By Abdulwahab Abdulah
Anthony George-Ikoli made headlines four years ago when he emerged the first Senior Advocate
of Nigeria from Bayelsa state. Since then, George-Ikoli had gone further to become the first SAN to occupy the office of the Attorney-General of the state. It is a great challenge to this silk as he has to set up a proper administration of justice system 13 years after the state was created.
It is also a big sacrifice for the grandson of the first editor of Daily Times( Earnest Ikoli), as he had to leave a very lucrative practice in Lagos to contribute his own quota to the development of his state. Narrating his experience as the AG, Bayelsa State in this interview, George_Ikoli explains the motive behind the decision by the state government to translate part of the constitution to local dialects in Bayelsa. He also talked about the development in the south-south campus of the Nigerian Law school.
There are some noticeable achievements since you took over the office of the Attorney General of Bayelsa state.Â Can you give us a rundown of some of the things you have been able to do?
When we were sworn in and the government was given its charge, I was specifically charged with the part of re-engineering, refocusing the ministry of justice in the state. What you see is the actualization of the Governorâ€™s dream in that direction. I wouldnâ€™t say we had no Ministry of Justice when we came in, I would say we didnâ€™t have one that was properly focused or that was properly motivated to lead the charge of ensuring that justice is had by all; both government and the citizenry. Thank God for the vision and support of Governor Sylva.
The achievements you see including the relocation, the refurbishment, library upgrade, employment of new counsel, scholarship for our students, the new Ministry of Justice building, the law journal, the law schoolÂ (south-south campus) that have been in principle earmarked for Bayelsa. The output stations for the Ministry of Justice in the eight local government areas, the translation of the human rights chapters in the constitution into local languages. These are all dreams of the Governor for the administration of justice in state. The Governor is the one to thank really because if he didnâ€™t dream of it, if he didnâ€™t support it, we couldnâ€™t deliver it.
I noticed that there is a directorate of Citizen Rights under the Ministry of Justice. How has this department responded to the peopleâ€™s need as regards the administration of justice in the state?
Perhaps, the fallacy that has gained notoriety and that sometimes militates against justice is the saying that justice is for the rich. It is not so. Perhaps to debunk that misconception, the ministry has a department as you mentioned called Citizen Rights. As implied, it is for the enforcement of the rights of the citizens of the state.
The joke I used to have with colleagues is that the Ministry of Justice has the DPP department that prosecutes, it also has the Citizen Rights that defends. So while there is a statutory discharge of enforcing the law, we also try to mitigate it as it concerns the poor, widows, market people, taxi drivers, the unemployed.
The department also attends to those who have also had cause to question the practices of the oil companies. They come here and we provide them with legal representation, ejection of tenants without due process. We also handle the acquisition of land. Yenogoa is a new city so it is developing. So the Capital City Development Authority (CCDA) is ensuring compliance withÂ the master plan. So all the unplanned development have had to be pulled down.
In that process, people lose a life time saving or wealth. So they come to us and they get compensation. We ensure that government does not acquire property without compensating those that development has had to affect. It is a very vibrant department. Basically, the department is the vanguard for the protection of peopleâ€™s right. It checks the recklessness in the exercise of executive powers. It is only a government that is ready to enforce compliance with the rule of law that will have such a vibrant department. It is independent, it is properly funded, it is properly staffed and it is alive to its responsibility.
Yenagoa as rightly said is an emerging city with its attendant challenges that come in terms of conflict and litigation. How is your ministry preparing for the proper and institutionalized administration of justice system in Bayelsa ?
Perhaps you are talking about the society growth in that context. Our role is to mediate when conflict arises so that there is no resort to anarchy. I think we are proactive to know that it is appropriate to put in place some apparatus to mediating the conflict that will arise eventually as a result of the growth of the city.
We have also ensured that we strengthen the legal department of the Capital City Development Authority to ensure that they do not pull down property without complying with due process or without adequate compensation. Of course you will see the agitation and awareness to the oil companies, people quarrying for sand. Bayelsa as you know has a unique terrain.
Before you do anything you first of all have to fill the land and to fill the land, you need to sand fill. Sand fill is going to be got from somewhere. We are identifying all the sand depositsÂ in Bayelsa so that we can allocate them as it is done with oil blocks. We wish we can get all the sand from the north and trade them for water. So these are situations we have anticipated and we have put in mechanisms to ensure that conflicts are properly managed. For now, the Alternative Dispute Resolution centre, Citizenâ€™s Right center, and the ministry of justice itself are well positioned to handle eventualities.
What is the staff strength of your ministry?
The last count we had if we donâ€™t add the people coming in, are 82 lawyers for various categories. They are in ten departments. There is Citizen Rights, Directorate of Public Prosecution, legal drafting, civil litigation to mention a few and of course we are essentially lawyers to the government. We also have lawyers deployed in all other ministries to guide them and ensure they follow due process in all dealings. And then again one novel thing, Bayelsa has eight LGAâ€™s. So there are courts in all the LGAâ€™s so we have lawyer prosecutors from the ministry that have been posted out to the courts. I think we are unique in that.
The Governor recently approved 50 more lawyers be recruited to strengthen the department.At the moment, we are inundated with proposals from people and ultimately these things turn into MOUs and agreements between the government and the proposers. So we need to have a very strong department for legal drafting apart from the bills that go to the House of Assembly. So we need to have them in quickly and train them.
How does the ministry hope to attract lawyers. What are the incentives available?
I donâ€™t think anybody who comes to ministry and see the environment will not want to work. What we have now is not lack of or difficulty in attracting staff. I donâ€™t think we have any challenges in that department. Besides the ministry is being considered for special packageÂ because we are the pivot around which the entire state particularly government evolves .We are the keepers of the seal of justice, good governance, and rule of law.
The governor in his wisdom and foresight has declared that any Bayelsan who has a second class upper (2:1) and above in the university has automatic employment and automatic scholarship. And again, for the law school we are having our first set of law graduates from the Niger Delta University. We have about two or three batches that were produced but the law school could not extend to them admission to law school.
What are you doing to raise other Bayelsans to become senior advocates?
My own giving back to the state includes challenging my brothers that being a Senior Advocate of Nigeria is attainable. Now I am working with some very senior lawyers here.
I am guiding them in complying with the requirements of becoming a SAN and the results have been very remarkable. It is my hope that before Governor Sylvaâ€™s tenure is up, Bayelsa would have produced two or more silks.