
You dialogue with people you know.
Do they know who Boko Haram people are? If they know, they should arrest them. Give them amnesty for what. People are killing and you want to give them amnesty even without trying them. I do not believe in what is going on at all. These people are a menace not only to this country but to the whole world. They have given the picture of Nigeria as a failed nation that cannot even deal with security within its borders. If we have that system, we are only creating problem for ourselves and our children because once the investors believe that there is no security, they would not come with their money. And if we don’t have investors in this country, we cannot exist. Coming round and say we want to dialogue with them, dialogue with who?
Some people say let us give Boko Haram amnesty and Boko Haram say, no we don’t want amnesty.
What are they saying?
In other words, they are challenging the government.
Do we have a parallel government of Boko Haram?
Why don’t we arrest them?
Why don’t we deal with them?
Who are they?
Why are they being palliated?
These are the issues we should find out. Who is Boko Haram or who are Boko Haram?
Who are behind them?
They went to the UN building and destroyed it, killed people. UN would not be happy with that at all and I believe they are removing their stand in Nigeria and taking it to Senegal. If that is the case, then we are a big loser in this country.
It is a failure if we don’t stamp out Boko Haram in a correct way.
The correct way is to arrest them and take them to court. It is laughable that we are giving amnesty to those who are killing us.
I don’t understand what is going on. May be it is because I’m not a politician. May be they would understand.
What is your opinion on federalism? At 86, you have seen it all, especially when compared to fiscal federalism as practiced during the First Republic?
To me, we are not practicing federalism in this country at all and this is what we should practice.
Between 1960 and 1966, we had what we called self government – self government for any state that could afford it. It’s okay. North said no. That was the time we had real federal government. The west was governed by Chief Obafemi Awolowo for the federal system status. There was no question of being unitary which is what we are patching up now and calling it federal system. This country will only succeed if we practice true federalism.