Boma Ayomide Alabi is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and founding partner of Primera Africa Legal. former president, Commonwealth Lawyers Association, and Member, Body of Benchers, and Council Member for the Section on Legal Practice, Nigeria Bar Association. She is also a general mentor to many young law students and young lawyers. In this interview with CHIOMA UMEHA, she speaks on the challenges of the Nigerian Judiciary, ongoing industrial action in the sector, escalating insecurity in the country, and other issues. Excerpts:
How would you describe the judiciary system in the country? What are the challenges and way forward?
Well, you can see that the judicial workers are on strike at the moment, and that really will serve to tell us how deep-rooted the issues are. For the entire courts in the nation to be shut down – we’re in the fourth week now, and there has been no formal reaction from the executive arm of government per se, on a national level. We have had the workers meeting with the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF). There was also a meeting with the Minister of Labour. No country that values the rule of law and its citizens’ rights will permit its courts to be closed for over a month. That tells you how the judiciary is held by the executive arm, and how important it is that the citizens understand that the inefficiencies of our court system is not the fault of the judges; it is a product of poor funding, poor resourcing, and general neglect of that arm of government.
It is important that Nigerians understand, that it is not the fault of the judiciary that we are where we are. It’s the executive arm that is starving them of the funds which is supposed to be a direct line charge, it is in the constitution. The first line charge means that as soon as you get your monetary allocation at Federal or Sub-national level, you release the portion budgeted for the judiciary to them. And that’s where the problem lies.
What is the way forward?
The way forward? Just obey the law. The constitution has made a provision, the court has ruled and given judgment to say this is the law, and the executive arm of government is largely ignoring it. We have to commend Lagos State. Lagos State and River State are the two states that I’m aware of that are keeping to the law, as far as I know. Look at Cross Rivers State where magistrates were appointed and the governor said that he was not consulted to his satisfaction by his yardstick and has refused to pay them for two years. That is why they ended up on the streets of Calabar protesting. Where does it happen? The impact of this strike on the ordinary citizen is that, right now, if you’re arrested and taken to any Nigerian police station for anything, nobody can go to court to seek your freedom. They can keep you there for the next three weeks until the court re-opens. Whilst the law says, within 48 hours, ‘if you haven’t charged me, release me’, and if you aren’t released, your lawyers can then go to court to seek your release. With the courts closed, the citizens’ rights will continue to be infringed; so, these are the realities of this situation. It’s serious.
It seems that many Nigerians no longer have confidence in the judiciary system due to delay in obtaining justice…
(Cuts in) Well, this is the issue, for this democracy to work, and for the rule of law to be obeyed, and people’s rights respected, we the citizens have to come to the table. We cannot sit down and be complaining on social media, or not even complaining at all and just be impatient, leaving it to “God, who will come down from heaven and do it for us”. It’s not going to happen. We have to take the pains to enforce our rights.
We know what the law says, the judiciary should be funded and they are not getting funded appropriately. Who is the ultimate victim? The citizen, that poor man who is going to court to enforce his right, who may have been evicted by his landlord unlawfully. Where does he go? Is it not the court? Or the one who is picked up by the police on Friday night, just going home from work, and then they now insist on him bailing himself. It happens to innocent citizens and these are not stories.
The only way to get justice is for him to go to that court, and the court can say, no, this person has done nothing, let him go, or even if he might have, grant him bail while you investigate him. Also, the impact on the ordinary man may be during commercial transactions. For instance, I supplied you some goods, and you don’t pay, I can’t take the law into my hands. I’ll plead with the court, the court will give me judgment then I can come and garnishee your property or your salary, depending on where your income is coming from. That’s why the court is called ‘the last hope of the common man’.
The political class does not need the court until it’s time for an election. So, every four years they run to the court with an election petition. It’s a pity that the common man is the one suffering, and that is why the so-called common man should understand that he’s not common. He is the citizen; these people are there to serve us, not to lord over us. They’re not our kings, we don’t elect kings, they’re public servants since we elected them and we need to begin to think in that way and enforce our rights by making the demands.
The Freedom of Information Act, which journalists think is a media thing, is for the citizens – the citizens should use it to ask questions. Let us say that I live in Eti Osa, for example, Eti Osa, how much is your budget for the local government, you’re getting direct money from the Federal Revenue, how much are you putting into my local school? Why am I paying to send my child to a private school when I’m a taxpayer? These are the questions that the citizens should be asking.
Start at the local government level, then you get good governance because you’re there, local government is not far because you live there. You don’t need to go to Abuja to enforce your rights. How much do you receive in the LGA coffers? How much is going into the school? How much are you putting into repairing these bad roads in front of my house? How much are you putting into the Primary Health Care facility? These are all on the local government level. If we don’t ask those questions, everyone will be looking at President Buhari as if the president will come from Abuja to deal with all levels of governance.
So, we really must focus on where government impacts most on the citizen, engage with them, and begin to work from there. The Freedom of Information Act is for everyone, and that includes the citizens, and not just the media. Government is for the citizens.
It seems that insecurity is becoming so overwhelming – the shooting and abduction of students. What’s your recommendation?
You see, security is the first and primary duty of the government. If you cannot secure the lives and properties of your citizens, then what kind of government do we have? We don’t have one. We should be able to go to sleep at night with our two eyes closed; our children should be able to go to school without us worrying about them being kidnapped. Unfortunately, and it goes back to the fact that the executive arm of government has never put its citizens first, so it’s been a downward spiral, government after government. It didn’t start with one; it’s what is your priority? When kidnapping started, who was paying the ransom? And the government will say don’t pay a ransom, yet you’ll facilitate it, because it’s a short-term solution. But in your short-term solution, you have created a monster because it has become a thriving business. We hardly hear about robbery these days, because why will I go out and put myself at risk to go and rob somebody’s home if I can just pick someone up and sit in a hidden corner somewhere and make money with the hostage. And that’s the mindset of criminals who are now holding citizens hostage, but it didn’t happen overnight, so if the right steps had been taken from the beginning, we would not be here now.
Unfortunately, again, we know the history of some of these gangs and anecdotal evidence indicates that there is some complicity from those who should have protected us. It’s not too late, I’m hearing some of the right sorts of statements coming from the government, and I hope they mean it because, honestly, if you put your foot down and say look, we’ll not pay ransom no matter what, it’ll get worse and then it will get better because they’ll push the button, to see whether our resolve will stand.
But if we all put our foot down and refuse to pay that ransom, kidnapping will stop. What will be the essence of their kidnapping if they know no one is going to pay? We have to get to that point where we understand that it’s a vicious circle, the money we pay for ransom is the money they use in buying more weapons and ammunition to kidnap more people and continue to terrorise us. As for the level of insecurity and attack on state facilities – the Ebonyi State Federal High Court was attacked and burned down. These are deliberate actions to undermine the rule of law and the institutions that represent and deliver the rule of law. And this also shows that there is a force of anarchy that is also present in our society, it’s very dangerous.
Again, if the Nigerian Police had developed good relationships with the people, information would have been coming to them to assist them to solve all these crimes, but people are terrified of the police because the experience has been victimisation and brutalisation.
So, even if you know something, you’ll decide not to get involved with the police, because if you go and put in a report, the next thing you know, the table is turned on you. That is why a corpse can be seen on the street, but no one would go to report. In other places, once a report of such is made, the police and other agencies will swing into action and ensure that the person who brought the information is treated as a human, and protected from victimisation. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens.
The Nigerian police need to be re-orientated in order for them to do their work properly and solve some of these crimes beleaguering our society. In England, the police are not armed, but they solve more crimes. They are close to their community and have the trust of the people.
Having practised in England, are there lessons you think Nigeria should learn from the British system of law?
A lot of things that come before the courts here honestly waste the time of the court and drag out the cases because we spend a lot of time in this jurisdiction on form processes – did you put the right date? Was this the right name? And so on, before we actually get to the substance of the matter. Those procedural things which go to form end up being contentious, and we’re arguing over it, bring in authorities, take it all the way to the Supreme Court and back before we come back to tackle the substance. That should not be happening; it doesn’t happen in England where we got this system of law from, it doesn’t happen anywhere. Those issues are dealt with at the registry level and not to waste the time of the judge in court as to your forms and processes. It’s not an issue for contention. If there has been an error, they’ll assist you to rectify that error.
In England, you won’t bring such incidents before a judge to be contending over form or no form. That’s because they’ve been through this process where we are and they’ve learnt from it – remember they brought this law to us. So, we need to fast track our learning to see how it works more efficiently elsewhere and change some of our rules in order to ensure that we don’t waste court’s time, people’s time, and resources with such peripheral issues.
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