FG should welcome regional peace initiatives
Except Emeka Ihedioha of Imo State, the Supreme Court validated the victories of other governors, whose elections were challenged by their rivals. Some political analysts believe the sacking of Ihedioha and the controversy it generated, helped to save the offices of the other governors. Although the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is asking the apex court to review its decision on the Imo case, former attorney general and commissioner for justice in Abia State, Chief Awa Kalu (SAN) in this interview with Assistant Editor, Law and Foreign Affairs, JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, said the deed is already done. He advised the party to become actively involved in campaigning for sustained transparency in the electoral process rather than crying over spilt milk. He also expressed opinion on Amotekun, national insecurity and rule of law among other issues.
What is your reaction to the Supreme Court judgment on the Imo State governorship dispute?
It is my belief that the judgment of the Supreme Court, which led to the change of baton in Imo State, is an eye opener for all stakeholders, not only in the electoral process, but in the judicial process too. For the avoidance of doubt, the election held into the office of governor in Imo State resulted in the declaration of Hon. Emeka Ihedioha as governor by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). What followed was the institution of multiple election petitions to challenge his declaration. Ihedioha was successful at the level of the election tribunal. His supporters were joyful and celebrated widely. His victory was further challenged at the Court of Appeal, where he trounced his legitimate challengers.
The next level for the determination of Ihedioha’s emergence as governor was the Supreme Court and the outcome is that he lost his gubernatorial position to Sen. Hope Uzodinma, who has since been sworn in as governor of Imo State. Suddenly, Ihedioha’s supporters are vociferously crying foul. What can be said without any shred of doubt is that the case, which Sen. Uzodinma maintained at the Supreme Court was the same suit that had its roots in the election petition tribunal. And haven been counsel to Sen. Ifeanyi Araraume, who also had his grouse against the declaration of Ihedioha as governor, I can confirm that both gentlemen had grievances anchored on the failure of Ihedioha to achieve the constitutional spread necessary for a person to win a governorship election.
Sen. Uzodinma from the word go, alleged that votes which ought to have been credited to him, were mischievously excluded. The Supreme Court vindicated him in his complaint about lack of transparency in Imo governorship election. For now, my advise to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is that rather than cry over spilt milk, the party should become actively involved in campaigning for sustained transparency in the electoral process. 2023 is just by the corner and all stakeholders in the electoral process must synergize to ensure that the future of our electoral process must be guaranteed such that complaints would be minimised.
Attempt to secure the southwest region is already generating controversy between the federal government and the state governors from the region. What is your position on the issue of Amotekun?
The governors of the southwestern sates by consensus have established a regional security outfit for the protection of lives and property of all those who sojourn or reside in that region. The move has elicited controversy but it is not very clear to me why the federal government should be rattled by a move that is decidedly in the public interest. I would think, that the federal government should welcome regional initiatives aimed at keeping peace. The Amotekun experiment should be given a chance.
The rising case of insecurity is taking a new dimension with the abduction of judicial officers across the country. How do you see such anomaly?
What I see on the front page of the national dailies, are a confirmation of the fact that insecurity is on the rise. The headline of one of them reads: “terrorism, ECOWAS raises alarm.” The indication is that terrorist attacks increased by 80 percent in 2019 and that over 1000 Christians were killed in 2019 alone. Happily, our President agreed that terrorism as well as the insecurity it generates is a threat to peace and progress and has called his colleagues i.e. the Heads of States and Governments of the ECOWAS region to cooperate in order to arrest the trend. More worrisome is the rise in the number of judicial officers abducted in 2019. I do hope that this trend will not be witnessed in 2020. The gatekeepers of justice must feel safe wherever they may be.
What do you think can be done to address the challenge?
My feeling is that the life and security of every Nigerian should be the priority of all governments in Nigeria. That is to say Federal, States and Local Governments. Every day, when I listen to the news, there is always a report concerning insecurity. To that extent, all uniformed services must respond to the challenge and ensure that every Nigerian, whatever his destination, must get there safely and wherever his office is located, must be made to feel safe and secure. Each Nigerian, whether in Church, a Mosque, a farm or as a pedestrian must receive an assurance that he will be free wherever he goes and we should all be able to sleep with both eyes closed.
Late last year, agents of the State Security Service allegedly invaded a Federal High Court in Abuja to re-arrest Omoyele Sowore. How do you react to that?
At the time the incident was reported, most Nigerians and particularly lawyers, felt an overwhelming outrage at what had occurred. From hindsight, that incident ought not to have occurred and for that reason, it received very wide condemnation. As it is usual, a spin was put on the incident, making it difficult for anyone to know exactly what happened. In the end, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister for Justice gave assurance that the incident was being investigated and any transgression of the law would be sanctioned.
Governments at different levels have been accused of disobeying court orders, especially the government at the centre. As a former Attorney General, what role can that office play to address the situation?
Very well, every attorney general, whether of a state or of the federation must be alive to the fact that he is the chief law officer of the government. To that extent, it lies within his office to emphatically advise that disobedience to court orders is nothing but a recipe for disorder and eventual anarchy. The spirit, as well as the letter of the constitution, is that democracy can only be sustained by adherence to the rule of law. Without the rule of law, there can be no democracy. Consequently, any leader produced under a democratic environment must take steps to cement our democratic tenets and this includes obedience to court orders. It is therefore heartwarming to recall the recent release from detention of two persons whose detention raised concern in the public domain-Sowere and Sambo Dasuki. Their release is a welcomed development and let us hope that that it is a pointer to the future.
The inability of chief law officers (Attorneys General) of the federation also serving as a minister of justice to detach themselves totally from their appointer is raising the argument about separating the two offices. What is your take on that?
I’m not a disciple for the quest to separate the office of attorney general from that of the minister for justice. This debate has remained in the front burner for several years, but my attitude has remained constant and that is that, the answer does not lie in separating the two offices. It is my view that whosoever is given the responsibility of appointing an attorney general (such as the president as well as all the governors) must appoint a lawyer whose character is solid, whose belief in the rule of law is unshakable and above all, the appointee must have credentials that are transparent.
Any lawyer who passes this litmus test will understand that the survival of the state is anchored on the survival of the rule of law. Consequently, an attorney general who offers legal advise which is not based on sound law but on expediency cannot be fit for the office of attorney general. There are several countries where the attorney general is also the minister for justice and any astute lawyer who is proud of the legal profession will know where to draw the line between raw law, reasoned legal opinion and pandering to politics.
Following the outrage over the alleged court invasion by officials of DSS, some lawyers are now calling for sanction against their colleagues who serve in governments’ that violate rule of law. Do you subscribe to the idea or not and what are your reasons?
This is a very wide-ranging question and having previously served in government both at federal and state levels, I would not subscribe to a blanket condemnation of all lawyers who serve in government departments. Whatever sanction that is available must be applied on a case by case basis. Each discerning Nigerian must know that there are multiple government departments and it will be the responsibility of all law abiding Nigerians to ensure that legal and political advisers are held to account. That is my view.
By now, you must have read the judgment that sent your client to prison. What is your reaction to it?
I work in an office where we represent the interest of multiple clients. It will seem quite invidious to offer any answer to the question unless you specify which client you have in mind. On a general note anyway, any lawyer whose client is sent to prison, must have reservation about the judgment. At a professional level, we represent clients for many reasons including making sure that such client receive the assurance that due process with regard to the fundamentals of criminal justice system are faithfully adhered to.
Can you share your perspective with us about the controversial hate-speech bill, which reportedly provides death penalty for offenders?
I have read the bill which has received very wide publicity (as well as condemnation) and I’m worried about the definition of hate speech as well as the punishment prescribed for it – life imprisonment as well as death. I have heard it said that the proponent is willing to drop the death penalty but even at that, life imprisonment for what is defined as hate speech seems to me, within the boundaries of penology, to be draconian. Journalism, which is an aspect of the freedom of the press, will suffer if that bill becomes an Act. Besides, the hallmark of democracy is the freedom to hold ideas and to canvass them, even within an association. Any step, which tend to castrate free speech can never be free from suspicion.
Many believe that the social media control bill is aimed at gagging free speeches. What do you think?
Well, I think that free speech itself has in the past few years been taken too far. Free speech has never been a licence for either fake news or hate speech. In the doctrines, which underlined freedom of speech, vulgar abuse, slander, libel and every form of defamation has always been avoided. Self-censorship as well as the sacredness of fact are hallmarks of journalism. As a veteran journalist yourself, you must know that even free speech has its consequences and from early times, you check your audience, you check your environment and you check yourself and then decide the boundary of the freedom of speech which you want to enjoy. I do believe that free speech must be within the law; a balance has always been maintained.
Do you subscribe to the idea that we need to reform the justice sector and which area would merit your immediate attention?
We have just emerged from the Christmas season and I do not want to ruin the euphoria of that season for any stakeholder in the justice sector. You may therefore rest on the assurance that I will give you a full answer to this question as soon as we shake off the rustiness occasioned by the dynamics of the yuletide. May I therefore express my best wishes to all those who are engaged actively in meeting the expectations of teaming Nigerians in the justice sector. Have a wonderful year ahead.
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