Former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Okey Wali, SAN, shares his views with CHUKWUDI AKASIKE about the need for a financially independent judiciary, the 2023 general elections and other issues
How will you describe Nigeria’s current democratic experiment since 1999? Do you think Nigerians have enjoyed the dividends of democracy?
Democracy is something that cannot be compromised no matter what anybody thinks about where we are. We can say disruptions have affected us negatively. If we had maintained our civilian administrations since independence no matter the mistakes, we would have corrected ourselves and moved on. From where we are, and by the grace of God, we will continue to improve. But don’t let us worry about whether we have made enough progress or not, we will continue to make progress in our democracy because we don’t have a choice. There is no alternative to democracy, and practice makes perfect.
The country is not at par with its contemporaries in terms of growth. What do you think should be done to ensure Nigeria’s speedy development?
The truth of the matter is that all over the world, it is a trying period. I am not an economist, I speak as a lawyer, but I believe that we will get there by His grace.
As the 26th President of the Nigerian Bar Association, you organised the first ever security summit where issues concerning insecurity in Nigeria were discussed. How will you describe the current state of insecurity in the country?
We have the problem of insecurity all over the country. Thanks for recalling what we did during our presidency of the NBA. A lot of people participated in that security summit; the private sector, security agencies and others. Many people participated. We passed the report of that summit to the security agencies, to the Presidency, to the police and all of that. We believed that at that point that they would work on what we sent to them.
Why is it that some of the recommendations from the summit and similar ones are not implemented for national development?
Well, ask those who we passed the recommendations to at that time. We did our bit by coming up with a report. So, what they’ve done with it is not my call.
This is currently the season of political campaigns when politicians make bogus promises. What is your advice to Nigerians who may likely be swayed by such promises?
Our democracy is growing. It is for our people to learn how to vote right. There is no other choice but to vote right. If they think that any particular person has not done well, they should use their PVCs to do the right thing. That is why everybody should be encouraged to register and make sure that they have their PVCs if they are qualified to vote. On the day of election, they should not sleep in their houses or go playing football or watching movies. They should try and make a choice and vote. We should all participate in developing our country. We are all involved. The wellbeing of Nigeria is all our business. Those who are in politics should play it well and those who are voting should vote right.
That is the beauty of democracy. You can see what is happening in the United States of America. Some years ago, many were shouting the Democratic Party, but now, people are shouting the Republican; they are saying the economy is bad and inflation is worsening and all that. If you follow the mid-term election in the United States of America, you will see that there is a swing coming to the Republican Party, exactly the opposite of what happened in 2020.
The number of Supreme Court judges has reduced from 21 to 13, and this is increasing the workload at the apex court, which will ultimately affect timely justice delivery. How can this be resolved, especially when a lot of cases are expected after the general elections?
The only solution to that is to make urgent appointments. The process will originate from the National Judicial Council before it gets to the Presidency. I am of the firm belief that they will set the ball rolling. The CJN will set the ball rolling; I have that confidence. There is no doubt about the fact that we need the appointment of justices of the Supreme Court. The workload is too much.
How will you respond to the fact that the judiciary in Nigeria is not financially independent and what does this portend for the nation’s justice system?
That is a terrible situation. Every administration in the Nigerian Bar Association has worked on that. There was nowhere I addressed any audience as the NBA president without talking about the issue of an independent and self-accounting judiciary. If the judiciary is independent and self-accounting, it will go a long way in aiding justice delivery.
Do you feel that the executive wields too much power over the judiciary because it vetoes the strategic appointments and pays the judges?
Those are constitutional problems and not just an issue concerning only the executive. Our system is in such a manner that the judiciary does not get involved in the appointment of ministers, commissioners or whatever, but they (executive) are involved in the appointment of judges. When the judiciary approves some appointments through the Chief Justice, they send them to the executive for approval. If it is a state government, those appointments go to the governor of the state, who swears in the judges. The Chief Judge will go to the National Assembly for approval; they (executive) don’t come to us for any approval.
You are saying it is a constitutional issue; how can this be changed?
It can only be changed if we are able to have some amendments in our constitution to that effect. That is what will take care of that, and it is not about whether any government is interested in that. As it stands, at the state level, judges are appointed, governors swear them in, and the CJN goes to the Senate for screening and all of that.
Some Nigerians have said that while lawmakers in the National Assembly enjoy jumbo pay, judges are poorly paid. How can this situation be changed?
Well, I have heard those comments in the past. You see, I like to speak with facts. What I know is what I will say. I like to say that the judiciary is poorly funded; judicial officers are poorly funded and poorly remunerated compared to judiciary officers in other climes. It is a very bad situation. These are people who are doing a very sensitive job. Before, we had a problem with the last CJN over the crisis of diesel in judges’ homes; diesel to run generators at the Supreme Court. How did it get that low? That shows the level of poor funding of the judiciary. So, those are the issues.
You were kidnapped in 2014 by gunmen. What was your experience in the hands of your abductors and how were you eventually freed?
That is something you don’t even wish on your worst enemy, because it was a situation that anything could have happened at any second throughout the close to two weeks I was with them. I was blindfolded and so, it is not what you wish for your worst enemies. One day, one of the kidnappers came and told me that I would be freed that day, and I said thank God. They dropped me somewhere in the middle of the night blindfolded. When I noticed that nobody was around me and nobody was talking to me again, I removed the blindfold and walked to where I could see a car and I went home.
Was any ransom paid before you regained your freedom from the kidnappers?
How would I know from where I was? I was not there; I was inside with them (kidnappers).
What punishment do you think will be commensurate to the crimes of kidnapping, banditry and terrorism?
The law is there to address all that. There are positions by the Penal Code or Criminal Code. So, adequate punishment is provided for by the extant laws. That is why when people have gone to the extreme of asking for capital punishment or death penalties, there are many things that can go wrong in a trial; I am speaking as a legal practitioner. There are cases in civilised climes where after 20 years, a person found guilty was actually innocent. If it were a situation where the person was sentenced to death by hanging, the person would have been gone. For now, many people are reluctant to move for capital punishment.
The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari) recently gave national award to 477 Nigerians and some foreigners. Some believe that while many deserve the awards given to them, there are claims in some quarters that other beneficiaries got the honour based on personal patronage and not act of patriotism. What is your take on this?
I don’t comment on speculations.
But do you think all those who got the awards are worthy of such reward?
I don’t even know who and who they honoured with awards. I just know that a few of my friends got it, I don’t know about others.
Some Nigerians have described the 2023 budget proposal of the current administration as economically unrealistic. What is your view on this?
I have said I am not an economist. Ask me things about law because I am not an economist.
There have been serious concerns about brain drain in the law profession for some years now. What can you say about recent developments where professionals leave the shores of the country to search for greener pastures overseas?
It depends; if any person decides to relocate, I wish the person good luck. But that is not all bad news because you know foreign earnings have been remitted back home. But I am not really bothered with people relocating to foreign countries. I know that in some places where we don’t have enough manpower like in the medical field, doctors are going, nurses are going. There is a flipside to all that, which is that some of the earnings will be remitted home. We get our remittances and foreign exchange from those countries. So, I am not really bothered about that.
How will you rate the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) in the aspect of security?
In the recent past, there appears to be some improvement. So, we are all watching the development. This is not patronising anybody. Security challenges are there all over the world. I know that ours is peculiar because some of these security issues have religious connotations. You have some people involved in terrorism and banditry, who are there for religious reasons, you have some people there who have been misled, while we have some who are just criminals masquerading as religious fundamentalists, but they are criminals. So, we have such issues. Like I said, I am sure you can confirm that there has been some improvement on the issue of security. The President told us that he would take care of that before he leaves office. Let’s wish him well and pray for him to be successful. I say this because if he succeeds, it is for us. It is in our interest that he succeeds. So, we will all pray for him.
Ahead of the 2023 general elections, what’s your take on the Independent National Electoral Commission’s preparation so far?
Since they (INEC) have promised that they will do well, Nigerians should be positive. If it has been confirmed that they did well in Anambra, Ekiti, Edo and Osun states, then they will do well in the general elections. All of these things are a learning process. The most important thing is that they should remain independent and work hard at delivering credible elections. So, all of these issues we are talking about, the central point to them is their independence and non-partisanship. You know that the computer is also about garbage in, garbage out. At the end of the day, it is important that the operators themselves are independent.
They (INEC) should also be loyal and faithful to their oath of office and their country so that they will do a good job for us. Our democracy must grow. We don’t have a choice; we must make sure that our democracy works. Anybody who has the privilege to have anything to do with our democracy and who loves this country must do his best to ensure that the light is on at all times.
Some have condemned the practice of parading suspects without trial, but it has continued without end. What is your view on this?
The Nigerian Bar Association has always criticised that. Like I said, innocent people get implicated in things they know nothing about, and parading suspects before the public would have damaged his or her reputation. The constitutional provision here is that a person is presumed innocent until he is found guilty. So, it is wrong to parade suspects, wear them tags and all of that. That is dehumanising and that is wrong.
What is your advice to the police and other security agencies involved in the act of parading suspects?
My advice to them is that the act (parading suspects) is wrong. It is unlawful to parade people who have not been tried. It is better for the court to give punishment when it finds people guilty than for security agencies to parade suspects who may be innocent and embarrass the person for nothing.