Why special court may not help in accelerating justice delivery, by Uwanna

Ikechukwu Uwanna, partner with Tsedaqah Attorneys, a commercial Law firm with offices in Lagos, Port-Harcourt and Ghana, has about two decades of litigation and commercial law practice experience. He is the chairman of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) in Lagos State. In this exclusive interview with INIOBONG IWOK, Uwanna assesses the current state of the judiciary, controversial judgment, corruption, and anti-graft war of the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari administration, among other issues. Excerpts:

What is your take on recent complaints by fourteen Supreme Court judges about issues bordering on their welfare?

It was shocking; it was disappointing, and it was very beneath our profession. You know the Supreme Court of Nigeria over the years, has been the respected highest court in the land. That is where we have the best minds as judges; that is where we make the best pronouncement of the judiciary, that is the third arm of government. To hear that one day would come when about 14 out of 15 Justices would write a letter to express their grievances about welfare issues, about condition of service, about how they are being treated is shocking. But Nigeria has become a country where each day; you get to hear things you would never imagine you would ever hear and this is one of them. This is the same court where we had people like the late Kayode Esho, Chukwudi Oputa, etc. It is sad that we have degenerated to the point where the welfare of the Supreme Court judges are being trivialised. It would affect output from the judiciary; it would affect the common man, knowing that the judiciary is the last hope of the common man.

I also think the NBA chairman was shocked, that is why he released a statement calling for a total overhaul of the system, an investigation be carried out over the issue and address it. In the 21 century it is shocking, how judges would not have access to the internet, they have issues with power. How do you want them to write their judgment? How do you want them to sit?

Don’t you think this adds to the fear some Nigerians are nursing, that the judiciary is losing its credibility?

Yes, I know that people think that the quality of judgment coming from the Supreme Court has diminished, but what I also think is that most lawyers, litigants do not make an attempt to read the judgment of the Supreme Court and see the reasoning behind it before jumping to the press. I think the best approach is for us to pick each judgment and look at it and I want to pick the Imo State gubernatorial election judgment.

I have read the judgment; I don’t go with the popular view of the people in the street that the judgment is not a good one. It is a policy court, and they look at what is good for Imo State at that point and they gave a judgment. I would implore anyone to take up a copy of that judgment and read it before criticising the judgment. The reason behind it for me is not something I can doubt, but have there been judgments in the past where I have read and want the court to take a look at it again? Maybe a few; but I think the norm these days is that people who don’t read the judgment just pick up the newspapers and criticise. It is not right.

Do you agree that corruption is also an issue that should be checked in the judiciary?

I agree with you, there are lots of judgments and there are lots of judges you desire more from, one is rather not satisfied with their level of competence, with their level of delivery on the bench. You find out that their reasoning is not in conformity with the law. And I agree with many that many times it could be because of corruption. The judiciary is not isolated from the issues of corruption that have bedevilled our country Nigeria.

And I would speak as the chairman of the Lagos branch of NBA, in the last appointment of Judges of the Lagos State High Court, the NBA made a firm representation to the chief judge that we want to play an active role.

We know this lawyer that you want to appoint, we are their colleagues. So, we want to speak on their credibility and intellectual capacity as becoming a judge is a concern. The chief judge of Lagos State gave us the opportunity by extending the time for us to go back, ensuring for us to look at the list and make comments and we circulated the list to our members who made comments. We announced that one of the individuals who had sent in the paper, is someone who a number of people in the professors felt was not qualified and people made comments, which we passed to the chief judge and that person was not appointed.

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So, I believe we need to go back to the basics from the process of appointment of judges, to their remuneration and welfare. From the Supreme Court, to the Court of Appeal, how do you appoint judges to these courts? We need to make sure that it is on merit and not because the person has siblings, parents or political influence or otherwise.

Another major issue bothering Nigerians and stakeholders is delay in justice delivery. What is your take on calls for a special court, especially for corruption-related cases?

The delay in the judiciary system is a major issue; today in my office we are dealing with cases that were filed in 2009, 2005 etc. they are still in court at the lower court, it is something that needs urgent attention. I want to start with Lagos, where I practise and I am chairman of the NBA; I would start with the issue of filing of cases, our lawyers have complained that filing matters at the High Court would take you about three months. That is between filing and the day it is assigned. It is not that the case has been called up in court. Meanwhile, I am comparing it with Rivers State, where I understand you can fill in two days. So, we have a major problem here.

We understand that the system is digitalised but it is not working in Lagos State. So, when finishing my case, I have to take it to the court for them to uphold. At our last NBA meeting, a lawyer said he arrived at the court at 8am, he was given a tally of number 13, at the close of business that day it was not his turn. But in other places, and in some parts of the country, it is a process you can start in your office without stepping out. There needs to be attention to the point of filing in Lagos State, otherwise, lawyers and litigants may rise up one day, because there is a lot of dissatisfaction in that process. Also, the point of assigning to a judge is a process that takes a long period of time. We need also to ensure that filing and assigning of cases happen seamlessly. There is no reason why a matter should not be assigned twenty-four hours. Then the issue of hearing, going through the preliminaries, the average case in Lagos cannot finish in ten years. These are serious commercial matters that delays livelihood at stake, affects people’s income, and people’s life. Why keep somebody for ten years to determine his fate in a simple commercial transaction?

In Lagos State, there are courts that have been designated special courts, but they have not helped. The government needs to appoint more judges for Lagos State. Lagos State deserves to have more judges, and there should be a process of supervising and tracking those judges. This would make sure that they sit, when they should sit, and make sure that cases are scheduled. So, there would not be a need for me to go to court by 9am, if my matter would not be heard until 2pm.

Why would I go from 9am and sit down? It makes no sense for me to leave my office in Oniru and go to court in Ikeja, sit till 2pm, at that time the judge may even say he is tired, or there is no light and we take another day, four months or six months after.

What is your take on the anti-graft war of incumbent Muhammadu Buhari’s administration?

We are not fighting corruption here, I am disappointed with the way we have gone about it. My colleagues believed that when you go to the judiciary, if you don’t pay you will not get a true copy of your document. If you don’t pay your matter would not be assigned. If you don’t pay someone to sign your document, you get nothing done. So, I am using the judiciary as a micro-organism of society. If you go to the road, if you don’t give a policeman money nothing happens, etc. So, where are we fighting corruption? Is it by selectively embarrassing the politicians? I don’t think we are sincere. I think we need to take a second look at our sincerity in fighting corruption. Corruption is killing this country, it is a cancer. We believe it is something we can be using to pursue our perceived enemies. No, we need to go round our system and deal with anyone who is corrupt.

What is your take on the recently amended Electoral Act ahead of the 2023 general election?

I am happy with the provision that gives us electronic transmission of results. I hope it is implemented to the letter. I saw that it was implemented in the Ekiti State gubernatorial election that just happened. So, it would reduce the violence and corruption that goes with electioneering in Nigeria. A number of other provisions, like the one that exclude legislators from being statutory delegates is ok, we can start having some semblance of what an election should be.

Are you concerned with the rise in voter apathy in our elections?

It is a result of insecurity; a lot of Nigerians do not want to go and risk their lives on Election Day, and they rather stay in their house, because they don’t know what would happen. Even before the day of the election, there is a lot of news flying around, on what would happen.

What is your take on the role of placeholder ahead of 2023 general?

My understanding of what INEC has said is that we don’t understand what a placeholder is; what we know is that the candidates have submitted their names and running mates. Because when you are sending you would not say placeholder. But the question we should be asking is? Can someone who has been nominated as running mate voluntarily withdraw and can INEC recognise such withdrawal? My answer to that is yes. I think that anyone who has been nominated for whatever reason can say he does not want to be deputy or vice again and the person who nominated him can nominate another person. That is what I think is called placeholder. INEC is not privy to the background arrangement of political parties; so they can give it any validation.

What is your general assessment of the Buhari administration?

I would like to assess him on a number of criteria. The first which bothers me most is the judiciary. It would be nice to hear if Nigerians think the judiciary has become better after seven years of Buhari. The second issue is power. Has the power supply gotten better than before he came? No, I don’t think I have more power than 2014. Do I think security has gone better since 2014? I don’t think so. Everywhere is bedevilled with insecurity across Nigeria. Do I think we are better now than in 2014 in infrastructure? I do not think so. Do I think the economy is better now than 2014? I do not think so. What was the rate of the naira to a dollar in 2014 compared to now?

What is the priority of your administration as NBA chairman in Lagos?

I will be one year in July; the priority is the welfare of our members, because it is only a lawyer that is properly taken care of that can advocate for others. So, when I talk about welfare, it starts from insurance to remuneration. We have ensured that we build capacity in the last one year. We have had training sessions that would equip lawyers to ensure that they can attract the right kind of client and they would do well. The legal profession, our stock in trade is our knowledge, we were able to try to equip them so that they can sell their knowledge and get money. We are partnering with professional bodies in the country to make sure that our members have specialisation to help them get into several other aspects of law and get capacity to earn more. We have a national insurance scheme to help them, health wise. Over 100 of our members have been enrolled. We are also working on a new remuneration scheme for young lawyers.

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