For a while, Rivers State, which is one of Nigeria’s highest revenue generating States, had been in the news for the wrong reasons. There had been reports of many kidnappings of oil expatriates, political violence, and an embarrassing rift between the Executive and the Judiciary, which led to the unprecedented closure of courts for almost two years. But all that narrative is fast changing, with the present administration in the State. The new Attorney-General of the State, Mr. Emmanuel Chinwe Aguma, SAN spoke with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi at the recently concluded NBA Annual General Conference in Lagos, on how the State has overcome its multifarious challenges. He also spoke on a wide range of issues bordering on corruption, despoliation of the environment, the PIB and the controversy surrounding the N13b found at the Osborne Towers, Ikoyi which the Rivers State Government laid claim to
Honourable Attorney-General, how far have you gone with improving justice delivery in Rivers State, decongesting the prisons and so on? Since you assumed office, what would you say that your main achievements have been? What goals have you set to achieve during your term in office?
Prisons are an item on the Exclusive Legislative list. Prisons are run and administered, by the Federal Government. The Federal Government, is therefore, responsible for the building of Prisons to take into account current realities. Most prisons in Nigeria are very old. Most of the various prisons in Nigeria, were built by the Colonial Government. They were built at a time when our population was lower than it is today, and the incidence of crime very low. The inmate capacity of these prisons, is also very low. However, with increased urbanisation, crime has also grown. Custodial offences have also multiplied. So have serious crimes that require incarceration during trial. The result is that, our prison population has exploded.
The only way a State including Rivers State, can aid in prison decongestion, is through speedy adjudication of cases. Currently, Rivers State needs about 50 judges. It needs the approval of National Judicial Council (NJC) to fill this need. The NJC, does not to have the budgetary cover for Rivers State for 50 judges. Therefore, we make do with about 32, and these judges have cause lists that are long. What will a judge do when he has a daily cause-list of over 20 cases?
The whole system needs a total and complete overhaul. First, we must accept that the Federal Government, has too much on its plate. There is no reason, why the Federal Government should be responsible for the prisons. This is because most offences, are State offences. Therefore, the States should be responsible for remand institutions. Secondly, in terms of confirmation of appointments, to ensure checks and balances, NJC should play a role. Like who becomes Chief Judge and so on, but I think the States should be given the power to determine how many judges they want, and not tie it to Federal budgetary allocations. I am sure that Rivers State can afford to pay 50 judges, but because a component of the payment is coming from Federal allocation, it becomes a challenge. There is nothing any State can meaningfully do to decongest prisons without the full co-operation of the Federal Government, and some form of Constitutional amendment.
This brings us to the issue of Restructuring. Because from what you have said, the prisons are not under the control of the State Governments. What are your views on Restructuring, especially as Rivers State is one of the main revenue generating States of the Nation? What do you think about States having more control over their resources?
When they talk about restructuring, it means a lot. Let us take the Nigerian Constitution for example, as it is presently constituted. Yes, there are some institutional problems in the Constitution as it were. However, before we address these, we must accept that, if most of the provisions of the Constitution, and particularly, if Chapter 2 of the Constitution on the Fundamental Principles of State Policy is adhered to, I do not think people will be clamouring for restructuring. Rather, they will be talking about constitutional amendment.
We must examine our mode of governance, in order to direct it towards good governance. Once that is done, people would be satisfied, and they would not talk about restructuring. Secondly restructuring means different things to different Nigerians, depending on their persuasions. For instance, the IPOB person understands restructuring to mean Biafra. To that extent, I do not believe in restructuring, because I believe in the continued unity of Nigeria. Nigeria offers us a large market, and offers every Nigerian a wide opportunity for self-development. If we restructure along the lines of ‘everybody to your tent o Israel‘, creating small units and small countries, I am sure the present advantages and opportunities that we have as a country, will disappear. That which characterises us as Nigerians, will no longer be there. If their restructuring means breaking up Nigeria, I am against it. However, if restructuring means, devolution of powers from the centre to the States or federating units, I agree. There are several areas, which the Federal Government needs to devolve powers to the States. Look at the Exclusive Legislative List; there are 69 items. If you include the sub-items, it runs to over 100. That is ridiculous for a Federation. If you talk about restructuring in terms of fiscal federalism, whereby the States control their resources and make revenue contributions to the centre, I will agree, but the greatest restructuring I would support, is good governance. If we have good governance, many of the complaints we have will not be there. Because there will be accountability and conscience in the system, and a lot more people will be happy. Therefore, to me, the clamour for restructuring is just a reaction to bad governance. It is also a reaction to ‘it is my turn; it is our people’s turn’. There is nothing new about restructuring. The movement from three Regions, to four Regions, to 12 States, then 19 States and now 36 States, were all responses to different calls for restructuring. Now, some people are saying ‘let us go back to regional government’. All these administrative changes have not solved any problem.
Rivers State, being one of the oil producing states of Nigeria, would certainly have a lot of matters arising between oil companies and host communities, for example, issues of pollution etc. What kinds of issues presently exist between the oil companies and the host communities? What laws and actions, have you put in place since you took office, to protect the interests of the host communities?
When you talk about oil, you are talking about the Federal Government. Item 39 on the Exclusive Legislative list, puts mines, minerals, geological surveys and natural gas on the Federal Government list. Therefore, Rivers State, cannot make any law to regulate the activities of the oil companies, and how they relate to the host communities. Besides, disputes arising from oil operations, have been clearly domiciled in the Federal High Court. Therefore, we have a government, that can do nothing about what is taking place in its territory. The only thing we can do is to talk through community development associations, to encourage good neighbourliness between the oil companies and the host communities. The oil companies always have the backing of the Federal Government. Each oil producing State receives a share of the meagre 13% derivation revenue. There is hardly anything the State Government can do. The only thing we can do, is to prevent the communities from resorting to violent agitation by dousing their anger. We cannot even make any law or regulation, pertaining to or connected with oil production regardless of the fact that our environment is adversely affected by oil production activities.
Assuming that you had the powers that the Federal Government has over regulating the oil sector, what would you do?
Assuming I have such powers, the first thing I would do, is to put in place effective legislation that governs drilling. The oil majors, do not only work in Nigeria, they work in other places. They even work in their home countries. Look at the case of Shell and how much compensation they were forced to pay, when there was an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Look at how they handled it. It is because of the system, that they have in place there. We do not have anything here. Unfortunately, those who have the commanding structures of governance, are not the people that produce the oil. If they were the people who produce the oil, I am sure they would have out done something about the environmental despoliation.
The Federal Government, has been talking about the Ogoni. Go and ask the average Ogoni man. You will know that all the talk is a farce! The talk is nothing but a political gimmick. The Federal Government, does not even consult the Rivers State Government, about what they want to do in Ogoni land. The Federal Government actors, have politicised it. They are not even interested in working with the State Government to achieve the desired results. The truth of the matter is that, we are an exploited people. We are a despoiled people. We are a people whose environment has been completely ruined. I was on an helicopter flight with His Excellency, the Governor of Rivers State, to a place called Ngo in Andoni Local Government Area. We practically wept. On that day there was fire somewhere in the creeks, and when we flew over the site of the fire, what did we see? These boys who bunker, with small-improvised oil refineries, the Navy believes that the only way they can deal with that, is by blowing up the bunkers and destroying the refineries. That sends large volumes of black soot into the air. Now, we have no control over that, because we do not control the Navy. Blowing up the bunkering barges and the illicit refineries, also spills liquid oil into the creeks. From Port Harcourt to Ngo, we saw large areas of mangrove swamp, that have been completely destroyed, because you are trying to destroy the so-called local refineries. These places were totally burnt out. Apart from that, from Port Harcourt to Ngo, every single inch of the water has oil film on it.
Are you telling us that if we are in that area, instead of looking forward to fresh fish pepper soup, we are better off eating beef, because we may not find fresh fish from the water or they will taste of crude oil?
It depends on the area and it depends on the axis, but the issue is that the pollution goes on and I am not sure that it does not even get to Lagos, because the whole body mass of water is interconnected. The amount of pollution in the Niger-Delta is so high and reckless. There is very little any State Government can do, without the co-operation of the Federal Government, and the Federal Government really has to determine what kind of tomorrow it has planned for the Niger- Delta. Part of the clamour for restructuring, part of the anger, arises from all this. Yes, bunkering is bad for the environment, but the method of destroying the bunkers is worse. Two wrongs cannot make a right.
Do you think that the recently passed Petroleum Industry Bill will have any positive impact on the issues and agitations?
They did not pass the whole PIB. I think they only passed the governance sections. The problem with that, is you can only govern in accordance with the extant laws. The extant laws do not put any pressure on the International Oil Companies (IOCs), to do what is right. The only pressure they have is from their home countries, who have the temptation to say ‘well, if you don’t breach the laws at home, and as long as you earn revenue for us, no problem‘. Therefore, there is a limit to the extent the IOCs would rely on the PIB.
The truth however, is that there is tension between the ruling elite and the Niger-Delta. The reaction of the Ruling elite to the Niger-Delta Region, is an almost scornful and contemptuous one. Until Nigerians stop seeing the Niger-Delta as an exploitive and extractive territory, until the principles of equity and fairness come into play in the treatment of the region, nothing much will be done. You hear eminent northerners like Professor Ango Abdulahi saying, “after all, the oil of the Niger-Delta was developed with the revenue from groundnut pyramids”. You hear such scornful and contemptuous statements and you marvel. That informs what is happening now in the Niger-Delta. However, let us not forget one thing; whether oil is an expendable mineral or not, whether there will still be oil in the next 50 years or not, the fact is that Nigeria today depends on oil. Therefore, oil is not just an economic asset; it is also a security asset. You can imagine Nigeria without oil! Somalia would be better than Nigeria without oil. Everything in Nigeria, is fuelled by the oil trade. Whether you are planning or doing any kind of business, it is fuelled by the oil trade. So, is it not in the greater interest of Nigeria, to see that these agitations are addressed? Even if the oil runs out, or oil becomes a less required commodity in the future, what about the gas? Nigeria actually has more gas than oil. The gas is still in the Niger-Delta. Nigeria must therefore, continue to interact with the Niger-Delta to earn huge revenues since nobody is saying we will not need gas.
I attended a Summit that was organised by the Chairman of the Oil and Gas Committee of the House of Representatives some years ago. At that Summit, we were informed that the quantity of oil in the Niger-Delta is like a dot compared to its gas. But that unfortunately, Nigeria is just flaring the gas and further polluting the environment, instead of harnessing it, and that the quantity of gas that Nigeria was wasting by flaring was more than what made Trinidad and Tobago the World No. 4 exporter of gas at the time. Why is that?
Well, these are not issues for the Attorney-General of Rivers State to answer. These are issues for the Oil Minister and the NNPC to answer. These are issues that should be discussed with all seriousness at the national level.
But surely your State Government should be part of these discussions, a powerful pressure group to push for this change?
There is no pressure that the Rivers State Government, has not mounted over the years. But who is running NNPC? The people who are running NNPC eventually retire to areas where they
know nothing about gas flaring. All they are concerned with is the benefit of oil, without seeing despoliation of oil. Even when people from the oil producing areas get appointed into the helm of affairs at NNPC or the Oil Ministry, they are pushed out after a short tenure and are branded as thieves.
Be that as it may, people have said that the immediate past President is from that area. The other day, I was watching the News when people from a place called Bebelebiri were complaining bitterly that they require 2 bridges. The place was waterlogged. Their environment is bad and of course, their children could no longer go to school because of flood and lack of access. They lamented that most successive governments, including that of President Jonathan, come during campaigns and make promises and till date, no one has built any bridge for them. The point I am trying to make is that, even if all the governments that we had before, pretended that they were not aware of what is happening in those areas, why didn’t President Jonathan, ‘a son of the soil’, do something about it? Not just building bridges, but cleaning up the polluted environment? PIB could have been passed during President Jonathan’s tenure. There are many things that he could have done. Look at the North East, they are rushing to rebuild.
The PIB could have been passed under President Jonathan, but the legislative will to do so was absent. There is an institutional majority in the National Assembly, skewed towards the North. Whether you like it or not, the PIB is seen by the North, as an attempt by the Niger-Delta to take control or greater control of its oil asset. That is because of the inbuilt provisions, which give greater participation in oil producing activities to the host communities. That is why the whole of the PIB could not be passed. All they passed was a minute section of the PIB, which does not have to do with the ownership of the oil, and the interest and welfare of the oil baring communities. The PIB has always been debated and dealt with along tribal, sectional and parochial interests, and not in the best interest of Nigeria and Nigerians. I have never been in government before now. This is the first time, that I am serving in government and I discovered that, ultimately, the only thing you depend on, are the institutions that make up that government. We do not know the kind of memos that may have gone to President Jonathan, and the kind of feedback system he was getting. It is very easy when you are up there, to be deceived, so that you will not know what is happening.
I beg to disagree. If you are from an area, it is something that would be well known to you and something that you would have seen with your eyes.
Yes, you will see it with your eyes. But even if you see with your eyes and understand it, you cannot deal with it by fiat. You deal with it by appropriation. After all, there are interventionist agencies that were set up. You have NDDC and you have the Ministry of the Niger-Delta. Are they being funded adequately? Take NDDC; is it receiving the contributions from the oil majors as required by law? Are NDDC and the Niger-Delta Ministry allowed to operate objectively, and in the best interest of the Niger-Delta? What are they doing? You deal with the books. You deal with reports. What do we know are the contents of those reports? I am not putting up any defence for President Jonathan. I am not saying he succeeded or failed. Moreover, President Jonathan
was President of Nigeria, and not President of a section of Nigeria. There are limited resources and competing needs. You cannot tell me that everything that succeeding governments could not do in Niger-Delta since the 1960s, President Jonathan could have done those things in the few years he spent in the office. That would have been absolutely impossible. Let us take the East- West Road for instance. It was started during the Obasanjo administration, and nothing was done. Under President Jonathan, only a certain portion was done. Is there any construction work currently going on there? Where Jonathan left that road two years ago, is still where it is. So, this issue of trying to personalise governance, is part of the problem we are having. Returning to the East-West Road, the stretch between Eleme and Onne is one of the most vital sections of the road. It is like the road that leads to Apapa Wharf. It is a Federal road and it is vital for business. So, why will the Federal Government not maintain it? The failure of the current administration to continue work on the East-West road from where President Jonathan stopped, has shown that Jonathan was powerless on most of these issues. It leads to the conclusion that, there must be an institutional reason why the East-West Road is uncompleted and in disrepair. That institutional reason is simple. The road is located in an exploitative zone. It is in a “colony”. The thinking is “let them manage themselves”. We are treated like a colonised people. That is the truth!
As one who has been very active in the NBA, even serving as Secretary and Chairman of the NBA Port Harcourt Branch in the past, in your opinion, what is the effect of the judgement of Honourable Justice Tsoho of the Federal High Court on the 2015 NBA amended Constitution and the present leadership of the NBA?
It is very simple. What the litigant is saying is that the NBA Constitution was not amended in accordance with CAMA. But the Conference is holding in Lagos and it is well attended. So, I think we should downplay the two judgments, and address the various issues that gave rise to the litigation in the first place. For me, the litigations are symptomatic of the problems we have within the NBA, and we should go beyond that and deal with problems. We must find a way to settle these problems, because the NBA is one of the few professional associations that has a voice in this country, no matter how muffled that voice might be right now. The fact that the Conference is holding in Lagos, shows that the NBA intact.
Rivers State has had more than its fair share of the scourge of Kidnapping. What measures have you taken to fight this problem in your State? Do you agree with the death penalty for Kidnappers, especially where the victims die in captivity?
When they say kidnapping is rampant in Rivers State, I would say it is false. I live there and I have always lived there. In fact I have lived in Port Harcourt continuously since 1970, apart from when I went to school abroad, and I am 56 now. Nobody can tell me about Rivers State, especially those who do not live there. There is a narrative, and it is an economic narrative of de- marketing Rivers State, which has nothing to do with reality. It is used to justify the irresponsibility of the oil companies. They do not want to live up to their corporate social responsibilities. So, they look for reasons not to be in Port Harcourt, and they run to Lagos and elsewhere. Unfortunately, there is also kidnapping in Lagos now, if not more than in Port Harcourt. But they would not sell that narrative. You have never heard that schoolchildren were
kidnapped in Rivers State. Schoolchildren were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Bornu. On at least three occasions, schoolchildren have been kidnapped in Lagos, from their boarding houses. The notorious Evans was not kidnapping in Port Harcourt. He has been kidnapping here in Lagos! So, what is it about Port Harcourt? Yes, during the highest point of the militancy agitations, it was almost a war going on and oil expatriates were targeted. Thanks to President Yar’Adua for the Amnesty Programme. That phase has gone.
Do you have the Death Penalty?
No! I am coming to that. There is one thing we Nigerians are not yet ready to accept. It is that kidnapping is like armed robbery. Now, if you go to rob a bank, you do not know whether you will get any money there. But, when you kidnap a human being, you are stealing the human being. It is the same thing, and the relations will come and pay ransom. That appears better and more reliable for the armed robber. So, it is a new wave of crime that needs to be addressed urgently. Its pure criminality, you saw it in Evans. Regardless of our new laws of confiscating and demolishing people’s properties used to keep kidnap victims, the kidnappers are still carrying on. Now, they keep their victims in the bush. So, we may now have to amend the law again so that any person, whose farmland is used to keep kidnapped victims, will have to forfeit that land to the government. It is that simple. You must also know that because of BVN, most of these kidnappers do not bank their loot. They do not have bank accounts, so that you cannot even take their money to compensate their victims. It is so appalling the way these boys are going. And they are all young boys. Look at the ones they arrested, who were involved in one of the incidents of kidnapping students here in Lagos State. They were all young boys, looking high on drugs! The same reasons that would have pushed them to be armed robbers, pushed them to be kidnapers.
I have never in my life supported the death penalty. I must say this. I conscientiously object to the death penalty. I do not know any crime, that the death penalty would deter people from committing. I have never seen the death penalty, as a panacea for anything. Armed robbery has the death penalty, yet people are still robbing everyday. Murder, carries the death penalty, and people are still committing murder everyday. So, there is nothing death penalty can stop. It does not deter any crime, so why use it? For me, it is a very primitive way of tackling crime. You see, each person the society executes dehumanises that society. The society brings itself to the level of the executed criminal. The society collectively dehumanises itself, with the execution of that person. That is my view on the death penalty. I can never support the use of the death penalty. But you may have noticed one thing, in the past 16 years, only one Governor has signed death warrant to execute convicts. The backlash was so much, that he did not have the guts to sign more. The whole world condemned it. There is no State in Nigeria that is executing death row inmates. The arguments have been that death rows are full. I doubt that we even still have hangmen in Nigeria. They advertised for hangmen last year, and not many came forward to apply. No! Its only psychopaths that would apply for that kind of job. How can you apply to go and kill fellow human beings? It is a dehumanising way of punishing people. There are many ways of punishing people, without using the death penalty.
Your Governor has insisted that the N13 billion found in the Osborne Towers, Ikoyi apartment, actually belongs to the Rivers State Government. How did His Excellency come to this conclusion?
To start with, there are certain matters that I will not even discuss, assuming His Excellency told me about them. I am not saying he told me, because even if he told me, I will not tell you.
But he instructed you to go to Court, to ask for the forfeiture of that money to Rivers State Government?
Where did you see him tell me that?
But it was in the news.
Which news? What he said is that, Rivers State will challenge it. Whether or not we challenge it does not make it less our money. We might decide not to go to court. But when a man at that level says something, there must be basis for that statement. That I believe, and I will not be cajoled into towing your line that ‘you don’t know what you are talking about.’ That cannot make me disclose the details of that statement.
The fact remains that, under the previous administration, some of our power assets were sold for $309m to Sahara Energy. The records clearly showed that over a period of four months, between July, 2014 and December, 2014, Sahara Energy paid $309m for those power assets. By the time we came to power on May 29, 2015, what was left in that account was $204,000. The account is in Access Bank. So, a Commission of Inquiry was set up, and in the course of their work, it became apparent that huge sums of money were withdrawn from that account, through Bureau De Change operations with named companies. Some of those companies, are in court now to clear their names in libel suits. We await the outcome, so I would not go into that.
The other part of it is that some people are challenging the Commission of Inquiry, and the matter is in the Supreme Court, and again I would not go into that, as the matter is sub judice. But on the issue, the factual situation is that Sahara paid X amount of money on a particular day, and on another day Y amount of money was left in that account. There is nothing to show why that X became Y. And all the monies in that account were moved in cash through Bureau De Change! The trail is there. Yes, I agree that we have not charged people to Court, but I will not disclose what we are doing, to ensure that people are held accountable in that matter. Surely, those who took those sums of money from Rivers State, will definitely give account to Rivers people. It is not just that money. There is the N4billion Agricultural Credit Scheme, a Central Bank Loan taken by the Government of Rivers State to boost agriculture, that was converted into a grant, that was frittered away. There is the N55billion reserve fund, that was reduced within a space of 8 months, from N55billion to N1.5billion, and the trail is there.
Were the monies spent on capital projects?
No! They were not spent on capital projects. Rivers State had this Reserve Fund established by the previous administration and run by FBN Trustees Limited, purportedly for the sustainable development of Rivers Stateand Rivers people. There was a law setting up the Reserve Fund. The law also provided that, there should be no reasons for withdrawing from the Fund, apart from cases of Emergency. But by January 2014, that Government decided to amend the law, and at that point in time, the State Assembly no longer sat in the open.The Assembly sat in Government House, because of the crisis in the House of Assembly and the closure of the court. The Government amended the law. The curious thing is that, on the actual day they amended the law, and even before the assent of the Governor to the law was obtained, the first withdrawal was made.
What was the reason for the withdrawal?
They always had a reason. One of the reasons, was a withdrawal to pay rent for a dilapidated building that was burnt at the time. N300million was purportedly paid as rent, for a State Institution to move into the burnt building. That State Institution never moved into the burnt out building. It is still where it was, at the time the N300million rent was paid, and it is still there till now, and the burnt building is still in its burnt state as we speak.
There was another N1.4billion, withdrawn to pay for security matters in the office of the SSG. All manner of funny reasons were given for the withdrawal of that money. You see, a lot went wrong in Rivers State. But because of the nature of politics in Nigeria today, everybody is sweeping everything under the carpet. There will come a day, when people will say ‘wait a minute; let us look at all these things. Did they actually happen, or are they just make-believe?’ The truth is that, these things really happened and they are mind-boggling. But, we cannot continue to dwell on it, that is why we have moved on.
I can tell you that in the two years that we have been in office, in infrastructure, we have surpassed what the previous administration did in eight years. Roads, hospitals, education, healthcare delivery and effective administration of justice. The Rivers State Judiciary is now self-accounting. The budget of the judiciary is now a first line charge. Once there is money, they get their money. They do not need to come to the Governor to ask for anything. At the time we came into office the courts had been closed for nearly eighteen months, because somebody wanted to impose a particular individual as Chief Judge. At a stage, that individual was President of the Customary Court of Appeal and Chief Judge of the State, at the same time. One man! That should not be possible, but it happened! Whether it is possible or not, it happened in Rivers State. Go and look at the constitutional provision on the appointment of judges. The career paths are different. But NJC never made any such recommendations, and even without the NJC recommendation, they went ahead and appointed this man as Chief Judge while he was still the President of the Customary Court of Appeal. At the end of the day they closed the courts. They used acetylene gas to weld the gates shut. This is what happened. Immediately we came in, the Governor opened the courts and we confirmed Honourable Justice Daisy Okocha, the most senior Judge of the High Court first as acting Chief Judge and later, as the substantive Chief Judge of the State and Honourable Justice Christy Gabriel Nwankwo, as the President of the
Customary Court of Appeal. The beauty of it is that, after Honourable Justice Daisy Okocha retired, the next in line as the most senior Judge of the High Court was a Lady from Edo State. She is not married to any Rivers man, and she is the current Chief Judge.
They said you built a Court for the Federal High Court?
It is true we built a new Federal High Court Complex. We are not the first State to have done so. Taraba State under late Governor Suntai did the same thing. We have a policy. We have a legal blueprint. We want to develop Port Harcourt as a regional legal hub. In the old Eastern Region, Honourable Justice Oputa, JSC of blessed memory, and many notable Nigerian lawyers, all practiced in Port Harcourt. As a Government we also found the existing Court of Appeal building in Port Harcourt, unedifying and poorly constructed. We are currently rebuilding it. We are rebuilding the Court of Appeal, so that at least two panels can sit there. We have also added a completely new building, to hold the archives and records of the Court of Appeal. We built a brand new Federal High Court that can sit six judges, although five are in use right now. Each of the Court halls are modern; they have court cells for each gender, while they await trial. Now there is just a fence, dividing the Federal High Court and the State High Court. With the permission of the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, a pedestrian gate was installed. If you park your car in the Federal High Court, you can walk into the High Court and actually appear in the State High Court and vice versa. You do not have to drive round. We are trying to create that synergy. It is just a road that divides the State High Court and the National Industrial Court, where we are also building five courtrooms. Basically, we are creating a legal hub, so that if you are doing business in Rivers State, you know that your legal requirements would be met.
If I were you, I would not give out all this information, so that other States won’t steal the ideas and initiatives from you. Some are saying that the Rivers State Government is doing all this court construction to curry favour with the Judiciary.
No! No! We have almost finished it, and we are the pioneers. Besides, we are not afraid of competition. We have also localised the Child Rights Act. We are building a Family Division in the High Court, that would take care of Child Rights matters. We are also completing the Multi- door Court for ADR system.
We are all out, to implement anything to make Rivers State the legal hub. So, we are not currying any favours from anybody. At the opening ceremony of the NBA Conference, my Governor sat to left side of the Chief Justice of Nigeria; Governor Fashola SAN sat to the right side. Probably if he had sat with the CJN alone, some people will say he is buying him. So Fashola will not buy him? When the proceedings finished, Ndoma-Egba, SAN who is the Chairman of NDDC saw him off to the car. Does that mean that Ndoma-Egba wants to buy him for showing respect and courtesy? These are the small things that people fail to understand. The mere fact that my son is a judge and I appear before him and call him ‘My Lord’ doesn’t mean judgment will be given in my favour. I have appeared before friends of my late father, who after the case will come and eat my mother’s food and they will dismiss my client’s case. It has happened, not once, not twice. I have appeared before some judges who are my friends. They will disclose it in the court, and
they will dismiss my case. They will say ‘listen, Mr. Aguma is my friend, do you want me to do the case?’ some people will say they mind, while some will say they want the judge to do the case and my case will be dismissed. I go on appeal and sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. What is the big deal? In today’s Nigeria, Chief Rotimi Williams would not have practiced. This is because a lot of the judges in the Lagos State Judiciary, at a time were from Chief Rotimi Williams’ Chambers. They practiced under him, and that didn’t stop him from appearing before them. He won some cases and he lost some cases. It also did not make him win all his cases before them. In Nigeria of today, Rotimi Williams would not practice, because some lawyers will petition the NJC once any case goes before any judge who had practiced in Rotimi Williams Chambers. This is the anachronistic system we find ourselves today in Nigeria. Success becomes a painful thing. We must re-orientate our minds.
So, all these stories about Rivers State doing good things to curry favours, are being sponsored by the same people who for 16 years failed Rivers State. But they had their priorities. They wanted to be President; they wanted to be international figures, etc. We are just simple people, who want to remain local. We have no intention of living in Japan or America. Any day we leave office, we still want to go to the local markets, read local newspapers and live simple lives. We do not have the power to live jet-set lifestyles. Look at my son. He is a lawyer. He goes to the local courts and practices in Port Harcourt. So, I must be careful to ensure that I do not turn him into an exile, and I also do not want to go into exile. One of the reasons Lagos is strong, is because Lagos has a good service sector – justice and financial sectors. We are trying to develop a good system in Rivers State too. We are laying that foundation. We cannot overtake Lagos right now, and we are not in competition with Lagos. But Lagos, cannot take the whole market. We must have a fair share of that legal market, so that other lawyers will look at Rivers State and say ‘yes, there is a good legal and judicial sector here’ and they will come.
Many State Attorney-Generals have been criticised for abusing the legal principle of Nolle Prosequi. Under what circumstances should a nolle be entered in court proceedings? What has been your experience in Rivers State in this regard? Take for example the case in Kano State where a 75 year old woman, Bridget Agbahime was murdered. Suspects were arrested, the matter went to court and the A-G entered a nolle, which raised a public outcry.
The only genuine reason an A-G can enter a nolle, is in the public interest. It is entered when the government believes it will not be in the public interest to prosecute that person at that time. You see, a nolle is like a sword of Damocles. It doesn’t mean that you cannot and will not be prosecuted on another day. Anybody can wake up any day, and decide to prosecute you. In my State, a nolle has been used in a manner at a time it was felt to be in the public interest. But today we don’t feel that way. Remember there was this issue in the House of Assembly, when a member used the Mace to break another member’s head? You can Google it, its still on the internet. At the time, the then Attorney-General entered a nolle in this case where a fellow member of the House of Assembly broke another members head and wanted to kill him. But it is my view as Attorney-General, that the matter ought to be prosecuted in the public interest. I am therefore, prosecuting the matter pursuant to my powers under section 211 of the 1999
Constitution as amended. I have gone back to court to prosecute the case. What example are we setting for our children? For me, it was not in the public interest that such a nolle was entered. We must prosecute that matter and let the court decide whether the person should be discharged and acquitted. I do not encourage a nolle being entered in any case. It is always open to abuse. Unfortunately, there is no law that permits you to query the use of a nolle. It is very unfortunate. But another A-G can come and prosecute any case, especially as there is no statute of limitation in criminal cases. So, if I am standing trial today, I would not allow any AG to enter a nolle for me. I would defend myself and if they find me guilty, fine. If I am discharged and acquitted fine. Its better you face the battle, once and for all. Because a nolle is excess baggage. You carry a nolle for the rest of your life, till the day you die. Yes, nolles have been abused even from the day it was invented, but it has also been used for good reasons. There is nothing that is totally perfect in life. Of course the one in Kano State, you don’t expect that he wouldn’t have entered a nolle, given the circumstances, the religious passion and the emotiveness around it. Nolle is provided for in Section 211 of the Constitution. An A-G can enter a nolle in the public interest to discontinue a case at any point before judgement. But that public interest is a very humongous and wide provision. It is open to different kinds of interpretations. Unfortunately, this power of the A-G is not reviewable. The only person, who can review it, is the appointing authority. So, if it is misused, it is only the Governor who can review it. But it is expected that for you to be an Attorney-General, you would have the ability to rise above pettiness and political interests.
Were you satisfied with the National Assembly’s recent constitution amendment exercise? Some are saying that the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria is a document imposed on us by the military, it is incurably bad and that Nigeria requires a brand new Constitution, which includes issues like devolution of powers, removal of many items from the exclusive legislative list, better revenue allocation, state police and so on. Do you agree?
To be honest with you, I never really followed that exercise, because from the beginning, the seriousness of the exercise was never communicated to the public. It appeared to be a charade. So I never took it seriously from day one. Because if they were serious, their Governors would have been carried along and consulted. Because everything they seek to do, would definitely impact on the States. Members of the various State Houses of Assembly, should also have been carried along. At the grassroots level, people like us should have been involved, because we are leaders. We have to make some input. For me, I believe this last constitution review exercise was not well communicated to stakeholders at all levels. Nevertheless, it is not to be taken lightly.