By Peter Duru
Mr. Michael Gusa is the Benue State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice. In this interview, he speaks on the condition of prisons in the state, the efforts of the state government at ensuring smooth dispensation of justice, the arrest of over 198 offenders and suspects for violating the Open Grazing Prohibition Law of Benue State, the conviction of some and other sundry issues. Excerpts:
What is Benue State doing to address the problem of prison congestion as prisons in the state house more than their capacities?
That is a general problem, because by virtue of my appointment as the Chairman of the Advisory Council on Prerogative of Mercy in the state, I have had the opportunity of going round the prisons in the state and even prisons that are outside Benue State and I have seen that it is a general problem.
Basically, the capacity of the prisons built here a long time ago must have been okay at the time but now, because of existing and emerging criminal activities and the fact that most of these issues were not foreseen when the prisons were built, you have a lot of inmates that are awaiting trial, that gave rise to the over-population in the prisons.
But, by and large, the judiciary, the Ministry of Justice and all other prosecuting agencies like the Police, NDLEA and even the DSS, are putting heads together to see how best we can tackle these challenges to ensure that we reduce the population in the prisons. We’ll try to see if there are inmates that don’t need to remain in prison. So such should have their freedom and attend court from outside even if they are awaiting trial, except in cases where they are capital offences and such inmates are not entitled to bail and efforts were made to get the suspects or accused on bail and that was not possible, in that case, there is nothing anyone can do but to wait for the conclusion of the trial.
What efforts are you making to ensure that inmates appear in court regularly as well as reducing the number of inmates in Benue prisons?
Well, in Benue State, I know that when we came in, that was one of the major challenges that Governor Samuel Ortom and his administration faced. The Governor in his wisdom decided to award contract for the construction of cell blocks at the prison here in Makurdi. And again, he has also provided vehicles for the prison authorities to enable them convey inmates to court to help in speeding up their trial. You know that when an inmate is not taken to court, his case cannot go on. And so he decided to do that to ensure that they are taken to court.
But I must say that it has not been easy. The state’s resources have been overstretched and we can only do our best at a given time. We cannot do beyond the limits of our resources. So that is the much we can do for now, but efforts are still ongoing toward ensuring that justice is given to these inmates who are still standing trial or awaiting trial in the state. Apart from that, the Governor also ensured the award of contract for drilling of a borehole at the Makurdi Prison, that has also been done and the inmates are using the water as we speak.
Considering that the government is working to ensure smooth and timely dispensation of justice in Benue State, does the state have enough judges to facilitate that desire?
Well, we cannot say we have enough judges, we still need more. This is because here in Benue State, you find that one judge could have up to 20 cases on his case list everyday and that shows that we need more hands to see that these cases are heard speedily and in time too. This is why in most cases, these matters are adjourned for one month or a little over one month. But if we have a good number of judges, particularly High Court Judges, then the Magistrates, if resources would permit and we employ more, you will discover that there will be more courts and these cases will be heard speedily and it will help a lot. If not for paucity of funds, we would have engaged more judges but we will get there.
What’s your take on the concern raised recently by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, when he lamented that delays in court proceedings were discouraging investments in the country?
You know that the courts are there to resolve disputes arising from relationships. It can be contractual or even political. So if such investors are in Nigeria for purposes of doing business and issues relating to contractual disputes cannot be resolved on time so that they can continue with whatever they are doing, they are at liberty to seek for an alternative location to continue with their business. And so I think that can also greatly affect what the investor would be doing in the country because they would prefer that if there is any conflict or dispute, it should be resolved within a given time frame so that everyone would know his position on such issue and life and business go on. But when this is delayed over time, you get tired. That is why in most cases, even on individual basis, some people cry out that their matters are not heard on time and sometimes you witness the issue of jungle justice, people taking the law into their hands which is not right because two wrongs cannot make a right.
Would you say the much celebrated Open Grazing Prohibition Law of Benue State has turned out a success in terms of arrest and prosecution of offenders?
I think that law is a major achievement. It’s a major leap forward, it is a major success, a huge success in all ramifications. First and foremost, the law is a reflection of what the good people of Benue State wanted and desired. The law prohibiting open grazing of livestock is not targeted at any tribe.
It originated as an executive bill, but this was born from the problems that existed before Governor Samuel Ortom assumed office. And so when he came, he wanted to find a lasting solution to the lingering problem whereby Benue farmers were killed in their numbers across the state. And so, he made consultations with the people and at the end of the day, in line with the demands and yearnings of the people, he came up with a law that would regulate the activities of both the herders and farmers in the state.
So he initiated the bill as an executive bill. It was sent to the Benue State House of Assembly which carried out public hearings and took inputs from the people of the state. It was a total reflection of what the people of the state wanted because findings revealed that the people did not want a continuation of the incessant killings in the state.
They wanted an end to the incessant destruction of lives and property in the state. So the people made their inputs and at the end of the day, the Benue State House of Assembly distilled the inputs and came up with the law.
So it is accepted by the people of Benue State, it is accepted by the farmers who are resident in Benue State and it is accepted by everybody because we need peace in Benue. It is a known fact that for anybody to make progress and for any society to develop, we must have peace. That is what the law has brought to the state. So we are supposed to be experiencing relative peace in Benue if not for the fact that people from outside the state are coming to kill in Benue State, particularly Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore who vowed that they will resist the law. Meanwhile, they are not from Benue State but they have gone to hire mercenaries to come and kill people in Benue State in the name of the law. But if you look at it properly, it is not just only in Benue that they are killing. They are killing everywhere in the country where the same law does not exist.
But for us, the people of Benue State, the law has come to stay, we have accepted it, we are implementing it, and anybody who violates the law, not just herders but anyone caught rustling cattle, will also be dealt with in accordance with the provisions of the law.
We already have 198 cases in court right now. These are offenders who are not just people who were found to have engaged in open grazing, some of them were caught and are being prosecuted for cattle rustling, they are in court and we are prosecuting them. That is the provision of the law. It intends to protect both the farmer and herder so that everyone will cohabit peacefully without rancour. That is the basis for that law.
In terms of conviction, have you gotten any?
Yes, we have secured more than 15 convictions. People have been sentenced to various terms of imprisonments. So those who have been able to pay their fines were set free. But we have secured some convictions.
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