Barr. Chris Okeke, a lawyer of 28 years standing is the President Imo Lawyers Association. He was a Consulting Editor Law Report for the Guardian newspaper for 12years. The Alumnus of Rivers State University is the official biographer of the late Justice Chukwudifu Oputa and was among the lawyers that drafted the Administration of Criminal Justice Law. In this interview with AFAM ECHI, he maintains that the Supreme Court judgment on the Imo governorship election is not supported by law or facts and decried the dysfunctional nature of our judicial system. He explained why democracy is not working well in Nigeria insisting that Igbos are core democrats. It makes an interesting reading. Enjoy yourself
Which group is Imo Lawyers Association?
Imo Lawyers Association is a body of all Lawyers of Imo extraction who are members of the legal profession.
By your definition what is the qualification to belong?
Once you are a lawyer and you are from Imo you are qualified.
What are the objectives of the group?
The objectives are many. One of them is to protect the lawyers who are of Imo extraction in the best possible way we can. Secondly, to interface as much as we can with the happenings at home, in Imo. Thirdly, as much we can, to assist Imo citizens who are indigent, Imo citizens who will be having the need of legal assistance.
So what actually do you mean by protection of Imo lawyers?
I mean the interests of Imo lawyers. For instance, the world we live in now has become too dynamic with complex and competing interests and people are now so obligated to pay attention to their interests as defined and as pursued.
So if I get your definition right, membership cuts across Imo lawyers that are outside the confines of Imo including those in diaspora?
Everybody including those at home and in the diaspora. What I mean by diaspora includes diaspora in Nigeria and diaspora beyond Nigeria.
How long have you served as the President?
I started as a member of the Board of Trustees. The last executives served out in January and by February this year we were inaugurated.
What is your membership strength like?
The membership strength is huge, all lawyers of Imo extraction, whether by marriage or by birth, are all here.
What challenges confront you as you run the group?
One, we are confronted with the challenge of ndi Imo who are disillusioned, professionals who have almost lost faith and people who seem not to know again where to lay their heads. It is a huge challenge. Any person governing any section of Nigeria today including ndi Imo, the first thing you encounter is a group of people that are disillusioned, people that have lost faith. This situation is not peculiar to Igbos, but Nigeria as a whole.
Your activities as a group do not appear to ring a bell. Could it be that you are publicity shy or you chose to operate silently or don’t hold programs that put you in public space?
We are not publicity shy but at the same time we don’t play to the gallery. We interfere when we think it is necessary.
How old is the Association?
We began to organize ourselves about four years ago. Our best efforts now is to get ourselves organized, get ourselves to see ourselves, get ourselves to talk to ourselves and get ourselves to identify ourselves and get ourselves to appreciate ourselves and see what we can contribute to reduce the level of disillusionment and the level of frustration the average person in Nigeria is confronted with.
Do you have any responsibility towards Imo people?
What do you mean?
What benefits do you offer Imo people?
One, we interface with the day to day occurrences as it affects and touches on Imo and then we assist in things that affects Imo people wherever they are. For instance last Sunday there was an explosion which has been described as a bomb explosion in Lagos. Imo people were involved as victims and we have issued condolence messages to identify with to assure them that we are share with them in this period of grief.
A lot of Imo people are languishing in detentions for lack of legal representation. Lawyers have opportunity of salvaging the situation for them through Pro Bono services. To what extent has your people, individually or collectively responded to this challenge?
We have done that from time to time. You should remember that the Nigerian legal system is dysfunctional so badly; that even if you do 50 today I can tell you that in another 8 months you will have more than 100 in that same place because of its dysfunctional justice delivery system. There is this number of people that were unduly clamped in detention, we intervened and mobilized our members and they got them out from detention and prison then. Before this year runs we will be doing it more regularly. We have a Committee that is involved in free legal services, with interest in public interest litigations. From time to time we are reaching out. We have reached out, we are still reaching out and we will still reach out. It is only that the justice system is awful, non-functional and people are unnecessarily victims of a dysfunctional system.
During the 2019 elections there were reported cases of massive vote buying. After it all, it is not known that anybody has been prosecuted or jailed on account of that. Everything appears to have died down. What do you think could have happened?
Again, a dysfunctional system. A system where politicians buy votes certainly can only produce criminals as political office holders. That is because, as you already know, vote buying is a criminal act. Clearly those who buy votes are politicians, and it is they that become public office holders. Certainly those who become political office holders are those who bought votes. That is a criminal act. Isn’t it? A system where we have political office holders that are vote buyers, what do you expect? It wouldn’t work. It cannot happen. Again the power to prosecute is with INEC and it has seldom exercised it.
If you have all the powers in this world what is that one thing (reform) that you will introduce into the legal system having discussed our dysfunctional legal system, and how politicians criminalize our political processes.
One, we must make the law respond to the needs of the society. This is very important. This is what I called in my book on Justice Oputa, ‘functional justice’’. In specific terms, a lot of our laws are antiquated. Let the laws serve the needs of the society. Let me give an example with Imo State. Imo State has a population of at least 5m people. Imo State has less than 20 High Court Judges. Now the expectations are that these judges will preside over and dispense Justice to over 5 million people. You can see why it is not possible. Under Okorocha there were about 16 judges and many of them sit in Owerri. Those who sit outside Owerri like Isi Nweke, Mbano, Iho, they all come from Owerri and they come when they can because the logistics of coming are not always there. Even the Magistrates, most of them come from Owerri. Those sitting outside Owerri lack the logistics of always going to their courts. They will not kill themselves. The roads are terrible, the systems are horrible. Some of the magistrates don’t even have official cars. What do you expect them to do?
These 20 judges are they inclusive of the Magistrates?
No, High Court Judges alone. Imagine what it is to ply our roads for work to those areas. They don’t have official cars, so how would they do it. You can see why it is difficult.
The recent Supreme Court judgement on the governorship election of Imo State is something that jolted the people to no end. Evaluating the role of the judiciary, do you think that the judiciary is still playing that role as the last hope of the common man given what happened in Imo which many has described as a miscarriage of justice.
Yes, they still play because if you remove the judiciary, when we are complaining that it is dysfunctional, not that it is absent, if the judiciary is absent the society would have completely collapsed. That the system is still trudging along is an indication that the judiciary is still struggling to deliver the much it can within the limits of its limitations.
Most people hold the opinion that the politicians have rubbished the judiciary especially where Judges now compromise their positions for pecuniary gains. What is your take on this?
I would not like to use the word rubbish or the word compromise. That would be too hard a word and the implications would be far reaching. But I would be content to say that the politicians have interfered with the functioning of the judiciary. I am more comfortable to say that than saying that they have rubbished because that is too negative a word. A clear case is the Imo State Governorship election that you are referring to. I have been a lawyer in active practice for about 28 years. And I have practised in all the courts, and I can tell you without fear of contradictions that the judgment of the Supreme Court in Imo State is not supportable by law and by facts. It has unfortunately produced a governor that lacks legitimacy. I am convinced of this in my mind. That there is a dissenting judgment on the matter, and raised such weighty issues that the dissenting judgment did, projects that government as lacking in legitimacy.
If you look at the way we run our democracy it appears that it is not working at any level. What alternatives would you like to suggest?
No, our democracy is working. You cannot say that it is not working.
Then why are there these myriads of issues here and there?
We are running it and having these issues because it is a human system. It has an in-built correction mechanism. For instance even in the worst of the judgment we have in Imo State today, if the judgment is allowed without undue interferences it would correct itself. And correcting itself is not an overnight correction. The challenge we as a people have is that we want to have what I would call an‘akamu’ (Pap) democracy.
What does that mean Sir?
That is a‘chere were’(wait and take) democracy. That is we are so much in a hurry. We don’t want to produce‘agwa (beans) democracy. Beans takes a longer time to cook but when it is cooked it is more satisfying and more enduring. It carries you for a longer time. Chere were does not keep you for a longer time.
Why do you think that our people are like that, whereas it works in other climes?
This is because the democracy we practice here is alien to us. Let me give an example. Nigerian is an amalgam of strange bed fellows. For instance when the British people came here they found that as a fact ndi Igbo are core democrats and I add that the democracy an Igbo man practices he didn’t learn it from America and he is not learning from America. Democracy is inherent and inbuilt in us such that no man forces his views down the other man. That is‘Onye Igbo (Igbo man). The Yoruba men are not as expansive in their expressions of democracy. The people in the North are not democrats at all. Unfortunately the colonialists foisted and handed power over to the feudal people and they are trying to use feudalism to run and govern democrats. So that is what is at the root of our crises. As a matter of fact, America should learn democracy from ndi Igbo. Nde Igbo are democrats to the core. The man from the north does not understand democracy. They practice feudalism and the British people handed over Nigeria to these feudalists and they are forcing their feudalism on democrats. That is the root of our crises and it would continue to remain so until we agree to go back to the drawing boards.
Are you in any way implying restructuring here?
Perfectly and without mincing words
The country as at present appears to be so overwhelmed with insecurity. Would you think that foreign intervention would help the country?
What kind of intervention do you mean?
I mean in the areas of providing arms and ammunitions, personnel, intelligence etc
That is not our problem and even if they do it can never solve the problem. The problem is you are putting a container load of products on a bicycle and you expect the bicycle to move. It cannot work, isn’t it?
What do you mean by this?
I have told you that Nigeria is a dysfunctional state. And I told you that what is at the root of our crises is that ndi Igbo are democrats to the core. Our essence and our existence is democracy. And you forced us into the country against our will with people who are not democrats. Unfortunately, it put the reins of power in the hands of these feudalists and they are forcing their ways into democrats. The security challenge you are talking about is a product of this dysfunctional system. This thing will be here until and until we tell ourselves the truth. The system is not working and would rather get more complex each day. Foreign interventions may not necessarily be the answer.
Second topic for second page:Why democracy is not working in Nigeria-Barr Chris Okeke, President, Imo lawyers’ Association