Although the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) has come under fire lately over his stance on a number of issues in the course of discharging his constitutional duties, it appears the minister remains undeterred in his quest to entrench the rule of law. KEHINDE OSASONA writes.
No doubt, President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has enhanced access to justice, speedy justice dispensation and decongestion of correctional centres through the implementation of many reforms in the justice system.
However, despite the ground-breaking reforms and implementations of government’s policies, it appears the current AGF would go down in history as one justice minister, who has, more than any of his predecessors, got more scathing criticisms over myriads of challenges plaguing the sector.
The AGF is known as one senior officer of the administration that would not just accept criticism of government policies without interrogating issues and would always play up the achievements made in governance.
For instance, at a public forum last year, the minister was quoted to have lauded the crucial role that the rule of law plays in any democracy, saying that the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration has introduced various reforms that have improved the image of Nigeria in the international community.
According to him, before the advent of the present administration, Nigeria ranked between 12th and 13th across the globe and used to be among the top three African countries with impunity for crimes against journalists only after Somalia and South Sudan.
“The federal government has taken steps in advancing the rule of law, application of human rights, enhancing the freedom of information and by implication freedom of the press as well as the administration of criminal justice.“
In addition to the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, prominent among recent legislation by the present administration included Public Interest Disclosure and Witness Protection Bill (2017), WhistleBlower Protection Policy, Open Government Partnership and the vigorous fight against corruption.
While demonstrating his avowed commitment to the tenets of the rule of law recently, Malami had, at the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Justice Sector Summit 2022 held in Abuja confronted stakeholders in the judicial arm of government over the age-long secrecy of its budgets.
He was reacting to various allegations that the judiciary is underfunded and that most times, it had to go cap in hand before the executives to get things done. Malami who appeared not to be impressed with such line of argument challenged the judiciary to be transparent and accountable in the spending of funds allocated to it in its annual budgets.
“Why is the N104 billion provided for the judiciary in the budget insufficient?” he was quoted as saying that.While querying further on how the judiciary applies its funds, Malami argued that until the three arms of government allow the operation of an open government partnership arrangement, it can never be in a position to identify to what extent the budgetary provision made is inadequate.
Toeing Malami’s argument, a member of the House of Representatives, Luke Onofiok had faulted that the judicial branch of government has transparency issues in its budget spending.
Onofiok said, “During one of our oversight functions at a federal court, we had a running battle with a federal court; we discovered that overtime allowances were paid to workers during the Coronavirus pandemic when court sittings were restricted,” the federal lawmaker narrated.
Also, the chairperson, Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Bolaji Owasaonye, once said, “Ghost contracts and unretired funds have tainted the judiciary’s financial records, advocating transparency in budget spending.”
Allegation of FG influencing court judgments
Before now, some analysts and pundits in the judiciary had at one time or another castigated the federal government for influencing judgments both at the lower and apex courts. An instance was when Body of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (BOSAN) accused the federal government of ‘weaponising the law’.
They alleged that government uses the very court system originally designed for justice to terrorise members of the legal profession.In his statement, the BOSAN representative at the event, Chief Chris Uche (SAN) at an event to mark the new legal year of the FCT High Court in 2019, noted that lawyers are plying their trade under a heavy cloud of fear, particularly those who have briefs to defend clients who may not be in good standing with the government of the day.
“These attacks always represent the initial symptoms of descent to authoritarianism as the fabrics of democracy and freedom are gradually weakened and destroyed when the independence of the judiciary and the independence of the legal profession are attacked and eroded.
“Since it is the Bar that would fight for the independence of the judiciary, an emasculation of the Bar through attacks on the independence of the legal profession would result in the direct erosion of the independence of the judiciary.
But countering the claims at another forum of judiciary stakeholders, Malami, who was declaring a conference open on behalf of President Muhammadu Buhari, said the Buhari administration two years ago had ensured the independence of the judiciary.
According to Malami, to demonstrate that it is not dictating to the judiciary, the federal government accepts adverse court judgments without questions. He also said the Buhari government was committed to strengthening institutions in the country.
The Nwobike example
The Senior Advocate of Nigeria said, “We have had to disrupt the age-long wrong assumptions and historical narratives of the presumed immunity of sacred cows in our society simply to demonstrate that henceforth the law would be used as a potent instrument to regulate the activities of all persons and institutions in our country in a fair and transparent manner.”
As pointed out by the AGF, the recent pronouncement in a matter involving a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Joseph Nwobike where the Supreme Court upturned his conviction over charges bordering on perversion of justice was a pointer to his arguments that the federal government never at any time obstructed or influenced the course of justice in any matter involving it or its agencies.
Nwobike was prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for attempting to pervert the course of justice. The Lagos State High Court, in April 2018, found him guilty of the charge, while the Court of Appeal in Lagos also upheld his conviction and 30-day imprisonment.
But, in a unanimous judgment, last year, the Justice Olukayode Ariwoola panel of the Supreme Court, set aside the earlier verdicts by both the Lagos High Court and the Court of Appeal. The panel held that the trial court was wrong in convicting Nwobike of the offence.
While speaking at a reception organised in his honour by the ministry after his re-appointment by President Muhammudu Buhari in 2019, Abubakar emphasized further by attributing long years of failure of the justice system as bane of multifaceted challenges like vulnerable political environment, lack of compliance with rule of law, low capacity to enforce laws, lack of patriotism, delayed justice that lead to congestion in prisons, corruption and so on facing the country.
He said, “May I inform you that the major reason for the seeming failure of our system is the structural defects of our constitution and laws, non-adherence to laws, institutional failure of enforcement and dysfunctional of our judicial system which only judicial reforms can reverse if we must exist as a nation.”
He stressed further that, “Society where laws are observed in breaches rather than in observance, such a society would automatically degenerate to Hobbesian state of nature when life is brutish, whimsical and short.” He prayed that such would not be Nigeria’s portion.
According to him, a lot had been achieved during his first tenure.
“More still needs to be done in order to build on gains already made through consistent pursuit of policy thrusts of the administration, adding that they would be able to do this by creating a new national order founded on justice and good governance which would ultimately engender transparency in the management and allocation of our commonwealth; enhance political stability for the benefit of state actors and non-actors; promote economic prosperity for all and sundry, and entrench security of lives and properties.”
The role of justice ministry
On how to consolidate on success attained so far, Malami noted that the ministry has a critical role to play in putting the country on a path of order and justice and by achieving that, he said, he would protect the sovereignty, integrity, solidarity and prosperity of the nation.
He further expressed his determination to use the legal system to improve accountability in the financial sector and enforcement of the law to be open, accessible, just, equitable and efficient.
“The AGF office would be more focused on national anti-corruption strategy, public enlightenment, sanction and recovery of proceeds of corruption,” he said.
In achieving a harmonious working relationships amongst all Nigerian Anti-corruption (ACAs) and law enforcement agencies, the AGF assured that there would be quarterly meetings of heads of all Anti-corruption Law enforcement and Prosecuting Agencies in Nigeria where relevant issues bothering the nation would be discussed.