‘Retired judges, senior lawyers should preside in corruption trials’

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Abeny Mohammed (SAN)

Abeny Mohammed (SAN) is an Ilorin-based legal practitioner. In this interview, he says the anti-corruption trials of the federal government will be best served through special courts presided by retired judges and senior lawyers on ad hoc basis.

Elections have been concluded but some persons are still at the various tribunals challenging the outcome of these elections. Do you think this can strengthen our democracy?

I am not holding brief for the past government neither was I a friend or enemy of that government. But we have to be fair because the government allowed the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to function without undue interference. And that was why the elections, to a large extent, can be said to be free and fair.

The elections has strengthened democracy in the sense that it was the first since the inception of Nigeria in 1960 that we have transition from one political party to another, where the government in power is handing over to a different political party after losing the election. That alone shows we are strengthening and stabilising our democracy and making progress steadily.

It is normal for any person who loses an election to challenge it at the tribunal. And that is why we have the tribunals. It is normal, provided these tribunals are not prolonged where you have bye-election when the incumbent is almost completing his tenure. That is being curtailed because there is a definite period of hearing and determining all petitions. Even at the appellate there is definite period within which these petitions must be concluded. These tribunals are manned by high court judges from the various states of the country.

The reduction of cases at the tribunals is a reflection of the fact that we are stabilising, unlike in the past when we have stream of election petitions. Many people did not go to court because the elections were mostly free and fair.

Does it strike you that the card reader malfunction thought to have been a major issue for contention at the tribunals has so far not been the crux of many petitions at the tribunals?

We are experimenting. The card readers are being used for the first time in this country so we are bound to have some problems. We want to say that the card readers performed successfully up to 60 per cent. It does not mean that where card readers failed, the elections there automatically also failed.

What people don’t know is that the card reader performs two functions-identifying the voter’s card as belonging to the owner and finger print authentication to show that information contained in the card agrees with the voter’s thumb-print. Other factors may cause the card reader failing to authenticate the voter’s fingerprint. But the voter could still vote through the incident form.

But what happened during the election is the verification and allowing people to vote. We know that much of the elections were conducted without being postponed, meaning that where some of these card readers failed, the presiding officers may have resorted to manual voting. One thing the card reader has done is that it was able to dislodge election malpractices.

How do you see the anti-corruption campaign?
The nation’s drive to defeat corruption is a welcome relief and it should be supported by well-meaning Nigerians. Corruption has been the bane of our development in all facets of our lives. It has cut across the three arms of government, even the police, NNPC, Customs etc. So we need a government that would say no, business should not be as usual because we are being derided externally.

Even in the fight against insurgency, we have been denied arms and ammunitions by other nations because of corruption and human rights abuses. So it is timely that Mr President has decided to curb these corrupt practices.

Corruption was on the increase in the last regime, yet the EFCC and ICPC, the two agencies charged with fighting corruption, are there to fight corruption. It is now clear that it does not end in setting up institutions to fight corruption. The leadership of the country must be seen as genuinely interested to fight corruption. I think these elements were lacking in Jonathan’s regime.

So the attempt by this present government to recover looted funds and all properties acquired through ill-gotten money should be supported by every Nigerian so that at least we can have money for development and regain our lost glory.

Recently, we read in the papers that President Mohammed Buhari is shopping for courageous judges to help recover looted funds and properties. It is true that anybody who wants to fight corruption must look for a strong judiciary or dependable judicial officers. My suggestion is that, there are good and courageous judges but you find that these same judges already have matters they are handling. I suggest that neutral, independent judges who are either senior members of the bar or retired judges who are still able to perform should handle these matters on ad hoc basis. It will be quicker and more reliable.

Won’t this require an Act of the National Assembly?

Of course, it will require the National Assembly to pass an Act allowing the federal government to recruit judges who would perform this task. It is of no use to say you want to fight corruption without special courts. Many of our judges have been compromised. But majority of them are still reliable.

What is your take on the upsurge of human rights abuses, especially by security agencies?

I want to look at it from two angles: the violations witnessed by journalists or Nigerians and they have reported on the security agencies violating the rights of people and the Nigerian Human Rights Commission has also investigated and came out with a report. In my view, these two aspects are more reliable than those reported by Amnesty International because they are always biased. Whatever happens in third world is highlighted. So I am not in support of the report on Nigerian Army violations. The government should educate our soldiers on how to treat the people. Agreeing with Amnesty means subjecting your soldiers to external censorship and when you do that you demoralise the troops.

The federal government has announced it will recruit 10,000 police officers. How do you view this development?

If you want to fight corruption and insecurity, you need more security personnel to do this for you and you have to source for the money to pay them. My only worry is the mode of recruitment so that you don’t recruit criminals again in the police as happened in the recent past. If this happens, they end up recruiting hardened criminals and ex-convicts into the force. They must ensure only those who are right are recruited. And there should be good orientation that they are first and foremost a friend and servant of the people.

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