In his over 50 years of legal practice, Chief Robert Clarke (SAN) has seen it all. He was counsel to the late President Shehu Shagari in 1979. He will be 81 on Thursday. In this interview with ADEBISI ONANUGA, he speaks on state police, how to reduce delay in justice dispensation and sundry issues.
How do you feel attaining 81?
At 81, I feel I am still a young man because all the things young men do, I still do them till today. But I can assure you that I still get enjoyment of life in its entire ramification. I still drink but not excessively, I still dance but not excessively, I still eat but not excessively and I still dance not excessively. I do everything in question. I think moderation in life is the key word. I am thankful to God that I have not been thrown down by any sickness or deceased even though as an old man, the body talks to you. But I thank God very much as at 81 I still keep fit and I thought I should have left private practice since last year when I was 80. But looking at myself and the body language, I think I can go, by the grace of God, another four years.
With over 50 years in legal practice, you must have had better days and the bad days. What have you got to say on this?
I started with the thrust into practice from the Ports Authority where I was a legal officer with Katsina. But I left Ports Authority before he joined the Civil Service. I have had the opportunity to work my first six years in private practice, in a chamber. My first four years I worked in chambers where I was trusted into doing cases in Fani Kayode’s Chamber. It was there I started election petitions cases in 1978 and in Abdulraman case in Maiduguri. So I was involved in big cases at my early age of practice. And when I set up my own Chamber in April 1980, many people that knew me from my practice in Fani Kayode’s Chamber sort me to handle many outstanding cases.
But the bad side is always there and the bad side had come in when politics came into judiciary. For instance, there are many times I have been at the Supreme Court. In cases where I felt I was to whip out and their is nothing anybody can do. But I know it was a political undertone. So the bad side of my practice has been political undertone which I know I cannot change. But all along, for the almost 50 years of being in practice, I have enjoyed every aspect of it and am still enjoying it.
How have you been able to cope and remain relevant with advancement in technology that has caught up with the legal profession today?
If I can remember vividly, when we started practice, we all listened when Rotimi Williams and others were in court with our exercise books. We listened to their submissions and the cases they cited and we quickly wrote them down. There were no facilities where you can rush to. So, that represented a dint of hard work because if you are a young lawyer and you are not listening, you wont be able to get all these. Now, technology changed. Gani Fawehinmi, with great respect to him, started the Law Reports and brought very fundamental changes to legal practice in Nigeria because what we thought we’ll never get, we got it through that report especially the indexing side of that report. Then we metamorphosed from that into what I would call the Information Technology (IT) period. Now how do I move around that? Well, adaptation in life is one of the necessities of life. If you are not capable of adapting to a given situation, you can’t make progress. Fortunately, I have junior lawyers who are very vast in IT. You won’t believe me that I don’t know how to use the mobile phone. If I want to send a text or a message to my daughter in England, I have to call my son or any of my lawyers that is around to get it done. That is the area I have not met up with technically. Of course, it does not cost me anything. But if I were earning from knowing it, I would have learnt it. But I can assure you, I was moving with age.
There have been arguments that Nigeria is where it is today because our constitution was written by the military and that that was responsible for some lacuna in the document?
Let us get this straight and for once, let us agree that the military never wrote a constitution for us. But our constitutions were written during the military era, but by civilian lawyers. Lets be honest about it, the 1963 Constitution was a civilian orientated constitution. No military infrastructure. The military started amending that constitution when they took over and in 1978, Obasanjo gave us a Presidential system in our constitution. So, actually, the constitutions were drawn by civilians under a military regime, but the danger was that they decided their own way of unitary system of government in the constitution. Instead of having a Federal Government where the states are strong and the centre is weak, they decided to give us a strong centre and a weak state to represent what the army represents.
Now also with due respect many changes were pushed into that constitution. For instance, I can boldly say the 1979 Constitution brought up by the military, then by Obasanjo and they brought in many things, that the panel he set up to give us a constitution never brought up. They were able to entrench in that constitution many fundamental things that would later affect us, but they knew why. Even the 1999 Constitution which is also under a military regime was a rotten egg. Regretably, we find that after 20 years of operating that constitution, things are still as unsatisfactory as ever and we may never make a head way until we restructure that constitution.
So, in essence, you are saying part of the work before the ninth National Assembly is the issue of restructuring?
Now restructuring is different from the constitution but what will give power to restructuring is the constitution. But what I would first say is that let us jettison the 1999 Constitution, set up a constituent conference where each local government will send one representative to an assembly where they will decide what type of constitution Nigeria needs. After they do it, restructuring will be part of the exercise. When they have a package then the president will now carry that package and ask for a referendum. Yes or no. Do you approve with this constitution, yes or no. If all the people say yes, then it becomes the people’s voice. Then, the president takes it to the national assembly, this is the voice of the people, pass law. But there is a problem. The national assembly today consists of almost 400 and something members. With due respect to them, Nigeria is just wasting its money. We don’t need a bi-camera in Nigeria, we don’t need it. We need one assembly where every holder of an elective office will only canvas for vote within his local government. If you want to be the president today in Nigeria, if you don’t have N10 billion in your pocket, you can’t even get the nomination of your party. If you don’t have N20 billion you cannot traverse the whole Nigeria canvassing for your vote as a president.
Why do we have to spend such money? That is where our problems start. Allow everybody to contest the election from his local government so that they don’t spend such money. Then after they are all elected, they all go to the national assembly, and among the pairs, they pick their own presidential candidate which they would have already known from their caucuses.
As it is done in South Africa, Africa runs a presidential system which is akin to a parliamentary system of government. The president in South Africa contests election only in his local government. He does not spend up to 10,000 rands to campaign. But here somebody will first find backers who have the money to support him. As soon as he gets to the office, he must refund him all from the coffers and because the constitution allows it. Because the governor is the head accountant and everything, so he puts his hand in the coffers and spend it as if it is his money. So my view is that Mr. President should set up an assembly from where representatives of up to 120 or something at Abuja, draft a constitution and restructure everything, have a package and bring it for a referendum. The people’s voice is heard and the national assembly, they may not want to approve it because they don’t want to destroy the house they are making money from as a senator or a member of the House of Assembly. So we have to be very careful the way we do it, we must have committed people and I think once we do it, this country will move up instantly.
The judiciary in the last three or four years was very troubled with judges being hounded by security and anti-graft agencies. Why do you think the temple of justice descended so low to that level?
Prior to 1999, the judiciary was perfect, even though there may be some few bad eggs. We lawyers were sure of judgments, we were happy when stepping into court rooms that we were going to get justice. But things have since changed. Why?, because the politicians brought money, money that is not their own, money that they have stolen, they brought it into the life of every Nigerian. We now have a class of lawyers in Nigeria who are election lawyers and they make more money than any lawyer in the country. So when they have problems, they come to them. They put up high bills and thev pay them. When they are not satisfied with giving plenty money to those lawyers, they now come to judges. They will tell these lawyers, look, leave me with the judges. And so, they have bastardised the judiciary. That is the problem we have, created by the politicians. But the judges too have brought trouble on us.
When constitutions were written, a section says election petitions, governorship, national assembly, will end at the Court of Appeal. Those who wrote that constitution knew what they were doing. Only the presidential system will get to the Supreme court. But when Salami’s problem came, people were hearing judges receiving N1.5 billion, they were receiving this from politicians, even those at the apex court heard it, that some body wrote a petition that Salami has been bribed with N1.5 billion, tell him to stop giving judgment in Sokoto case. Of course Salami wrote back to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and said: ‘Look ‘I am the President’, that it was his constitutional right, ‘you cannot as a CJN dictate to me’. So he refused to do it. We all knew exactly what happened to him. So, at that stage, the Supreme Court now decided that all election petitions should now come to Supreme Court. You see what am saying, a self inflicted injury. Now, I heard the CJN about two months ago said the Supreme Court in Nigeria is the hardest working Supreme in the world. Why not? It is a self-inflicted injury. You now have brought to you 36 governorship elections appeal, 337 from House of Representatives and 900 and something at the lower level. Now today Supreme Cour does not look at ordinary cases. They must give priority attention to political cases. They found themselves in this situation.
How can trial delays be tackled?
Every four years an election tribunal sits for 180 days. Why do you destroy the judicial system for 180 days? Why not call upon retired judges who have retired at the age of 65. Look I am 81 now and my brain is still sharp and I know that there are many retired judges whose brains are still sharp. Why not call upon these judges to manage these tribunals for 180 days and manage those appellate courts or those tribunals or any higher one – even senior lawyers who have the experience and knowledgeable in election petitions. It would not disrupt the system. There are many retired judges who are doing nothing. Every four years, call on 200 or 500 who are doing nothing. Create jobs for them instead of destroying them. Sometimes you go to court and they will say that the judge has gone to the tribunal and your case has been adjourned till next year. It causes delay for effective justice administration and quick dispensation of cases. This is not good for our judicial system.
Should President Buhari approve the establishment of state police?
State police is nothing new in Nigeria. In the North we have what is called dandoka’s, The Serikis have their police. In the West, we have a local government police. So it is not a new thing in Nigeria. We have been using local government police and state police. The problem is that when the new constitution starts coming in and we are drawing police, regionalisation and the state authority we did not, like I said, this unitary system of governance in Nigeria was thrust upon us by the military. So we have single command for the police also which is not good but that does not mean we should not have one command of police in Nigeria. But the state can have and should have their own police men because we need police men who are indigenes of the state. Like all this Boko Haram and all this kidnapping, if you have informants who are from that area or state, he would gather more information. He can speak their language and gather more information. So it is desirable for the progress and security of Nigeria to have a state police.
My fear is this; you cannot have a state police where you have a governor who have such unlimited powers. If you have a governor, if you are not in a political party in the state you cannot make it. What happened to a police under a governor with such powers? So we must evolve a system where the police in the state will be devoid of the control of the governor, then I will agree with it.
How do you see unemployment in Nigeria? What can be done to tackle youth unemployment which appeared to be defying all logic?
Unemployment is a painful thing to me today and our leaders have never given it any attention.
They are doing nothing concerning it. They have forgotten that what was on ground 20 years ago is not what is available now with regards to population. As Nigeria is growing, 60 per cent of the population is the youth. Our leaders have not moved 10 per cent upwards. They have been going down. Stealing Nigeria’s money for their own selfish interest, not creating the wealth to move this country forward have been their lot. Education is a right for every Nigerian to have but just look at Nigeria today, I have traverse many parts of Nigeria today, no difference. Although, it is more apparent in the North. But it is the same thing in Yoruba land and in Ibo land. You find youths in the morning not doing anything, It is very painful. But do you know the funny thing, the children of these politicians, are all in London reading. My son’s university, about six of them, sons of politicians, they are all there with him.
All these governors in the North, they don’t give their children out for marriage at the age of 14 or 15. They make sure their own daughters go to universities. But they are ready to marry 16, 17-year-old girls from other families. We now have to sit straight. It is a time bomb. If Nigeria is not careful, in five years’ time, I am not a seer, but am telling you if nothing is done to address this youths issue, we’ll have a problem in five years’ time. There may be a revolution. As I have said, it is the constitution that allowed it. If the constitution is changed today, free education introduced, a there would be positive changes.
So, I pray that Nigeria will drop a new constitution that will make sure education is given a greatest priority now. Build technical colleges, not universities that we are building in Nigeria now. Build technical colleges. Look, let me give you an example. An average English man leaves secondary school at the age of 16. The rich people children go to universities. The system has provided technical schools; the businesses have provided training institutions. When a young 16-year-old boy leaves school, they wouldn’t go to university, just two years to do GCE Advance, that’s 18, three years to do university, that’s 21 and he comes out. The young boy also who did not go to a university will go to a train institution for two years. By the time the graduate comes out, the boy who went to university comes out for employment; he would be earning less than that boy who did not go to the university.
But by the time the one that went to universities comes out, the one that didn’t go to university will now be looking at them because they are even earning more than them. That is the system Nigeria needs today. Forget all these 100 universities that they are building here and there. Churches are building university. It is for commercial purposes. Private persons are building universities. Let them build technical colleges where carpentry will be taught, the younger once will learn all those carpentry work. That is what we want, not universities everywhere.