Failure to punish for wrongdoing, reason impunity exists among govt officials — Ajulo
In this interview, Abuja-based lawyer, arbitrator, and civil rights activist, Dr. Kayode Ajulo, examines the consequences of disobedience to court orders and underscores the need for all to protect the integrity and the sanctity of the judiciary.
What, in your view, are the implications of disobedience of court orders for our democracy?
In the words of John Locke, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. Without a doubt, the importance of having laws in a society cannot be overemphasized. Primarily, having laws and abiding by them is what separates man from animals.
Now, in Nigeria, we practice a democratic system of government, but for democracy to be achieved, certain fundamentals must be put in place, one of which is the rule of law and another is justice. George Washington hit the nail on the head when he said: “The due administration of Justice is the firmest pillar of good government. I have considered the first arrangement of the judicial department as essential to the happiness of the country, and the stability of its political system”
The concept of justice works hand-in-hand with actions and their consequences, rewards, and punishments. In other words, when a person does what is right, there should be commendation for such an action and when a person does what is wrong, there should be condemnation for such wrongdoing.
We all know that the Judiciary, as the third arm of government, is not a department of the government, but is independent of both the executive and legislative arms. One of the most important powers of a court of law is its power to give orders.
Very often, it has to make an order commanding a person to do something — or restraining him in some way. In other words, the judiciary has its powers, functions, and duties and one of such is to act as the guardian of the constitution, interpret and protect it, and most notably, it is also responsible for the administration of justice. The court is to protect all, its protection is not and should not be lopsided.
Now, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC is an agent of the Federal Government tasked with the investigation of economic and financial crimes and the truth is that both the courts and the EFCC are ordinarily expected to work together for the greater good of our nation.
If anything, the Federal Government and all its agents should work symbiotically to achieve a common goal. The agents of the Federal Government should be the ones enforcing and abiding by the laws of the land instead of flouting under the guise that they can get away with it.
However, where the orders of the court have not been complied with, the court is under a duty to protect its integrity. It is not only wrong to allow a select few to get away with flouting the court’s orders, but it is also bad for one that cannot obey simple court orders to expect compliance with its directives. As you rightly said, Femi Falana, SAN compiled a list of 200 cases in which the Federal Government had been in contempt of the court. That is good. But I know for a fact that there are several more judgments given by the courts which have been ignored and disobeyed outright. This is unacceptable, particularly in a democracy.
One of the consequences of outright disregard for the orders of the court is that it will cause the citizens to lose faith in the country’s justice delivery system. Where this is the case, we will be left in a state of anomie, chaos, anarchy, and lawlessness.
All hands must be on deck by all stakeholders including the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary to ensure strict enforcement of orders to ensure that the court is not brought into disrepute or public disregard. The need to protect the integrity of the judiciary is the logic behind the inherent powers of the court to punish contempt.
I don’t like to talk about personalities, but rather the symbolism of the actions of such personalities for the agency he/she works under. We must get something clear and straight: No one is above the law and when there is an infraction, there should be measures for redress, be it punitive. The court was right in its decision to convict the EFCC chairman for contempt of court because his failure to comply with the Court’s order is a clear-cut violation of the rule of law.
No one is above the law and everyone who tries to exercise such ludicrous belief should be made to answer for it. His position as the EFCC chairman does not confer immunity on him against an investigation, trial, and even conviction as it happened in this case before the court reversed itself. If anything, he should remember that the office he holds today is transient.
I recall some years back during my tutelage under Dr. Tunji Abayomi. I cannot remember the specific year now. But at that time, Dr. Abayomi had a client who was detained unlawfully by a former Inspector General of Police. My boss tried to intervene to get the victim (his client) released but the police boss refused to listen to any entreaty. In the course of discussing with the super cop, my boss told him that he should not get drunk with powers because anybody could find himself in the same situation his client found himself including him to require the services of a lawyer.
But the police boss cut him short that he could never find himself in such a situation. He emphatically told my boss that it was impossible that he would end up, for any reason, in any custody at any time in his life to the extent that he would also need the services of a lawyer to defend himself. Do you know that not more than two months after that incident, the same IGP called my principal, begging for help because he had been picked up by the EFCC and publicly disgraced? I say this to point out that officers of the government must remember in all their dealings and conduct that power is transient. I will end this intervention by quoting a French political philosopher, Montesquieu, “there is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.
How do you think the issue of delayed justice in Nigeria arising from court congestion can be tackled?
I cannot but agree with you that it takes an average of 15 years for a case to crawl from the High Court to the Supreme Court. I also agree that so many factors are responsible for that including the congestion of court dockets.
But let me say that one thing I have noticed when people discuss the issue of court congestion, they believe it is something that started in recent times. That is not the case. On the contrary, the issue of congestion in Nigerian courts has plagued the system for as long as I can remember. About 15 years ago, I appeared before the Supreme Court with Chief G. O. K. Ajayi, SAN, who drew my attention to the fact that the matter, a land matter in which we represented a renowned family in Lagos, was instituted the very year I was born. And here I was at the Supreme Court as a lawyer in the same case. So, you can imagine just how long that matter had been before the court.
Now, with regards to finding an effective solution to the annoying issue of delayed justice, the first thing that naturally comes to mind is the adoption of the Alternative Dispute Resolution method in settling cases.
I cannot stress this enough. If you were to check the cases before the majority of the courts, you’ll realize that a lot of them can be resolved by arbitration, mediation, or even negotiation. More people need to be educated on the relevance and usefulness of ADR methods. Another issue is the need for courts to filter cases before they are assigned.
One thing I would suggest is the adoption of a practice from other Common law jurisdictions whereby there are what we call quasi-judges that may be responsible for preliminary matters or hearings. This way, they can filter cases that have merits and those that even though have merits but should not go to the main courts. If we can do this in Nigeria, I am sure that it will, in the long run, foster speedy administration and dispensation of justice.
Nigeria under the ongoing democratic rule claims to practice federalism but does not allow state police as the entire country is policed by federal minions of the law. How do you react to this?
To answer this question, I must first establish that achieving clear-cut federalism is easier to imagine than implement as federalism is not a straight-jacket concept. A perfect example of this can be seen in the United Kingdom which is a constitutional monarchy practicing a Unitary System of government but has still adopted the concept of Federalism owing to the concept of constitutional reform, wherein there is a division of legislative powers between two or more levels of government. Now the UK comprises the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales, as well as Northern Ireland, and each of these countries has its police, legislative houses, Judiciary, resources, and governments.
Can we now say that because of this, the UK is no longer practicing a Unitary System of Government? Of course not, the difference is that they, as a nation, have taken into consideration the various sentiments, histories, and considerations that must come into play when deciding what works best for their growth, survival, and development. The same thing applies to our country, Nigeria.
We must also take into consideration the realities and peculiarities peculiar to our country before clamoring for clear-cut federalism. We must consider the effectiveness of such a system. If we were to implement it fully, will it strengthen our nation or just succeed in further dividing us, will it achieve development and growth or rather destroy everything we have achieved so far by working together under one central authority? These, I believe, are the questions we must ask ourselves
What is your assessment of the nation’s rewards and punishment system?
In Nigeria, it is obvious to see that the principle of rewards and punishments is hardly ever put into practice. Hardly are there ever consequences for wrongdoing and law-breaking and this has led to a lack of accountability in our nation. The average man believes that he can do whatever pleases no matter how depraved without having to answer for his actions.
And we cannot blame the masses for this mindset because we have found ourselves in a society where rewards or punishments are not meted out accordingly. A perfect example is the recent conferment of National Honours by President Muhammadu Buhari.
He had been in office for close to eight years and only took that step a few months to when he is expected to leave office. This is quite worrisome because as a nation, we should be able to encourage and reward accordingly, people who have contributed positively to the growth and development of our country.
In the same way, adequate punishments must be given to people who break the law, and the rule of law must come into play and must be asserted. This is however not the case in our country because even some of the legal practitioners who are expected to uphold the law are the ones responsible for peddling lies and acting contrary to the standards of their profession all to satisfy their selfish gains.