By Innocent Anaba
Chief Godwin Obla, is one of the foremost prosecutors in the country. He is prosecuting some cases for Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. Obla, who recently turned 50, in this interview, spoke on the challenges facing criminal justice administration in the country and problems militating against the prosecution of economic and financial crime cases. He also counseled young lawyers on the need for hard work, noting that success only come through hard work and perseverance.
SINCE you started prosecuting cases for EFCC, have you ever been threatened by the people you are prosecuting?
Life is a risk because even when you over eat at times, you develop constipation. In everything we do in the world, Usman Dan Fodio, said “Conscience is like an open wound, only truth can heal it.” Everything we do, if we are straight forward and honest about it, I think we have very little to fear.
Man is a mortal being and there are instances where the other party, may be accused person or persons related to them may become desperate, if they see that the case is not going in their favour, but the truth of the matter is that even if they kill a prosecutor, that prosecutor would be replaced, if they kill a second one, he will still be replaced.
So it does not really help anyone. You may not really have direct threats, but you may have what we call constructive threats because the people may not be bold enough to come to you and ‘say look, we are going to bring physical bodily harm to bear upon you,’ but they may approach you in some other sinister ways. I think it is also part of the job, we just put our trust and confidence in God. So far, He has been keeping us, He has been protecting us and we expect that He will continue to do so.
As a prosecutor, are you comfortable with the way judges handle your cases in their courts?
It is really difficult to blame judges for delay in most cases because we have an archaic legal system that needs a lot of change. The substantive criminal laws are not the problem. The procedural laws are the problem. That is, the procedure that you use to apply the substantive law. Before you apply the substantive law, the procedure will frustrate you several times.
Nigerians complain that it takes a long time to conclude criminal cases, particularly those that have to do with politicians. What is your reaction to this?
Recently, we were doing a matter and within 10 months, the prosecution had opened and closed its case without asking for adjournment for one single day. The defence brought six witnesses, opened their case and closed same. It was now left for parties to just adopt their written addresses and for judgment to be given in the matter.
Then, the trial judge was suddenly elevated to a higher court, we now have to start the entire proceedings afresh. This is at great expense to the Nigerian tax payers. This happened because our laws did not provide for this kind of situation, because if our laws had provided for this kind of situation, this sort of frustrating experience would not happen.
How can we tackle this problem?
Some states like Lagos State have been very proactive in addressing some of these procedural issues and that is why, of all the states of the Federation, it is only Lagos State that has the administration of criminal justice law which guides the procedures in their courts. And this law has anticipated most of the antics used by prosecutors and defence lawyers to delay cases in courts and has tried to address most of them with a view to minimizing the delays associated with the trial of cases in their courts.
How well has the Lagos Administration of Criminal Justice Law worked?
If you observe, very recently, Lagos State High Courts have become the darling of prosecutors because the procedural laws of Lagos State in criminal matters are much more favourable.
They are less suffocating than the procedural laws in other jurisdictions. We need to address these procedural laws. But having said that, if defense lawyers perceive that they have difficult cases, they will try every trick in the books to ensure that even the trial itself was truncated. But if you juxtapose this with the situation in England, you have a different experience.
If you will recall that when James Ibori’s trial was taking place in London, the court there fixed two weeks for the entire case, this is for both the prosecution and defense. So if you don’t take advantage of that period, you are out because they will not allow you to delay the proceedings. We should learn from these jurisdictions. We borrowed our legal jurisprudence from Britain, so, if we bring those things down here, a lot of these cases will be dealt with expeditiously.
Former EFCC Chairman had called for special courts to try financial crime cases. What is your view on this?
The former chairmen of EFCC was so frustrated that she asked for special courts, just like we have special courts for election petition matters, why can’t we have special courts for corruption cases, whether one likes it or not, unless the issue of corruption is drastically addressed in this country because it has become a serious threat to national development, we will not make any progress. I say this because when people benefit from proceeds of crime, they use those proceeds to destabilize their own countries and their institutions.
Recently, you heard the EFCC Chairman, say that some of these people being tried have so much money and they use this money to frustrate the system and the application of due process of law. So we need to change our approach in the prosecution of these matters and the adjudication of corruption cases. We need to streamline the procedure, so that people do not take advantage of the system for negative reasons.
Prosecutors have been accused of selling out cases either by deliberately omitting to file the necessary documents or omitting the necessary procedures that would fast track the trial of the cases. What is your reaction to this?
It is very strange that people just make statements at large without backing it with evidence. The whole thing about prosecution is that it is not a cat and mouse matter, when the prosecutor is filing a charge, he accompanies that charge with a proof of evidence, saying this is what I intend to rely upon in prosecuting this matter. These are public documents, I am sure that on several occasions, journalists have asked me for these documents and I had obliged them.
There is no time that the veracity of the documents or the sufficiency or otherwise of these documents to prosecute the matter had been challenged. People say, prosecution played into people’s hands, prosecution did this or that. How did they do it? Is there a document in your proof of evidence that you did not tender or is there a statement that you did not tender? Or you did not demonstrate this document in court during the trial?
If an accused person through his lawyer files various applications, you must take that application, that is what the law says. By the time they get through with these applications from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court, you have to stay action on the substantive action.
Just recently, I argued former Governor Abubakar Audu’s case at the Supreme Court on interlocutory grounds. For seven years now, he has been going up and down. Now that the Supreme Court has dismissed it, they are going to start afresh after seven years. But you can be sure that he will come up with other antics again.
At the end of the day, who do they blame, you start saying the prosecution did not do a good job. The prosecutor is not a fighter, he is just a lawyer, we cannot carry cutlasses to the court neither can we carry guns to the court, we go there and engage the other party on the basis of the law.
It is as frustrating to the prosecution as it is to the public when cases are unduly delayed in the courts. What the public doesn’t know is that no lawyer wants a file to continue to revolve in his office. Lawyers are paid per the number of cases they do and not on how many years their cases spend in courts.
What is your advice for young lawyers?
My advice to them is that they have a long period of hard work in front of them, but after that hard work, commitment and dedication to the profession, there is a possibility of a light at the end of the tunnel.
Not every one of them is going to be successful or a trial lawyer. Some of them may never even practice law. They may now branch into several professions. But for those who want to practice law, there are years of hard work ahead, there are years of discipline and dedication but the breakthrough will definitely come.
Give us a brief insight into the beginning of your law practice, how you managed to get to this level.
The biggest influence to my practice is J. B Majogbe, SAN. He was the biggest legal practitioner in Kano in the 80’s. I did my law office attachment in his law firm, so the high level of organisation and professionalism there, the humble way he carried himself despite the fact that the was very successful and it really influenced me as a young lawyer.
He was highly committed to the practice of law, was always in the office very promptly and gave attendance to court a lot of priority. I was really influenced by the three months experience that I had with him.
So when I went back to the Law School and finished my programme and the mandatory one year National Youth Service, NYSC in Abuja, I decided that I would just go straight and start law practice, that was actually what I did.
I just set up Obla and Co. in 1985 and we have been growing from strength to strength ever since.