‘Judiciary has undertaken internal cleansing more than other two arms of government’
Chief Sebastine Hon, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), was born in Gboko Local Government Area of Benue State. He graduated from the University of Jos with LLB in 1990 and was called to the Bar in 1991. He was elevated to the Inner Bar in 2008. A constitutional lawyer and author, he combines legal practice with book writing. He has authored many books, including Constitutional Law and Jurisprudence in Nigeria (2004); Law of Evidence in Nigeria: Substantive and Procedural (2006); S.T. Hon’s Civil Procedure in Nigeria (2008); S.T. Hon’s Law of Evidence in Nigeria (2012) and S.T. Hon’s Constitutional and Migration Law in Nigeria (2016). These books have become constant sources of reference in all courts of the land.He holds the chieftaincy title of Afa Atindi U Gboko, meaning ‘Mr. Know the Law of Gboko.’ He is also a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators.
The Judiciary has witnessed some reforms in the last one year. These are aimed at restoring public confidence and facilitating justice dispensation. In an interview with Bridget Chiedu Onochie, Sebastine Hon (SAN), held that the judiciary has taken self-examination and internal cleansing more than the two other arms of government. He also scored the executive low in the areas of respect for court orders and obedience of the rule of law.
What is your assessment of the judiciary in recent times in view of perceived reforms and disciplining of erring judicial officers and lawyers?
The Nigerian Judiciary has always done at least, marginally well; and I have expressed this viewpoint in various interviews and at various fora. I can confidently say that in spite of the public perception about the judiciary, this arm of government has always been the last hope of the common man in Nigeria and even of the powerful. It is the custodian of the rule of law, constitutionalism, due process and the rule against impunity. Historically, we must appreciate that even during repressive military regimes, the Nigerian judiciary stood up in defence of the rule of law. I remember that in 1970, contrary to the hawkish eye of the then military junta, the Supreme Court of Nigeria propounded the doctrine of necessity – whereby it held that the then military government was not a legitimate government but was a government of necessity. That was in the case of Lakanmi vs. Attorney-General of Western Region (1970). This angered that military government to promulgate Decree No. 28 of 1970 – which annulled the decision of the Supreme Court and proclaimed in unmistaken terms, the supremacy and legitimacy of the military coup de tat.
Similarly, in 1994, the General Abacha-led government, relying on existing Decree No. 8 of 1994; and acting in terrorem, sealed up the premises of The Guardian Newspapers; and when the unlawful closure was challenged in court, the federal government raised ouster of jurisdiction. The Supreme Court did not buckle. Holding its head high, the full court of the Supreme Court held that ouster of jurisdiction was not applicable to the facts of the case. It accordingly ordered the reopening of the premises. This was in the case of Attorney-General of the Federation vs. Guardian Newspapers (1999).
Having laid that brief foundation, I must say that the judiciary, far more than the two other arms of government, has been undertaking internal self-examination and cleansing. The number of judicial officers punished quadruples the number of executive members and legislators punished for corruption and abuse of office. Check your records. Yet, the judiciary is always the whipping and weeping boy in the eyes of the public. Going forward, I must say that the reforms introduced by some of the immediate-past Chief Justices have had a tranquilizing effect on justice administration. Let me start with Justice Kutigi, the respected Jurist who just died. He was the gentle but very organized type; one who directed that things must be done orderly. Ditto Justice Katsina-Alu of blessed memory too.
He was one CJN who upped the welfare of judicial officers to unprecedented levels, all in an attempt to stop the eyes of Judges and Justices from ‘roving.’ Justice Aloma Muhktar was of course, no nonsense. Remarkably too, Justice Mahmud Mohammed was incorruptible and no nonsense too. He was the person that introduced restrictions targeted at persons walking freely into the Chambers of Supreme Court Justices. Even as Senior Advocates of Nigeria, we were to be on appointment before we could see the Justices in Chambers. I also remember that a son to Justice Mohammed came to me and requested that because of my proficiency in writing books, I should do a book for his father – form of a biography. Together, we booked an appointment and went to see Justice Mohammed in the office; but the old man politely told us he had placed an embargo on sitting Justices launching books. He said he would not break the regulation he himself had put in place.
The reforms introduced by Justice Walter Onnoghen are also unprecedented. I remember that one of his daughters, a lawyer, wrote a book and invited people to the launch and even paid for the venue. But Justice Onnoghen stopped it – that it cannot take place during his tenure as a Justice of the Supreme Court. He is also the person that has set up a special task force of Justices to handle and conclude all political appeals before the 2019 election. He has also introduced a system whereby all dormant appeals are raked up suo motu by the Supreme Court and summarily dismissed, thereby decongesting the cause list. He has also introduced the filing and service of court processes online. I can go on and on. In terms of discipline of erring judicial officers, I again repeat that the judiciary is unequaled in terms of internal self-cleansing. Some of the punishments, in my respectful opinion, are too weighty; but I know that the NJC wants always to send a signal to the few bad eggs in the judiciary. So, I will give the judiciary a pass mark so far.
Members of the legal profession, including Senior Advocates of Nigeria, have also not been spared. Before now, some people saw the rank of SAN as a licence to misbehave. Today, reality has dawned on every SAN that it’s no more business as usual. No one would, after enjoying the perks and privileges of SAN, want to lose or be stripped of them. On the lighter and professional side of it too, no reasonable person would want to engage a lazy lawyer who would lose out in the litigation tussle flimsily. These are realities staring all of us in the face like bright sunrays. Even the mentally blind are seeing all of these; hence anybody who allows himself to be caught pants down should blame only himself. In my language, we call this “tar taver”, meaning literally that nothing in this world is easy.
There has been serious clamour for timely dispensation of justice. Have you seen that happening? If not, what do you think are the militating factors?
From my answer to the first question, it can be gleaned that the judiciary as an arm of government has started taking positive steps in ensuring quick and efficient administration of justice. A situation whereby dormant appeals, filed and deliberately kept in the docket of the Supreme Court are being raked up and dismissed in Chambers is very salutary. Also, the frontloading advanced procedure now applicable to almost all the states of the federation, the FCT, Abuja and in proceedings before the Federal High Court, has helped in no small measure in the quick dispensation of justice in civil causes and matters.
Successive Chief Justices of Nigeria, President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Bulkachuwa, successive Chief Judges of the Federal High Court, the FCT High Court and the various State High Courts have also enacted fast-track mini-legislation, pursuant to powers vested in them by the 1999 Constitution, all aimed at quick dispensation of justice. These are highly commendable efforts, I must say with all sense of responsibility.
But increase in population, advancement in technology and business, greed and covetousness, have more than added to the litigation list of courts of law in Nigeria. Thousands of matters are filed everyday in the various courts; but there is no commensurate increase in the number of judicial officers and even court support staff. Then lawyers also come with their delay tactics and other unsavoury dilatory alchemies.
There are also institutional issues. First, I have been shouting hoarse that there is every need to create Regional or State Supreme Courts and Courts of Appeal. In the US, which operates a Federal and Presidential system of Government like ours, there are Supreme Courts even at the State level. In addition, there are Regional Courts of Appeal, hence we have “1st Circuits, 2nd Circuit”, etc, which are the equivalent of the various Divisions of the Court of Appeal in Nigeria. Issues bordering on customary law, land litigation and other petty matters end up in the Supreme Courts of the various States and don’t ever reach the US Supreme Court. In short, that court has final say only on matters of constitutional law, matters bordering on federal laws or mixed federal and provincial laws, etc.
Recently, I delivered a paper at the Regional Conference of the Christian Lawyers Federation of Nigeria (CLASFON), which held in Port Harcourt; and I strongly advocated that the frontloading procedure should also be adopted in criminal proceedings to reduce precious litigation time to the barest minimum and also, to relax the physical stress on judges who record verbatim everything said in court. I hereby strongly advocate that measure.
Finally, lawyers cause enormous delay. The system should find a way of ameliorating and even frontally addressing this. I think I have to salute the Supreme Court, which wastes no time in awarding costs to be paid personally by lawyers involved in the unprofessional behaviour of either causing unnecessary delay or of filing frivolous appeals on matters that have been settled and have become as obvious as the sun.
Stakeholders have been worried about the declining standard of education, including legal education. As SAN and author of law books, are you comfortable with the situation?
How can I be? How would any sensible person be? At this level, I am not just a father; I am also a leader in this cherished profession. I attended a missionary school, where morality based on Christian teachings and laws were mixed with secular education. We grew up under strict parental and educational discipline. As a Christian, I have done all a father could do to mentor my children along those lines; and I would say God has been very faithful in keeping them in that mould. In those days, we learnt our mother tongues first before English; but today, it is the other way round. We never had access to cell phones; and those of us from humble backgrounds never had access to television. Today, our children get these exposures at very innocent and tender ages and become violated in their prime. In those days, a parent would commend a teacher for disciplining his child very well; but today, parents launch verbal and even physical assault on teachers for venturing to correct their children. Today, you walk into an average public place like the airport and you will see both mother and daughter in hot mini-skirts, proudly gallivanting up and down for all to see.
I make bold to state that the forceful confiscation of missionary schools by the various levels of government in Nigeria laid the initial unfortunate foundation for what we are experiencing today. After taking over the schools, the governments messed them up by insufficiently funding them and bastardising the moral content of the curriculum. After messing up such schools, the same public servants and teachers began and continue till date to establish their own private schools, corner brilliant pupils and students thereto and run their show as they want. Unfortunately, most of those kids in the private schools are children of the rich and the middle class; hence the immoral conducts of their parents are infused into the system, thereby completing the circle of vicious hopelessness. We now have a situation whereby the public schools are grounded; and the so-called private schools that are supposed to come to the rescue are grossly lacking in sound foundational and operational structures.
I am therefore deeply pained that some of our graduates cannot communicate properly in the English language. Many young lawyers are as guilty as members of other professions. Our youngsters like good things of life but are not prepared to work for them. I would counsel our youngsters to “challenge your challenge; don’t allow your challenge to challenge you.” Above all, put God first in all that you do. Do you believe that I reject mouth-watering briefs, because of my Christian faith? Yet, I am not hungry. These have been my agelong principles; and I must say I am very happy with myself. To the government, please return all the confiscated missionary schools to the missions, not only with public apology but with compensation. To parents, return to the natural, godly way of doing things; don’t be deceived by the so called good things of this transient world.
How would you rate the Executive in the area of obedience to court orders and the rule of law?
Abysmally very low! Why is Col. Dasuki still in prison in spite of the various court orders that he be released? Why is the Federal Government not keen on prosecuting him? Why is El-Zakzaki, the leader of the Shiites still in detention without trial? What concrete action has the Federal Government taken to stem the fast slide into anarchy occasioned mostly by the attacks on sleeping communities by Fulani herdsmen? What of the invasion of the National Assembly by the DSS operatives? The answers you will supply to the above and many more will tell you whether or not this Government has obtained a pass mark in the area of the rule of law.
Cases of rights violation, sexual assaults and rape increase daily. Is it that there is a lacuna in law that prevents due punishment for perpetrators?
Far from that! The laws are always there to protect the weak and the vulnerable; but the political will to fight these hydra-headed vices is lacking most at times. Issues bordering on violation of human rights are even government-based. Sexual assaults owe their origin to a lot of sociological and economic factors. Due to crushing poverty for instance, beleaguered parents and guardians send their children and wards to adults living in the cities or to those who are well-to-do. Even though some of these adults are trusted by the parents or guardians of those children, I want to be categorical that many of these adults living in better conditions are brigands and social perverts to the knowledge of those parents. Yet, poverty pushes them to take those risks. This is the reality of our society.
As I explained above too, modern-day parents expose their children to sexuality and pornography willy-nilly, and at very tender ages. The female ones especially are shown and even actively tutored that wearing skimpy dresses is very usual and acceptable. Now, men of this world who are living in the flesh are attracted by what they see; hence the rise in cases of rape and violation of children.
Before I forget, I wish to condemn in unmistaken terms all men who abuse the trust vested in them by their compatriots, who entrust their children in their care. I shout shame unto them. The recent case of the death of a little girl in Benue State is most unfortunate. Justice should take its course in all such cases. The full weight of the law should be brought to bear on the perpetrators.
Young robes complain of poor treatment by the senior ones. What are the implications of these grievances on their performance and the profession in general?
My answer is two-edged. First, the juniors must learn to grow gradually. The problem is that most young lawyers are not ready to work diligently to the top. Life is a journey; and everyone has their crosses to carry. No two situations are exactly the same, hence even if some senior lawyers made it shortly after graduation, the same cannot be for everyone. Also, there are no standard ways of treating junior lawyers; it all depends on each senior’s capacity, idea about life and socio-cultural upbringing. And that takes me to the seniors and the manner they treat their juniors. We have had some experiences in this regard that are very terrible and condemnable by all right thinkers. We were for instance, bombarded on the social media with the video of police officers physically assaulting a junior lawyer at the instance of a senior lawyer, simply because the junior had come to demand his earned wages. Some junior lawyers face even worse situations.
But as I said, some juniors too are ingrates. I personally have the experience of buying cars for some juniors, contributing stupendously to other aspects of their lives but they hardly greet me today. What can you say of that type of conduct? Do you now see why I said I have a two-edged answer?
The number of judicial officers punished quadruples the number of executive members and legislators punished for corruption and abuse of office. Check your records!
Before now, some people saw the rank of SAN as a license to misbehave. Today, reality has downed on every SAN that it is no more business as usual.
The forceful confiscation of missionary schools by the various levels of government in Nigeria laid the initial unfortunate foundation for what we are experiencing today. After taking over the schools, the governments messed them up by insufficiently funding them and bastardising the moral content of the curriculum.
The problem is that most young lawyers are not ready to work diligently to the top. Life is a journey and everyone has his or her cross to carry.
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