Chidi Obeke is a senior lawyer, veteran journalist, and Board Member of, the National Biotechnology Development Agency, NABDA.
In this interview, she spoke on rule of law, the criminal justice system, gender-based violence, GBD, death sentence and other sundry issues.
What is your assessment of Nigeria’s compliance with rule of law?
Rule of law is the political philosophy that all citizens and institutions within a country, state, or community are accountable to the same laws, including lawmakers and leaders. It is the cornerstone of human endeavor in society. It is central to any human activity and it is what determines how a country, organizations, and individuals will be governed. Rule of law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are: publicly promulgated, equally enforced, independently adjudicated, and consistent with international human rights principles.
The rule of law encompasses four universal principles: “the government and its officials and agents are accountable under the law; the laws are clear, publicized, stable and fair, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property.
The rule of law specifies the rule and regulations, the law and order so that nobody will arrogate the power of life and death to himself. Without the rule of law, certain individuals will attempt to play God and become a dictator and the country will be worse for it.
Many countries strive to uphold the rule of law where no one is above the law, everyone is treated equally under the law, and everyone is held accountable to the same laws. But there are clear and fair processes for enforcing laws, there must be an independent judiciary while the human rights of all citizens must be guaranteed.
A clear departure from the above will certainly lead to anarchy and lawlessness. When an elected public official sees himself as above the law, there are bound to be consequences. He will trample on people’s rights and proceed to regard himself as the law itself with so many illegalities while in office. Incidentally, he is elected to serve the people and obey the laws of the land.
We have had some ugly experiences of elected public officials acting contrary to the rule of law and performing illegal acts. Happily, the law usually catches up with them as they forget that the positions they are occupying are transient and not permanent.
But certain people often conduct themselves in a manner that suggests that they are above the law and untouchables.
That is true and appears to be the norm among certain ill-advised public officials. Today, we know better, we have seen many governors, senators, and other public officials go to jail in this country. This is a clear indication that to a certain extent, the rule of law still exists to a degree in this country.
For example, I have handled cases arising from abuse of office and diversion of public funds by certain errant public officials. In their judgments on the matter, the courts frowned at the infamous action and descended heavily on them for abusing their offices without thinking of the day of reckoning. The judges also held in their verdicts that every public official must give an account of stewardship, as time does not affect criminal matters.
The Administration Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015 marks a turning point in addressing vital shortcomings in our criminal justice system. But the act is undergoing further amendments before the National Assembly. What areas should be addressed for an effective criminal justice system?
There is no doubt that ACJA has changed the narrative of criminal justice matters in Nigeria. It is important to note that the purpose of the Act is to ensure that the system of administration of the criminal justice in Nigeria promotes efficient management of criminal justice institutions, speedy dispensation of justice, protection of the society from crime, and protection of the rights and interests of the suspect, the defendant and the victim.
Interestingly, the Act has 495 sections with detailed provisions on arrest, warrants, investigation, trial, conviction, imprisonment, plea bargain, community service, parole, suspended sentence, etc. It is instructive to note that the five pillars of the criminal justice system- academia, law enforcement, forensic services, the judiciary, and corrections are put in place to support the ideals of legal justice.
Now that the lawmakers are working on the amendment, it is my opinion that they should consider more corrective measures as part of transformative measures toward physiologically changing the mindset of the criminal towards becoming a productive member of society after serving time rather than being a nuisance to the society.
Gender-Based Violence, GBD, and women in abusive marriages are on the increase. As a senior female lawyer, how can the victims seek redress and get justice?
Gender Based Violence, GBV is a serious matter that requires holistic solutions. We are talking of female human beings in abusive marriages or relationships. The affected women have been subjected to a sub-human level based on having a relationship with the wrong persons who are animals in human skin. The effects of GBD in abusive marriages are quite devastating. We as a country witnessed a lot of gender-based deaths this year and we are still counting. Five interrelated types of violence associated with GBD are worthy of note. They are physical violence, verbal violence (including hate speech), psychological violence, sexual violence, and socio-economic violence.
What is your take on the call for the abolition of the death sentence?
Death penalty or capital punishment which is a sentence of death passed on a felon who has been tried and convicted of an infraction prescribed by the law of state authority has been a subject of intense debate by those who are in support of its abolition and those against it.
Those against its retention argue that it is inhuman and its deterrent is not serving any useful purpose in a world moving towards restorative and rehabilitation justice. But those in favour of its continued retention argue that it has scriptural and constitutional approval as it is the primary duty of the state to ensure the safety of citizens and their property which cannot be achieved by allowing felons to receive life imprisonment or term of years as the case may be.
The abolition of the death penalty is a highly symbolic cause, which highlights the universality of human rights. The death penalty is not a useful instrument for combating crime. The loss of life in which it results is irreparable and miscarriages of justice can occur in all legal systems. Nigeria is one of the countries that uphold the use of the death sentence as capital punishment in its penal code, with judges in the high courts and sharia courts sentencing convicted persons to death.
But those canvassing for the abolition of the death penalty have raised concerns that without having strict capital punishment, the number of crimes will increase and affect society, with more innocent people becoming victims. Keeping the sentence is a more suitable deterrent in preventing such crimes from being committed in the first place. Can I be holier than the scriptures, especially where life has been known and confirmed to have been taken by another senselessly, the death sentence is necessary.
Justice Donatus Okorowo of the Federal High Court in Abuja recently ordered the Federal Government to comply with the 35% affirmative action for women. What is your view on this landmark judgment?
I must confess that the judgment is a landmark verdict. Women have been on the receiving end and we have been cheated in terms of appointments. But with the verdict and the promise of President Muhammadu Buhari to obey the judgment, women will take their rightful place in the scheme of things in the country. There is the need to also implement the United Nations Resolution 1325, which provides for 35 percent affirmation for women. We must give women and girls a voice and visibility in line with United Nations Resolution.
I also wish to state that women should promote healthy competition and support themselves and not measure their successes on other persons’ successes. This is because women are also contributing to nation-building just like our male counterparts. I want our women to believe in themselves and I advise them to discard any stereotypes.
The marginalization of women is real despite the 35 percent affirmation for women. For instance, consider my experience as a board member in a Federal Government parastatal and being a woman. I challenged my exclusion from heading one of the three committees on my board when it was constituted. It wasn’t redressed but the point was made. Let us keep speaking even if for enlightenment. I will advise Federal Government to include in the guidelines on administrative procedures in government parastatals that of the three committees of the board, one must be chaired by a woman in the spirit of affirmative action in Nigeria, and such steps must be across board.
How can the growing reduction of female lawmakers in the National Assembly be addressed?
The solution to the problem is for more women to take an active part in politics. The present number of female lawmakers in the National Assembly is quite disturbing and unacceptable. The winner -take -all attitude of our male politicians must change for the better. We cannot continue with this lopsided female representation in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
And our men are quite desperate. They will put all manners of impediments against female aspirants and ensure that they do not emerge as candidates of the political parties. During election proper, they will unleash ruthless machinery against female candidates to prevent them from winning the election. This infamous action must stop. Though INEC has introduced far-reaching measures to ensure credible polls in 2023, the number of female candidates in the forthcoming polls is quite disturbing.
There was a media report where a group under the aegis of Women in Politics, called for more women participation and visibility in all elective and appointed positions. The group further raised the alarm, saying that only 381 females out of the 4,259 candidates are contesting for elective positions in the forthcoming 2023 general elections. This represents 8.9 percent of the candidates. The report is worrisome and quite sad.
There must be compliance with the 35 percent affirmative action in appointive positions into public office in conformity with the National Gender Policy and the recent judgment by Justice Donatus Okorowo of the Federal High Court in Abuja.
So, in essence, the percentage of women contesting in the 2023 elections is not encouraging. We must change this ugly narrative and ensure that more females are elected into political offices.
The National Industrial Court, NIC, in a recent judgment, directed the upward review of salaries of judicial officers and ordered the Federal Government to pay them living and realistic wages. What are your views on the court verdict?
The judgment is not only a landmark verdict but a laudable pronouncement to change the poor welfare of our judicial officers. Our judicial officers deserve a living wage. How do we prevent compromise in the judiciary if we cannot ensure adequate welfare for judges who toil day and night to write judgments and live in penury at the end of the day? And I wish to say with a high sense of responsibility that our judicial officers deserve the best in terms of welfare and all hands must be on deck to achieve this worthy objective.
I am impressed by the pronouncement of Justice Obaseki-Osaghae, who held that the current salaries and allowances of judicial officers in the country “is not only abysmally low but embarrassing” and accordingly ordered the Federal Government to put machinery in place for the immediate review of the salaries and allowances of the judicial officers.
This is a verdict that will change the ugly narrative of poor welfare for our judicial officers. We the stakeholders owe it a duty to ensure that the salaries and allowances of our judges are realistic and in tandem with current realities in the country. They deserve no less.
It is refreshing to hear that President Buhari has pledged to support better welfare packages for judicial officers after the ongoing review of salaries and allowances for judges.
You will recall that an internal memo of Supreme Court justices asking for adequate welfare from the immediate former Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, got leaked. The situation is as bad as that. And the development led to the sudden resignation of the former CJN.
We have to pay good salaries and allowances to our judges. I am happy that the judgment has specified certain amounts as living wages for the justices of the Supreme Court down to lower courts.
What are your views on how the amended Electoral Act 2022 will shape the 2023 general elections?
I will say that touching pre-election matters and the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court, it is a welcome development. This will curb the usual fireworks witnessed by different states’ courts and the contradicting pronouncements of judicial officers whenever elections are near.