Justice Babasola Opeoluwa Ogunade retired from service 15 years ago. He was a legal practitioner in Lagos for years before he was appointed a judge in Ogun State in 1991.In this interview with ADEBISI ONANUGA, he speaks on corruption in the judiciary and how it should be tackled.
THE vexed issue of corruption in the judiciary is the topical issue today. How do you react to this?
Only today (Friday), I read in the newspapers about people who condemned former Olusegun Obasanjo on what he said about the National Assembly. Amazingly, quite a number of the commentators asked, ‘why single out the National Assembly for corruption’? That the National Assembly is not the only corrupt institution. But before this happened, it is like everybody in the country believes that it is a cess-pool of corruption. Everybody commented on it.
Corruption in the judiciary is even such that it amounts to insecurity in the country. How many people do we have in the National Assembly? A little over 300. Are they all corrupt? Are you talking of the institution being a corrupt? Or are you talking of the judiciary being a corrupt institution? Are you talking of its personnel? This is reason I believe that in this country, we are just taking advantage of the platform that we exercise our freedom.We are destroying ourselves. The judiciary is made up of human beings and it is not angels who are there. That is why in an institution, you will see all manners of people. But I humbly suggest you don’t because of that condemn the entire institution. Take away the judiciary in this country, what else do we have? We all have to resort to self-help, because I believe that is the alternative. As it is now, they all condemn the judiciary. With all the trouble going on in Ondo, where did they go? They still went to the same judiciary. Some were hailing what the Supreme Court had done, some were hailing what the Court of Appeal had done and some were saying the judiciary is the cause of problems in this country. I think it is wrong to condemn wholesale the judiciary. Yes, there may be individuals who corrupt the institution. I am not denying that. There might be individuals who did wrong. I am not defending them. I am not by any means defending anybody. But I think we should be careful about how we condemned the entire judiciary.
I think this happened because people see judges as being next to God. They determine whether one should live or die. Then, a judge may have been seen to have taken bribe to deliver judgment. How do you react to that?
I still say we should concentrate on individual cases.You don’t come and condemn the entire institution. You said it rightly, take away the judiciary, it is like you have no other area to go. God has given so much power to the judiciary. That is why when a judge is appointed, he takes two oaths. One is the judiciary oath and the oath of allegiance to a state. In the judiciary oath, it says, ‘I am going to do justice to everybody irrespective of creed, tribe, and relationship, and I want to believe that nobody in his right senses will forget that undertaking. More importantly, I would tell you this. It is because in this country, oath taking is ceremonial.But if only people would remember, the judiciary oath is different because we are not just taking oath to mouth. You are taking your oath as an oath to God. But I made a practice of reminding them that because you are taking oath before God, that you are going to face the consequences if you give a false oath. So, any judge who has taken an oath, to be honest in doing justice without ill-will, and without any consideration and goes back on it, will face the repercussion. Of course it is not because we all pay lip service to religion in this country. In my view, it is not because we take oath as a matter of ceremony, which should not be, a judge does something that is wrong and you are able to ascertain that the man is corrupt. I can tell you one thing, the behaviour of people. I have experienced it. You are sitting in the chamber all by yourself. Your secretary is removed from you, the court is cut off. You are just seated by yourself in a room. A lawyer, what he is doing outside, you don’t know. He probably will tell his client, ‘oh, he is my friend, I know him. I will go and see him after’. He gets his client outside, he walks along the judge’s area, probably goes as far as where his secretary is, and then he goes back and tell his client, ‘haven’t I told you? I have fixed it. I have seen him for you, it is okay. Give me money to give him’. How does the judge know this?
Are you in a way blaming lawyers for this?
I am not blaming lawyers. I am telling you the practice. I am telling you how it happens. How does the judge know about this? Assuming that the lawyer goes back to his client and tells him I have fixed it? The judge didn’t know and has nothing to do with it. Now the judge hears the case and he gives judgment on merit. What is going to be the verdict of the man who has given money to give to the judge. Ha! That judge has taken money from the other person. In some cases, it happens.
You have been there and must have gone through a lot.
I saw it as a practising lawyer and as a judge.
But was there ever a time that you came under pressure as a judge?
Of course yes.
How did you manage the situation?
In fact, anybody who attempts it knows that he is going to the wrong person. I’ll give you one live example. This happened in 1997. I was in a division in Ogun State and they have chieftaincy dispute and it has to do with kingship of that town. The throne has been vacant for many years. It happened that it is within the town of my own origin, even though I was not born there. But my father is from there and I was so close to that area. And the circumstances were such that you will need to persuade people that you have not been given some other considerations because the judiciary has no house of its own there. So, I lived in a rented accommodation and it is the son of the owner of that accommodation that wants to be the king. I was in Lagos and I returned to the place and I came and found a letter written to me, saying it is all over the town that I have taken a bribe of N1 million. But remember that your father had a good name in this place. Your brother has a good name, we know them. So, don’t soil their nams. Return the N1 million to the person from whom you took it. I looked at the letter and said one or two things. That this is cheap blackmail or they just wanted to find a way of luring me to their side. I made up my mind that I have taken an oath that I was going to do justice to all manner of people and that I am not going to go outside the procedure of the court. I am the only high court judge in this area and the only one who can deal with this matter. I will tell the Chief Judge to transfer the case out of the division. The day that I resumed and saw the letter, I called all the lawyers involved – 16 of them – and read the letter to them and said to them, “Please feel free to apply that your case be taken away from here, but as for me, I am not going to excuse myself from this case. But if you apply under the rules that you don’t trust me to do the case, I would gladly allow you to go’. So, I left them and went to the open court. Each of them now said, sir, we would not deceive you, we were in town this morning and we heard it all over the place. One of them was a respectful person and older than me and many of them are from Lagos. That one now said, ‘Look, don’t let us tell you lies. Immediately we arrived and went to the place, we normally have our meal, they said you have just come to waste your time. The case has already been decided. The judge has taken N1 million. It is all over the place. He said he tried to persuade them that not that man, he wouldn’t take money from anybody, that they were only deceiving themselves’. He told them to go to court and see what would happen. Another of the lawyers was my own classmate at the Law School. And he said, ‘For how many years have I known you? We knew you in practice and some of us that have appeared before you on the Bench, we knew you won’t take money from anybody. As for us, it is going to remain here’. And I said it is okay if you have so much confidence. I now went to the open court and read out the letter and interpreted it in Yoruba and told them, ‘if you don’t like it, take it away from here. It is only one case and I have several others to do. I have already told your lawyers’. They told me they were not taking the case away. ‘But you are their clients, apply for this case to be taken away. But one thing I can assure you is that chieftaincy disputes take up to five or six years. But this one here will not take up to a year because I have read the papers and I will use the rules of court to see that I get this done quickly’.
Given your experience, what do you think would make a judge to accept bribe?
Greed. As simple as that. It is greed. Nothing else, particularly these days. I heard one or two judges complaining in the past. Judges who have had reputable practice, who are saying the judiciary is nothing. All that is there is prestige and name. But after you have done what you could do at the bar, you have gathered experience, you are now able to transfer it back to the bar for the improvement of the bar and for the good of the society. I am quite satisfied and I am sure that whatever I was earning, I have to cut my clothes according to my cloth. What I am unable to do, I am unable to do it. Finished. But you see, when you want to please everybody, where do you find yourself? This society does not help matters. They see you, they say he is a high court judge. The belief of everybody is that you are awash with money. They are doing that ceremony there, you are cordially invited. Donation will be kindly received. In some cases, if you give what you have, they would say, ‘Milord, we expect you to give more’. So, it is a question of you knowing who you are and knowing that at the end of it all, you will leave office. How do you want people to see you? Do you want people to respect you? But there are people who said, ‘I am a judge, I should live like a judge and throw away respectability’ and cut corners to maintain that self-ego status’. In my view, that is what they do. I don’t take bribe and I don’t know what makes them to take it. But these days, no judge has any business taking bribe.
So, if they do, what should be done?
I say that any judge who is adjudged to have taken bribe should be sent to jail. They should be sent to jail like any other person and dealt with as criminals because these days, I don’t see any reason for it. The service condition has improved and some states really went out of their way to make them really comfortable. So, why should any judge start taking bribe. What for? Except you are a greedy man or you have no fear of God. You take bribe, a person is wrong and you say he is right. Remember you are appearing before a judge where you don’t need any advocate, at the end of your days on earth, you won’t need an advocate before Him. It is what is written down. I believe so much in the Bible. I think it is the Revelation that says that on the last day, two books would be presented. One would be open, the other would also be opened. If your name is not found in one, you are thrown into a lake of fire. I believe in it. I believe that hereafter, there is still judgment.
Amid allegations of corruption against some judicial officers, including two Supreme Court Justices, the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) has set up a committee to review the code of conduct for judges. What kind of reforms would you want to see in the new rules being considered?
I want to suggest to the NJC to put judicial ethics in the forefront of their considerations. Look at the way recruitment is made into the bench. In my view, that is fundamental. Don’t let it be ethnic balancing. Don’t let it be state balancing. Appoint people to the bench purely on merit. Some states even go to the extent of asking people to apply. To me, it’s so ridiculous. You want to be a judge, you apply! It’s not done.
So, how were you appointed a judge?
Look at this. That is my patent letter. (He showed the document). When I was appointed a judge in 1991, that was the only thing I had when I was appointed a judge. I didn’t have any letter stating conditions of service. That one was signed by Gen Ibrahim Babangida because he was the president then. I didn’t have a letter stating that I would be entitled to N5,000 a month as salary.You will be given free accommodation because it is the norm. I don’t have a letter telling me that I would be given a loan to buy a house. I went there without a letter. The only other letter that came was the letter from the Chief Judge, saying that he had been directed to inform me that I had been appointed a judge. ‘Congratulations. The day of your swearing in would be announced’. That is what I had. It was like taking a blind letter. But having taken it and having known that the constitution bars me from practising again, from appearing before a judge, I appreciated the sacrifice, the enormous sacrifice that I was call upon to make. I have an option to say, ‘thank you very much, I don’t want it’. I think I must say this and I am not saying anything immodestly that I didn’t apply to be a judge. If anything at all, it was offered to me three solid times and I rejected it on each occasion. The fourth time it now happened, it was like a blackmail. We were at an occasion with my wife, where some judges of Ogun State were present and they called me and said, ‘come Mr Ogunade, we understand that they invited you to come and be a judge and you are bluffing us. You think you are the best lawyer in Ogun State. It’s just that we see something in you that we think you should contribute to the Bench and she was there’. Another one called her and said, ‘madam, are you the one that said your husband should not join this group of poor people’. And she said she knew nothing about it. My uncle was sitting by and he said, ‘you’ve heard with your ears, that people were inviting you to come, go and consider it’. And I said, ‘okay, I would fulfil all righteousness. Do I need to bring a CV’ – the CV was just half a page. But they said even if you just put your name, it is enough to consider you. Which was what I did. But they made a futile attempt the first time but I wasn’t taken.
So, how were you finally appointed?
The Chief Judge called me and said am angry and I said I wasn’t. I want to let you know one thing that I enjoyed my practice as a lawyer. It gives me all the freedom. It isn’t so much about the money I make, but it gives me the freedom to do what I want to do. It enables me to really contribute to the society. I know the amount of free cases that I did, what they now call pro bono. The number that we were doing in our chamber, the number I have handled freely but I enjoyed it. So, he said this is a real thing and you have to come to the Bench but I said, ‘you have tried sir but don’t do it again, I am not coming’. Not too long after that, a vacancy occurred. He didn’t ask me any thing. All I knew was that one day, I had a case in Ikeja, my chamber was in Igbosere. I returned to the chamber that day only to find a crowd in the chamber and I was asking those in our front office that what is happening here. ‘Milord, you’ve been appointed a judge’ and I said which judge? I didn’t apply for one. And that was it and that was how it came. And I was pleading with people that don’t announce it because people are owing me money. The moment they realised that I have been appointed a judge, they won’t pay me any more.
There is a trend now in the judiciary that wasn’t there in the past; books being launched in honour of sitting judges. Is it not capable of prejudicing a judge?
I think the CJN who has just retired gave a directive that there should be no book launch for a sitting judge. You may, as a judge, want to put your experience on paper. You don’t launch it. If you have the fund to print the thing, print it and distribute it freely. But for a sitting judge, again I tell you this, many times you find that these books are written in the name of a sitting judge. I have seen it happen. The judge might not even get one quarter of the proceed. Some people will get themselves organised, they would write it, commercialise it and corner all the money. So, if you don’t want to find yourself in an embarrassing situation, don’t permit it. Wait, if God gives you life and you retire, you can put all your experience on paper.
How do you see the anti-corruption campaign of President Buhari?
A lot of people give it all sorts of name. But let’s look at the short time that he was Head of State. Between 1984 and 1985, what was his mantra then? What exactly did he do? It was when you find that people are being clamped into jail for 84 years, 60 years and that kind of things. On what grounds? On grounds of corruption. He was able to do that as a military man. It may well be that he still has the vestiges of the military in him. Those who know him will be able to tell. I don’t know him. But from what they put in the papers, he was not a wealthy man. He has been head of state, albeit for 18 months. Within that period, he has the opportunity of amassing wealth, ‘be my front, be the director of the man, you be my front, go and be the managing director of an oil company and when he comes out’, he would not be swimming in money. At the beginning, he did say he is going to fight corruption head long. Isn’t corruption really killing us in this country? If a man comes and says this is what I am going to do and he works on available facts available to him, why do you now say he is just an unforgiving man. Now there is this big one they are talking about, the matter is in court and we should be careful not to comment on them. But allegations are being made. Money that should have been used in buying weapons were distributed all over the place. Is it a fact that that money was there? Is it a fact that the money was distributed? If that is the truth, should he now fold his hands and do nothing about it. They did say he was doing it only at the federal level, he has not done it on state level. I am not an EFCC man but I believe that the EFCC works on information. If the states have not approached the EFCC, if a new governor has not approached the EFCC, to say that my predecessor has stolen all the money in this place, how does it become the duty of Buhari to start probing into the states? Are there separation of functions between federal and state? For me, I will support anything he does within the law to stem corruption in this country.
I just want to believe that we should comment on facts that are available. Some of our comments are really so political, and some are just anti-nationalistic. We find a disease that is destroying us, somebody is doing something about it and we are all condemning him.
What is your view on targets given to judges as regards cases being handled in courts?
Where a judge is lazy, you will know. If, for instance, a judge says he is only able to deliver two judgments, he has a query. If he is only able to deliver two judgments, he should explain why this is so. But because they now give targets, judges say they must deliver, ‘I must deliver at all cost’. People come before them, ‘he says no, no. I can’t wait, I can’t adjourn’. He goes on to do shoddy work, they now shift the congestion from the high court to the Appeal Court. The NJC itself sends queries to them in the high court, ‘let’s know the number of cases you have done irrespective of whether the cases you have done are thoroughly done or not’. I think the NJC should re-examine itself. They should not make the judiciary and the high courts look like a factory where they do mass production. In my view, that’s what it is because when you say, ‘tell me the number of cases you’ve had, how long it takes to take a trial in the high court’. No matter how much it is, no matter how little it is, it would take the best of three to four months. Even if it is a summary trial in a civil case, it takes up to four months to deal with it. And you are now asking me to produce mass production! That is not how a court should be. It should be concerneds with quality and justice in what you are doing. The NJC should review itself. The NJC should act as a judicial institution not as political institution. The politicians might say what they want but we are the ones who know what is involved. You can’t ask them to do shoddy work all because we want mass production. If you are not a lazy man, you will know how much you can really do.
What do you have to say about the underfunding of the judiciary which has been recurring over the past years? How can this be overcome?
It is a constitutional provision but they allow everybody to do what they want to subvert the provisions of the constitution. These days, a chief judge would go cap in hand to the governor and the governor would bluff him, saying, ‘I don’t have money for this or that’. If you want quality judiciary, you pay for it. You can’t get it on the cheap. Pay those who are doing the work and stop them from looking over their shoulder. Pay them what is due to them. If after you’ve done that and anybody looks over his shoulder, let him go and face the music in the court. I must admit there are some states which do whatever they can to make their judges comfortable. But by and large, quite a number of Chief judges would have to go to the governor, cap in hand. But they bluff them. When a judge would have to sit in his house without light and you now expect him to deliver judgment. After everybody had talked and they have gone home, he doesn’t have a research officer, he is the only one left in the chamber to look at all the evidences that have been led, to look at the cases cited before him and see whether the lawyer who has presented a case is not being mischievous. He has to look for law reports before he can make a judgment and he hasn’t been given the facility. How does he perform? You now ask them to deliver so much judgments. It is ridiculous. I think the NJC itself is being political.