Charles Ajuyah, Delta State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, says administering justice in the state in past 15 years had been quite successful “and I think it’s a process which other sister states would emulate”. In this interview with Adekunbi Ero, executive editor, Tony Manuaka, senior associate editor, Stella Sawyerr, associate editor, Tony Akaeze, senior assistant editor and Adewale Adelola, senior photojournalist, Ajuyah says “We’ve also made laws to block loopholes that criminals had exploited within the past 15 years”
Within the 15 years of democracy, how well would you say Delta State has done in administering justice?
Well, I would say the wheel of justice has been moving progressively and is being overhauled; overhauled in the sense that judges in the state have attended and benefited from courses, and court infrastructure in the state have been renovated. The courts are equipped and not only the courts now, even other stakeholders in the administration of justice. Talking about the prisons, the state has made some interventions in that area in assisting the prison authorities. With the police, the state has also made intervention in the form of grants and donations to the institution. Also, about the lawyers, the state has been involved in equipping the ministry of justice, sending lawyers for training, and also providing the equipment, tools and books that they require to work. We’ve also collaborated with private lawyers; collaboration in the sense that we listen to them to improve the system. We also ensure that where they have some criticisms, they also come to tell us how they see it. They also have clients and we take this into consideration. And taken all these, put them together, the administration of justice in the past 15 years in the state has moved progressively and I think you will notice when we get to statistics, that we’ve had increase in conviction for those that offended the law.
And we’ve also made laws to block loopholes that criminals had exploited within the past 15 years. And so, we have really gone down the rule of law. We’ve made progress on it, and I think Delta State is one state where you will not find conflict; conflict in the sense that the state is violating laws, contempt of court; because we’ve acted all within the framework of the rule of law. We’ve respected the rights of individuals in the state and so we don’t have liabilities. I can tell you, we do not have any liability for any citizen on the violation of his right either by way of imprisonment unlawfully. And I will say that the judges themselves, of the state judiciary, they’ve worked hard to dispense justice, criminal and civil.
And leaving the judiciary, we also appreciated the fact that there are some people who may have cases that are not justiciable to go to court, but you can’t leave them like that. So, what the state did was to create what we call the People’s Right Department in the ministry of justice, and this department has been handling matters of citizens who either cannot approach the court because of the absence of court, or they do not have the fund. At that forum, you don’t need a lawyer; the government provides a lawyer for you and you can even speak the language you can and we address your issue at that level, that’s the People’s Right Parliament. So you find that, even oil companies, rather than go to court with some of these communities, you know, they complain to us, and we invite the parties, and they show respect. And after looking at the matter, we tell them, this is where you went wrong, this is where you did right; do this to bring peace, and it has really solved a lot of problems in the state. That’s what we call the alternative dispute resolution mechanism through the People’s Right Department. So with all these, administering justice in the past 15 years have been quite successful in Delta State and I think it’s a process which other sister states will emulate.
What had been the contribution of your ministry in promoting good governance?
Yes, there are laws we have made to promote good governance. Everything takes its basis from the constitution. For instance, talk about the procurement process because we have the Public Procurement Law which was passed by the House of Assembly; we also have the Fiscal Responsibility Law passed by the state House of Assembly. Then, if you talk about the Road Traffic Management, these are laws that regulate conduct of persons, and we’ve also passed that one. There are many laws we have passed even where the criminal code was not sufficient or new crimes were evolving. For instance, in the area of kidnapping, of course there’s a law on kidnapping before now. In those days, in certain parts of this country, a man likes a woman, he goes and takes the woman against the will of the parents and puts her in his house. The parents will be looking for her, but meanwhile, she’s been made a wife somewhere. That’s what the law then focused on, and that’s why you find that the prison term then was small.
But with the problem in the Niger Delta, another dimension came in with kidnapping with arms and demanding for ransom and all sorts. So, of course, the law had to be strengthened and the punishment had to be also enhanced so as to deter people from that. And so we’ve moved progressively in this area.
Delta is one of the states in the country with death penalty for kidnapping. How effective is the law given the governor’s position on death penalty?
Yes, the governor is against death penalty and I, as a person, also do not support death penalty; and I think the international community does not also support death penalty. But the point is that we have always canvassed for long-term imprisonment; and don’t forget that the law is not made for the governor. The law is made for the state and for all times. Even if a governor says I’m not going to sign the death warrant, perhaps after his term, somebody comes in and says I will want to sign death warrant. But not signing the death warrant does not mean the governor is violating the law because under the constitution, he still has a right to either commute it or not.
How would you describe, in the last 15 years, the welfare of judicial officers in Delta State?
So far, so good because the government has really supported the Ministry of Justice. In fact, apart from the Federal Ministry of Justice, Delta State Ministry of Justice has the highest number of middle officers in the country. We’ve done a lot. For this year, we’ve paid the practicing fees of lawyers in the state because by the rules, if a lawyer does not pay his practicing fees, he has no right of audience in court. The state government had to take that responsibility to pay that, and had also provided vehicles for the ministry for the comfort of lawyers. You do not find lawyers here jumping into bike to go to court. They go to court in a dignified manner. For the law reports, in fact that’s the thing that really gladdens my heart; that the Ministry of Justice, in terms of books, has been upgraded. As I speak to you, we’ve even subscribed up to 2014 December; so, as the publications come in, we get them automatically in the ministry. So we are up-to-date in terms of law reports.
Then, in terms of furnishing of office, yes, but we have a challenge with regards to getting a more spacious place. But in terms of number, from when the state started till now, the number has expanded and we are working towards that to get a larger building for the Ministry of Justice. Of course, lawyers that will need to travel are paid promptly; and for police and official witnesses, doctors and all coming to testify in criminal cases, their logistics are provided for to enable them come. So, we don’t have issues of somebody saying he cannot leave Sokoto to come because he does not have money. Before he leaves, the money is paid into his account to take care of his transport and accommodation. So, in terms of that, we are really making progress and achieving justice on target.
What’s the state of infrastructure, like court buildings, in the state?
For the court buildings, the position is that, for the lower courts, some high courts in the various locations in Delta State, we’ve had renovations, and presently, there is an approved project for a new high court building in Asaba and Warri. I know that of Warri has started; that has been approved by His Excellency. And for Asaba, I know they are getting their drawings and other things in place but His Excellency is determined that work will start in earnest on the project. I need to also add here that, because of the peculiar nature of Delta State, there was need for us to have a second Federal High Court. In fact, Delta State is the only state now, where you have two divisions of the Federal High Court. You see, Delta is a multi-city state and for you to travel from one end to the other takes a lot of time. Our statistics show that more lawyers and more cases were in the Delta Central and South areas, and of course, there was a Federal High Court in Asaba, and you find that in the morning, almost 90 per cent of the lawyers are coming from the south. And so, to bring justice closer to the people, the state government decided to partner with the federal government to have a second Federal High Court in Warri. The state government provided the infrastructure for take-off of the Federal High Court. So, for over a year now, the court has been sitting there. The government is also working on the new National Industrial Court. People travel from Delta State to Enugu because we do not have one here; and under that National Industrial Court, any labour matter, even if a cook is sacked by his master, he cannot go to the state high court, he cannot go to the magistrates court; he has to go to the National Industrial Court. And imagine a cook, if he has to travel from here to Enugu to seek justice; I mean he might as well forget the case even though he was wronged. And so we have also had useful discussion with the president of the National Industrial Court and very soon, we will be having the court here in Delta State.
How does your ministry contribute to the revenue profile of the state?
Of course we do. Silently, we do and I will tell you how. You know we handle criminal cases and the police also handle criminal cases. When lawyers approach us for certain services; for instance a lawyer writes to us to say that his client has instructed him to take over, or for a fiat to prosecute a matter, that’s allowed. I, as attorney-general can grant fiat to private legal practitioner to prosecute a matter. Now the two things I ask for, are, one, lawyer, before I grant you the fiat, show me evidence that you’ve paid your tax to the state. So, if he has not paid, he goes to pay. Secondly, the law says that if I’m going to give you a fiat, you pay a sum of N25,000 and that money goes to the state’s coffer. So, by that single act, the lawyer has paid his tax, and for the services going to be rendered. Then, people also apply to become Justice of Peace and for that, we also insist, except you are a pensioner or traditional ruler, that you show us evidence of payment of your tax and you also pay for the accreditation. That is revenue to the state. And also as a ministry, we prepare agreements, MoUs for companies and individuals, enterprises entering into agreement with the state. Of course, the private lawyer prepares agreement and charges his client and we also prepare agreement and we also charge and of course, ours is regulated as to how much we charge. And I can tell you that, last year, we met and surpassed our target of N36 million in terms of revenue under my ministry; and also this year, I’m sure that by the end of the year, we would have also passed our target which is the same as last year.
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