Justice Saliu Alfa Modibo Belgore
With a memory that belies his age and a fervour that sometimes seems surprising given his background as a judge, former Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman, Presidential Committee on the Review of Outstanding Issues from recent Constitutional Conferences, Justice Saliu Alfa Modibo Belgore, speaks with Ahamefula Ogbu on how Nigeria missed the path to progress and how it can retrace its steps. experts:
How has life been in retirement for you?
Well, I have retired; it will be six years in January and I thank God Almighty. I’m still in good health at 75. I will be 76 in January. I retired and thought that I will go to Ilorin, rest and think of what to do, thereafter at least to keep me busy as I am not looking for business; all I was looking for was something to keep me busy where I will not go and lose money and I am not looking for money. I feel comfortable with what God has given me but I was thinking of many things whether I will go there, get to the village, put a little generator there, be writing and do some farming, that is produce rice, yams, grains, beans, lettuce, cabbage to give to friends whenever they visit me, and on Fridays I will be coming to Ilorin for Juma’t prayers. That is what I thought.
But the first one month I discovered I couldn’t stay. They will call me to Abuja, I will finish something and before going they will call me to do this and I have been doing it and I thank God Almighty. I have been speaking my mind as best as possible and I am not doing anything for profit. I try to do everything free within Nigeria, so as a retired person I am very busy, but busy not for money but to see that this country is stable, strong, economically powerful and politically united so that the whole country would be one.
Having been head of the judiciary, what are the obstacles to effective justice delivery?
People say lawyers are very conservative, they don’t want the system to change and that is the discomfort we have now. We have a procedure that is almost a century old. The British gave us the procedures but have deserted the procedure long, long ago and we are still adhering strictly to it like our wig and gown. It is not our custom, some countries in the Commonwealth have done away with it like Australia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia but we are still adhering to it – dark suit, pin stripe trousers, wig and gown. The English borrowed these things from Egypt and they are trying to do away with it. Infact in summer when it is very hot, the courts allow you to take off your wig and gown so as to be alright.
In America you wear anything to court once you are well dressed. You can wear all white, all green, all blue; but here we are adhering to the thing that is not our culture. The same thing with the laws. Our criminal laws, our criminal procedure, our civil procedure are out of date. The constitution allows each court – that is Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, Federal High Court, High Court of Capital Territory – at the end of each court, provision is made that the chief judge or head of that court can make rules or procedure and all along they are the same. But we have a great advantage more than the United States, more than Canada, more than Australia; we have a united bar – Nigerian Bar. So whether you are in Calabar, Sokoto, Maiduguri, Lagos or Ibadan you are in the same bar, not two bars. So why can’t we have a procedure that would apply in Port Harcourt, would apply in Jos, would apply in Ibadan, would apply in Sokoto would apply in Katsina, why can’t we do that? So the best thing would have been to make it central procedure and then to change our criminal laws. The criminal code that we have in the South now is what the English law was supposed to be in 1914. The English have thrown them away. We are still talking of murder when in other countries they talk about homicide which is more modern, more effective, more meaningful. We still talk about stealing in the criminal code; what is defined is not stealing, they talk of larceny, then they define stealing, very rambling definition procedure, all these things have to be changed.
I am not to be misunderstood that the whole country should adopt the Penal Code but ahead of the constitution for independence, Northern Nigeria saw a lot of things wrong, our laws and native laws, our native laws and custom as to crime, our religious laws as to crime. If we look at Section 36 in the present constitution, sub section 12, you will find that nobody shall be punished for an offence unless the offence is defined and the punishment thereof is fixed in a written law.
North realised this and set up an international panel under professor Anderson of London University, my old man participated slightly and looking at similar laws that covered native law and custom, covered religion, so people went to Malaysia, they were in Pakistan, they were in India, they were in Sudan, they were in Egypt and they came out with Penal Code which the Imams in the North said was excellent, traditionalists in the North said it was excellent and the law is working very well even up till now. So the idea is that put the penal code aside, let a body be set up nationally that will look at our criminal law, then the procedure can be made to follow. The country will be at peace, there will be discipline in the society. There are so many youths who don’t know some of our customs again. You can’t inherit English custom, it is not our custom. If we say we are imitating the English, we are doing disservice to our culture and it means we have no culture of our own. Those are the things that I believe must be looked into.
Now we have a constitution which is Presidential, it is too expensive. Governors have their commissioners; he has special assistants, senior special assistants, hundreds of them whose names may not have to go to Assembly even, they are paying them. What we need at present is to develop the infrastructures, electricity, water, roads, rail, schools, primary, secondary, university all these things will have to be looked into instead of wasting money on irrelevant things.
You have Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission to fix the salaries, allowances and benefits of all public officers. Some are defying this, Revenue Mobilisation says you Senators this is what you are to earn but they are giving themselves more money. It is unconstitutional; nobody has been going to court. What is happening in this society, if we are not careful, will encroach into judiciary where the judicial officers will also become corrupt and when that happens, that is the end of it; there can be disaster.
The country is very large, well-populated; we are not being united as a people. If anybody will make money from creating disunity why not but we can’t break in peace; it is impossible for us to break, there will be a lot of bloodshed in trying to break so the best thing for us is to look inward, how we are to be more united.
We are spending more money on administration than on things that will bring us up. What we need now is to look at reports like the one they call NETHECO, which a report submitted in 1959. If they had carried out the whole NETHECO report instead of under 4000 megawatts of electricity, we would have had over 42,000 megawatts of electricity.
I knew this one when I was called back by Yar’Adua to preside over the Committee preparing vision 20:2020. The gentleman who resigned recently as Minister for Power was in charge of power in the Committee and I was spending time, at least one hour with each group. Then I asked what about the NETHECO report and they said ah, what has electoral process got to do with power? and I said no, Netherlands Engineering Construction, their report in 1959 nobody knew about it. They didn’t know it existed. I got to our archives; I was chairman of Archives for 11 years, not a single copy there, they have stolen them.
Is the failure due to leadership or what; where did we get it wrong?
As the military were coming, each military government appoints a new governor, create a new state without studying what linked them in the provincial section before. Each one is not stable, does not know when they will remove him as military governor, is looking inward only; then start building roundabouts, fountains which are clearly not what we need. By the time military were away, the young boys who were coming to governance didn’t know anything about this and that is why we are in the present state. The Western world which is not interested in our growing will be very happy and that is where we are.
In 1962, the Tafawa Balewa government signed agreement with Germany to look at the prospects of our iron and steel industry. They advised us to have motor assembly plants, Peugeot, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Leyland, Steyr, and after 20 years the vehicles you would be building would be bearing Nigerian name, they will be Nigerian designs. The iron and steel would have taken off. They were also to train our air force.
General Abdulsalami Abubakar was training in Germany with the air force, the first coup took place. Before three months, Ironsi abrogated the agreement, not that he didn’t love Nigeria, they told him that the civilians who signed the agreement wanted to recolonize Nigeria. He swallowed it completely, he abrogated all the agreement. Abdulsalami Abubakar and others were brought back, some were sent to the army including him, some were sent to the air force, some were sent to the Police. That was how they killed the idea. We had to be training our air force officers in Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was the President. That was the beginning of disaster for us.
So military intervention was what truncated the industrial take off of Nigeria?
Yes. They might mean well but they did not understand what they were doing because military regime is unstable. They are always afraid of being toppled, so they spend more money on security and that is what we are imbibing now when we have civilians and they are still busy on security.
You spoke like the judiciary is immune to corrupt practices, which is not the notion of the average Nigerian?
Corruption has crept in to a certain extent, when you find people who want to be judges lobbying to be appointed judges. In our days they were inviting us to be judges and we asked them for time to think over it. Now they are going in lobbying to be made judges. People are now lobbying to be put in electoral tribunals and a lot of stories coming out, even if you can’t prove them, there must be some truth.
Some people who ought not to be judges are made judges despite the fact that the National Judicial Council exist. That one was established because of what happened at the time you call June 12. On the same facts, on the same law, each state judge were giving judgements at variance; that was the time we knew that governors were interfering. So all judges to be appointed, their names must be brought to the National Judicial Council and then they are screened and after everything they are recommended for appointment. To be dismissed also, their names, the investigation must come to the National Judicial Council, but the rot is already there. Some of the allowances they should be paid, some state governments won’t pay, some of them will not be given official cars which they are supposed to give. The salaries of all judges of superior courts are paid from National Judicial Council but housing, states must provide, transportation, state must provide, courts, office, state must provide. Some states are not providing and some CJs are afraid. They will say you got everything on the ground when they have nothing, or to say the governor has promised, immediately they are appointed, he is going to release money for it. Our money should not go to office of any governor; they must have their own budget.
You see in newspapers governors of so and so State has bought new car for judges; it is not his business to buy them cars. The money to buy those cars must be within the judiciary. Those are the problems. Some say oh yes, they are building new houses for judges, the governor is handing them over, the CJ will also go there, it is funny. They must control their budget.
So control of budget is what you think will arrest what appears to be the cause of corruption in the judiciary?
Oh, yes. If there is no house for judge, if there is no car for judge, if the infrastructure they need, the little computer, the table in the office, everything, if they don’t have because the money is held in the State House. The National Judicial Council may do its best, protest, do everything, but the protest will just be on paper, they will not listen to them.
When you find State government dissolving elected local government anyhow, appointing sole administrators; it shouldn’t be so. Can the president of the country dissolve the State Assemblies, remove the governor and put sole administrator in the state? The governors also have no power to do that but they are doing so. So the constitution must be very firm with regard to local government. Local government elected officials must spend their term and three months before their term expires, there must be an election. To say you are appointing sole administrator should not happen.
You headed the Committee that looked at our constitution to recommend where should be touched and where should be left; do you think that a new constitution would be better for the country or an amendment…?
Many people say parliamentary system is better. Every minister is a member of the House, Premier or Prime Minister is a member of the House. We should revert to that. But we can have the French system which is Presidential system as well, not resembling America as we have. The President is elected but will pick his ministers from the House. Some of the people who contested elections and lost are made ministers and they get more powerful, why should it be?
Potentially, this is one of the greatest countries in the world. We have missed so many things, we have behaved in so many ways inimical to our progress and the miracle is that we still exist. Very few countries can go through one-tenth of what we have gone through and survived. We are always quarrelling, even within the same ethnic group we are always fighting, we are always disagreeing but what has caused this is that we have not put together our resources for the benefit of the whole people to industrialise the country, make it agriculturally viable.
From the studies at your disposal, you feel Nigeria would progress faster in power generation through hydro and not thermal stations?
No. I am not saying we should not use thermal. Use anything you have but the cheapest is hydro, just building the dam and the dam will be there forever. You can use coal, you can use gas but we shall have the best and cheapest from hydro. Far from it, I am not saying do not use gas but process the gas correctly and everything will be alright.
Some are advocating the creation of separate courts for trial of corruption cases so as to hasten the fight against corruption, what is your take on that?
There is no need for that at all. We are creating so many courts unnecessarily. When they created Court of Appeal there were only five branches; they seem to be opening in every state now and it is the largest Court of Appeal in the world. We are now having conflicting judgments on the same facts, on the same laws and substandard judges are being brought there. A chief judge will be in the state and he finds one of his judges is too close to the governor, is giving him headache, when time comes for appointment to Court of Appeal he will call him and say I am putting your name and that one will be happy. They will bring him there and he is not capable. That is what is happening now. As big as the United State is they don’t have more than 50 judges in Court of Appeal, but we are having 100 now.
Is it not due to insistence of representation of regions in the courts?
The idea is immediately you build a court somewhere, some lawyers want to be SAN. They use their own money even to sue so that they will be having some judgments which they will use for the application. That is what is happening. Cases that are not supposed to go to court they go and file. They will lose quite alright, but they want the body appointing Senior Advocates to look at their arguments, not whether they win or lose.
What is the way out?
Reduce the court to at most six, put seven judges in each one and let the quorum be five.
But inspite of the number of Courts of Appeal there is still congestion and they are overwhelmed by the volume of cases…
It will reduce in no time if you follow what I said. If they know the courts are not there, the one who wants to be SAN is in a hurry, the more courts you open the more they will be able to go in. But if there is congestion and the procedure has to change as I said earlier; if the procedure is changed, made simpler, cases that will last three years will last just about five months.
This issue of judges collecting bribes, have there been confirmed cases of judges or justices collecting bribe?
Those we have discovered we have dismissed them. Some went to Akwa Ibom in 2003 I think and collected money during (former governor Victor) Attah’s time. One of them presiding, a lady, brought all her children to Uyo when they were on holiday; they had not seen such money before. They were taking photographs with money. We discovered this, it was made up of four or five judges, four from High Court, one was a Sharia Court judge. When the money came the Sharia man said no, “haram, God will ask me if no man asks me, I don’t want”.
One of the contestants discovered this and reported and we sent people to investigate and we found it to be true, so we dismissed them. Well, when you use one system for corruption and you are caught, people will fine-tune that system and you can’t discover them. Probably there are some but the bulk of the judiciary is good, one of the best anywhere in the world, but there are still some very bad eggs inside.
How do you deal with these bad eggs?
Well, better investigation, better security, surveillance, everything but as much as possible, don’t create election tribunals again. Let me give you an example, let’s say in Imo. You contest for House of Assembly, you contest for House of Representatives, you contest for Senate, contest for governorship. For the House of Assembly, the judge that is there should hear it alone. If that judge says no, this contestant is my friend or my relation, let the chief judge of the state send another one, let it be the normal High Court case, no need to gather three wise men or five wise men from other states, let him hear it and let there be an appeal to Court of Appeal and to Supreme Court.
When it comes to governor, because in appointment of the CJ of the state the governor has a say; that this is the person we prefer, NJC may agree or may disagree, they must give reason and if the reasons are valid, why not? So don’t let the CJ of that state preside over it. All the CJs will now be potential chairmen of governorship election tribunals. You take the one from Imo, take him to Bauchi and two senior judges in Bauchi should sit with him, it will work it will obviate this corruption. Because the two judges there are from the state, if they have a wrong governor, good, if they have a good governor, good.
But that is still like creating Election Petition Tribunals…
Yes, for governorship. For the president, it is the Court of Appeal; instead of seven, make them nine or 12. Let them sit and decide.
You have been involved in constitution making for Nigeria for a very long time, would you say the problem is with the wordings and ambiguities in the constitution or the implementation of the provisions?
No. The provisions are made, some people want more powers, some people believe that some powers are too much for one person, these are the things we are looking at. I was telling you about procedures, I said procedures should be centralised because there is only one bar and that is a good idea. The election tribunals, we cancel them, single judges to hear but for governor yes, the judges in the state would still be involved, two of them, they are not bringing judges from outside. Like in Imo now you pick two judges and pick the CJ of maybe Borno to come and preside. The one from Borno will be the minority, the two from the state are there but when you bring three from other states, you keep them for almost a year, two years; that is why these cases are taking too long. You give them time limit and they will finish it in time and the procedure will be simpler.
In other words we need a change in system of government which will entail also changing our constitution?
We will still remain a federation. Nigeria is a federal republic, isn’t it? We have Igwe, we have Oba, we have Amayanabo, we have Emir; what republic is that? And they are relevant. The best person to use for security of any community are the traditional rulers, they know everybody, they know a new face coming, but now they are not involved. It has not helped. The best security people are our traditional rulers, they know everybody in their area.
Does that mean a call for State Police?
State police? There used to be local government police in the West, in the North Native Authority Police, in the east none, only Nigeria Police held sway. But the first politicians used the police to oppress opposition and that was why when the first coup took place they cancelled them, transferred some of them to Nigeria Police and retrained them. In the North the Native Authority police were even more competent than the Nigerian police because they were highly trained, but they transferred them to the Nigerian police, they retired some. Nigerian police which was under 12,000 before suddenly went to over 200,000; they are now about 400,000.
If we then create state police, what is the guarantee that they won’t be the thugs of state governors? What is the failure that they have seen in the Nigeria Police that they have not pointed out? Point the failures out so that they will be corrected instead. It is better. But when you have the state police only God knows where it will take us.
But in a centralised police system, how would the Igwes, the Amayanabos, Obas and Emirs be contributing towards fighting crime?
They were contributing in the East where there was no native authority police, they were cooperating with the Nigeria Police and that was why Odozi Obodo (members) were caught in the 1950s. They are in Abakaliki and were killing people like anything but Nigeria Police through the chiefs penetrated them and got them. So that is it and it is better. You cannot be having chiefs that you are paying and you won’t give them roles and people respect them. If there is crises they are the last resort, people go to them. At least I know that in the West and North. The chief will make a speech and everybody will respect him.
What informed the recommendations of your Committee on review of the Constitution?
We were just to advise the President, we were not an inquiry. There were various bodies that had reviewed the constitution before; there was Constitution Review Council, there was Constituent Assembly, so all those reports we gathered and looked at new things, which ones can work. We were only 21 and we were unanimous in everything.
We have been witnessing leakages in Bar examinations what do you think is responsible for that and looking?
It is because the Law School is too big, the legal profession is not controlled, it is not regulated fully. In England it is a regulated profession. They don’t need more than this, let all of you be scoring 80 per cent and over, they will pick just the first 350. Here every three months we are calling 2000, 3000 people to the Bar and they are not behaving to serve the country the right way. They are in big cities only. Why can’t lawyers specialise in agriculture, land ownership, be going from village to village, local government that are in remote areas, let them be there and be practising there; that aspect would have developed but they are not doing so. The result is this: we are having all sorts of crooks coming into Nigerian Law School. They don’t know even whether some people have gone to prison before. When I was a young judicial officer in the First Republic, we had many things to our advantage. In Kaduna, in Enugu, in Ibadan, in Lagos, those four places we had forensic labs for finger print, blood, hand writing test. Those are the ones that are existing now. The equipment they were having that time are still the equipment that are still there. They are not recruiting experts. DNA screening is now available and so many things have come that are more reliable than blood. So, former convicts leave prisons and simply change their names because there is not even birth registry. They then apply in another name to join he police, the only thing to reveal them is their finger prints, none. Those are the things that have to be reformed.
Would you advocate for a change in the curriculum of law faculties in Nigeria or is it to enforce stricter controls in order to check the poor quality of lawyers or dishonest people making it to the bar and the bench?
That is why the Law School should not be too big, just like the Court of Appeal, the Law School is expanding unnecessarily. Even universities of technology are opening law faculties; why should it be? Law faculties should be confined to some places, Lagos University, University of Ibadan, University of Nigeria, ABU, Kano, Ife, University of Port Harcourt. Limit them; some of them who are professors are not fit to be senior lecturers even. That is happening in the universities, not only for law but in other courses. Some of them have not published anything more than pamphlets and they promote them professors. So the fault is not in the people going to law school really.
Now they are saying if you don’t have second class, you would not be admitted to law school, then you have second class from university and they are also bribing. That is the problem we have, if you want to have second class upper, you pay something, the lecturers will give you even when you don’t know anything. So the whole fault is in the society. If lawyers are bad, look at the society, you don’t link it to law school. The Law Schools try their best to teach correctly.
On leakage, if you see the counter measure that they take, you would be surprised at the leakage. Sometimes it is when they are entering the examination, one hour before the questions and exam papers will be out. They are stored in computers quite alright; maybe if they are to answer eight questions, they will put about 20; then the director will now pick eight or five and two hours to examination he will transmit it to all the centres. They have taken every measure they can.
You reached the apex of your profession; is there anything you will call your regrets in life?
I seem not to regret anything. I think I have done my best, I don’t mind criticisms. If I am criticised it allows me to learn more about people, about myself. I thank God.
Did you set out in life wanting to be a lawyer or to study law?
No. I wanted to be either a medical man or an engineer but the family insisted that I had no future there. I don’t know their foresight but my principal in the secondary school I went, Ilesa Grammar school. Bolaji Akinyemi’s father was a teacher and later on principal. When I left the school he wrote a report on me that I can study anything, just let him make up his mind, he is an all-rounder. As a sports man I was a footballer, I was an athlete and from arts to sciences to mathematics.
Looking back now, do you think your parents were justified in choosing a career for you?
They are always right, even if they had reservations that I first opposed I still obeyed them because I knew they didn’t mean bad for me. So I thank them immensely.
What do you see as the future of Nigeria?
Nigeria will be there in about 25 years, it is going to be one of the greatest nations on earth and the people will be united. You will find a Calabar man growing up in Sokoto, you will find a Sokoto man growing up in Warri, you will find Onitsha man growing up in Bida, marrying there, we shall be united, it is going to be a great country. I have faith in Nigeria.