Constitution amendment: Outrage, kudos greet separation of OAGF, Justice Minister

In this report, VIVIAN OKEJEME speaks to senior lawyers on the recent decision by the Senate to separate (by way of proposal), the Offi ce of the Attorney General of the Federation from that of Minister of Justice and Commissioner of Justice

Last week, the Nigerian Senate, among other amendments, voted in support of altering sections 150, 174, 195, 211, 318 and the third schedule of the Nigeria Constitution to separate the Offi ce of the Minister or Commissioner for Justice from that of the Attorney-General of the Federation/ state.

Th e move by the National Assembly, in the same vein, approved the alteration of section 84 of the 1999 Constitution to establish the Offi ce of the AccountantGeneral of the Federal Government which will be separated from the AccountantGeneral of the Federation. Following the implementation of this amendment, the Accountant-General of the Federation will cover the three tiers of government, while the attorney-general of the federation will take care of just the federal government. Presently, the offi ces, i.e. the AttorneyGeneral of the Federation, who is also the minister of justice or the AG of a state who is also the commissioner for justice, with these amendments, will be independent offi ces.

According to stakeholders, this development which will shield the offi ce of the AGF or AG of a state as the case may be, from partisanship, will among others, redefi ne the role of the attorney-general, provide a fi xed tenure, and provide age and qualifi cation for appointment as well as a stringent process for the removal of occupant of the offi ce. Previous calls Before now, there were calls from some quarters for the independence of the offi ces.

Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, during a visit to the National Headquarters of the Nigeria Bar Association in Abuja, said, if Nigerians still desired that justice delivery must be strengthened in the country, it has become imperative for the office of the Attorney General of the Federation, AGF to be separated from that of the Minister of Justice. He revealed that the proposal to separate the two offi ces, actually sailed through during the last amendment exercise, but could not see the light of the day since the Fourth Alteration Bill was not signed by former President Goodluck Jonathan. He said: “I believe in the separation of the two offi ces.

I go for it any time, any day. Th is is because it will guarantee fi nancial independence, security of tenure, and makes the holder of the Offi ce of the Attorney-General at the state and federal levels to be autonomous in thinking and approach to the idea of justice. It will ensure that citizens have access to justice, since the Offi cer will not be dictated to by any external interest or infl uence.”

Also calling for the same cause in the past is Femi Falana, SAN, who said the merger of OAGF and the Minister of Justice had not worked in the public interest and should therefore be separated. Falana, who noted that there was no constitutional provision for a Minister of Justice to also serve as the attorney general, had said, “One of the reasons is constitutional. By virtue of Section 174 of the 1999 Constitution, while the President has the power to appoint an Attorney General, it is not required by law that the Attorney-General shall be the Minister of Justice. “Section 174 does not say that the Attorney-General shall be the Minister of Justice but by convention over the years, the President has always asked the Attorney General to be the Minister of Justice.

“But in line with the common trend and based on our experience as a people, the two offi ces have not worked in the public interest most of the time. We had an attorney general in the recent past who upon the completion of his term, was suspended as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria because he grossly abused the offi ce and became the defence counsel to accused persons being tried by the government of which he was the chief law offi cer.”

He opined that many attorneys general at federal and state levels terminated “serious corruption cases” by fi ling that government was not willing to prosecute “whereas the public was demanding for justice.” Ahamba, Ali, Raji disagree Reacting to the amendments, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former counsel to President Muhammadu Buhari, Chief Mike Ahamba, Malam Yusuf Ali (SAN) and some lawyers who spoke with our correspondent, sharply express divergent views. In support of the amendment is Ahmed Raji (SAN), who is of the view that the Senate has taken a right step in the right direction.

Ahamba, in a telephone interview with Blueprint, declares as illegal the amendment, saying the lawmakers have no such power to tinker with the constitution. “Separating the OAGF and that of the Minister of Justice is going to create a problem. I don’t see the need for that. What the NASS is doing now is ultra vires. Th ey have no power to embark on that. “If that separation happens, it will not aff ect the composition of the National Judicial Counsel having the AGF as an executive member.”

On the whittling down on the president’s power over AGF, he says, “it is not an issue. Th e president has the same power over other ministries. He has the power to restructure his cabinet.” Similarly, Ali notes that the proposed separation of the two offi ces is not a good one. “Th is development will not be good to the judiciary and I opposed it in strong terms. Th e amendment separating the Offi ce of the Attorney General Federation from the offi ce of the Minister of Justice and Commissioner of justice, will lead to creation of more ministries. Judicial council is large enough to start accommodation of more ministries. Confl icts will arise from the reshuffl ing of the positions people are already occupying.” ‘

On whether the development will whittle down the presidency power over AGF, the silk believes nothing can be changed unless they will work out something diff erent from the Constitution. On the eff ect it will have on AGF as a member of National Judicial Council, he says “no restructuring is happening anytime soon. Until we see the fi nal written of the proposal and see the full features of the amendment, we will know the impact. Th en we will also know if they are going to set out the functions of the new offi ces.” Abayomi also opposes Also, a constitutional lawyer, Dr. Tunji Abayomi, says this will create rivalry.

“What the country needs now is a united Nigeria. Th e Senate just wants to force their interest on the people. What is splitting the offi ces going to improve? Th is is an action to cover up the essential problem facing the nation. “AGF is an essential Chief Law offi cer of the Federation. So, he is necessarily a member of the NJC, nothing will change that.”

Toeing the lines of his senior colleagues, Ismaila Alasa, an Abuja-based lawyer, believes the offi ces should be one and not independent of each other. “Th e offi ce already has overlapping function and if separated will not function eff ectively.” Raji disagrees On his part, Raji does not believe in the retention of the old order, and therefore applauds the Senate’s decision. “Th is is very good development, because the Offi ce of the Attorney General of the Federation is better managed in nonpartisan manner than what we have today.

“It will enhance eff ective dispensation of justice where it will not be on the order of the party in power. “AGF should not be a member of the Federal Executive Council. AGF should be a professional who will have tenure and not a politician, where you will not be an AGF because your party has won an election.” With the rejection of this very amendment by the House of Representatives, there appears to be a hiccup somewhere. But can the harmonization of the two chambers resolve this seeming logjam?

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