‘When you exclude judiciary from governance, it becomes illegal government’

Ezezoobo“Any nation that the Attorney General acts as errand boy to the President is doomed”. Those are the words of Johnson Esezoobo, a Lagos-based lawyer. In this interview with YETUNDE AYOBAMI OJO, he explains the constitutional roles of Attorneys General and reasons the office is revered. He equally spoke on his victory at the Appeal Court against LASTMA and alleged misconduct of custodians of law among others. 

WHAT is your view on the office of Attorney-General? Should it be by appointment or election? Attorneys General know their constitutional role in government.

The person occupying that office ought not to see himself as a messenger of governor or president. He is expected to advise. Whether it is by appointment or by election however, once you are stepping in, you are not expected to play politics with the office of AG because your good advice will impact positively on the society.

Your bad advice will impact negatively on the Society. We are not moving forward today because Attorneys General are not doing their responsibility.

They are more on the side of the politician than the side of good governance. You won a case against LASTMA at the Appeal Court. How did you do that? That matter is an interesting case to me because it challenged various aspects of our law and justice system. Among these are the effectiveness of the various safeguards against arbitrariness, tardiness in governance and oppression.

There is also the issue of the value of citizen’s right before the state; the idea of equality of the parties before the law court. Besides, the issue of quick dispensation of justice, there is also the issue of procedure for interim restoration before final determination of a case.

The conduct of state legal officers and the insensitivity of some judges is also involved. These are some of the things the case has brought into focus. It took the Court of Appeal eight years to listen to me but it took less than three months to hear the case.

That is, for good eight years, the lawyer in the ministry was just doing what he liked and the court allowed it in the sense that it failed to take a decisive position. That a citizen’s property was seized and detained on account of alleged traffic contravention without a court trial is a serious matter in a democratic setting, which I expect any court as the bulwark against arbitrariness to attend to expeditiously and in defence of the constitution and protection of the liberty of the citizen.

A court should be interested in hearing such a matter expeditiously. But for eight years, we were in the Court of Appeal after about four years at the lower court. So, it took eight years going to court like the persistent widow in the Bible. But after the court heard the matter in less than three months, it delivered judgment.

This tells me that if our courts really want to work, they can do it because delay in administration of justice is something that could be checked.

All the intrigues the lawyer brought into the proceeding could have been checked. The first day the lawyer met me, he said: ‘Mr. Esezoobo, you have been oppressed. I have gone through the file. Don’t worry, we would settle the matter’.

The same man turned back in the next adjourned date, filed all sorts of applications and was talking as it pleases him. One amazing aspect was that he filed a motion for extension of time to file appellant’s brief when he had not compiled records. So, on what was he going to base his appellant’s brief? Interestingly, the motion was filed as reaction to a motion I filed that the notice of appeal was incompetent and as such should be struck out.

It was also the point that in any event, the case should be dismissed for lack of diligent prosecution. I expected that the court should say without compiling record we cannot grant this; hear my motion and dismissed the case. But the court gave him chance to compile records. He then filed a motion for extension of time, motion to amend the defective notice of appeal that I said was not competent.

So, you can see that the court indulged the state counsel and that was why the case dragged for eight years. But I thank God for life. If life was no more, you can’t be alive to talk about it.

I also thank the judges because towards the end of the case, they realized that the case had dragged for too long. I hope they will correct themselves. Many compromise and deal corruptly to avoid the inconvenience of delayed justice. There is need to correct the situation because the injustice the system brings to bear on the citizenry is not restricted to the poor man like me alone.

It goes round. Today judges and lawyers are being kidnapped. So, it is an ill wind that blows no one any good. Everybody will share in what we fail to correct or contribute to perpetrate.

My experience in the case made me know that Nigeria is not really practicing true democracy. A democracy where the executive governor would come and say, ‘this is what I want’, and the House of Assembly cannot put a check on him. A governor puts in place an illegal structure to start harassing people on the streets, and before you say, Jack, the House of Assembly and the Attorney General would support him rather than properly advising him on how it should be done. You can imagine lots of people who suffered under the illegal operation of LASTMA before it got to my turn.

The interesting thing raised at the Court of Appeal was that as at the time I went to court, LASTMA had not been enacted into a legal body. Therefore, it couldn’t be sued. So they asked the court to strike out the case. You find a situation where the governor became or was operating as an emperor.

He sets up a structure to impound peoples property, impose fines and collect same without involvement of court which is part of government in this country. This cannot be called any other name than extortion. When you exclude the judiciary from governance, you are running an illegal government.

You find a lawyer, an Attorney General coming to court to say, LASTMA is a non juristic person that cannot be sued, but I thank God that the judges appreciated the point in this case; that the Attorney General, Commissioner for Transportation and other officers of LASTMA were parties, so even though LASTMA couldn’t be sued, those other parties operated through it.

Therefore, the suit was properly constituted. That was what saved the suit. That means that if I had sued LASTMA alone, the case would have been thrown out.Then, it means that the principle of law that says Ubi jus ibi remedium (that means there is no wrong without a remedy) would have been violated.

In a country under a written constitution entrenched in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, such a system that helps a governor to operate in such a manner is not democratic. It appears that the government runs a system of conspiracy. Once the governor has spoken, the House of Assembly conforms with what the governor said, and then, the lawyer begins to project and defend it.

So, Nigeria’s model of democracy is more of conspiracy to pervert the system than to do right. Unfortunately, some lawyers are not performing their roles in government; lawyers are to serve as safeguards against irregularities, oppression and injustice. Anytime you see lawyers projecting it, protecting and defending what is wrong, there is danger.

There are various allegation of professional misconduct. Would you say law is in retrogression? Our law is not progressing in the right direction. That is why we have a lot of socio-political crisis. If you go to our courts today, the courts are congested. Everybody feels justice is only obtainable in court but that is not true.

Every level of government is expected to conduct the government to ensure fair play, justice, and prevent oppression. But when you see people oppressing you, telling you go to court, and a lawyer will project it, that is wrong. It is like a tout slapping you and saying to you, go to court or the politician asking touts to rig election and say we meet at tribunal because they are given to impunity.

That is precisely what is happening in Nigeria. You celebrated your 60th birthday,would you say you are fulfilled? I am fulfilled as a man but not as a lawyer.

I tried to inspire a new thinking toward military rule but did not achieve much. Some people, even judges acknowledge that I have made some contribution, but this makes no meaning to me if the ideal I propagate is not adopted.

Recently, a judge acknowledged me in an open court that I made great contribution towards restoration of civil democratic rule in Nigeria by constantly speaking and writing against the military. I felt good with myself!

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