Reject creation of special court for corruption cases
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
Senior legal practitioners (lawyers) in the country, on Sunday, threw their weight behind the move by the House of Representatives to separate the office of the Attorney of the Federation and Minister (AGF) and that of the Minister of Justice.
Some of the constitutional lawyers that spoke to Vanguard in separate interviews said that it was the only way the office of the AGF could be insulated from political manipulations, even as they advocated for a review of the appointment process.
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Yunus Uztaz, added that the Constitution should be amended to guarantee that an AGF can only be removed from office by two-thirds majority vote from both the Senate and the House of Reps.
He advocated that about 15 SANs without political affiliations should be nominated for the post, stressing that members of the public should be allowed to participate in the screening process.
He said: “The office of the Attorney General must be totally separated from that of the Minister of Justice. An AGF is not supposed to have any political inclination or belong to any political party. That is the only way he can discharge his functions and be a fully reflective AGF.
“The moment an AGF has a political party or belongs to one, he cannot perform his functions independently. To ensure that that office is sanctified, the AGF should not be appointed or removed at the pleasure of the Executive. He should only be removed by two-thirds votes of both houses of the Legislature. The moment that is done, the AGF can be expected to perform his duties independently and justifiably.
“Unless you separate them, you can never have an independently minded AGF. An AGF is not supposed to have any political sympathy. In fact, it should be such that the public should be able to ask the AGF questions when they are not satisfied with his performance. At least 15 SANS should be shortlisted and each of them made to pass through the rigours of screening by the National Assembly, at least 15 of them. Then the AGF should be open to questions from outsiders. The moment an AGF is loyal to a political party or his appointor, he can never act independently. When the AGF cannot act independently, then there is no justice”.
However, Uztaz, SAN, said he was not in support of the call for the establishment of a special court to handle corruption cases.
He argued that isolating some judges for only corruption cases would rather expose them to corrupt tendencies.
“The moment you create special courts to handle corruption cases, you are creating a very wide room for corruption too. You don’t need to create any special court. All the courts should be able to handle corruption cases. By creating the supposed special courts, you are also trying to expose the judges that will handle the courts to corruption. It means that those are identifiable judges who can be easily reached, that in itself will breed corruption. The judges will be known beforehand, so you are trying to corrupt them too. It is ok as we have it now. Judges should not be known to an accused or prosecution beforehand. He should be a surprise to everyone.
“Besides it is going to cause a lot of congestion, just like the armed robbery tribunal. Cases from the court will overload the appellate court that is already over-burdened. We don’t need any special court. The Administration of Criminal Justice Act has provided enough solutions to ensure that cases are tried speedily. Creating such courts will further over congest our court.
“The only way to make things faster is to adopt what obtains in America, where each state has its own High court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. It is only constitutional cases that should go to the Federal Supreme Court. Adopting this model will ensure that our Supreme Court will not be over-worked as it is being over-worked today. Without doing that, every other thing we are saying will be academic.
“The fund for the various courts at the state level can be generated from for example the security votes that are never accounted for by the governors. Moreover, if our legislative houses are not selfish, they should amend the constitution to make the legislative business a part-time thing. It is never a full-time job anywhere in the world. Their allowances alone can take care of the courts”, he added.
Another constitutional lawyer, Mr Johnmary Jideobi, said: “The separation of the office of the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation from the office of the Minister of Justice has become most compelling.
“Attorney-General of the Federation ought to be acting for all citizens and in the interest of the whole nation and for him to function effectively he needs to enjoy all the independence that can only be achievable if he is insulated from political influences.
“Since Nigeria gained independence, there has never been any reported case that an Attorney-General of either the Federation or of any State has ever sued the government that appointed him. This singular example serves as an eloquent testament to the fact that until and unless those two critical offices are separated, official Impunity by state actors and governmental lawlessness will continue to flourish in the land”.
On the establishment of corruption court, he said: “I believe there is no need to establish a special court to fight corruption. All that is needed is to equip the judicial structure we have presented to be more efficient and productive with a view to meeting the ever-increasing demands and challenges of administration of criminal justice.
“Instead of creating special courts for corruption-related cases, heads of courts can consider designating some courts within the already existing structure as Criminal Court. The Lagos State holds out an example that could be under understudied and replicated.”
However, another senior lawyer, Chief Nkereuwem Akpan, said he was opposed to the proposed splitting of the AGF and the Minister of Justice.
According to him: “Firstly I think the problem is not so much about splitting the office into two but by finding the right people for the job. The House of Reps ought to know that the problem with Nigeria has never been a lack of agencies or institutions but rather the lack of leadership.
“If you have an Attorney General who despite his training and oath office will connive with his bosses in the State House to flout Court Orders. If you have an AG(Fed) whose duties, powers and privileges set out in section 174 of the Constitution and whose allegiance is more to his party and not the Constitution then you’re wasting your time even if you split the office into 5.
“What is required is not splitting the office into two but actually strengthening and insulating the office from undue political interference
“On the vexed issue of the House of Reps setting up special courts for anti-corruption cases my take will be that the entire exercise is a waste of scarce resources and energy. I say so because adopting my argument above in opposing the splitting of the office of the AGF into two, it’s not about the institution, but rather a problem of manpower.
“I interacted with some lawmakers who frown at the delays and alleged corruption in the judiciary as a key impetus for setting up the special courts and my argument has always been that unless you are going to import alien judges and Registrars from the moon to man those courts, then you’re going to have the same results
“Put differently If you argue that there is endemic corruption in the judiciary or that lawyers are the ones offering these bribes to the judges and justices as a few of the trials we have has tended to suggest, then, merely setting up a new institution and yet sending the same rotten personnel to man those new structures, doesn’t appear to be an intelligent move.
“What the House of Reps should do is to remove the bottlenecks and red tapes bedevilling the anti-corruption agencies like the ICPC and EFCC, etc. We need few strong institutions and not a proliferation of toothless bulldogs or paper tigers whose stock in trade is merely to be a tool in the hands of the executive branch to go after perceived political opponents as is currently the case.”