Chief Ogwu Onoja is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). In this interview with LILLIAN OKENWA and AMEH EJEKWONYILO, the SAN spoke on the reform agenda of the current Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen and some of the issues that are hampering the effective and efficient delivery of justice in the country.
Sir, last year some Senior Advocates of Nigeria were nominated by the Nigerian Bar Association to the National Judicial Council for appointment as Supreme Court justices as part of the ongoing reforms by the current CJN in repositioning the judiciary for better service delivery. Up till now however, nothing has been heard about it.
My view on that is that the President and State governors have constitutional roles to play in the appointment of judges. I understand very well that the National Judicial Council had done their part by making this recommendation. So, it behooves on the President to confirm their appointment. And it is good if those things are done urgently because their services are needed.
First, there were vacancies for those positions before these appointments were made. And those places are still vacant; those seats are vacant. IT is very important for an effective administration of justice that all the stakeholders do their job efficiently and urgently so that the needed improvement in the justice sector can be pursued, especially now that we have a CJN who is very good in listening, who is very accountable and driving a reformation agenda in the judiciary. This is the first time we are seeing a judiciary that is looking inward in addressing the issue of indiscipline in the judiciary.
I am sure you are aware that under the dispensation of the CJN, so many erring judges have been brought to book, and so many SANs have been held accountable for professional misbehavior. So, in an atmosphere like this, the Executive arm of government needs to urgently carry out its role in confirming the appointment of those judges so that the reform agenda of the current CJN can move on speedily to the desired end, which we are all looking forward to. That is, a judiciary that is vibrant that can deliver judgment within the shortest possible time, a judiciary without corruption, where all the ineptitude and lazy judges will no longer have a field day.
In view of the lethargic attitude of the Executive towards the approval of appointment and discipline of judges, don’t you think it’s high time the President and Governors are removed from the process?
You are talking about constitutional amendment. I think you also have to look at the issue of separation of powers and checks and balances that are integral features of federalism. Because if you want to do this amendment, I don’t know how it is going to pass, but it is a very good thing you are talking about that we should separate the Executive from having an influence in the appointment. But for now, that is what the constitution says. However, what we need to do is how we can urgently address the lapses that are happening. The excuse they are using now is that they have sent the names of the nominees for DSS clearance.
So, what you are talking about is an amendment, and that should be a matter for the National Assembly for them to decide whether they can really do that. You know the process of constitutional amendment in this country is not easy.
Shouldn’t the NBA to make some form of representation to the National Assembly?
The NBA is there. They would always make their recommendation but to follow-up is entirely a different issue. The process of amending the constitution is so cumbersome. We have all observed this that it is not fair for the judiciary that when they want to move ahead, the executive is pulling them back from carrying out their own constitutional obligations. These people are needed; the courts are empty. If you go to the Federal High Court, where some of those judges have retired or where people have been elevated, their seats are vacant. Yet, Nigerians are crying that the judiciary is not working well; cases are being delayed and the human resources that are needed are being put in abeyance. I’m calling on the Executive to do their job urgently and efficiently so that the judiciary can rise up to the task of meeting the need of the century.
We are approaching the election year, where there will be a lot of litigation. How can the problem of conflicting judgments that embarrassed the judiciary in the last election be avoided?
When you talk about conflicting judgments, we lawyers are also the problem. Because you would see a lawyer with an appeal from the High Court and by the time he gets to the Court of Appeal, the appeal would start splitting into six different appeals. Instead of them looking at the issue of waiting to have a judgment concluded, you find that at every step they would be going on appeal. You know election matters are highly charged, and we lawyers are part of the problem.
The best way to address the issue of conflicting judgments is to develop our case law in such a way that when a novel matter comes to the Court of Appeal that has not been decided by the Supreme Court, whatever decision that is taken in other judicial divisions should be made available to all the divisions. But the conflicting judgments we are even having is not always as a result of novel cases; it is sometimes as a result of the justices of the Court of Appeal not following the Supreme Court’s decision.
Still on conflicting decisions, Justice John Tsoho of the Federal High Court in Abuja recently gave a judgment on the Anambra Central Senatorial District election dispute and he was criticized for the earlier judgment he delivered.
The issue is not with the judge. Rather the lawyers in the suit because if a similar matter is not brought to the judge’s attention, he would not know. You know it’s not all judges that read newspapers. So, what must have happened was concealment of fact. The lawyers in the suit hid the information from the judge, and immediately the information was brought before the judge, he quickly reversed himself.
So, knowledge and awareness of the law is very important. There should be a way of circulating such critical judgments to judges through electronic mails. That way, the judge can suo-moto (on its own motion) cite it because it is an issue of law. The judge can use it to decide his case without it being cited to him. It is only on the issue of fact that a judge cannot raise it without allowing the lawyers to address him on it.
What in your opinion are some of the issues hampering the efficiency of the judiciary in the country?
The other issue that is impacting negatively on the administration of justice is the issue of archaic laws that are still in our statutes book. For instance, the Sheriff and Civil Processes Act 1945; I look at some of those laws as creating more injustice for the administration of justice than aiding the delivery of justice. If you look at some relevant sections there that talks about service out of jurisdiction, it states that you have to specially endorse to serve out of jurisdiction and that it applies to all courts. Now when you serve the man, you have to wait because he has 30 days to enter appearance. Whereas in those days, if they served you in Kano, you needed to come by horse or train. That was the reason for the 30 days. Why do we still have such archaic law here when you have an urgent matter to decide? Nobody today needs 30 days to move form Kano to Abuja or any part of Nigeria for that matter.
That is why today you see counsel at election petition tribunals bringing motion for abridgement of time. Why don’t we amend it?
Under the same Sheriff and Civil Processes Act, there is something called decree nisi and decree absolute. somebody wants to take your money, the law says you have no right to be heard? We are waiting on the Supreme Court to decide on that. As well as the execution of judgment; all those laws need to be reviewed.