By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
& Henry Ojelu
As President Muhammadu Buhari gets set to inaugurate his cabinet and assign portfolios to Ministers, stakeholders speak on what should inform the choice of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice.
According to Section 150 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, “There shall be an Attorney General of the Federation who shall be the Chief Law Officer of the Federation and a Minister of the Government of the Federation”.
The Constitution specifies that a person shall not be qualified to hold or perform the functions of the Office of the AGF unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for not less than ten years.
Highlighting his expectations for the next AGF, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and constitutional lawyer, Yunus Usman, said whoever is assigned the Justice Ministry must be as clean and above board as Julius Caesar’s wife. Buhari
He said: “The person must have proven incorruptible qualities and must be able to give the Federal Government wonderful legal advice at all times.
“Second, when he is in doubt, he must consult experienced external lawyers before giving advice to government”. Buhari
Besides, the senior lawyer, who has handled many sensitive cases in court, said it was imperative for an AGF to personally conduct high-profile cases involving the Federal Government.
“Whoever is appointed as the AGF should be handling serious government cases himself. He must also ensure that government lawyers in the Ministry of Justice are not just there to take salaries but must be forced to go to court so as to reduce the cost of litigation and amount of money spent to pay external lawyers. That is why they were employed as state counsel.
“Any AGF that imbibes these qualities will succeed but anyone one who fails to do so is bound to fail”.
Similarly, a human rights lawyer, Dr Kayode Ajulo, said the occupant of the AGF’s seat must have sound knowledge of the law.
“Whoever is assigned the portfolio must be a senior lawyer who has a firm grip of the law. To me, I think the former AGF, Abubakar Malami, SAN, did not perform badly”.
Another SAN, Dayo Akinlaja, said: “To my mind, professionalism is crucial for one to serve as a desirable Chief Law Officer. The AGF must be someone that can comfortably rise above the murky waters of politics and ensure that the rule of law flourishes.
“The country at this point essentially needs an AGF that will make going to court worthwhile by looking for ingenious ways to expedite the course of litigation from the trial court to the apex court. Much of the injustice that we witness around is linked to the fact that it takes inordinate time to round off litigation in the courts.
“Once it is known that people can get justice in court over a reasonable period of time, it is almost certain that some of the injustice around would be promptly curbed by deterrence. It takes a professional person whose preoccupation is not politics and politicking to bring this about.
“Of course politics is inexorable in the discharge of whatever political duties; nonetheless, it should not have the better of professionalism. There is a need to rebuild confidence in our judicial system. We need an AGF who will work for hand in hand with the judiciary and the NBA to achieve this.
“So we need a judiciary and NBA friendly personality for the office of the AGF. Importantly too, we need an AGF that will serve as a bridge-builder among the three arms of government and the generality of the public.
“The singular way to do this is to be in a position to foster a robust culture of rule of law. It takes professionalism to have this done as well. Of no less importance is the fact that we need the AGF to dictate the pace of legal practice in the public area of the law of the land.
“Professionalism comes to the fore in this regard as well. For all these, the AGF must be a team player, well-focused professionally and, above all, given to probity and must be God-fearing”.
To Chino Obiagwu, SAN, who is the Director of Legal Defence and Assistant Project, LEDAP: “The main minus of this regime is disobedience to orders of the court. That is a major affront to the rule of law.
“No modern society can develop without the rule of law. So I expect the incoming AGF to be committed to the rule of law. He must not misadvice government that national security or whatever security supersedes judicial orders or the rule of law. That is a call to anarchy.
“A new AGF must respect the Constitution and citizens cannot be detained arbitrarily without charge for weeks and months and years. This is a democracy and arbitrary detention is unconstitutional. We want an AGF that is truly a democrat”.
Said human rights lawyer, Mr Ugochukwu Ezekiel: “I believe we need radical reforms in the administration of Justice in Nigeria. We, therefore, need someone who does not only have a deep understanding of the law but also one who is independent-minded, fearless and bold, someone who could look straight at his principal’s eyes and advise on radical but result oriented reforms in our justice system in Nigeria.
“I am not talking of the criminal justice system alone but reforms in civil rules to ensure speedy dispensation of justice. Such a person should be someone who could convince his colleagues at the state level to advise governors to adopt uniform but well-thought-out reforms in the states,
“We also need someone who understands what is required for the successful prosecution of cases, and not one whose job will be to find loopholes in our laws or contrive one to explain executive mistakes and outright violation of the laws of the land. We need a forthright and courageous Attorney General and Minister of Justice”.
From the Civil Society group, Mr. Ariyo-Dare Atoye, who is the Convener, Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution, said: “We expect an AGF who is very thorough and detailed in the understanding of our laws, verse in judicial knowledge and one with a genuine track record in human rights engagement and who can guide government to respect fundamental human rights and the decisions of our courts.
“The AGF must never hide under public interest and national security to undermine court pronouncements and decisions or aid government to oppress critics and the opposition”.
Convener of Coalition of Civil Society Groups under the aegis of Concerned Nigerians, Mr Deji Adeyanju, on his part, said: “I believe that someone who can be made the Minister of Justice should be one that believes in the rule of law.
“Not someone who will justify and give reasons why court judgements and valid orders should be disobeyed.
“It should be someone who places the interest of the country above the interest of the political class or ruling party. This is why, ordinarily, the AGF should not be political at all. But unfortunately, we have an ugly situation in Nigeria”.
Also speaking, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Lagos State University, LASU, Mr Gbenga Ojo, urged Buhari to assign the Justice Ministry to an established legal practitioner with no party affiliation.
Ojo said the President should take a cue from the Lagos State where the current Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, was appointed the Attorney General by the administration of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu.
He noted that Osinbajo’s background as a professor of law was responsible for his success as Attorney General of the state.
His words: “Political appointment is at the discretion of the President. That is why there should be the office of Attorney General of the Federation, AGF, and that of the Minister of Justice. To combine the two offices, the occupier must be an established legal practitioner with sound pedigree preferably from academia with no party affiliation. This is doubtful though. The politicians would prefer a party man who would dance to the tune of the party. “I use the case of Professor Osinbajo who was the Attorney General in Lagos State. He did credibly well. This can be replicated at the federal level.
On his part, a member Ekiti State Judicial Service Commission, Mr Kabir Akingbolu, said: “The office of the AGF is a very sensitive and an important one. It is key to the functioning of government. Without an active AGF, the government would always run into trouble. Section 150 of the Constitution specifically created the office of the AGF by saying that there shall be an AGF who shall be the Chief Law Officer and Minister for Justice of the federation. The constitution states the qualifications of a person to be appointed as AGF. It said the person must be a lawyer duly called to the Nigerian Bar and someone who has been qualified to practice law for at least 10 years before the time of his appointment.
“However, for someone to be appointed the Minister of Justice in Nigeria, such a person ought to be highly knowledgeable. He should be a man who would advise the government on the inescapable reason to obey the law. This is because an AGF is like a class monitor in the cabinet. He guides direct and advises the government and all its agencies.’’