Lawyers are usually unwilling to admit that there is corruption in the judiciary. But not Professor Tony Ukam, a legal practitioner with 28 years experience. In this interview with Vincent Obia, he said judges are not angels even though they like to see themselves as divine beings. He also spoke on why it took the south more than 30 years to produce a Chief Justice of Nigeria. Excerpts:
There has been a suggestion that practising lawyers be appointed to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. What is your take on this?
I share that idea. It was so before. These people have passed through the storms and rigours of the legal profession. If they are there, they will perform better than these ones that just rose from customary court to magistrate court and so on and have been enjoying government salary. They have not scratched the ground like some of us have done for some 28 years. When it comes you see, when it does not come you stay like that. These other people will be enjoying government pay without knowing whether there is rain or sun. Finally, he is moved to sit at the Supreme Court. Do you think he will understand what they are talking about?
Attack on alleged corrupt judges in the country reached an alarming proportion in the last quarter of 2016. It got to the extent that some senior judges were arrested and made to face trial. Does this situation bother you?
It does not bother me. The nation should be clapping for President Buhari and his administration for having the heart to dare an institution that I have said severally in many of my public presentations or even interviews on air in the past 10 years or more, that is number one in corruption. The case of the Police is just a child’s play. They only dramatise it. The judiciary is the silent one that is so daring and you dare not talk. It will take another 100 years to have a leader to dare those that think that they are mini gods and cannot be tried. Only God cannot be arrested or tried. You spread your dollars on the veranda or corridor or anywhere because you believe that nobody can check you? If you talk like I am talking, you become an endangered species. The corruption in the judiciary is very alarming and such that the machinery of justice is programmed to encourage it. If there is any institution that pretends so much and believes that it consists of angels, it is the judiciary.
How does the issue of technicalities in law fuel corruption?
When you hear lawyers talk about technicalities in the field or technicalities in law, they are talking about rules. Truly, every law must have its rules, but the role of technicalities, which is inherited, is a fertile ground for corruption. It helps corrupt judges to twist the law to wherever they want. They use the technicalities to nail it and then smile to the bank, thus, abandoning the substance of a case. While the case is on, the technicalities will becloud the substance and they will spend their energy to argue it from the trial court to the Court of Appeal and to Supreme Court and then come back before you sign on the substance. What a system! The judiciary is the most corrupt and has all the weapons it takes to sandwich and furnish its corruption. A man can be sentenced to five years imprisonment for stealing a goat, but the man sentencing him is stealing an aeroplane.
Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is the key agency government is using to fight corruption in the country. How do you see EFCC’s anticorruption strategy and its overall effort in tackling corruption?
The work of the EFCC is very tedious. If you want me to score it, I will score the commission 101 per cent. I am sure that the man criticising EFCC cannot manage his own house. When I was chairman of Nigerian Bar Association in Cross River State – a work that I did without salary – we were told about a fake lawyer and we alerted the police who arrested him. I was shocked that before the evening of that day, I had received phone calls from a chief from Oron, another call from a prominent person in Uyo, the next call came from Ikot Ekpene while the wife would also phone, crying. So you can imagine what the government is passing through stepping on toes. But Nigerians do not know that EFCC is picking up people who have stolen so much. The fight is criticised by many as being one-sided. It is difficult to balance it. Who were the people who just finished the government? Was it not one side? The side that looted the money must answer the question.
Are you aware that there are many lawyers that will never admit that there is corruption in the Nigerian Judiciary?
It is not just many lawyers but 90 per cent of lawyers if not 95 or 99. This is because they are looking for favour that I can never look for. I have reached a point in my life that I know that favour comes only from God. My benchmark is that of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – “my God will do it, but if he will not, let it be.” I have reached the point of saying like Esther, “If I perish, I perish.” Very many lawyers are looking for position as judge, Senior Advocate of Nigeria; how to win cases and all that. I have cautioned all my lawyers to return to the office after their cases. They have no business visiting a judge. Many people do not like it that way. They believe it is pride. I owe nobody any apology. The fact that the crowd is not on my side makes me happy. I am happy that I can have the understanding of heaven different from the majority. I know that when many lawyers hear what I say, they will reply “He is a mad person.” But there is no problem. I cannot see what is red and say it is white. But we have some judges and lawyers that are upright, but they are very few, just like in Nigeria Police. They are very few like a remnant but the scripture must be fulfilled.
How did the people of Cross River State receive the delay in the confirmation of Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria?
I did not see the delay as a problem because I knew that the bigger the vision, the more there could be delays, challenges and temptations. What played out was exactly the ethnic sentiment that this country is pregnant with and showed that the country still has a long way to go. A lot of heat was generated from our own region with so much noise that South-south was being denied the opportunity. I imagined whether we would have known that anything was happening concerning that stool if the same Justice Onnoghen happened to come from Sokoto, Edo, Ondo or Borno State. I did not join the people who were showing so much sentiment that it was being delayed because of his Christian inclination. Now that it has finally come, is the celebration not greater than if it had come so cheap?
One had expected that the people of Cross River State would do something more than mere expression of sentiment.
Some of us prayed seriously that he would get the job. My family and I were praying. Biase was praying. We were telling God if there was any sin Biase had committed, or even Justice Onnoghen and his family, He should forgive. This was because the CJN was to be one big honour for Cross River State, Akwa Ibom, the South-south zone and, indeed, the entire South. We said if we miss it, from the structure we were seeing and the kind of heart that we have, it would take more than another 100 years before the region could get there. One thing I want to say is, when
our people see you as a star, they will attack you and those that will attack you raw are not those from far away. As for Chief Justice of Nigeria, all the petitions that Justice Onnoghen got that caused the delay in his confirmation and almost shipwrecked his career came from the South-south.
So there were petitions?
There were very many of them. But they were frivolous. It is the divine hand of God that made Hon. Justice Onnoghen to get there.
How much of Justice Onnoghen do you know?
Justice Onnoghen is from the same local government area with me – Biase. Biase has very many dialects, but my own village and his own, which is just opposite, share the same dialect. We are brothers and very close. As a young lawyer, Onnoghen practised under late Otu Effiom Ekong, who was a Senior Advocate of Nigeria here in Calabar. He was appointed as a legal practitioner to the bench. I appeared before him when he was in the high court here in Calabar and I could see the texture, the vibrancy and the no-nonsense person in him. When it comes to discipline and ruggedness, I think he possesses it because he has passed through thorns and storms.
What were the thorns and storms?
He was in the same car with Otu Effiom Ekong when the man was killed. They were heading to Ikom for a case when hired assassins stopped them and shot Ekong. Onnoghen was almost killed but he managed to escape. For two times as a Court of Appeal justice, he had ghastly accidents – one was into a ravine but he came out alive. Again, three of them were appointed to the Supreme Court the same day. The other two, Aloma Mukhtar and Dahiru Musdapher, completed their tenures without any issues but Onnoghen’s own came with some storm. In spite of the storms on the way, he got there. This shows that he is somebody God had destined for the job and I can say that he will make the difference and the credit will come to Cross River State just as Barack Obama’s presidency in America brought glory to the black race.
For close to 30 years, the CJNs came from the north. What really stopped the south from holding that position for such a long time?
I think our forefathers in the profession are the first to blame, then everyone of us. This is because we have this pull-him-down problem in us. Who among us would want to plant our people early at the centre? You do not stumble on the CJN position, as it is not political. You must make a projection of 10, 20 to 30 years and start working on it. You must send your young lawyers on time to position themselves and grow into it. The north did this consciously. In our own case, we were busy pulling down each other and if anyone climbed up, he did not remember to start planting on time. The north prepared to occupy the position even for 100 years. In our case, we sent only old people that had three or four years to retire. That is why, before they could climb to the seventh position, they have retired. Some are just number 12 and retire. In our case the highest we have climbed has been number five. So at the end of the day, I say it is very difficult for a southerner to climb to the position of Chief Justice of Nigeria.
How can the south produce other CJNs after Onnoghen?
The South must visualise, have a vision and a projection. If you want to get chief justice, you do not send an old man to the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court. You plant the seed early. That is why Justice Mohammed Uwais could spend donkey years on the post. When a slot comes to the south you see the old cargoes – they sent a man who is over 80 years old to be made ambassador while the young ones continue to waste away. I have never received a government scholarship. If you hear my name anywhere, it is reward of my personal struggle of the past 28 years.
“You do not stumble on the CJN position, as it is not political. You must make a projection of 10, 20 to 30 years and start working on it. You must send your young lawyers on time to position themselves and grow into it. The North did this consciously. In our own case, we were busy pulling down each other.”
The work of the EFCC is very tedious. If you want me to score it, I will score the commission 101 per cent. I am sure that the man criticising EFCC cannot manage his own house.