Justice Bemare S. Bansi, COM, EOPE, OFR, former Chief Judge of Adamawa state, in this interview with Sahid Umar, discusses legal issues and the difficulty of effective justice dispensation in Nigeria. Excerpts:
You are aware of numerous commission reports left unimplemented by government. What advise have you for the implementation of such reports?
Governments, sometimes, instead of telling the truth and facing the reality of the day, tend to be hiding under certain things. One of these things is to constitute commissions of inquiry when they themselves are not interested in the outcomes of such inquiries. In most cases, such inquiries are to while away time and deceive the people. Unfortunately, the political class we have today are nothing but conglomeration of liars, they take interest in deceiving people as they know that they won’t implement commission reports right from the word go. They only set up such inquiries to divert the attention of the people; after submitting the reports of such inquiries, they just throw them away to gather cobwebs; and whatever advice you give will go to deaf ears; they’ll never take action. Therefore, unless our politicians change their attitude, no amount of advice will assist us. In any case, what political class do we have now?
Whether you view it from the view point of oligarchy or democracy or whatever it is, politics by itself is an art of telling lies with all sincerity. And the political party is an umbrella under which both civilised and uncivilised thieves gang up for the purpose of stealing the commonwealth of the common people for their own use or the use of their immediate family. This is the definition of political party from time immemorial.
The British Government today is purely oligarchic, although they mix it up with the parliamentary system. So when the crux comes to the crux, they have to go to Buckingham Palace to seek the consent or advice of the Queen.
When the British Prime Minister resigned and took his successor to meet Queen Elizabeth II, there were only three vehicles in the convoy with two Outriders accompanying them in contradistinction with what happens here in Nigeria when a Councillor, Local Government Chairman, Governor or President moves around with long convoys of ten or more cars. So their own definition of democracy is different from ours. In their own definition, human heart is included and features prominently, but the definition of democracy in Africa, excludes the human heart. Meno tells us that, in politics, might is right; if you’re strong, you overwhelm your opponent and have your way; so might is right.
So, to answer your question directly, what type of government do we have in Nigeria? It is a government based on democracy, and it is based on democracy as a result of the existence of political parties. Our class of politicians is the type that comes together under an umbrella just for the purpose of stealing for themselves; if you don’t belong to their group you lose out. Take (President) Jonathan’s government, take Buhari’s government, take Idi Amin’s government and take Robert Mugabe’s government, it’s a conglomeration of uncivilised and civilised thieves coming together under an umbrella for the sole purpose of stealing, not development.
As a jurist, do you think injustice can be legitimately averted, avoided or mitigated by the judiciary?
The judiciary is part of the democratic set up. Our government is the so called presidential system based on political parties and is comprised of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Under this system, each arm of government is supposed to be independent; the executive cannot interfere with the judiciary and vice versa, nor the judiciary interfering with the legislature or vice versa. This is what we’re supposed to have in Nigeria. But this is not true, it is a facade. The conglomeration of civilised and uncivilised thieves is still paramount in Nigeria and who are the thieves? The thieves are the executives and the legislators. The legislators are the thieves because they screen and approve the annual budgets before the executive signs the appropriation bills. Where is the Ministry of Finance located? It’s located within the executive; where is the office of the Accountant General, it’s within the executive. Who approves the budget for the executive? It’s the legislature and where are the thieves located; they are in the executive and the legislature. The judiciary is harmless and dispossessed as the police, the army and other security agencies are all located in the executive. The judiciary’s role is to interpret the law.
Because of the strong positions of the executive and the legislature and the weak and less dignifying role of the judiciary, injustice has to rear its head. So, the judicial system we have in Nigeria cannot avert, avoid or mitigate injustice because the Nigerian system itself thrives on injustice even within the three arms of government.
The Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 is in practice. How will it change the administration of justice in Nigeria?
It will not change the administration of justice in Nigeria unless the people ruling the country change their attitudes. If the leaders don’t change, the judiciary will not be given free hand to work. For instance in 1963, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana was so powerful. When the judiciary did not interpret the law the way he wanted or the way the executive wanted, he executed the Chief Justice of the country. In the 1970s, Idi Amin of Uganda executed the Chief Justice and other top judicial officers when he felt the judiciary refused to carry out his biddings. So, this is the typical behaviour of the executive and legislature towards the judiciary in Africa and Nigeria as part thereof.
Coming to Nigeria, the country had diplomatic approach which was not by execution. In 1963, there was a case of treason against Chief Obafemi Awolowo. What the Nigerian executive and legislature did was to make the Supreme Court of Nigeria autonomous to detach it from the West African Court of Appeal (WACA) that was in place then where the Justices were Privy Councillors could come from England or other Commonwealth countries. So, English lawyers appeared before it. Meanwhile, Chief Awolowo always flew from England to appear before the WACA as he was barred from entering the Supreme Court which was not a party to WACA. During the trial of Chief Awolowo, the executive tried to influence the judiciary and the judge cried out and said “my hands are tied.”So, the approach in Nigeria was not by execution but by approaching the Judges directly.
In defunct Bendel State, a retired Chief Judge of the state was appointed Chairman of an electoral body. Around 1978/79, N1 million was brought to him to commit electoral fraud but late Justice Ovie Whisky cried out that during his entire lifetime, he’d never seen N1 million; he had shock and fainted and had to be admitted in a hospital where he was revived. When he recovered, he fumed and asked whether they had taken away their filthy money!!! Since then, the Federal Government has not appointed a judicial officer to be the chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission. This is the second clear case of the executive trying to influence the judiciary.
In Northern Nigeria, there was an English judge who handled a case of embezzlement of local government funds in Kaduna. One of the Ministers of late Sardauna, Sir Ahmadu Bello, approached the judge to seek favour and pervert justice. The judge took the Minister’s name and promised to look into the matter. The judge then tried the case and convicted and sentenced the criminal to a term of imprisonment without fine and cocked his gun and shot and killed himself because he’d not like to see that Minister again for advising him to pervert justice. You can now clearly see the difficult position of the judiciary against the executive and legislature. In the light of the cases cited above, the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 will not change anything when the executives and legislators at the federal, state and local government levels don’t change their attitudes.
The Doctrine of Judicial Precedent, today, seems to play an insignificant role in justice dispensation. With the myriad of conflicting judgements emanating from the courts recently, how do you resolve this legal tango?
The question is who are those delivering the judgements? Take the case of Abia State: The federal High Court in Abia State delivered judgement, then the Federal High Court, Abuja, delivered its own judgement and counteracted it. Who are they? In the judicial hierarchy, they are at the base because the Federal High Court, either sitting in Abuja or the state, is a first instance court. According to English jurisprudential function, a trial judge of first instance gives short, simple and wrong judgement. In other words, at that level of adjudication of criminal justice or civil justice, as the case may be, the judgement is not that of the trial judge in the judiciary.
An Area Court Judge is a trial judge and a first instance judge. The Area Court Judge being a trial judge, if his decision is wrong (as his decision is supposed to be short, simple and wrong), you don’t abuse him but appeal against his decision at the next higher court, and the next higher court here in the hierarchy is the Upper Area Court. Again, the Upper Area Court is not the final court as the High Court is available. If it involves Muslim personal law, you appeal at the Sharia Court; and if it involves other criminal cases, you appeal to the High Court. However, if it involves customary cases, you appeal to the Customary Court of Appeal. At the state level, they are the final courts but they are not as the Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court are the final arbiters in the country.
If after hearing the appeal at the High Court, the Sharia Court and the Customary Court of Appeal and you are not satisfied, you go to the Court of Appeal; and if you are not satisfied there, you seek justice at the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court is final. People say the Supreme Court is final not because they are infallible, but because they are infallible they are final. If the Supreme Court fumbles, it’s at that stage you’ll say there’s no justice. So, it doesn’t affect the doctrine of judicial precedent.
For quite some time, the Supreme Court said intra-party issues is a domestic affair of the political parties, and so the courts have no jurisdiction to delve into them. Who will be the leader of PDP or the chairman is not the business of any court. So, these judges are frolicking on their own. Dissatisfied litigants on such issues should appeal to the Court of Appeal for justice. So, both Senators Ali Modu Sheriff and Ahmed Makarfi should go back to the PDP and the party leaders will say who amongst them is the national chairman. It is not the function of the judiciary to organise political parties for the politicians.
The National Judicial Council (NJC) recently sacked two High Court Judges. Is this a signal for sanity in the judiciary?
Perhaps, this is the first time you’ve come over this type of case. When I was a member of the NJC, we sacked so many judges and this is a continuous exercise; any judge that escapes, fine; anyone that is rightly sacked too, it’s fine. Any complaint lodged against a judge is always investigated; when he/she is found culpable, appropriate action is taken. I was a part of the committee that carried out a similar investigations in Kwara, Abia, Oyo and Plateau States where the NJC removed judges and sanitised the judiciary.
One of the primary functions of the NJC is to remove bad eggs. But unless and until there is a petition before the Council, it cannot act.
What is your vision for better justice dispensation in Nigeria?
Justice dispensation is not the responsibility of the judiciary alone; it is the function of all the three arms of government and the many hands involved in the administration of justice. The product, justice, is manufactured for the consumption of the public. So, both the process and the product must be qualitative to make consumers happy. For better justice dispensation, our definition of politics must change, but when we accept politics as the conglomeration of civilised and uncivilised thieves ganging up to steal the commonwealth of the common people, how can we talk of better justice dispensation?
The payment of retirement benefits to retired judges and other judicial staff could also affect better justice dispensation in the country. For instance I retired on July 15, 2011, but I’ve not been paid my severance gratuity and gratuity up to now, six years after retirement. It is the same sad story with Justices Oloti and Buba Mubi who retired in 2008 and 2009 respectively and are yet to receive their severance gratuities. Alhaji Abubakar Hamidu Girei retired as Head of Service but his pension is N7, 000 monthly. When retirees are treated shabbily, do you think those in service will give of their best?
Ghautama Budha says a leader must provide his citizens with food, clothing, housing and decent environment. In Nigeria there is too much injustice. For instance, a Senator earns N29, 479,749. 00 per month giving an annual salary of N353, 756, 988. 00, when the minimum wage is N18, 000 totalling N216, 000 per annum. Under the circumstances, it will take the minimum salary earner 1, 638 years to earn the annual salary of a Nigerian Senator and they go to the same market. What kind of country is this? And you talk of fighting and eradicating corruption?
You are both a member of judicial bodies and an avid reader of books. How do you share your time for these contending demands?
Retirement could be frustrating and interesting. The frustration will be off your mind if you resort to reading books, if you are married to your books, it refreshes ones memory. The books will keep you going and the frustration after retirement as a result of non-payment of your benefits definitely will not cause any tension. You will be living with philosophers, like Pythograss, Plato, Aristotle, etc. And they will refresh your mind and principles. I have Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s books here, Winston Churchill, Plato, etc, and, as you can see, I’m surrounded by my books. I spend my time with them and when it is time to rest, I rest. When it is time to attend meeting of the Body of Benchers, I leave my books and attend the meeting. If there are contributions the Chief Justice requires from me, then I put in my humble efforts, notwithstanding the fact that one’s benefits are not paid.
Retirement is the ultimate end after a long and meritorious service. How is life in retirement?
Life in retirement is interesting, it’s frustrating and also encouraging. If it’s not frustrating, some people will frustrate you. But if you understand the fact that you have put in meritorious service to your dear country, there’ll be no regret. And that is the solace to which we all turn.