‘Buhari is saving judiciary with prosecution of suspended CJN’ – Prof. Itse Sagay
Itsejuwa Esanjumi Sagay, born in 1940, attended Government College, Ughelli, Delta State between September 1954 and December 1959. He was admitted to study law at the then University of Ife in 1962. He graduated in 1965 with a second-class upper division and proceeded to the Nigerian Law School for his professional training and was called to the Bar in July 1966.
He obtained Masters Degree (LL.M) in International Law from Cambridge University in 1968 and proceeded to cap it all with a (Ph.D.) in International law at Cambridge University. Sagay became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in September 1998 and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in the year 2002.
He began a teaching career at the University of Ife in 1966 as an Assistant Lecturer at the faculty of law and rose to be proclaimed a professor of law at the same University in September 1, 1979. He is an author, has many academic and research honours among other professional laurels.
Professor Itse Sagay is the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption (PACA). In this interview with SUNDAY AIKULOLA, he argued that President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration’s action on the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen is to save the judiciary. He also disagreed with Prof. Wole Soyinka’s recent statement that Nigerian government is fond of subjugating the judiciary, among others issues.
Some critics insist that the suspension of the CJN is political. Do you agree with this?
I absolutely disagree. The critics are the ones running away from the truth. The question is whether he did it or not, by having $3 million not mentioned in his Code of Conduct form. Now that he did it as he had admitted, that is where we should start. This is a government that will do what is right no matter how high you are. The government should be praised for establishing that no one is above the law. He did it and it is a pity that he did not see the fact that his honour demands that he should resign with some dignity. Rather, he is waiting to be finally kicked out because there is no way he is going to come back with that guilt established. It is a bad precedent for the whole of the judiciary. Already, people are saying that the judiciary is rotten. So, if you allow an established case on judicial corruption at the highest level to be retained, then that is the end of that arm of government. So, what Buhari is doing is saving the judiciary.
There are arguments that where someone admits omission in assets declaration, the fellow is exempted from persecution. What is your take on this?
Firstly, some crooked lawyers who have been appearing on TV programmes lie glibly that a public officer who commits a breach of the Code of Conduct by failing to declare some of his assets, is free from liability, provided he makes a written admission of such breach or non- compliance. For this, they rely on the proviso to Section 3 of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act 1989. However, if one refers to the provision of the constitution, there is no such exemption from punishment. I refer specifically to the 5th Schedule part 1 paragraph 18 of the Constitution. That paragraph provides the punishment for a breach of the Code of Conduct. These punishments are: (a) Vacation from office (b) Disqualification from holding office for ten years and (c) Seizure and forfeiture to the State of any property acquired in abuse or corruption of office. There is absolutely no provision whatsoever, to the effect that an admission in writing of the offence will exempt the public officer of liability from punishment. On the contrary, paragraph 18 (3) goes further to state that the three punishments listed above are without prejudice to the penalty that may be imposed by any law where the conduct is also a criminal offence. Also paragraph 18(6), provides as follows: “Nothing in this paragraph shall prejudice the prosecution of a public officer punished under this paragraph or preclude such officer from being prosecuted or punished for an offence in a court of law.” There is therefore a clear conflict between the provision of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act and the Constitution. What does the Constitution say in the event of a clash between it and any other laws? This is contained in Section 1(3) of the Constitution and I quote: “If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall to the extent of its inconsistency be void.” Additionally, where there is conflict between two pieces of legislation covering the same matter, the latter in time prevails. The Code of Conduct and Tribunal Act was enacted in 1989. On the other hand, the present Constitution took effect from 1999. So either way, the provisions of the Constitution prevail over Code of the Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act. It can therefore be seen that there is no exemption from punishment whatsoever from a public officer who admits his guilt with regard to a breach of the Code of Conduct. Secondly, one other matter that the defenders of Chief Justice are now raising, is the query that if the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) could petition the National Judicial Council (NJC) regarding the $30,000 allegedly deposited in the Chief Justice’s Bank account, why was the earlier matter of the failure to fully disclose his assets not sent to the NJC? The answer is simple for anyone thinking in good faith. The non-declaration of assets is a constitutional and mandatory matter for the Code of Conduct Tribunal exclusively. On the other hand, payment by a lawyer into the account of a judge including the Chief Justice, constitute an offence committed by the judge as a judicial officer. Therefore that matter according to the wrongly decided Ngajinwa’s case, goes to the NJC. On the other hand, failure to declare assets is not an offence committed in the process of judge’s activities as a judicial officer. Therefore, any compliant arising from such matter does not go to the NJC but to the Code of Conduct Tribunal (in cases of non-declaration of assets) or the ordinary Courts in other cases.
How would you describe NBA’s directive that lawyers should boycott courts?
You know that most lawyers did not even obey it and some of the NBA officials who wanted to enforce it ran into courts and the judges nearly arrested them for contempt. So, I think some members of the NBA who themselves are heavily involved in all the wrongdoings that we are talking about wanted to use this as an opportunity to embarrass the government so that there will be less concentration on the war against corruption.
Lawyers and Senior Advocates are on trial. Some of them have been jailed for corruption and bribing of judges. In fact, I feel sorry for the judges because it is these Senior Advocates who carry money to them. Most of them have stopped working hard to win a case. Where you can just walk in to a chamber to negotiate judgment, and most of them don’t know the law anymore. They are the ones corrupting the judges. In some cases, it could be governors or senior politicians, but many Senior Advocates are involved. At times, one begins to find it difficult to tell the point at which lawyers are acting out of indignation or out of self-protection against their own sins.
The Kayode Eso Commission was set up during Abacha administration. In fact, the Eso Commission found the suspended CJN guilty, and ordered that he should be removed. He was a High Court judge then. Serious corruption in this country started in 1999, particularly at election time when hundreds of millions of naira were spent by politicians bribing judges. 2007 was the worst, where judges were paid huge sums of money to pervert justice. In the days of Eso, Obaseki, Karibi Whyte and Nnamani, all these things were impossible. Those judges had what I will call high moral authority. That is why the military was even afraid of them.
When they gave judgment against the military, they implement it. For instance, when Ojukwu was thrown out of his house and Supreme Court ordered that he should be allowed to return to his house. They were afraid of the judiciary. In the 1980s when Buhari was the military Head of State, the Chief of Fire Service of the federation was sacked because NET building was burnt and he didn’t handle it efficiently. He went to court and won. The military obeyed the Supreme Court. That was because that Supreme Court had high moral authority. They had no arms but everybody was afraid of them. They just had morality on their side. They could not be approached and everybody respected and feared them. Since then, things have crumbled and now we have judiciary that any rascal can just walk into the chambers and carry money and pervert the course of justice. People attacked me that I am against the judiciary. I am not. I love the judiciary instead. I wrote a book in praise of the Supreme Court. It is the restoration that I am fighting for and not to run down or destroy.
Why did you disagree with Professor Soyinka’s recent statement that Nigerian government is fond of subjugating the judiciary?
I am very disappointed that a man of eminent, high intellect and reputation could make a statement like that because the implication of what he is saying is that we should tolerate corruption in the judiciary and I know that he is vehemently against corruption. So, what he said completely contradicts what he has always stood for. Anti-corruption campaign has been a wonderful success. It has changed this country in terms of the responsibility of the government towards the people, in terms of recovery, which has been ploughed back to the vulnerable population.
First, as we speak now, two former governors are in prison. There are many others who are in prison but not well known, over 700. Right now, Fayose is being tried. Secondly, fuel subsidy fraud has disappeared since Buhari came to power. Before he came in, people were siphoning N400 billion from our economy and dividing it among themselves. But that has been stopped. This government has also resorted to Non-Conviction Based Recovery. Instead of going after the person, they go after the assets he has stolen and with that, a lot has been recovered, well over one trillion naira worth of assets. The money has been ploughed back through the budget into the economy for the purpose of the poor, wretched, cheated and deprived. So far, 500,000 men who were jobless have been trained in various trades and during the period of their training they were paid N30,000 a month from the recovered funds. Ten million children are being fed in primary schools every day. That is one solid nutritious meal every day and that has a spillover effect. Many cooks have been employed and farmers whose crops are being bought have got incentive to be more productive.
Another one is TraderMoni, which involves going to the market and giving money to poor traders so that they can build up their capital base and become successful in their businesses. There is also the interest-free loan given to small businesses, particularly agro-businesses and small-scale entrepreneurs. The change this government has introduced in promoting the welfare of the people and cutting down on corruption has been unprecedented. The money is rolled and pumped back to the most vulnerable. Another thing is using the United Nations’ formula for determining the poorest of the poor and such people are collecting some amount of money every month to make sure they don’t starve and to enable them start little businesses. So, this government is a revolutionary government as far as the welfare of the people is concerned.
From my own committee, which is the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption (PACA), we have trained judges on how to deal with corruption cases, from High Court to Supreme Court. We have done it for prosecutors, EFCC, ICPC, Code of Conduct Bureau and professionals in various industries. We have also brought awareness about what we call Illicit Funds Transfer (IFT), whereby the funds are transferred from Nigerian economy to developed countries in many illicit ways. So I cannot finish listing what this government has done in the anti-corruption war. It’s a revolution!
But the US and the EU have expressed concerns over the anti-corruption campaign. What do you say on these?
I laughed when I heard about that. Let us take the U.S for instance, they have President Donald Trump. This same people that are complaining about us closed down his foundation because they said he was using the foundation to collect money from the public and spending it on himself. They closed down his university saying that he was defrauding people by not providing courses the students should be enjoying. So many people around him are being tried or jailed and he is suspected of colluding with Russia to rig election in his favour. So, they have all that problems in their place and they are shameful to see that we are trying to restore the honor of the judiciary when they themselves have bigger problems. The Bible says ‘first remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye. So, that was why I just laughed.
The Senate recently withdrew Supreme Court case against President Buhari. What is your opinion on this?
What happened was that Saraki was playing politics. He rushed to the Supreme Court without the mandate of the Senate. So, the majority of the Senate, 56 of them, came together and filed a motion in which they wanted the application to be struck out and when he saw what was coming, he quickly withdrew it. So, it’s as simple as that.
This newspaper recently reported that the suspension of CJN had affected stocks market drastically. Do you agree with the report?
I am not versed in the capital market, but it is possible that when there is a crisis, some people begin to sell their shares. But you cannot say because of that you should suspend rule of law or suspend trials and processes for cleansing society of corruption and bribery and all the rot that Nigeria has been known for. When eventually the matter has been concluded, those who sold their shares may buy them back or others will buy them and the Stock Exchange will bounce back again. So, I don’t think it is anything to worry about.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said the Buhari-led administration has curbed grand corruption, but some members of the cabinet are accused of corruption?
You will not see a single minister found guilty of corruption. Everybody knows that era has gone if you are working for Buhari. You dare not do otherwise. Something drastic will happen to the person. No access to huge money anymore. We have a lean Spartan government that believes in discipline and integrity. All that cheap money that you didn’t work for is gone. No overnight millionaire anymore and that is why so many elite are angry. They don’t want to work for their income. They want cheap money and that is gone and gone forever.
If President Buhari gets another mandate, should we be expecting a clampdown against corruption in the next four years?
It will be fiercer. The government will be much stronger and firmer. It will descend more heavily on corrupt people and will reduce graft drastically. It is not only in Nigeria; the probe has been extended to Dubai, Britain and U.S. We have mutual assistance agreement with most countries of the world that they should help us recover what have been stolen and help repatriate the looters so that we can punish them for their crimes against humanity. People will begin to fear Buhari again. One thing that we have noticed is that even if you don’t convict these looters and take away what they looted, their wretchedness is so palpable and even worse than convicting them.
What is your advice for young lawyers?
They should choose the path of truth and integrity. They should forget overnight millionaire quest. They should learn law the hard way, then greatness will come. I know one or two young lawyers in the chambers of some of these rich SANs that got their money through sharing looters’ funds who have left because they said this is not the way they want to learn the law.
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