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Nigeria is long overdue for constitution recalibration, says Nwoko

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The National Assembly has announced another round of constitutional amendment exercise. The one embarked upon by the 8th Assembly was fruitless, raising doubt in the minds of some Nigerians about the seriousness of the lawmakers this time. In this interview with Assistant Editor, Law and Foreign Affairs, JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, human rights lawyer, Mr. Uwemedimo Nwoko, who is the attorney general and commissioner for justice in Akwa Ibom State charges the National Assembly to take the exercise very seriously because the survival of the country depends on it, in addition to other topical issues he spoke on.

The National Assembly wants to embark on another constitutional amendment. Do you think it would be another jamboree?
Some people are afraid of a constitutional amendment. There are people who are patently afraid of the constitutional amendment. It is understandable because there are people who are beneficiaries of the present structures of Nigeria, notwithstanding how harmful and how dangerous it is to our co-existence as a nation. I wish the National Assembly members could seriously take the matter of constitutional amendment as a serious project because, whether we like it or not, Nigeria is long overdue for the recalibration of our constitution.

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The present constitution cannot take Nigeria out of the woods. You cannot have this over-bloated exclusive legislative list, where the federal government is the master of all, where the federal government carries all the burden, where the federal government stays in Abuja and knows who is a common criminal in the deepest part of Sokoto, Borno, Uyo, Port Harcourt or Aba because the Inspector General of Police (IGP) is controlling all the police formations in Nigeria. The IGP is the one to determine how many bullets should be bought into the magazine of a policeman that is carrying an empty AK-47 rifle in my village. Until we begin to look at Nigeria for what it is, until we begin to summon up the strength of character; to have that political will to recalibrate Nigeria, we are not going to make any progress. You can never have this kind of structure and expect to make progress. It is not possible. We are driving an overloaded vehicle.

If you believe in the process, what major amendment would you recommend that will unite and accelerate the country’s development?
The federal government does not need more than 10 to 15 items on the exclusive legislative list. It does not even need more than 10! The federal government should be concerned with the protection of the territorial integrity of Nigeria, which has to do with the military, currency through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), international affairs, diplomacy, and national identity. The rest of the items should be put on a concurrent legislative list. The federal government cannot be controlling something as simple as policing a community. The federal government cannot be controlling something as power generation and distribution. The federal government cannot be controlling water and they are still looking forward to controlling more water in the country. The federal government now wants to be issuing a license for people to dig boreholes in their houses. That is madness!

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What is your reaction about the formation of a New NBA?
It is very unfortunate. I believe that people who are doing that are not serious. They just want to display a rather infantile attitude to a very serious matter. They are not serious-minded. I have checked through the list of their supposed members, I have not seen any credible name. We have lawyers of repute from the north. There are also men and women of the inner bar, those of the bench as well as serious and credible lawyers from the north, but I have not heard their voices in that movement. So, I believe it is very childish. Nothing warrants that outburst. Nothing gives reasons for that display of childishness.

Tracing the formation of the New NBA to dis-invitation of the Kaduna State governor, Nasir El-Rufai, who was initially billed to speak at the NBA conference, do you think something was wrong on the part of the then Paul Usoro-led NBA for buckling under the pressure?
We should still give it to Paul Usoro and his team. The whole essence of leadership is the ability to carry along the people. The leaders sat down and in their wisdom thought El-Rufai has enough credibility to speak at the NBA conference. So, they invited him. Immediately that information was put out, there was a backlash on social media such that if Usoro was standing in front of the people, he would have been torn apart. The reaction was instantaneous. There was a barrage of attacks on the Usoro-led NBA. Fortunately for the leadership, the National Executive Council (NEC) meeting was coming up, which is the highest decision-making body of the NBA.

The NEC is made up of current executives across all the branches from the north to the south. At that meeting, the issue was tabled. The whole idea of democracy is about the majority. A very large majority at the NEC meeting voted for the withdrawal of the invitation. It was not primordial. The issue raised against him was not between north and south. It was an issue that has to do with his state principally, where he is the governor. And the decision of the majority at the NEC meeting was that he should be dis-invited. NEC members from the north were there. They could have done their politics there, make their submissions, presentation, and convince the majority of the NEC members to jettison the decision. The matter was on the floor and they lost it on the floor.

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President Buhari harped on the ills of technicalities against substantial justice at the just concluded NBA conference. How could this issue be addressed in the judiciary?
I believe the president spoke what he believes in. If we walk the talk, technicalities should not be an issue again in the Nigerian legal system because, for over 30 years now, the Supreme Court had said that we have moved away from technicalities to substantial justice. According to the apex court, the issue of using technicalities to undermine substantial justice in a case is part of our legal system. But what we see in most cases is different from what we do. Generally speaking, I think the judiciary is still trying to catch up with that talk. Let me say this: we must equally give credence and credit to the judiciary. There has been a lot of improvement in moving away from the era of dry technicalities to the era where technicalities do not really speak all the time. Now, you don’t find people saying, ‘you didn’t cross the T’s or you did not dot the I’s or the coma was not properly placed. It used to be as bad as that. Those days when lawyers did that had gone, so we have advanced substantially towards substantial justice. But then, to quote Justice Oputa, the medieval change of technicalities is still dangling on our ankles as we try to move forward. We cannot say we have totally broken loose from the chains of technicalities.

Nigerian president also proposed a time frame for the conclusion of civil and criminal matters as it is in election petitions. What is your view about it?
The president has proposed a one-year time frame, but I can say it is not possible. Particularly at the trial court level, so much is taken into consideration, depending on the nature of the case. In our criminal jurisprudence, there are lots of factors that come into consideration before the court finally arrives at a decision. There is this philosophy that it is better for 100 guilty persons to escape punishment than for one innocent person to be unlawfully punished for an offence he did not commit. It puts a very heavy burden on the trial court and the entire criminal justice system to vet through, put on the deepest and most profound binoculars, look at issues, assesses them and arrive at a decision. Part of the problem we have is that Nigeria is grossly under-policed. The police investigate over 80 per cent of cases that go to courts in Nigeria for prosecution. That is conservative estimation. The remaining 20, if not 15 per cent comes from the DSS, the Immigration, or other security agencies. As at today, Nigeria is operating at one policeman to thousands of citizens. We have not even got near the United Nations prescription of one policeman to a certain number of persons.

Take Akwa Ibom, for example, of the 31 local government areas, all homicide cases, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, and arson cases that carry capital punishment, or sometimes felonies are transferred to the police headquarters for investigation. How many policemen do we have at the Police headquarters to pilot investigations, given the number of cases that turn up everyday? So, at the end of the day, you get to find out that the policemen are overwhelmed. At the end of the investigation, they prepare the case files, charge the accused to the court, or forward the case file to the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP). These same policemen would be the Investigation Police Officer (IPOs) in those cases cutting across the entire state. So, you find out that a particular policeman may have up to 20 to 50 murder cases across the whole state on his table. The same policeman is going to testify in Ikot Ekpene, Uyo, Obot Akara, among other places because as the IPO, all the cases are on his table. So, to have this man criss-cross all the court divisions to testify in all the cases he has investigated is time-consuming.

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In addition, there are new cases coming up for him to investigate. So, while he is creating time to go to court to testify on old cases, he also has to create time to investigate new cases that are coming in. Worst still, in the course of testifying in the court, he may be transferred outside the state. The burden now comes on the prosecution to produce the IPO in court to testify. That policeman does not have to use his little salary to pay his way to come for the testimony. You don’t only have to make sure that he comes at his own time, you must make arrangements for his transport and hotel accommodation. He cannot do that from his own pocket. That is part of the burden that would make it difficult for the court and the criminal justice system generally to meet up with that one year suggested by Mr. President. The idea is appreciated but there are a lot of difficulties involved in the prosecution of matters. We have had about five adjournments at the instance of our prosecution because we cannot produce the IPO.

The emergence of COVID-19 has now made the justice sector reform very imperative. What areas do you think deserve immediate attention?
The society is dynamic. Events alter the status quo, change our behavioural patterns, traditions, and cultures, and put us on a new pedestal, a new line of thinking. The advent of COVID-19 has come to open our eyes more to realities of imperatives of degitalising our operations. At this time, it is very obvious that the legal mechanisms and the institutional structures that run our justice delivery system need to get the catch up with the modern standard. So, analog is practically phased out. It has to go. Children are taken lessons at home. Children are writing exams at home. Schools are holding virtual convocations. We never thought it would come so soon.

So, the challenge is so obvious that we cannot afford to play the ostrich at this time. We must be ready to catch up, otherwise, the world would leave us behind. Our pattern of recording by the judges; to the way of keeping exhibits; to the manner of filing papers, and all that, is going to change. These days, if you carry a bunch of paper to somebody, he would sanitise his hands before collecting your papers and in the course of treating your papers, he may have to sanitise his hands up to three, four times, depending on the volume of the document. Definitely, the imperative of going to online filings has become very clear. There is no way we can dodge that. So many things have to change with the times and we cannot afford to stay back, otherwise, the world would leave us behind.

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