By Dayo Benson & Wahab Abdulah
CHIEF Emeka Ngige SAN, is one of the respected members of the Inner Bar. A member of the Body of Benchers, he is also one of the National Executive Committee of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA. In this interview, Chief Ngige who is also an assistant secretary of Body of Senior Advocates and NBA presidential aspirant spoke on President Goodluck Jonathan’s refusal to reinstate  Justice Ayo Salami, the controversy surrounding venue of forthcoming NBA delegate conference, judiciary and other issues affecting the legal profession. Excerpts:

Lawyers in the country are divided over the choice of Kaduna as the venue of the forthcoming annual Bar conference in August. What is your position on the issue?

My position is that the controversy would have been avoided if the leadership of our Association is the type that consults with elders and other stake holders before decisions are taken. It is not the prerogative of the NBA President to choose venues for our Delegate Conference, that is the prerogative of NEC.

*Chief Emeka Ngige SAN....Who are those that instituted actions to make the matter subjudice?

I do not want to say much on the matter since we have another NEC meeting coming up in Lokoja where, hopefully the issue will be thrashed out. Definitely Kaduna is no longer safe and everyone is aware of that.

In fact on a daily basis I pray for the safety of our learned colleagues in Maiduguri, Damaturu, Potiskum, Kaduna, Kano, Bauchi, Gombe, Jos and other security challenged towns.  The lives of our members are far too important to be subjected to unnecessary risks. I believe that the issue will be amicably resolved in Lokoja NEC.

Those who are rooting for Kaduna have argued that the 2006 conference still held in Port-harcourt in the thick of Niger-Delta militant violent campaign . What is your take on this, do you think their argument is justifiable?

During the Niger Delta militancy, there were no suicide bombings as we are witnessing today in some parts of the North including Kaduna. At the time of Niger Delta militancy, it was kidnapping of foreign expatriates of Caucasian colour that was prevalent with occasional shootings in the creeks but what is happening today is of different dimension; equivalent to civil war. We should not politicize this issue. It is totally uncalled for. The interest of our profession should override such mundane issue as to venue of our meetings.

The Attorney-General of the federation, Mohammed Adoke (SAN), has said that Justice Salami cannot be reinstated now because doing so will be subjudice, citing pending suits over the issue in courts. How do you react to this?

The reason given by the Hon Attorney General of the Federation for Government’s failure to act on the recommendation of National Judicial Council reinstating the President of the Court of Appeal to his office is most unfortunate.

The reasoning that there are pending suits in the High Court has exposed the perfidy of the Federal Government on the imbroglio. When Justice Salami was illegally suspended in August last year the same Attorney General did not advise the President that there was a pending suit instituted by Justice Salami against NJC.

Now it suits the Government to hide under the cloak of lis pendens to reject the recommendation of NJC. Who are those who instituted actions to make the matter subjudice? Busy bodies who were apparently sponsored by the Government to file the action.

It is interesting that the Government waited till after the commencement of the suits before it made its stand known. What the Federal Government has unwittingly done to itself is that it has laid a very dangerous precedent.

Tomorrow any other person can file an action in court to stop the Government from carrying out its functions or duties on account of a matter being subjudice. The Federal Government must be prepared to stay action on such matter once the suit is known to have been filed.

The action of the Federal Government has shown that there is indeed no independence of the judiciary in Nigeria. It is a demonstration that this Government does not believe in Rule of Law.  Section 238(5) of the 1999 Constitution is very clear that the Acting President of the Court of Appeal cannot stay beyond 3 months in office unless there is a recommendation for extension of tenure.

To the best of my knowledge there had been no such extension. So the Government is simply promoting illegality and anarchy by allowing a vacuum to exist in the Court of Appeal. I think its high time the action of the Federal Government was brought to the attention of the United Nations and World Council of Jurists.

In view of the NJC’s recommendation, would you say Justice Salami is vindicated?

Definitely yes. There was ab initio no proven allegation of judicial misconduct against him. He was being hunted because he resisted pressures for justice to be perverted in some of the cases before his court. That was his only offence.

How do you think the situation that led to the face-off between him (Salami) and the ex-CJN Kastina-Alu can be avoided in future?

The situation can be avoided if the recommendations by NBA  at the 2011 Annual General Conference on the issue are implemented by the Government.

You are an aspirant for the position of the NBA president. What would you say are the challenges facing the association and how do you intend to tackle them if you become the president?

Candidates by NBA Guidelines for elections are prohibited from campaigning on pages of newspapers. So I will respectfully plead that I be excused from answering this question.

The Senate has called for memorandum from the public ahead of another constitution review. What aspects of the constitution would you want reviewed?

The areas I would want the National Assembly not just the Senate to amend in our constitution include among others:

A further amendment to Section 285(6) of the Constitution to permit  a parties have an additional 75 days for the trial of petitions in situations where an appellate court has remitted a case back  to the tribunal.

Inclusion of the areas already highlighted by the NBA to secure the independence of the judiciary as it concerns NJC.

Divesting the President of the Court of Appeal the power to appoint panels to hear Election appeals and conferring such powers on the Chief Justice of Nigeria;

Ad hoc  judges should be appointed to help in the decongestion of cases particularly cases involving only interpretation of statutes or documents as obtainable in England;

Include  the 6  geo political zones structure of the country in the Constitution;

Adopt the provisions relating to Local Government Administration as provided in Abacha Constitution of 1995;

Create two offices of Vice Presidents to work with the President, one of the Vice President to come from the section of the Country where the President comes from;

Create an additional state to correct the imbalance in some zones like South East .

Confer on the Governors as Chief Security Officer of their States the powers to give such directives to  the Commissioners of Police deployed to their States and that such directives should be complied with  without waiting for approval from Police Headquarters.

As senior Advocate of Nigeria, what reforms would you recommend in the nation’s criminal Justice system?

My area of concern is the slow process in Criminal Law Administration. I suggest that among other areas:

Interlocutory appeals in criminal matters should now be with leave of the Court to reduce incidents of frivolous appeals;

Stay of proceedings in criminal matters should be abolished;

Criminal appeals should be on fast track at the appeal court including the Supreme Court;

The Nigerian Police should be divested of the power to file criminal charges in Superior Court of Record without recourse to the Chambers of the Attorney General of the Federation or of the States as case may be.

The Criminal Law Procedure and Criminal Law Code should be reviewed and harmonized.

What about the Judiciary?

As for the judiciary, it needs a total overhaul. The manner and mode of appointment of judicial personnel should be reviewed. Vacancies in the judiciary particularly at the High Court and Court of Appeal should now be advertised by the Federal Judicial Service Commission and the State Judicial Service Commission to enable qualified candidates to apply, be screened and the best candidates employed. I also believe that the 10 years post call experience for appointment of judges at the High Court should be increased to 14 years . All applicants for judgeship should have a Masters Degree in law.

Do you agree that Corruption is the bane of the judiciary and how do you think it can be addressed once and for all ?

Corruption is the greatest challenge we are facing in the judiciary today. It is pervasive and threatens the legal profession like the sword of Damocles. The issue of corruption in the judiciary cannot be addressed once and for all but it can be tackled headlong if we are to remain relevant in the society; judges should now be made to publicly declare their assets at the time of being sworn in and at the time of retirement or elevation.

Judges should be made to explain the source of money for the mansions and castles they build while in office. Judges who have less than two years to retire should not feature in election petition cases or appeals or political cases while spouses of politicians who are judges should be excluded in the hearing of political cases. Whistle blowers should be encouraged in their reportage of activities of corrupt judges.

The other challenge we face is the presence of lazy and incompetent judges in the system. Till date NJC has not sacked or penalized any judge for laziness or for lack of productivity and yet we still experience long delays in the adjudication process. Ditto for incompetent judges; every day we read about horrible judgments being dished out by some of our judges and yet nothing is done about them by the National Judicial Council.

What is your assessment of standard of legal profession in the country vis a vis the training of lawyers in the country?

There is no doubt that the standards in the legal profession is falling. This is evident when you observe the sorry performance of some of our lawyers in courts today. I mince no words in advocating that law degree should now be a 2ndDegree course in Nigeria. Most of our young colleagues graduate at between 20-22 years these days; so I don’t see anything wrong if they first study other courses before settling for law as is obtainable in US and UK.

Our law graduates should also be encouraged to do their post graduate courses to enhance their deep knowledge of law and their capacity to face the challenges of the profession. It will also enhance their ability to take mature decisions in the course of their practice.

The issue of continued legal education cannot be over emphasized. For me it should now be compulsory for all legal practitioners as is obtainable in other climes.

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