By Johnbosco Agbakwuru, Calabar
Justice Okoi Ikpi Itam is the Acting Chief Judge of Cross River State. He was Acting Chief Justice of Gambia. In this interview, he speaks on his admiration for the law profession. But he says there is a lot of money to make being a member of the bar than being on the bench.
At what point did it occur to you to study law?
I grew up believing I should read law. Right from when I was young,. I was fascinated by lawyers. Talk of Abraham Lincoln, we had a lot of American encyclopedias and most of those admired there happened to have been lawyers. The ones I have admiration for, they are all lawyers.
That was before the war. Before I went to secondary school, I knew I was going to read law. Even my teachers knew. But in my secondary and higher school, efforts were made to dissuade me from reading law. Everybody knew I was going to read law.
It reached a stage where they even held a staff meeting to discourage me from reading law and that I should read engineering or medicine, because I was a sort of an all-rounder as far as schooling was concerned. Science and arts, there was no difference for me.
The late Ene Okoi, who incidentally became my in-law,was one of my teachers. He felt right from the beginning that I was a lawyer because he was taking us English. Dr Abang Ubi is here. He knew I was out to read law right from an early age. I still remember the story, some I don’t remember.
Even my father, because then they said there were too many lawyers and it was actually an expensive affair. Every time I asked my father, ‘Are you sure if I read law, you will be able to pay or I should go to teaching and save money before I read law?’ He said when I got admission, I should come back and ask him that question. He asked if he had even complained of school fees.
I actually enjoyed reading law. In the university, I was the one who represented the university in international competitions, in Washington, Ghana and so on. As a judge, I was in the Gambia. I rose to the Acting Chief Justice in the Gambia before I came back.
In the Gambian Court of Appeal, I was the judge advocate. Most of the commissions of enquiry were done by me. I enjoyed the work. It is the only work which I know how to do well. I have a personal satisfaction in it. It gives me pleasure. That is why I can work whether I eat or not. It gives me pleasure. And it doesn’t affect me because it is not work. It is like I am just doing a hobby.
Most of your contemporaries chose to remain at the bar. Why did you opt for the bench?
Well, I didn’t really opt for the bench. At the time of our appointment, you didn’t actually have to apply to be a judge. The judges came based on the decision of the chief judge. Sometimes they would recommend you without your knowledge. In my own case, I was not consulted. I didn’t know until the list came out. It was in November 1991; so the problem was how to convince me to come and be sworn in.
I knew I was going to be a lawyer for a long time. But for the appointment as a judge, it never actually occurred to me. When it came, with pressure from your parents, family and the rest, you accept reluctantly, and, in any case, when you are outside, we thought it was such a glamorous thing.
I mean, you have a police orderly, a car and you are called My Lord. It is only when you go in that you see the labour, you have to work throughout to be a good judge, and you cannot make as much money as you make in practice.
You just have to learn to readjust all through. And in those days, it was quite traumatic. But now, things seem a bit eased up.
Would you agree that the judiciary has not done much in the present democracy?
First of all, in the judiciary, we don’t judge ourselves. But the fact is also that the judiciary does not have much to do with most of the society. It only deals with those who have cases generally. A few people understand how the judiciary operates, what it actually stands for and how to make the best use of it.
No matter what happens in the society, except cases are taken to court, the judiciary has no business there. If you take a case to the court and you don’t have a good lawyer and you don’t present it well, even if it appears to be a very good case to you, it may turn out not to be so because of inadvertence, carelessness, ignorance or things.
For us, once you have very good lawyers, you tend to have very good judges. The quality matters, but the basic thing is doing its best; the judiciary is doing its best under adverse circumstances. The public have their perception. What I know is that for several years, the judiciary has been trying to purify itself. Most of the things that happen you would not know because they are not publicized.
We work from morning till night. We work throughout the night. We cannot start announcing. We don’t deal with the press on a regular basis because it is not our culture to do so. But in other arms, they have standing press outfits to blow their trumpets. But no matter the song we are singing, we cannot blow our trumpet. We have to sing silently.
What would you say is the situation in the country on the independence of the judiciary?
This concept of independence of the judiciary, you have to understand the meaning of independence, the limits of independence, the functions of the judiciary and other environmental factors, political, social to appreciate, whether or not the judiciary is independent. There is really no arm of government that is independent, whether executive or legislature, because there are other forces, social, historical, that limit that independence.
Everything has a limit. Like everybody has independence, they are supposed to be independent, but others also have their own rights as well. So there are checks and balances. There are limits. What has always been much problematic in terms of what people have problems about is this issue of judicial independence, or financial autonomy or financial independence. That one varies from state to state.
At the federal level, they don’t have any problem. Even then, to determine the finance is still not entirely within them. And you know the resources are always limited. So it depends on the practitioners, priorities. If justice, fair play and good governance are your priority, you will discover that the judiciary would have a lot of support.
When the society believes and the leaders believe that they need a good and well-functioning judiciary, you do not have any problem; because there are matters of personal idiosyncrasies. There are all manners of human beings in any society including the judiciary.
But on the whole, there is a minimum standard you cannot go below. Nowadays, things are open. There is a high level of transparency. There is a lot of checks and balances because petitions are treated very seriously if they have merit. Some governors are very responsive to the judicial arm of government.
In Cross River State, we know that the governor has been quite supportive of the judiciary, both in words and action, but you know they are not things you announce. We don’t control the purse, but most of the projects we put forward, they try to implement. In fact, sometimes, their complaints is that most times the judiciary don’t do all their projects even when they have the money.
But that is because the system is a bit complicated and we are not contractors, sometimes we don’t know how to go about it. That is why we have this idea of bringing in financial consultants; the contract may be ours, but its implementation should be done by the best whether it is the ministry or anybody. It is a new administration in the judiciary, but, every day, we have at least two meetings with stakeholders: judges, magistrates, the bar among others.
Generally, the system is a bit lopsided. We have challenges in respect of crimes, suspects, investigations and even the number of cases can be frightening. You are here, you don’t know how many people have cases in court. Some have lasted for so long and you cannot identify that this is the one cause. After series of appeals, 10 or 11 years have gone; sometimes after it reaches a certain stage, the judge retires, you must start afresh, or one party goes on appeal, you cannot go on, you have to clear the appeal.
I just spoke about consultation, we have met magistrates. We have met with the criminal justice administration committee, which comprises the prisons, the police, NGOs to hear their views. We met lawyers as well.
By the time we digest the views, then we get to see where the shoe actually pinches and why it is pinching. We are resolved to make a strong change that one can see and feel in that area. The problem there is too much. There is always this presumption that when somebody is in custody, he must have committed an offence.
It is the natural prejudice of society, but we hope that after all these consultations, we would find a way of reducing the prison population as much as possible. We hope to introduce non-custodial sentences. It is not everybody that has to go to prison. All these minor crimes and the rest, first they should be on bail, once they can produce minimum acceptable surety which is purely a matter of discretion.
We intend to encourage judges and magistrates to look at the law as a social service, look at criminals as the law looks at them, which is to presume them innocent until they are proved guilty, and where you cannot prove them guilty and you keep on delaying, of course the person should go.
Of course there is no society that does not have criminals, even in heaven, people like Lucifer were angels but now they are devils. Cain and Abel were the first grandchildren of God and theirs was the first murder case. So you cannot avoid that problem, but you can attack it head on.
That one I can assure you. We are in the process. We are going to set up a judicial restructuring and developmental committee. The idea is to make plans for the next four years in all aspects concerning the judicial sector. That is why we want to carry everybody along, not just the judge or the magistrate. Everyone has a role to play.
There are some cases that naturally if you release people on bail, the temptation to disappear is very high. And we have a lot of those matters. Sometimes you think to avoid complications in those matters, you remand in custody or you give conditions they cannot perfect.
So what we do in such cases is to find a way to enable them review the conditions. And all we want is to be sure that the person actually appears for trial. But you know there is no art to read a man’s mind. You know a lot of them actually disappear but that does not bring the world to an end.
That doesn’t mean you should bring everybody there because one or two have disappeared. So we would try. It is a matter of understanding the system and the society.
Corruption in the bench
Corruption on the bench depends on which bench. You have the customary courts, we deal with them at the judicial service commission, we have the magistrates, those ones also we deal with them at the judicial service commission level. We have the judges, those ones at the superior court, those ones we send them to the NJC to deal with.
It doesn’t even need us because the parties involved can petition direct. You also have to bear in mind there is no system that doesn’t have its Judases.
If Christ could pick just 12 disciples, he was the Son of God, we expect that he saw tomorrow and all of that, but he picked 12 and one was a traitor. Even Peter denied him. So what else do you expect from human beings? This is part of nature and it is sheer pretence to say these things are not there. The only thing I can say is that when they come out, they are expeditiously treated.
It is rare to escape punishment. Generally people tend to be harsher on their own people than others. That is how it goes. For corruption, I cannot say it is not there, but I know that the punishment is sure and certain. But it is not announced or published. Some people can go to any length to win a case. It is not everybody who I can say you cannot set a price on him, but there are still many you cannot persuade. They still act according to their conscience and according to the law. But there may be some Judases or Cains.