Law & Human Rights

October 19, 2017

Only rule of law, due process will win war against graft —Awomolo, SAN

Only rule of law, due process will win war against graft  —Awomolo, SAN

Chief Gboyega Awomolo, SAN

Prosecution is not a Nollywood drama,
It is a serious business

Chief Gboyega Awomolo, a senior advocate of Nigeria was admitted into the inner bar in July 1992 after 14 years of legal practice. In this interview, he spoke on the reason no major conviction has been secured by the government on high profile corruption cases, the controversies trailing agitation for restructuring as well as constitution review among others. Excerpts :

ByAbdulWahab Abdulah

PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari said he was determined to fight corruption to logical conclusion but no major conviction has been secured on high profile cases. Can we say that the President’s fear with regards to the judiciary was justified?

The war against corruption in Nigeria by the Federal Government is nationally and internationally applauded. It is in the best interest of this country’s present and future generations that the war succeeds. Generations unborn will benefit from the common wealth of the country, which few families seem to be appropriating to themselves, corruptly. To the best of my knowledge, the judiciary has been a vanguard in the war against corruption.

Attempt to intimidate

When in 2002, the National Assembly passed the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences, ICPC, Act, it was challenged by the Attorney General of Ondo State. The Supreme Court gave judicial authority to the constitutionality of the Act. The government agencies responsible for anti-corruption crusade have published record of more convictions in the last two years than any two years before. The agencies have secured forfeiture orders made by the courts more than any other year, in the last two years. I do not agree that the courts have not been cooperating with the executive.

Chief Gboyega Awomolo, SAN

It is the propaganda aimed at bringing the institution as a whole to its knees. It is a deliberate attempt to intimidate, harass and put fears into the mind of judges so that courts, without following due process, will pronounce conviction and sentence on all persons accused of corruption. That attack was made contemporaneously with tactical press trials which we now know was designed as an alternative to judicial trial and convictions. The use of the press in the propaganda war has not yielded any meaningful result. Judges are not to be cowed, intimidate andblackmailed.

The legal practitioners, now in the vanguard of the propaganda, are used as intimidating machine but I am convinced that they will soon know that only the rule of law and due process will win the war against corruption. I am a prosecutor and I have good training. The problems of failure of cases in courts trial could be traced to investigations, which are shallow, by officers of the agencies.

They take too much for granted and rush to court when they should dig deeper, hence the embarrassment in the courts. Truth is that unlike the press, the defence is not interested in what was done right but what was done wrongly or omitted to be captured in the process of investigation.  The prosecution, unfortunately, expects the court to fill the gap. It can never happen in the accusatory system of trial. The constitutional provision, which presumes any person accused of crime innocent is very solid and requires diligent investigation, competent review of cases and patient prosecution to secure conviction. Prosecution is not a Nollywood drama.

It is a serious business. The government must be ready to invest in the processes from whistle-blower to thorough investigation and trial. Former President (Olusegun) Obasanjo suggested appointment of Ogbologbo lawyers but beyond that, is the need to train, train and retrain officers at all levels. Recently, the head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, confessed that there are corrupt officers within the commission, who compromised the system.

I have no inside knowledge of the commission but I have experienced compromise in a case given to me for prosecution. It was a very costly one for me. The function of the Judge in any trial proceedings is to listen patiently to the case presented by the prosecution, record, in long hand, all that were said by witnesses, watch their demeanour and carefully examine all the documentary exhibits, reflect soberly on the facts and relate them to law. The judge decides in accordance with the law and judicial precedents that are binding on him.

No judge must be guided by the status of the suspect. No judge should be persuaded by the shouts in the media. No judge should be intimidated or threatened by propaganda and veiled threats by media lawyers who have not read the records or were not privileged to know the facts of the case, other than newspaper reports. Judges must remember that they must keep to their oath of office. They are accountable to their conscience and God.

Many lawyers and politicians alike have demanded that we revisit the 1963 Constitution to address imbalances in Nigeria. How do you view the call?

I think it is not as easy as the proponent canvassed on the political podium and before TV cameras. The 49 wise men,Nigerians, in 1978/79, voted for a presidential system, jettisoned the 1963 Republican Constitution.

Political podium

Nigerians applauded then. Politicians rushed to campaign and contested for offices in 1979. When the 1999 Constitution was again modified, politicians rushed to embrace it, contested for offices, benefited from offices created by the Constitution and voted to elect Nigerians into political offices. It is true that the Constitutions of 1979 and 1999 over-concentrated powers at the centre. What has happened in the last few years was that the institutions created by the Constitution for development and administration of the people at all levels have failed. The local and state governments have failed to the extent that salaries and allowances of public officers were owed for several months.

The media have exposed waste and profligacy by officers at the federal level while poverty is ravaging the land. It has become the norm that no state government, except Lagos State, generates enough to finance the needs of its people. Every month, governors go cap-in-hand to the Federal Government for bailouts to fund the health, education and other social needs in their states.  I believe the institutions that were established to alter the Constitution – the national and state assemblies – should revisit the Exclusive Legislative list to enable devolution of powers to states and local governments.

The Act of the National Assembly with respect to revenue sharing formula should be reviewed to empower the states and local governments. The state governments need to collaborate on regional basis, as there is no provision of the Constitution that prohibits such collaboration and joint ventures of two or more states of the same geopolitical contiguity. Nigeria, as one country, with true federalism is what is required, not 1963 Constitution. There will be resistance to collapse states into regions as the grounds for creation of the states have not been fully achieved.

As a senior member of the Bar, how do you think the Nigerian judiciary can be truly made independent?

An independent judiciary is the greatest asset to any country. To make the Nigerian judiciary independent, we must have independent, courageous and learned Bar. It is from the Bar that we produce members of the Bench. For the Bench to be truly independent, men and women who must be appointed to sit therein must be men and women of character and excellent learning in the law.

Appointment, which is the foundation, must not be on the basis of religion, tribe or connection or any such primordial reasons. It should be less about the state of origin and more on the merit and the intellectual ability and character of the candidate.

The members of the appointing authority must act with clear conscience, diligence and courage, having at the back of their mind the best interest of the judiciary as an institution. One major guarantee for the independence of the judiciary is respect for the constitutional provision for the autonomy of the judiciary. Its budget, as approved by the legislature, must not be touched by the executive; the Chief Judges of states should not be seen going cap-in-hand to the governors for every financial need of the judiciary.

The welfare of judicial officers must be given priority attention in appropriation of funds annually. The Chief Judges of states and head of the federal courts must exercise great discipline, judicial comportment and restraint in their public and private interactions with members of the public. Judges and Justices have no reason to rob shoulders or freely associate with politicians. They must be dealt with at arm’s length as both professions are incompatible. The recent events and disclosures of names dropping and undue interference with judicial process must remain a lesson forever.

Will you say the Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee, LPDC, is doing enough to sanitise the Bar, considering the numbers of senior advocates answering criminal charges in court?

The Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee is not a court. It is a body created by law under the Body of Benchers to investigate and punish conducts which are infamous and expressly prohibited by the Rules of Professional Conduct in the legal profession.

The General Council of the Bar, under the chairmanship of the Attorney General of the Federation, formulates the rules. The committee has power to investigate and punish conducts which are not prima facie criminal. So, the Senior Advocates who were alleged to have been involved in bribery of judges or who were accused of financial inducement of a judicial officer with a view to compromising judicial decision, if proved, have committed acts which are both criminal and amount to professional misconduct which can be punished by the Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee. My view is that the decision of a criminal trial, whatever it may be, does not prevent the LPDC from taking action against the legal practitioners to answer to that part that relates to professional conduct.

During my six years as a member of the committee, it was clear to me that many legal practitioners practised in violation of the rules of professional conduct. Many lawyers collected resources of their clients, unlawfully misappropriated, stole or could not account for the resources as required by the rules. The committee punished so many lawyers that were found guilty. Among the recent decisions of the committee, Senior Advocates were found guilty and punished for professional misconduct.

The number of lawyers accused of misconduct has increased at an alarming rate and the audacity of many of them gives one worries as to the future of the confidence of the general public. The Senior Advocate of Nigeria rank is the highest in the legal profession.

It is the dream of every legal practitioner. It is a rank that must never be allowed to be tainted by irresponsible lawyers who have no morals or one notorious for cheating and misappropriating client’s money or property.