Special Courts must still follow Rules of Evidence – Gordy Uche, SAN
Gordy Uche, SAN, comes from a rich law background. His mother retired as acting Chief Judge of the Abia State High Court, his elder brother, Chief Chris Uche, SAN, is an Abuja-based lawyer. He is a lawyer who has cut his teeth in the law profession. He is a fellow of Chartered Institute of Arbitrators of Nigeria
In this interview, Gordy Uche called on investigative agencies, particularly, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, to ensure proper and conclusive investigation of graft cases before arresting suspects to avoid being put under pressure to charge the suspects to court when investigations had not been concluded, which in turn will lead to poor prosecution of such cases. He also spoke on the political and constitutional development in Zimbabwe among other issues. Excerpts:
President Muhammadu Buhari said he was determined to fight corruption to a logical conclusion, but no major conviction has been secured on high profile cases. Can we say that the President’s fear over the role of the judiciary is justified? >>> I will say that the President’s fears are not totally justified. First of all, the trial of cases including corruption, must still follow the due process of the law.
That a case is labelled as a corruption case does not make it special or that the rules of fair hearing and natural justice must therefore be thrown overboard.
On the other hand, the investigative agencies appear not to properly investigate these alleged corruption cases before arraigning the suspects in Court in the full array of their television camera crews.
After the “television arraignment” with photos of the alleged offender in handcuffs in the media, no serious evidence is presented thereafter in Court to substantiate the case of the prosecution of the alleged fraud running into billions of Naira. Faced with such dearth of credible evidence against the accused person, the trial Judge is usually left with no option than to discharge and acquit such alleged offender.
How can they secure conviction without credible evidence? >>> As a trial defense lawyer, I have seen cases where an accused person is arraigned on a charge of more than 100 counts and thereafter, the charges are gradually amended and reduced, that in the end, the prosecution is left with only about five counts which are still repetitions of the same offence, merely being charged under different laws.
A look at some of the Proofs of Evidence of these so called high profile corruption cases show about more than 500 pages containing nothing more than mere bank opening forms/documents and statements of bank accounts with no witnesses to speak to these documents, no witnesses to relate the facts to the actual offences charged. In the end, the seemingly big cases are lost and the innocent Judges and SANs are blamed.
Even the recent calls for Special Courts to deal with corruption cases will still not make the fight against corruption to be won overnight as these “Special Courts” must still follow the Rules of Evidence.
However, without holding brief for the Judiciary, the constant blame on the Judiciary as not aiding the fight against corruption is baseless and untrue.
There was public outcry recently that the EFCC lost some high profile cases in the anti-corruption war. How do you think we can strengthen the war to ensure victory over corruption? >>> My advice to the EFCC and indeed all investigative bodies is to first, properly investigate a case before even arresting the suspect.
Once the suspect is arrested, especially a high profile suspect, the investigative body is put under much pressure to release the suspect or charge him to Court and may then hurriedly charge an uncompleted and improperly investigated case to Court.
In civilized climes, an investigation may go on undercover for more than one or two years before the suspect is picked up, at which time the investigative body has obtained a prima facie evidence against the suspect, which evidence they have to first run through the office of the Attorney-General or the District Attorney.
One can easily observe that there is clearly a disconnect between the office of the Attorney- General of the Federation and the EFCC. Both organs of Government must therefore work in synergy, if any meaningful conviction can be secured.
Again, instead of the EFCC complaining that SANs are frustrating the trial of high profile corruption cases, the EFCC can brief and retain SANs to prosecute these cases for them, some us may even prosecute these cases pro bono for the State. Secondly, the Government must show clearly that it is really sincere in this fight against corruption. There should indeed be no sacred cows.
How do we strengthen the whistle-blowing policy to make it more efficient and effective? >>> The whistle-blowing policy is good enough and ought to be encouraged as it has recently yielded quite some good results. The Government, however, has to be serious in keeping faith with its own side of the bargain. But a situation where after blowing your whistle, you are denied the fruit of the whistle is really not good enough and may deter other would-be blowers from coming near the whistle, knowing that in the process that they are risking their lives for a reward that may well turn out to be a mirage. There should also be adequate protection of the identity of the whistle blower, to encourage others.
Many lawyers and politicians alike have demanded that we revisit the 1963 Constitution to address imbalances in Nigeria. How do you view the call? >>> I think the recent call for restructuring is appropriate and ought to be sustained. There should be devolution of more of the powers of the Federal Government to the states.
In some states, you find the federal roads in very deplorable conditions and the states are not able to maintain these roads, which are labelled federal roads, while the Federal Government itself is not ready to maintain these roads and it is the masses that inevitably suffer.
With devolution of more powers to the states, the states like the former Regions of Nigeria will become self-sustaining than merely waiting for allocations from the Federal Government, which are reducing day by day. I think it is a right step in the right direction.
As a senior member of the Bar, how do you think the Nigerian judiciary can be truly made independent? >>> The independence of the Judiciary can only come, if the Judiciary is financially independent. As they say, he who pays the piper dictates the tune. Let the provisions of Nigerian Constitution be properly followed and the Judiciary be allowed to function financially as an autonomous organ independent of the Executive and the Legislature. Then and only then can the Judiciary be truly independent. For me, the Nigerian Judiciary is one of the best in the world, having been forced to work under very excruciating financial circumstances and still remain focused and committed as the last hope of the Nigerian common man.
If you go to some Courts in South-Eastern Nigeria, you will see Judges sitting in very dilapidated Courts, using their personal money to buy stationery and even the Record Books with which they are supposed to record the Court proceedings.
In fact, in one High Court, there was no electricity and the senior lawyers in Court had to contribute money to buy diesel to run the Court’s generator to enable the Court sit and for matters to go on that day. Such a Judge operating under such horrific conditions and having been owed up to three months salary is susceptible to manipulations by the Executive and corrupt litigants.
Will you say the Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee, LPDC, is doing enough to sanitise the Bar, considering the number of senior advocates answering criminal charges in court? >>> I believe sincerely that the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee is doing a commendable job in sanitizing the Bar.
If you go through our Law Reports, you will find reported decided cases of the LPDC, wherein they have disbarred lawyers for professional misconducts and had their names struck off the Roll of Legal Practitioners. There have been instances where even Senior Advocates of Nigeria have been professionally disciplined. For me, I believe that until a competent Court of Law finds a person guilty, administrative sanctions by professional bodies ought not to be commenced, as all persons, including the SANs now standing trial, are deemed innocent unless found guilty by a competent Court of Law. It will indeed be premature for the LPDC to discipline a SAN standing trial for a mere allegation that is yet to be proved and of which he is yet to be found guilty.
How will what happened in Zimbabwe affect politics in the continent and what does it portend for Nigeria and other countries of the world, more so as the West appeared to approve it? >>> I think that what recently happened in Zimbabwe is commendable, even though the procedure used is somewhat unconstitutional as it is indirectly a coup d’état, though the Zimbabwean Army has denied this.
However, I say it is commendable, as our African leaders are used to turning themselves into despots and dictators and deliberately manipulating the Constitution and the electoral process to perpetuate themselves in office.
The ouster of Mugabe has once again shown that political power actually belongs to the people.
I only hope our Nigerian leaders will learn from the Mugabe experience.
It is in this wise that I still commend President Goodluck Jonathan for the gentlemanly way he peacefully handed over power to President Buhari, whom the people of Nigeria chose above him. This is how politics should be run, without bitterness or rancor
Uche’s interview first appeared in Vanguard Newspaper
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