Immunity is a necessary provision in the constitution, says Nwoko
There are perceptions among some lawyers and Nigerians that the power of nolle prosequi, enshrined in the constitution has been abused by Attorneys-General across the country, including the Federal Attorney General. The belief is that most of such interventions are motivated by corrupt inducements. In this interview, a senior lawyer, Uwemedimo Nwoko, who has just been appointed the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Akwa Ibom State reacts to the perception to Joseph Onyekwere. He also spoke on corruption, the immunity clause, the local government autonomy and others.
Do you think the power of nolle prosequi, has been abused by Attorneys-General across the country?
If somebody says a particular Attorney General is abusing the provision of nolle prosequi, he should be able to give statistics and instances. I would not, for instance, use what happens in Lagos State to judge Kano State. Every State has its own peculiarity. If somebody is saying the Attorneys-General are abusing their powers of nolle prosequi, I think it is a wrong judgment. If somebody cites instances, with reference to the particular instances, we can then appraise the action of the Attorney General in question. It is then that we can give an informed judgment of the action of that particular Attorney General. Making such blanket statement is unfair to the occupants of the offices of the Attorneys-General in the country.
Would you support the separation of the office of the Attorney General from that of the Ministry of Justice?
It should be separated. The Attorney General should run an independent office. The Attorney should be an officer that can even prosecute the president or the governor as the case may be but the Commissioner for Justice is a mere appointee of the governor. He is just one of the commissioners in the executives and he is answerable to his boss. In advanced democracies in the world the Attorney General is appointed outside political setting and he has fixed tenure and cannot be removed until his tenure expires. That is why he is kept away from political influence of the executives. I subscribe to the opinion that the office of the Attorney General should be separated from that of the Ministry of Justice.
What makes you hold the view there will be another constitutional conference?
Yes I have said that over and over again and I still stand by it. One, I am of the opinion that most important issue that should have been placed on the table of the last National conference in Nigeria would have been for Nigerians to discuss their readiness or otherwise to remain together as people of one nation. That particular aspect which I see as the most important and critical was left out from the terms of reference of the last conference and what that means is that we are going to come back to face that question. One day we would answer whether Nigerians are still ready to live together as people of one nation. If you check through the present electioneering and the incidents that follow them you would get to find out that there is still doubt as to the readiness of Nigerians to continue to live together as citizens of one indivisible, indissoluble sovereign nation. Why was President Goodluck Jonathan’s convoy attacked in Bauchi and Katsina? Why did Bayelsans and the South South people now rise to challenge it even when they had willingly and hospitably accommodated the campaign train of General Buhari in the South-South? Why is Buhari unable to contain and control the conduct of his own supporters in Bauchi, Katsina and other northern states? These are petty sentiment and it is manipulation of the sentiment of the leadership that flows down through the actions of supporters. The questions again arise: Are we ready to bury our differences and past experiences and come together to work as a people of one nation? Are we still wiping and fanning the embers of discord? What has changed between 1914 when the amalgamation was done and today? What is the difference between the attitude of Nigerians after the civil war in 1970 and today? How have we been able to handle the issue of fiscal federalism? Have we been able to resolve the issue of resource control? Most of those things are treated on the surface superficially. The average South-South person, including myself, believes that the foundation of the Nigerian nation, which was formed under the Republican Constitution of 1963, was completely eroded by the intervention of the military in the Nigerian politics. I keep on referring to Section 140 sub section 1 of the 1963 Constitution which peg resource control at 50 per cent to the regions. The military came up and wiped it out and reduce it to zero. The south-south demanded at the last National Conference that it should be raised 25 per cent but the North fought it to a standstill and that issue was not resolved. Do you expect the south-south to be happy? Instead of resolving our fundamental issues we keep managing them. The trouble is actually incubating; it is just becoming a more vicious and explosive time bomb waiting for its appropriate time to explode. There will definitely be another national conference.
What is your position on autonomy for local government, legislature and even the judiciary?
I have always insisted on compliance with the constitution. The autonomy for each of the three organs of government and the three tiers of government in Nigeria are constitutional. They are not things that are left for the whims and caprices of individuals. I do insist there should be autonomy for these organs and tiers of government. Fortunately for me, we are one of the few states that comply with the constitutional provision of giving autonomy to the judiciary even before the judgment in favour of the judiciary staff. That is why Justice Ademola struck out our names after we applied and showed evidence that we have already comply with the provision of the constitution in respect of giving autonomy to the judiciary. That is why we are not bound by that judgment. I am lucky to come from a state where the independence of the judiciary had already been applied even before judiciary staffs at the national level went to court. On the independence of the legislature, that has already been taken care of. I have always maintained that the local governments should be made to stand as an independent tier of government in terms of managing their finances and my position has not changed. Fortunately, you would notice that it is the responsibility of the legislature to amend the constitution to that effect or not. My opinion is that the law, Section 162, as it stands makes it is very clear that the finances of the local government should be paid directly to the local governments. The only thing is the application of that law, where there is this Joint Account manipulation by some States is what is creating the problem. My belief is that the law is already standing where it should stand. There is no further need for that amendment. All that we need to have are governments at the various levels sitting down and ensure the application of that law. It would be nice to have a system where local governments have their funds directly paid to them, even if it goes through the Joint Account as it is being operated, all that is needed to be done is for the local governments to come out with their own format. I have attended Joint Account meeting in Akwa Ibom and I saw that they all discussed and agreed on modalities they want to apply. I believe that as far as Akwa Ibom is concerned that position is being applied. It may not be the same with other states!
What is your take on immunity clause? Should it be removed?
Immunity is a necessary provision in the constitution. I don’t think the people occupying those offices to which immunity applies act in such a way that it would prove to us that they deserve such immunity. As it stands, my thinking is that we should not throw away the baby with the bath water. There is so much responsibility in the office of the President, Vice President, the governor and deputy governors. We should not open the floodgate of cases against them. If a governor is sued today, whether in his official or private capacity, if he is a corrupt person he would have to defend it with public funds. We may have a situation a governor is faced with over 100 cases in a year and he may call his friends to defend him and use the state funds to settle the bills; so, we may end up with legal bills that will swallow up the annual budgets of every state. That is one of the dangers that removal of immunity clause portends. Don’t forget that a serving governor has no other work that he is doing. He is not allowed to be a director of a company. He is not allowed to do a private business because he is in office. So the only way he could get money to defend himself would be public funds. My thinking is also that the removal of immunity should be limited to actions that deals specifically with corruption, because if you allow them to go through four or eight years in office there is possibility of destroying vital evidence if investigation does not begin immediately corruption is noticed and you may end up not having anything to try him. So, issues of corruption being an exceptional impediment to the development of the nation should be taken out in immunity clause while other
What state of things did you meet on assuming work at the Attorney General office?
The concerns of the ministry of Justice as far as justice delivery system is concerned are the protection of human rights, compliance with the rule of law and the constitution and given room for the citizens of that particular State to enjoy the fundamental human rights. I am appointed into a government with excellent credentials as far as human right is concerned.
Inheriting that kind of legacy makes my job very easy, but then there is room for improvement. I will be working toward further decongesting the prisons and our courts; to ensure that the right of citizens are respected and that the rule of law is applied. Beyond that, I am working towards instituting a legal frame work to enhance the performance of the staff of the ministry of justice in making contribution to justice delivery system in the state. I have discovered that a lot of criminal cases run into difficult quarters in the cause of prosecution. I have decided to establish a synergy between the ministry of justice and the police investigating team. There should be a monitor of the police investigation so that the thing that needs to be put in place is brought into place immediately.