The Attorney General and commissioner for Justice of Adamawa state, Barrister Bala Silas Sanga, in this exclusive interview with Peoples Times, says there is much to be done on law reforms in the North, and that the anti-corruption war in the state has not achieved much. Excerpts:
What will you say over the dispensation of justice in Adamawa state?
It is very challenging. I must confess that I was taken aback by the nature of the challenges. It appears that one underrated the issues here. But the key area of improvement we’ve made has been the digitalisation of the laws of Adamawa State. Coming in, nobody could say with clarity what the laws of Adamawa State are. Even the legislators, even the courts, even the Ministry of Justice, even the executive, nobody knew what these laws are; they were scattered all over. We started the process of compiling and digitalising them. We signed an MOU with Legal pedia that would have cost the state about N200 million. But they were kind enough to do it for free as part of their social corporate responsibility towards the Ministry of Justice. We are 95% through with that.
The second area of challenge was the resources within the Ministry itself. I inherited a Ministry full of typewriters, now significantly, all the typewriters, except three are gone; we have computers now. Next, I inherited a Ministry that was full of law books, which is natural, for any law firm; the books haven’t gone; they still remain. But in addition, we have a digital library and legal pedia software that the lawyers are using. But the challenges still remain and we hope that going forward, we’ll continue to improve.
A key area of challenge for me is the paucity of legal services. Adamawa State is supposed to have six Judicial Divisions: one in Michika, Mubi, Gombi and Yola. The rest are in Ganye and Numan. Out of all the six, only two are operational: Mubi and Yola. So, we’ll just have to open up all the six Judicial Divisions in the state for easy access to justice. These are some of the challenges I intend to overcome, one way or the other.
It doesn’t make sense for litigants to travel from across the state, in these difficult times, for their cases. So people needn’t have to come from Ganye, Lamurde, Guyuk and Shelleng to hear their cases in Yola. This is something that is very dear to my heart and we’ll just have to put in place.
You were Secretary of a body of Attorneys General in the 19 northern states. What’s the outcome of your deliberations?
It is a continuous work and deliberations. So, I will say we deliberated extensively on the penal code, amendment and enactment as the case may be, the administration of criminal justice laws in the 19 northern states and the amendment and enactment of the Fiscal Responsibility Agency Law across the various states of the north. We have finished work on these three pieces of legislations and submitted them to the Northern Governors’ Forum that inaugurated the body of Attorneys General and they have deferred adopting them until their later meetings. When this is done, the onus will be on respective states to either amend or adopt them as submitted, since what we submitted were only model Penal Code, model administration of criminal justice law and model fiscal responsibility agency law. So, each state can now go home and look at its peculiar circumstances for moderating, adjusting or domestication to suit it. The interesting thing is that in the penal code, we are coming out with radical provisions with sections on deemed offences which means that anytime an act or conduct occurs in the state, and that act or conduct is a crime under federal law, it shall equally be a crime in the state under the penal code to the extent that the state can legislate on it. We are looking at emerging cases like cybercrime, 419 and similar offences. This also means that the Attorney General of the state can prosecute these cases without seeking the fiat of the Attorney General of the Federation.
The state government was reported to have constituted a committee to draft white paper on Justice Bobbo Umar commission report. Is the white paper out, if so, what are its major recommendations? If it’s not out, why the long delay?
Well, the white paper is not out. The Justice Bobbo Umar Commission, was set up by the Fintiri administration which did not stay too long; then came Governor Bala Ngilari, he too did not stay too long before the present administration came in. Because the commission was Governor Fintiri’s baby, it virtually died a natural death when Governor Bala Ngilari came in. When we assumed office, we inherited it and are in the process of issuing the white paper on it.
With your rich anti-corruption background, how much have you, so far, recovered from looters of Adamawa State?
I can tell you zero recovery! The question will be how much are we likely to recover, running into billions? Zero, because we have not filed charges. I can tell you exclusively that for ex-Governor Bala Ngilari, his SSG and his Commissioner for Finance, we’ve finished preparing charges against them and they will be arraigned immediately the courts resume from vacation. It’s only when you arraign and get conviction that recovery of assets comes in. So, without following the process, you can’t talk of recovery; you’ve got to get the conviction first. So, we’re kick-starting the process and I can tell you without mincing words that His Excellency Bala Ngilari, the gentleman that was Secretary to Government under him, and the Commissioner for Finance under him, will soon be arraigned. So, it’s only after arraignment and conviction that, we can talk of recovery.
Adamawa State is implementing the e-payment system with resistance from some quarters. What are you doing to address the issue?
I think the resistance is coming out of misunderstanding of what e-payment (electronic payment) is. Essentially, the House met and resolved that the executive arm of government should reverse the e-payment. That is the resistance. Now, I won’t call it resistance to e-payment because when I appeared before the state legislature, I made it clear that we are very interested in the implementation of the e-payment. But they are concerned about the ancillary and incidental hardships that could follow the exercise. So, what we have been doing is a lot of dialoguing between the executive and legislative arms of government so that the hardships and concerns of the House are addressed. It also comes from a perception of understanding each others’ roles and functions because in my appearance before the House, I made it clear that e-payment is an executive function, not legislative function. However, the House can pass resolutions, but the resolutions are not binding on the executive arm of government; they are merely advisory. I also made it clear that the implementation of e-payment is actually not even an executive activity, but a function of JAC (Joint Account Committee) as implemented by the local governments.
What the executive arm of government did was to sit down, take past resolutions to the Executive Council advising JAC to go the way of e-payment. And this was done to plug the leakages in the system. So, the implementation of e-payment is an activity of JAC based on the advice of the Executive Council. So, I explained to the House that if it is passing a resolution on e-payment, it should be directed to JAC, not the executive arm of government.
Secondly, the House premised its resolution on the fact that it ought to have been consulted before the e-payment was effected, whether it was by the state government, JAC or whosoever, based on the fact that under the JAC law (section 60, I think), any review or change in the mode of distribution or allocation of funds must be with the prior consent of the House. And my position has remained clear and I’ve written to the House explaining that e-payment is neither a distribution nor allocation of local government resources and as such does not require the prior consent of the House; that that section contemplates a scenario where the volume of allocation or distribution to local governments would be tampered with, or the volume of deductions from monies going to local governments are going to be tampered with. So it is only in these circumstances that you would need the consent of the House as this is only a different way, an electronic way of paying salaries; which is clearly neither an allocation nor deduction of funds to or from the local governments.
An additional ground I pointed out was that JAC Account is not a state government account; it is a local government account to the extent that JAC is comprised of all the 21 local governments in the state and it was their decision. Therefore, it is a decision of JAC, and not that of the executive arm of government. Again, being legalistic in such matters is hardly ever useful; it is not helpful; it leaves everybody with a bruised ego. So, we’ve been talking to each other with the same goal as the legislative arm of government to address the concerns of both sides of the fence, particularly concerns that leakages be plugged, no corruption, there is no criminality associated with payment of salaries.
However, the primary beneficiaries of e-payment are very happy; we’ve people who used to receive N40, 000 monthly but with the introduction of e-payment now, they’re receiving N65, 000. Most people didn’t know what their real salaries were because of the across the table payment which did not curb malpractices. But with the e-payment, people are getting more than they were taking before the exercise. The state government was not only concerned with plugging leakages alone, but also determined to give workers what they truly deserve as a right in their files as their pays.
We had cases of workers who didn’t know the way to the local governments where they work. There was the case of a woman in Guyuk Local Government who asked for the way to the Local Government Secretariat to go and do the screening for the e-payment. And this is somebody that is supposed to work there!!
Yes, the e-payment plugged leakages; yes, it gave people what is truly theirs; yes, it closed the door against wastages; yes, we also put in place the structure for redress. If anybody feels he ordinarily should have been captured but was not captured, there is an Appeals Committee, he/she can go there and confirm that actually he/she is a staff of the local government and remedial measures can be taken.
As a legal luminary, do you think injustice can be legitimately averted, avoided or mitigated in the country?
No. At no time in history, at any time, in any community or society under enviable environment, has injustice been totally averted. At best, you can mitigate it to the barest minimum; injustice will always be there, has always been there and will continue to be there. But it is necessary that those of us charged with the administration of justice should minimise injustice to the barest minimum.
Nigerian Prisons admit more Persons Awaiting Trial (PAT) than real convicts. What are you doing to decongest the prisons of PAT?
In Adamawa State, what I did was to write to the Comptroller General of Prisons and said give me the list of all inmates awaiting trial, all of them awaiting trial and indicate name and offences charged in the court and before who and how long the suspect has been awaiting trial. This was compiled and brought to me. I set up a three-man committee. it is very radical. I will enter the power of Nolle Prosequi.
Traditionally, response in the administration of criminal justice is that the Chief Judge will occasionally go round the prisons to identify deserving cases; he’ll scrutinise, pardon and release such inmates, but we are taking a more holistic approach now; we won’t wait for the Chief Judge to go round before we act, especially now that we have a list and we can interrogate the list from the prisons for action.
Considering the recent conflicting judgements on States Governorship elections, how do you resolve this legal tango?
Very simple, the Supreme Court. You find that most of the conflicting judgements are by courts of lower jurisdiction. Water will find its level when it gets to the Supreme Court. It is easy for one High Court to say this and another say that. But that’s why we have an Appellant System. Two people, talk less of the law that is diverse in its application, can always differ on same issues, same sort of facts due to prejudice or misconception.
In law, you have multiple principles that are accepted and can be applied to one fact or the other. If you look at the interpretation of statutes, you have the golden rule of interpretation, you have the ejusdem generis rule of interpretation and the literal rule of interpretation. So, it’s easy for one Judge to give one ruling and the other a different one using the different rules of interpretation enumerated earlier. But why you have an Appellant structure is that you can go to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court as final arbiter. You find that all these seeming conflicting decisions, when they take that pyramidal structure to the Supreme Court, they are always resolved.
The trials of High Court Judges for unethical acts, does this signal the beginning of sanity in the judiciary?
Is it the beginning or is it the end? I won’t call it the beginning because this is not the first time it is happening. It’s always been there. I think the problem is systemic and I tell you why. Nigerians like sleeping on their rights a lot; you find that a judicial officer misconducts himself/herself and we fold our arms and say it’s the will of God and we leave it like that. But the Judicial Council comes as the last resort and it’s always been there and only treats cases that are brought before it. So, if we all sit back in the society and we don’t take judicial officers who misbehave, are fraudulent, are incompetent, and are negligent before them, there’s nothing they can do; they can’t on their own do much. So, if it’s the beginning, my call to Nigerians is that they should see this as a beginning based on the fact that anytime a judicial officer misconducts himself/herself, both lawyers and the general public should now bring it to the attention of the NJC to act on it.
I’m aware of people who came to me and say this Judge behaves like this or that way and I say can you write a formal complaint to the NJC. First, they give one lame excuse or the other; they are afraid and don’t want to be identified as whistle blowers. Two, perhaps it’s a cultural issue, people don’t want to be responsible for somebody’s misfortune; and three, we are afraid of reprisal. So, if it’s the beginning, I’d rather see it as the beginning of a situation where people are no longer afraid of laying complaints before appropriate authorities when a judicial officer misconducts himself/herself.