By Henry Ojelu
Mr. Uwemedimo Nwoko is the Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice, Akwa Ibom State. In this interview, he spoke on remedies for victim of election violence, FoI Act and non-custodian sentencing, among others.
How would you assess crime rate in Akwa Ibom State now, compared to when this administration came into office in 2015?
There is a wide difference between Pre-2015 May, 2015 May and Post-2015 May. There is a wide difference between crime statistics. In the Pre-2015 May, Akwa Ibom State use to witness killings and inexplicable acts. Assassinations and armed robbery were rife. Post-2015 May, everyone has the record. Communities, individuals, judges etc testified to the fact that there is a remarkable difference between the crime rate of that time and present day. It is to the credit of the current administration that has put the security architecture on ground which has turned out to be a success in term of reducing and minimizing crime.
Since your state adopted the Child Rights Act, what has posed the biggest challenge in the implementation of the act?
Basically, what have posed the biggest challenges for us in the implementation of the act is tradition and religion. Tradition in the sense that a lot of communities still don’t understand the basic rights of the child. So it requires a more vigorous education particularly of the rural populace to understand the basic needs of the child within the contest of the Nigerian Constitution and the Akwa Ibom State Child Rights Act. Religion, on the other hand, plays a major role at the centre, being that some people still hold the believes that some children are being possessed by witchcraft spirits. A lot of children are still being put through very heinous process of trials in the name of trying to remove such spirits. I want to say that the state is fighting that very vigorously. Not just in the deployment of the laws of the state but also through collaboration with non-governmental organisations like the one being run by the governor’s wife, Mrs Martha Emmanuel. We have prosecuted a lot of church owners who still engage in such practice. In the last four years, we have brought the matter to the barest minimum. It is no longer a rampant case. You rarely find children being subjected to such harrowing experiences again.
Some states in the country are using the Administration of Criminal Justice Rules, ACJL to ensure effective justice administration in their states. What is the state of ACJL in your state?
We don’t have a functional ACJL in Akwa Ibom State yet. Right now, that law is still with the state House of Assembly as a bill. The House had actually passed it and it was at the point of being assented to. But for a law like that, we needed to put it through the major stakeholders. Judges had issues with implementation. The police and other security agencies were complaining of inadequacies and logistics problems in terms of implementation. The prosecution also had issue with the law. So I discovered that if I advise the governor to assent to the bill, we may have a technical law in our hands. It may amount to having a law that cannot be implemented. Right now, the bill is still with the state Assembly. I don’t know whether this present Assembly will be able to pass it before their exit.
Do you think there is need for urgency passage of the bill?
Well, for the purpose of reform yes. The society is dynamic and we keep on moving forward and advancing in all facets of life. To that extent, there is the need to pass the bill into law so that we can also catch up with other states in terms of speed of prosecution. But my advice is that we should not jump from frying pan to fire. In so many cases, some states have jumped into it and are facing a lot of challenges. It is better that before the law comes in, we should be able to put in place, basic logistics that would enhance the implementation of the law.
What is the success level of prosecution in your state?
I don’t have the full statistics here with me, but I can tell you that we have achieved a lot. We have recorded several convictions for capital offences. Last year, we secured the convictions of so many kidnappers. The popular one among them is the case involving three police officers and four other persons involved in kidnapping.
We followed that case through and secure conviction against them. If you also remember, there was the case of a barber who was killed and cut into pieces. We also secured the conviction of those involved in the murder.
Akwa Ibom State is one of the states notorious for not honoring Freedom of Information, FoI Act. Why is that so?
Obtaining information under the FoI Act is a very simple thing in our state. A person applies and every application is subject to scrutiny. It is not every application that is granted. When the applications come, the ones that have merit, we grant them without hesitation. There are some applications that even when you see them, you will know that the applications are made in bad fate. You don’t just grant an application just because someone applied. That is why it is called an application. Every application must be scrutinised. You don’t just get what you requested just because you applied for it. There are certain public interests that have to be considered before any request is granted. For those who apply, we have no reason to refuse, after all, it is public information. You may not know, but I can tell you that we grant more than 90 per cent of applications that come through the FoI Act.
Non- Constodian sentencing is gradually gaining traction in some climes in decongesting the prisons. What is your state doing in this direction?
I will be honest with you, we have not put such in place as of this moment. We are still applying the criminal code and conviction is still strictly according to the law. The sentencing of convict is guided by the existing laws. In view of the need to decongest the prisons, we have made visits to the prisons a more regular exercise to ensure that those who ordinarily shouldn’t be there are removed from the facilities. About two months ago, I treated a case file when I discovered that two persons were remanded in Ekot Ekpene Prisons, for allegation of stealing a goat. When I treated the case, I found that the men have not been charged to court. That was since September 2017. Immediately I finished treating the file, the following day, I call the Director of Public Prosecution, DPP. I personally drove to the prison, made all necessary preparations and got them released. There was actually no point keeping them in that place. There was a clear mischieve in that case which I had instructed should be investigated. Someone is accused of stealing goat and he is remanded in prison for over two years without arraignment in court.
There was also the case of a minor detained in the prison. Obviously, somebody went and manipulated the age of the minor from 15 to 25.
Morally and legally, that was a very wrong thing to do. I went to the prison personally with my team and ensured that the minor was released.
This is the kind of spirit that this government works on because the fundamental rights of indigenes of this state are of high priority to the governor. We don’t joke with such situations.
What would be the focus of your ministry in the next four years?
By the grace of God, we intend to bring in more innovations. I hope I should be able to establish the Public Defender Office within the office of the Attorney-General so that in peculiar cases, government should be able to provide lawyers for indigent accused persons as is done is some other states. This will ensure that the rights of such accused persons are not trampled upon. If we have all the basic things we need, one of the things we plan to set up is a crime database so that it will be possible to track down people who are disposed to criminal activities. With that, we should be able to know who is a 1st, 2nd and 3rd offender as the case may be. This will also help us to set up a forensic laboratory to identify criminals possibly by their fingerprints and other means. These are some of the things we hope to do. For the ACJL, we hope to effectively put that in place so that we will be able to catch up with the rest of the world in term of fast-tracking the criminal justice system in the state.
How would you describe the last election in your state?
Let me begin by saying that one of the saddest things that still happens in this country, is election violence. Election is supposed to be a very simple and seamless process where people who aspire to serve the state or the country should just go out and seek the approval of the people. I don’t see why it should be a do or die affair. Unfortunately, that is what we have in this country. Now, as for Akwa Ibom State, I can say that we have about 90 per cent peaceful election. That does not mean that we did not have pockets of violence. We had few cases which were clearly identified. I don’t want to start mentioning names because the police is still doing their investigation but we had cases where even the primaries of the opposition party in Akwa Ibom State was violent. Two young people were killed during that primaries. But generally, the last election in the state was peaceful.
What remedy would you suggest for victims of election violence?
Unfortunately, there is no such remedy anywhere. It is something that should have been provided by INEC or the Federal Government because election is organised by INEC. If there should be a remedy for victims, it should be packaged within the framework of INEC’s mandate. There should actually be a way of compensating people who suffered various forms of violence during election.