Conflicting court decisions not a healthy devt – Justice Odunowo
By Innocent Anaba
Though, he sat as a judge during the military era, retired Justice Tajuddeen Odunowo of the Federal High Court was known for his fearlesness in handling of cases that came before his court.
In this interview, he spoke on the need to cut down the number of lawmakers at the National Assembly, standards on the bench, constitutional amendment among others.
What is your position on the accusation of bias against some judges, particularly by prosecuting counsel?
If there is any good reason of doing so, I do not see anything wrong with it. In my time on the Bench, I only had one or two instances like that. It was the defence lawyer that accused me. After pleading guilty, the matter was adjourned, the next thing was that the accused lawyer came to ask that the case be taken away and given to another judge.
When I read the charge against the accused, I realised that his lawyer feared that there was no way that the man was not going to be convicted. One of the allegations was that a car meant to be used for carrying staff, the accused used to carry one of his wives everyday without the consent of the Board of Directors. So, of course, when my attention was drawn to the petition, I just allowed it to go. The matter was then given to another judge.
But in the case where the prosecuting counsel accusing the judge of bais, I am sure that they must have reasons for that. Like we read in the newspapers that judges in some matters have been compromised, if that is true, it makes sense to stop the judge from handing such matters.
Do you think we have a decline in standards on the Bench, when viewed against the complaint by litigants, who accuse judges of playing into the hands of lawyers to delay matters?
Everything in this country, including the three arms of government, is on the downward trend. Like I kept telling people, the reason why things are the way they are here, is the lack of measures to ensure that things work well. In years gone, even in America, Britain, China among others, there are challenges, but the difference between us and those people is that if you steal in America, if you are caught, the law will take its cause. It does not happen here. And when Mr. A knows that this gentleman did this and nothing happened to him, he will follow suit. That is why things are declining steadily.
I read in the media some months ago, on the front-page of a particular newspaper actually, where the reporter said that some judges in a particular election tribunal were investigated and in the account of one of the judges, the report said over $400,000 was found.
In another judge’s account, they found many millions of naira. The third judge, a house he built 10 years ago was renovated with millions of naira. Whereas if it were in other climates, the authorities would send detectives to investigate the allegation and if these are verified, of course, the judges will be sanctioned.
But here, people just talk and talk, saying somebody took bribe but nobody is ready to give evidence.
Do you support our courts taking a more liberal position in the interpretation of our rules and Constitution?
You see, the moment they begin to put what is not in the law, you are deviating from the proper role as a judicial officer. But where there is a precedent that does not accord with the ordinary man’s common sense of justice, if you can find a way of distinguishing that common decision, rationalizing it to make it in tandem with the problem at hand, I think it will be wrong for the judge to close his eyes to it.
You must give reason and you must state why. But you can’t say because something is right for the people that the judge should put it there. I do not think that is a proper judicial role. There must be legal basis for making such distinction or trying to make it work, it must give objective standards, which will be visible to everybody. It is not something you take simply because you think you just want to defend something. Your role as a judge is to administer the law as it is and not as it ought to be.
Section 2 of the 1999 constitution states the functions of State and the same constitution makes certain issue none justiciable. Is it not proper for the court to say that you cannot on one hand say you have a right to life and at the same time, say you cannot go to court to complain if that obligation was not complied with by the same state?
Speaking for myself, if the Constitution says that certain matters should not be justiciable, I do not think it is the business of any judge to say otherwise. But if what the constitution say is not justiciable is not in uniformity with the fundamental areas of the Constitution, then you use that as an excuse.
What about the right to enjoy basic things of life. Should Nigerians not have the right to hold government accountable by approaching the court to say that government is not fulfilling its obligations in that regard?
Of course, you are entitled to go to court. You have that right. You are entitled to do that because regardless of what they say, at least, so long as you are a tax payer and an adult, you can approach the court. After all, the Constitution is not just for a few people, it is for everybody.
Currently, meetings are being held over Constitution amendment. Do you think that amending the Constitution will solve the problems we have in the country today?
Not at all. I do not believe that. There is a limit to which the constitution can address certain issues. For instance, if you have a hole on your dress, there is a limit you can patch it. Even if you continue to patch and patch it, you can never take care of everything. In other words, once you start amending, it will not stop. In Britain, for instance, they do not have a written constitution, although they have some written documents.
I do not think that the amendment of the constitution will resolve the problems facing the country; it would only amend the identifiable problem around those areas. If you have people representing different ethnic groups, I think that it is better than this process of amendment. Those people (National Assembly) are not put there to amend the constitution for us, it is not their business.
It is the people themselves that can write or amend the constitution, which in turn will give us the peoples’ Constitution. The people may not even be educated but they have an idea of what they want their constitution to be. You listen to them and pick the ones that are relevant and then get to the basics.
I think that is a better approach than setting up committees. When you talk of constitution, you must look ahead of possible problems that may likely arise. Whereas amendment is just dealing with the problems you see now, which is why I think that it cannot be the perfect solution, because when future problems arise, are you going to further amend?
Are Nigerians today enjoying dividend of democracy, 14 years into civil rule?
I do not think so. Security is not there. Water is not there. The roads are bad. The other time, we went to Abeokuta, Ogun State, which is about 59 miles, from Lagos. The journey should have been about an hour, but it took us more than four hours to get back to Lagos from Abeokuta.
The roads are bad, and then a lot of bad driving was noticed because two lanes suddenly turned into five lanes. The police, who were there, just blew their siren and faced uncoming vehicles without any attempt to solve the problem. And in the midst of it, people started driving in the opposite direction. Nobody did anything about it. But if people are arrested and properly dealt with, I am sure others will learn.
Do you support the call for the scrapping of the House of Representatives?
Yes. Right now, I do not see what they are doing. America, as big as it is, do not have more than 100 Senators. In Nigeria, we have more than they do. How big is Nigeria and what are the resources available to it?
Those people at the National Assembly are just there to enjoy. For instance, a senator here, I read in one of the newspapers, goes home with over $1.7million a year, whereas America Senators do not get more than $5,000 and they are busier and devoted. If you see our National Assembly on television, you see a lot of vacant seats. There are many of them who you hardly hear of for the four years they stay there. I do not see what they are doing.
If you could remember, when they first came in, what they did was to give Senators N5million each and N3m for members of the House for their personal welfare. And one worrisome aspect is that some, who could not even afford to hire a flat before getting into the House of Representatives, bought themselves very expensive cars, which other countries do not give.
When people say American system is bad, I think it is ours that is bad. Before independence, take the ordinary local government area, although we had councilors, all they did was formulate policies and only got sitting allowance. It was the Secretary and others working in the council that carry out day to day running of the councils.
And if you take a look at our House of Reps today, if they are to sit, our constitution says they should sit for 181 days, how many days are left in a year? And then, they get all manners of allowances. They just travel all over the globe, in the guise of studying how other countries run their parliaments. When they return, you will not see what they claim to have gone to study.
With over 360 House of Reps members and 109 senators, they should be reduced so that we have about 150 for the whole country, including senators. There is need to cut down their size to cut down on the cost of governance.
With the spate of killings and bombings in some parts of the country, do you see Nigeria remaining one country in the next 20 years?
If you listen to news these days, there are more inter-tribal marriages than before. Now, you would see one Ugochukwu getting married to Bisi. So how are you going to separate them? It is not easy. On the killings and bombings, I think these are issues that require consultations and people should be allowed to come together to express their views.
We have 36 states, even though consultation or referendum was not reached before creating states, all the same, having created all these states, particularly local governments, where you see the chairman of a local government area earning more salary than a professor, you do no expect it to augur well for the country when we have a situation where a councilor earns more than a graduate? Yet we do not see what they are doing to justify such earnings.
So how do we address the killings in some parts of the country?
Anybody involved in kidnapping, armed robbery or rape, such people should be given fair trial and if found guilty, the person should be killed. If you cultivate cocoa or yam and later found weeds there, what do you do? You first remove the weeds, and burn them so as to allow the crop to grow.
This is my personal opinion. Imagine somebody kidnapping an 80 year old woman and keeping her in a jungle where she was feed with sachet water for no reason. If some body comes to your house with a gun to dispossess you of your property, does he have to live? Whether the person is a Moslem or Christian, it does not matter.
The only thing I advocate is that they should be given a fair trial. If he is found guilty, let the person be executed and the more you do, their numbers will keep reducing.
How would you rate the current administration of President Goodluck Jonathan?
People say he is trying but it has not affected me. I do not see light in my house. Every week, I spend close to N10,000 on diesel to power my house, because we hardly have public electricity supply. Like I told you, I spent four hours on a distance of 59 miles. I do not know how I can say that such a government is performing. People who commit serious offences and are taken to court, after one or two adjournments, you do not hear anything more about their cases.
Look at when Bola Ige, Alfred Rewane and others were killed, till date, nobody had been held responsible for their deaths. The government may have been trying, but it is motion without movement. I do not see what he (Jonathan) is doing.
What is your reaction to a situation where the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court, including lower courts, make contradicting pronouncements on similar matters at their respective levels?
It is not a healthy development because no High Court has the power to overrule an order of another court of coordinate jurisdiction. You must give a reason for such decision on a particular subject matter. My problem with the Court of Appeal is that they have quite a number of divisions. For harmony, I think if any judgment is given by one division, same should be circulated to other divisions, so that they can all be aware of what other division had done.
There are certain issues that you do not to appeal to the Supreme Court. Take the issue of land for example, if a land is disputed in Lagos State and a state high court judge gives a decision, the Court of Appeal should be where the case should end; instead of somebody in Abuja to decide over a land dispute in Ikeja.
In my view, not all cases should end at the Supreme Court, except those relating to life, fundamental human rights and constitutional cases.
We have heard of situation where the Supreme Court held in an election matter that qualification of a candidate is a pre-election matter. Do you agree?
I will not put it that way. Educational qualification is the basic requirement for any election, that is what I understand. This does not mean that you must go to a university.
If a person is not certified, does that disqualify him from contest an election? If one is not qualified prior to the election, what is the basis of saying he should contest in an election?
My understanding of pre-election matter is that before you can stand for any election, you must have certain things. Anything that you must have before you run for an election, once you do not have any of those elements, then you are out.
I believe it is an issue you can rely upon to challenge the outcome of an election, but for the Supreme Court to hold that it is a pre-election matter, I do not understand. That was how they declared somebody that did not contest election, governor of a state. I really don’t understand their reasoning.