Chief Ladi Williams (SAN), scion of the legendary Rotimi Williams, belongs to the fourth generation of lawyers in his family lineage and must have gathered vast experience from his father, who was the first Senior Advocate of Nigeria, and was indeed considered as The Law. In this interview with NSIKAK EKANEM, he spoke on the Supreme Court judgment affirming the election of President Muhammadu Buhari, among other crucial issues. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of adherence to the rule of law in Nigeria since 1999 that the county has been governed uninterruptedly by civilian presidents?
The rule of law, if it is properly administered and adhered to, we would not be having some of the problems we are having today. The rule of law also involves obedience to the spirit and letters of the Constitution. In other words, obedience to court orders! If a court grants a man bail and he can comply with the bail conditions, let him go. When you disobey court orders, that is the beginning of disaster. It is the rule of law that distinguishes us from animals in the jungle. In my own assessment, I think we are not yet there. We have to make some more efforts to see that things go in accordance with the rule of law.
Where do you think Nigeria started getting it wrong?
We must obey court orders; that is number one. Corruption negates the rule of law because corruption by its very nature, is criminal. You cannot have criminality side-by-side the rule of law. That is where we start getting it wrong. Corruption is not only about money changing hands physically. When you rig an election, that is corruption and you are also breaking the law by so doing. When you cannot travel from Lagos to Ikot Ekpene by road without being very sure that you would not be kidnapped or accosted on your way these are the symptoms of the breakdown of law and order. So, we are not yet there. When we were growing up there was no kidnapping. You can travel at anytime in the night like they do in Cotonou, Togo, Ghana. Nigeria was safe and peaceful. Our streets and roads need to be patrolled by discipline Police Force. At the moment, as me and you speak, we believe that police take bribes. People don’t even need to have any evidence, they just believe that the police collect N20 from mini bus drivers, okada riders. It may not be so but that is perception of our police men. Again, if we are not careful, people would stop taking their grievances to the court. When you go to court and you don’t get judgment – free and fair judgment – people would now begin to wonder what is the point of going to court? They may say: “Let me just take cutlass and settle the matter. When you wake up in the morning and you don’t have money to give to your son or daughter to take to school, you can’t pay your children school fees let alone buying uniforms, how would that child not be influenced by people of evil dispositions doing things unlawfully? So we have a long, long way to go.
Talking about not getting fair judgment, virtually everyone complains of it. Even President Muhammadu Buhari once complained of the Nigerian judiciary; even members of the legal profession also complain. What is your personal assessment of the Nigerian judiciary?
It is good that somebody in the highest echelon in our society realizes that all is not well in the judiciary. Many people who meant well for this country, who might have been misunderstood, have raised alarm about the corruption in our judiciary system. Many more are scared to voice out their complaints. When you say that judges are corrupt, when you go before them, they would deal with you. That is why we are not getting more complaints. There is no doubt that there is corruption in the judiciary. There is no doubt that the delivery system of justice is very slow and we don’t get our justice in time. In fact, most of the time, your justice is delayed. From the time you file an action in the High Court to the time it gets to Supreme Court, it can take up to 15 years. I have some cases where the litigants passed away before judgment. Justice is not for the dead, it is for the living. I think that at the moment, the way our judiciary is arranged, there would always be bottlenecks of cases.
One could recall that you having been calling for restructuring of the Supreme Court to unbundle its responsibilities through the establishment of regional Supreme Courts in the country. At ministerial screening recently at the Senate, Festus Keyamo toed that line of thought. So, have you made any effort to synergise with like minds with a view to effecting such changes?
The truth is that many of our people who can make the change would not do so because they don’t see direct benefits to themselves. We all know what is wrong. But, who would bell the cat? Who would take it up? No judge likes to be criticised. When you criticise a judge or the system, you are doing it because you genuinely believe that there is something wrong, but you lack the capacity to effect the change. That is the pity. At the moment now, we have got to a stage, people just give up. Who listens to you? Who cares? Once you know your left and your right, you should know what is wrong.
Regarding the Supreme Court judgment that dismissed the petition of PDP and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, do you see anything unusual regarding the speed with which the judgment was delivered and the composition of the panel members?
There is nothing wrong. The Chief Justice of Nigeria is the person who determines the panel for any given case. It is his prerogative to do so. And the present Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), as I know him, is not partisan. He could not also be accused of being influenced by tribalism. If Atiku wins, is he not a Fulani man? If Buhari wins, is he not a Fulani man? So, we cannot also accuse him of tribalism. I believe this particular CJN was fair. I believe he wants to leave a good name for himself. To become a CJN in Nigeria is not an easy thing; to remain there is even more difficult, as it can be seen in that of Justice (Walter) Onnoghen. There are so many pressures here and there.
Onnoghen’s voluntary retirement after being tried at the Code of Conduct Tribunal was surrounded with controversy. What is your view regarding the Onnoghen saga?
The first thing to note is that Justice Onnoghen had a number of allegations brought against him. The second thing to add is: were those allegations true? If the allegations were proved, then he is wrong. We all know that ignorance of the law cannot justify any misdeed. He did not disclose some of his bank accounts in his Asset Declaration. He said he forgot to do so. Is that a good defence? The best thing would have been to say that they were lying, ‘that account is not mine’.
What is your take on procedures with which the matter was handled?
In this situation, it is either you are going at the substance or the procedures. I think for this type of thing, you go more for the substance. Did he do what they alleged he did? If he did, then I would say, it is most unfortunate. Justice Onnoghen undoubtedly knows the law. I have personally appeared before him. Even when you disagree with him, you might see the rationale for his decisions. He is a good judge. But, this particular incident leaves much to be desired.
What is your view on the opinion that the Onnoghen matter ought to have handled by the National Judiciary Council (NJC), and that President Buhari used the incumbent CJN to oust Onnoghen?
I don’t think the incumbent CJN was used to get Onnoghen out of office. The incumbent CJN was the second in line to the CJN post, the second most senior judge after Onnoghen. Number two, Onnoghen himself, more or less, confessed that he had account that was not disclosed in his declaration and that he forgot to do so. That is where the problem is.
So, on issues regarding submission to the rule of law, who bells the cat?
We should do what they do in Sweden. They call it the Office of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is a person that complains is lodged with. Even in the US, there is the Office of the Whistle Blower. That whistle blower is giving President Donald Trump a lot of problem right now. If it is properly used, it would solve some of our problems right now. Not the whistle blower who only blows when there is money in the soak away. There are so many other issues that one can blow whistle for.
Amidst public outcry of failure on the part of the leaders, who, since 1999 would you say is an exception; or is there none?
Of the four, two were formerly in the military – Obasanjo and the present president, Muhammadu Buhari. They were both in the Army and both of them have ruled Nigeria before. The other two are civilians with big-big degrees, well read; yet Nigerians are not satisfied. There is so much criticism against the incumbent right now because people say that he is favouring the North, that all the positions are given to the North. It is not enough for one to say the Minister of Education, for instance, is from the north. But, the thing is that if you are from the North and you are made the Minister of Education, the next question to ask is: how many schools have you built for the north when you were a minister? You are Minister for Works, how many roads have you constructed? Up till today, there is no state in the North that is more advance than Akwa Ibom in terms of development and education. There is need to be a review, anyway. I don’t think that they should just favour the part of the country that they came from.
Obasanjo is the only one who I would say, without prejudice to anything, that he has been reasonable. He did not pack his people into his government, unlike others. When Jonathan was in power, it was the former Eastern Nigeria that was governing Nigeria and that was why he lost. By that, I mean the core Eastern States – Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Rivers, Bayelsa, part of Delta. When he was looking for votes (for his term as president), he came to the South West and the South West supported him for his term and that was why he lost. Nigeria is built on a tripod – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. If you ignore one of those three, you are on your own, you can’t win. What Jonathan did was to totally ignore the Yoruba. Some actually supported him. He got more votes from the South West than he got from Bayelsa in terms of numbers. Somebody made an analysis that out of 21 top appointees, not one was from the South West. When he wanted to win again, he came to the South West. Two or three weeks to the election was too late going round with Obas and chiefs. How would an intelligent person from the Yoruba land support him because he went to see Oba and gave him money? That was why he lost. The people felt that Buhari has made promises, let us throw in our lot with him. Even then, the governor of Oyo State today is a PDP man to show you that in terms of political advancement we have to give it to the South West.
But some sections of the Nigerian people believe that one man is dictating the political direction for the South West and that notion tends to suppress the South West as being politically sophisticated?
Nigeria is a developing country. At the beginning of this union called Nigeria we have three major political figures – Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sardauna of Sokoto (Ahmadu Bello) and Obafemi Awolowo – for East, North and West, in that order. It was wherever Zik wanted his people to go that they would go same thing for Awolowo for the West and Sardauna for the North. They did not lose elections in their regions. The military intervened and that was when Nigeria went off the track. As for one person dictating the tune, it is not quite true. The time that the South West voted to support Jonathan, Tinubu’s nominee was Nuhu Ribadu. But Tinubu and Ribadu lost woefully even in the South West. The thing is that some certain persons in the country have their own time. In the 1950s up to 1960s, even though a baboon from Benue put on something on his neck to look like human being that baboon would defeat you (referring to the interviewer) even with all your journalistic education if (Joseph) Tarka says vote for this baboon. Even in present day Akwa Ibom there was Chief Effiong Eyo, I know him, and when he is contesting there no Ibibio man that would go near him. He was powerful! Who could have defeated Zik in Onitsha or Awolowo in Ijebu Province or Sardauna in the North? Their words were laws. That is how it has always been and would also be so for a long time to come.
Tinubu was governor for eight years in Lagos and we saw what he did. He laid the foundation for subsequent governance, so people trust him and I think they still trust him because up till tomorrow any party that he moves forward and tells the people of Lagos to support they would do so and they have been doing so.