Professor Itse Sagay, former Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Benin, is the Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee against corruption.
In this interview with newsmen, he advocates for reform of the National Judicial Council to enable it carry out its statutory functions without hindrance.
Your criticisms of those asking the Transportation Minister, Rotimi Amaechi, to step down from office, pending investigation of allegations made against him by two justices of the Supreme Court, don’t you think your position should have been conveyed to government rather than making it public?
I didn’t speak in my capacity as Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, but as a citizen of this country and I am sure the government would take note of this.
What is your position on the DSS raid on the residences of certain judges?
I can respond to this as Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption. Our position is that there is nobody that’s above the law in this country; the only people that enjoy immunity against criminal prosecution, we all know: President, vice-president and governors. Anybody, outside this group is totally subject to the full weight of the law for any crime that he or she commits. And while we look at the judiciary with awe, with respect, we expect them to conduct themselves in such a manner that is totally above suspicion.
I have personally done a study of the judiciary in the past, the judiciary that we refer to as the judiciary of the golden era of the Supreme Court: The Supreme Court of Eso, of Oputa, of Nnamani, of Andrew Obaseki, of Justice Muhammed Bello, of Karibi Whyte and quite a number of them. I studied their Supreme Court and the image and aura that accompanied their conduct were carried from the colonial era.
These are people no agency in Nigeria will dare accuse, not to talk of invading their premises because they have such high moral authority.
These are people, who, when Buhari was military Head of state, said on many occasions that the actions of that government were illegal and the government obeyed immediately because of the authority these people had.
So, any judiciary that wants to sustain that aura, authority must do so by its conduct. You cannot be a corrupt person and expect to be respected; you mustn’t reduce yourself to the level where you are purchasable, where what I will call irresponsible and low type of lawyers carried money to you and buy your soul and you sell your judgment, creating a situation in which lawyers will prepare cases not knowing what the outcome will be because they don’t know what the highest bidder has handed over to the judge. So, when you bring us down to that level, where nobody can determine the outcome of a judgment, based on the argument, based on the law, based on the facts, you would have destroyed the judiciary. Those judges who are corrupt have destroyed the judiciary and there is nothing that is too much for their punishment – nothing is too much!
I want to give you the way I look at it in terms of illustration, I look at it from the story of Julius Caesar, everybody knows that story of the greatest conqueror in Roman history. A lot of people were jealous of him. He arrived in the Senate one day, some people conspired to kill him and the conspirators stabbed him one after another. Who were the conspirators in this case? Top persons, politicians, lawyers who shared out of the proceeds of crime, those were the people, who gave him one stab, one after another. These politicians, these lawyers, they are stabbing Nigeria one after another and blood is flowing the way Caesar’s blood was shed. Caesar ran to Brutus, his best friend, his closest confidant instead of asking what happened, took the knife and plunged it into his body!
What killed Caesar wasn’t the stab but the shock of Brutus’ involvement. The judiciary is the Brutus in this case that has plunged knife into Nigeria and they are going to destroy Nigeria.
But the fight against corruption, is it sustainable?
It is sustainable, if Nigerians want it to be sustainable, after all it is a democracy. If we had taken legitimate steps to uproot corruption from the judiciary, that’s the first place. We must uproot it from the judiciary, otherwise we are going nowhere. After you have cleansed out the political class, cleanse out everybody else and the judiciary is left harbouring corruption, you go there, you never find justice and that corruption will remain unconquered. So, the judiciary is the first point of call and we must purge it of corruption. That’s where we have to start.
You have said, no punishment is too great for judges who are accused of corruption. But the refrain in law is that you are presumed innocent until found guilty.
Yes, such punishment must be after judgment.
But you speak with a mindset that these judges are guilty even before they are arraigned and tried?
Well, there has to be a mindset for those who are looking for corrupt persons, otherwise there will be no prosecution. There must be investigation, suspicious behaviour, secret accrual of illegitimate funds, leading to investigation, arrest and prosecution. But there has to be a mindset. The only person, who has to be neutral, who mustn’t have a mindset is the judge, who is going to hear the case. He is the one whose mind has to be clear to be neutral; he is the one, who has to assume innocence before conviction, although a case is already being made by Nigerians that the presumption of innocence should be removed and those charged should prove their own innocence but it hasn’t got to that stage yet. It is for the judge, the prosecutor can have a mindset, otherwise there will be no investigation and there will be no prosecution.
You have said those calling for Amaechi’s resignation are malicious and vindictive. But there is a senior member of the ruling party, its national legal adviser, Muiz Banire, who, on the basis of allegation of giving money to a judge, offered to step down from his position in the party, pending the conclusion of investigation. How do you reconcile this with your stance on Amaechi’s case?
No, there is a world of difference.
How do you mean sir?
N500, 000 was found in the account of a judge, which had been paid by Muiz Banire. There is no such link, no such smoke in the case of Amaechi, just mere words of the judges. So, there is a world of difference.
How do you assess the National Judicial Council, because people have said if they had lived up to expectations the judiciary wouldn’t be in this mess?
Not quite. I won’t blame them totally for the ineffectiveness of the NJC in the fight against corruption because to a certain extent, it is established for routine misconduct, not the sort of volume of corruption that we have now found among members of our judiciary, people taking huge sums of money from politicians, people who haven’t paid salaries of thousands of Nigerians for many years.
So, when you get to that stage that you are dealing with a very serious disease, the NJC wasn’t meant to do that. Their job really was for routine misconduct in normal situation. What we have now isn’t normal, it is like an epidemic the scale is just too much. It is incredible.
But do you share the view of those who insist that the NJC itself must be decentralised for effectiveness; that some of its functions can be handled by the Judicial Service Commission?
Not necessarily the JSC. My personal view is that a lot of those operating at the level of NJC should no longer be serving justices, it should be retired justices with clean records because we have had a situation in which the accused for corruption and misconduct was a sitting Chief Justice of Nigeria himself! He influenced the whole process to the extent that an innocent president of the court of appeal was suspended and wasn’t allowed to return to his seat until he retired. Because the corruption and misconduct of that Chief Justice of Nigeria was in consonance with the corruption of the president of the country and the party in power. So, it is important to have people, who have nothing at stake anymore – they have nothing to lose and they are objective. Too many people who are holding sensitive positions and sitting on lump sum of corrupt money, sitting to try others who are being accused of corruption. You know you have committed the same thing, you know the money is somewhere and you can be asked questions in future, you have to caution yourself about dealing with a co-traveler in that area. That’s the problem.
There has been anxiety over the non confirmation of the appointment of the EFCC chairman, Ibrahim Magu. Are you bothered that he hasn’t been confirmed?
No, I am not worried, neither am I surprised, because the people who are supposed to confirm him, some of them are under investigation by him and you know the typical Nigerian, there is no sense of duty, sense of responsibility, no embarrassment. They are ready to fight dirty and expose themselves for what they are: People who are unfit for positions that they forced themselves to occupy, otherwise there should be no reason they should delay his confirmation. But I think they are protecting themselves against the crime that they have committed.
Still on the justices whose residences were invaded, Nigerians are anxious to know how their cases would play out; they want to know whether there is a provision of the law, which states that certain amount or volume of money cannot be found in one’s residence?
That’s a good question. I think there are similar provisions in the EFCC Act that entitle those security agencies anti-corruption agencies, to investigate anybody who is living above his income, in order to determine where he is getting the extra income for his style of living. There is also a provision in the ICPC Act that entitles the government to bring an application to freeze any asset, owned by somebody who cannot account for how he got it. In that case, he is obliged to provide evidence of how he acquired his assets and how he acquired them. If he cannot do it, he loses that asset.
Presently, the National Assembly, if it isn’t done, there is a bill, Proceeds of Crime Bill, which makes it very, very clear that at any point in time, the security agencies and the anti-corruption agencies can ask you to account for any asset you have and state how you acquired it, what income you have to be able to acquire it. And if you cannot do so, you lose it to the state. That’s the trend all over the world now. In fact, we are one of the few countries that haven’t been practicing it.