By Henry Umoru & Joseph Erunke
ABUJA- Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu said that if Nigerians still desired that justice delivery must be strengthened in the country, it has become imperative for the office of the Attorney General of the Federation, AGF to be separated from that of the Minister of Justice.
Senator Ekweremadu who noted that the separation of the two was feasible, disclosed that the proposal to separate the two offices, actually sailed through during the last amendment exercise, but could not see the light of the day since the Forth Alteration Bill was not assented to by former President Goodluck Jonathan.
According to him, he personally believed in the idea, just as he said that it was a decision for the majority of Nigerians and lawmakers to make.
Speaking with Journalists at the weekend during a tour of the construction site of the National Headquarters of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, in Abuja, Ekweremadu commended the Bar leadership, under Mr. Augustine Alegeh, SAN, for continuing with the project, started by his predecessor.
The deputy Senate President explained that the separation of the two offices would make whoever was appointed the AGF, to work for the people and not necessarily the government in power as a cabinet minister, and that it would ensure access to justice by citizens, devoid of any external influence.
Ekweremadu said, “I believe in the separation of the two offices. I go for it any time, any day. This is because it will guarantee financial independence, security of tenure, and make the holder of the Office of the Attorney-General at the state and federal levels to be autonomous in thinking and approach to the idea of justice. It will ensure that citizens have access to justice, since the Officer will not be dictated to by any external interest or influence.
“During the last constitution amendment exercise, we (members Senate Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution in the 7thNational Assembly) recommend it to our colleagues, based on inputs from Nigerians, and they graciously adopted it. Unfortunately, the last President did not sign it. Although, we will be looking at all the issues again, the decision on the separation, or any other issue for that matter, will depend on what other colleagues and Nigerians would think. But as a person, I strongly believe in it“.
On the on-going construction of the NBA National Secretariat, which is already nearing completion, Senator Ekweremadu said: “We want to thank the NBA President as well as his team for what he has done, because when people come into power, whether in private or government, they meet projects and abandon it, but he met the project, he has almost completed it.
“I feel proud today as a lawyer, lawmaker, and ordinary Nigerian, that we will have a good and befitting secretariat at the heart of Abuja. It is also an indication that the Bar has come of age and repositioning itself for greater role in the dispensation of justice”, he added.
Earlier, the NBA President, Alegeh, SAN, told the Deputy President of the Senate that the project had reached 75 percent completion, and that the secretariat, which would house a Virtual Library, an E-library and a pro-bono centre, among others things, would be ready for commissioning and use by August 2016.
Mr. Alegeh, who was also accompanied by General Secretary of the Bar, Mazi Afam Osigwe, further noted that all sections and fora of the NBA, including the Legislative Forum, would have their centres at the Secretariat, adding that the Legislative Forum of the NBA, for instance would collaborate and work with the National Assembly, for a better justice system in the country.
It would be recalled that the National Conference Standing Committee on Law, Judiciary and Human Rights had in April 2014 during the National Conference, adopted a recommendation for the separation of the office of Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation.
Deputy Chairman of the committee, Prof Auwalu Yadudu who made this known then, had said that the recommendation was to ensure the independence of the office of the Attorney-General from political influence.
According to him, the two offices should not be occupied by an individual in order to ensure justice, adding, “Of course, we have adopted a recommendation that will help, if you separate the office of the Attorney General from that of the Minister of Justice.
“This will ensure that the person appointed to the office of the Attorney General enjoys sufficient independence and autonomy to do justice to all cases that will come before him.”
Also agreeing with Yadudu then was former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Bayo Ojo, who was member of the committee, where he said he had no opinion different from the resolution of the committee, adding that the committee decided that the office should be separated.
Also during the Conference, another member of the Committee, Femi Falana, SAN, had said that the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, and the Minister of Justice had not worked in the public interest and should therefore, be separated.
Falana who noted then that there was no constitutional provision for a Minister of Justice to also serve as the attorney general, had said, “One of the reasons is constitutional. By virtue of Section 174 of the 1999 Constitution, while the President has the power to appoint an Attorney General, it is not required by law that the Attorney-General shall be the Minister of Justice.
“Section 174 does not say that the Attorney-General shall be the Minister of Justice but by convention over the years, the President has always asked the Attorney General to be the Minister of Justice.
“But in line with the common trend and based on our experience as a people, the two offices have not worked in the public interest most of the time. We had an attorney general in the recent past who, upon the completion of his term, was suspended as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria because he grossly abused the office and became the defence counsel to accused persons being tried by the government of which he was the chief law officer.”
He said that many attorneys general at federal and state levels terminated “serious corruption cases” by filing that government was not willing to prosecute “whereas the public was demanding for justice”.
According to Falana, some also terminated cases for which they were the defence counsel before they were appointed attorneys-general.
He had said that, “because the minister of justice is a member of the government and the President or the governor wants a case discontinued, it is always a very difficult decision to take.
“We also want to relieve our colleagues of the burden of having to fight with their conscience because the president or governor has insisted that a case be discontinued.”
Falana recalled that it was the British colonial regime that fused the two positions, but pointed out that in the United Kingdom, the two offices had since been separated, just as he said that in the ECOWAS, out of the 15 member states, 10 had seen the wisdom in separating the office of the minister of justice from that of the attorney general, adding, “In the francophone countries, the attorney general is called “de procure generale”; he’s the defender of the public interest.
“Whether the president or governor is interested in a case or not, the attorney general as the defender of public interest will prosecute any indictable offence and that’s what we are calling for in our country.”