By Jane Echewedo
Chief Robert Clarke, SAN, just clocked 81 years. In this interview, he spoke on national issues, expressing concern that if nothing urgent was done to improve on the socio-political situation, there may be serious crisis in the country.
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What is your reaction to the argument that our constitution was written by the military and that it gave rise to some lacunas in the document?Robert Clarke, SAN
Let us get this straight and for once, let us agree that the military never wrote a constitution for us.
But our constitution was written during the military era, but by civilian lawyers. Let’s be honest about it.
The 1963 Constitution was a civilian-orientated constitution.
The military started amending that constitution when they took over and in 1978, Olusegun Obasanjo gave us a Presidential system in our constitution.
So, actually, the constitutions were drawn by civilians under a military regime. But the danger was that they decided their own way of unitary system of government in the constitution. Instead of having a Federal Government where the states are strong and the centre is weak, they decided to give us a strong centre and a weak state to represent what the army represents.
Now also with due respect, many changes were pushed into that constitution.
For instance, I can boldly say the 1979 Constitution brought up by the military, then by Olusegun Obasanjo and they brought in many things, that the panel he himself set up to give us a constitution never brought up.
They were able to entrench in that constitution many fundamental things that would later on affect us. The 1999 Constitution which was also under a military regime, was a rotten egg. After 20 years of operating that constitution, we have not and would never make a head way until it is restructured.
Are you saying part of the work before the 9th National Assembly is the issue of restructuring or rewriting the constitution?
Restructuring is different from the constitution but what will give power to restructuring is the constitution. What I would first say is that let us jettison the 1999 Constitution, set up a constituent conference where each local government will send one representative to an assembly where they will decide what type of constitution Nigeria needs. After they do it, restructuring will be part of the exercise. When they have a package then the President will carry that package and ask for a referendum. Yes or no. Do you approve with this constitution, yes or no.
If all the people say yes, then it becomes the people’s voice. Then, the President takes it to the National Assembly, this is the voice of the people, please pass it to law. But there is a problem.
The National Assembly today consists of almost 400 and something members. With due respect to them, Nigeria is just wasting its money on them.
We don’t need a bicameral legislature in Nigeria. We need one assembly where every holder of an elective office will only canvas for vote within his local government.
If you want to be the president today in Nigeria, if you don’t have N10 billion in your pocket, you can’t even get the nomination of your party. If you don’t have N20 billion, you cannot traverse the whole Nigeria canvassing for votes. Why do we have to spend such money? That is where our problems start.
Allow everybody to contest the election from his local government so that they don’t spend such money. Then after they are all elected, they all go to the National Assembly and from among them, they pick their own presidential candidate which they would have already known from their caucuses. This is how it is done in South Africa, which runs a presidential system akin to a parliamentary system.
What is your take on the call for state police?
State police is nothing new in Nigeria. When we were young boys in the North, we had what is called dandokas, the Serikis have their police, the Dongaris. In the West, we had a local government police. So it is not a new thing in Nigeria. We had used local
government police and state police.
The problem is that when the new constitution came and we were drawing police, regionalisation and the state authority, we did not include it. So we have single command for the police also which is not good but that does not mean we should not have one command of police in Nigeria but the state can and should have their own policemen because we need policemen who are indigenes of the state.
Like all this Boko Haram and the kidnapping, if you have an informant from that area, he can speak their language and gather more information. So it is desirable for the progress and security of Nigeria to have a state police.
My fear is this, you cannot have a state police where you have a governor who has such unlimited powers. If you are not in a political party in the state with the state governor, you cannot make it.
What happens to a police under a governor with such powers? So we must evolve a system where the police in the state will be devoid of the control of the governor, then I will agree with it.
What is your reaction to an officer of the Civil Defence Corps in Bauchi State restraining a Judge from entering her court to deliver judgment recently?
Honestly, I don’t want to comment on such thing because I am not privy to the reasons for the action of the security official. It would be improper. I would like to know what happened. However, a High Court Judge deserves respect. It is her constitutional duty to deliver judgment in case(s) in her court. So, she should not have been prevented. Like I said,
The judiciary in the last four years has been embattled more than ever. Will you say that the judiciary is being attacked?
Prior to our democracy that started in 1999, the judiciary was perfect, even though there may be some few bad eggs. We lawyers were sure of judgments, we were happy when stepping into court rooms that we are going to get justice. But since 1999, it has changed. `Why? Because the politicians brought money that is not their own, money that they had stolen, they brought it into the life of every Nigerian. We now have a class of lawyers in Nigeria who are election lawyers and they made more money than any lawyer in Nigeria.
Just because they are not fools, they still have governors who have stolen money. So when they have problems, they come to them. They put up high bills and they pay them.
When they are not satisfied with plenty money given to them, they approach the bench. They have bastardised the judiciary. That is the problem that was created by the politicians. But the judges too have brought trouble on us.
When the constitution was written, it says election petitions in gubernatorial and the National Assembly will end at the Court of Appeal.
Those who wrote the constitution knew what they were doing.
Only the presidential election petition will get to the Supreme Court. But when Salami’s (Ayo, former President of the Court of Appeal) problem came, people were hearing that judges were receiving N1.5 billion, they were receiving this and that from politicians, even those in the apex court heard it, that somebody wrote a petition that Salami had been bribed with N1.5 billion, tell him to stop giving judgment on Sokoto case. Of course, Salami wrote back to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN and said, look he is the President, and it is his constitutional right, and that the CJN cannot dictate to him.
We all knew exactly what happened to him. So, at that stage, the Supreme Court now petitioned that all election petitions should now come to the Supreme Court. You see what I am saying, a self- inflicted injury. Now, I heard the CJN about two months ago saying the Supreme Court in Nigeria is the hardest working Supreme Court in the world.
Why not? It’s a self-inflicted injury. You will now have to handle 36 governorship elections appeal, 337 from House of Representatives and over 900 at the lower level. Today, they have no time to look at ordinary cases in the Supreme Court.
They must give priority attention to political cases. They found themselves in this situation. That’s what I am telling you that it is the problem of politicians. They themselves, the Justices, created a situation where they are over worked.
How do you feel being 81?
At 81, I feel I am still a young man because all the things young men do, I still do them till today. But I can assure you that I still get enjoyment of life in its ramification. I still drink but not excessively, I still dance but not excessively, I still eat but not excessively.
I think moderation in life is the key word. I am thankful to God that I have not been thrown down by any sickness or disease even though as an old man, the body talks to you. But I thank God very much that at 81, I still keep fit and I thought I should have left private practice since last year when I was 80; but looking at myself and the body language, I think I can go, by the grace of God, for another four years.
We have high court judges who sit at election tribunals and while the tribunal lasts, cases in court are unduly delayed. Do you feel election petition must be handled by high court judges?
Election Tribunal system is called art work. It means it is not a continuous job. For instance, every four years, an election tribunal sits for 180 days. Why do you destroy our judicial system for 180 days? Why not call upon retired judges who have retired at the age of 65. Look, I am 81 now and my brain is still sharp and I know that there are many retired judges whose brains are still sharp.
Why not call upon these judges to manage these tribunals for 180 days and manage those appellate court or those tribunals or any higher one or even senior lawyers, who have the experience and knowledgeable in election petitions? It will not disrupt the system. That is the problem, there are many retired judges who are doing nothing.
Every four years, call on 200 or 500 who are doing nothing. Create jobs for them instead of destroying them. Sometimes you go to court and they will say the judge has gone to tribunal and your case has been adjourned till next year. It causes delay for effective justice administration and quick dispensation of cases. This is not good for our judicial system.